Science as Evolution

Some have viewed the progress of science through an evolutionary lens, with scientific knowledge being seen as evolving over time through a process of variation, selection and retention at multiple levels. Using an analogy with natural selection, Popper (1934) conceptualised a process in which competing theories or interpretations of the world around us, struggled for survival against others (Popper, 1934). Campbell (1974) viewed the scientific process occurring through variation, selection and retention. In this manner new variations of conceptualisations are first put forward. Less fit theories are winnowed out through the process of experiment and qualified prediction, and finally those more ‘fit’ theories are disseminated and retained throughout the scientific community. Toulmin (1972) further more specifically developed a population perspective, with competing concepts and beliefs struggling for survival within an ecology of research domains, with individual scientists and, importantly, scientific communities being the ‘carriers’ of such evolving components of knowledge. Through selective diffusion and retention some intellectual variants become more prominent in certain domains or population niches. In this sense Toulmin (1972) viewed the scientific process as a hierarchy of co-evolutionary systems. As such, an ecology of competing concepts evolves within more or less formally structured theories, alongside the evolution of a population of scientists within more or less formally organized institutions (Plotkin, 1994; Toulmin, 1972).

Recommended Reading

Toulmin, S. (1972). Human Understanding: The collective Use and Evolution of Concepts. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press

This text puts forward an evolutionary view of academic research. It is highly thought-provoking, not only for evolutionary scholars, but all academics struggling with the pressures of achieving tenure and meeting research output targets in the face of the increasing use of journal ranking lists. Toulmin's gradualist view contrasts the revolutionary view put forward by Kuhn.
Plotkin, H. (1994). Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Drawing on Dawkins' notion of Universal Darwinism, Plotkin puts forward a view of cultural evolution as the evolution of knowledge. He also consider the 'special case' of research knowledge.
Campbell, D. (1974). 'Evolutionary Epistemology'. In Schilpp, P. (ed.), The Philosophy of Karl Popper, Lasalle, Il: Open Court Publishing, pp. 413-463

Campbell is seen as a founding figure in the broader movement to apply evolutionary concepts beyond the domain of biology. Particularly amongst US scholars, the abstracted concepts of variation-selection-retention are attributed to him. This is one a number of book chapters in which Campbell spells out his ideas on an Evolutionary Epistemology.

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