LogoEdmonds, B. (2002). Review of Selection Theory and Social Construction: the evolutionary naturalistic epistemology of Donald T. Campbell - edited by Cecilia eyes and David Hull.
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 6.

A Review of "Selection Theory and Social Construction: the evolutionary naturalistic epistemology of Donald T. Campbell", edited by Cecilia Heyes and David Hull, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 2001

Bruce Edmonds
Centre for Policy Modelling
Manchester Metropolitan University Business School

This book is a collection of eight essays from authors from a variety of fields, who have been inspired by the philosopher Donald Campbell (personally as well as academically). The essays are concerned with the relation between evolutionary processes, epistemology and the social construction of knowledge. In particular with the process of "Blind Variation and Selective Retention" (BVSR), scientific knowledge and the role of scientific norms. Each of these essays is well thought and worth reading. They all reflect the warmth of Campbell as a person and the increasing (if belated) impact of Darwinian ideas upon philosophy.

However, these essays do not sit easily with each other, being a mixture of different slants and directions. I do not think that the source of this dissonance is due to any deficiency in the contributing authors but due to difficulties inherent in any project which tries to relate the philosophy of knowledge and naturalistic accounts of the development of knowledge.

In my opinion (and it seems some of these authors) the trouble lies with the philosophy. One of the "moves" which characterise the practice of philosophy is that of the counter-example. If one can think of a counter-example to an argument then one has beaten that argument. Philosophy does not allow itself to be limited by contingent facts, thus a philosopher is free to propose counter-examples even if these are very strange. This is not so for other fields which are constrained by what is likely in their domain. For example, a biologist would not propose a counter-example consisting of an organism made entirely of metal because such organisms do not happen to occur - a philosopher is not so constrained. A result of this is that philosophy is continually pushed towards extreme generality and certainty in order to resist increasingly unlikely counter-examples. For this reason (as well as others) philosophical discourse has come to use many common words in uncommon ways. A case in point is the word "know". In philosophy one can only know something if it is completely true - any degree of uncertainty as to its truth invalidates it as knowledge. To separate out this strong use of "know" its more common, natural language namesake I will write it capitalised as "KNOW". Thus many philosophers would say that: although normal three year old children can speak they don't KNOW how to speak. Epistemology is the philosophy of "KNOWledge" in this strong sense.

Any fallible process (such as learning or evolution) will not result in an outcome that would be acceptable by philosophical standards because its outcome will always be somewhat contingent on circumstances and thus be vulnerable to the counter-example in which those circumstances are different. A child acquires the ability to speak by a combination of imitation (and other learning strategies applied in situ) and using some inherited cognitive mechanisms developed over the course of evolution. We can never KNOW that we have understood the correct meaning of a word because if it just happened that there existed a different but functionally equivalent meaning of a word then neither the learning nor evolutionary processes would be able to correct this mistake. Thus from this philosophical point of view KNOWledge has little to do with processes of learning or evolution, despite the fact that the evidence is overwhelming that it is via these processes that we acquire our knowledge. In the latter part of the 20th century the philosophy of science has become more descriptive of scientists actual do (rather than what philosopher think the do or should do), but this has not changed the basic dynamic in philosophy towards the general and the certain.

Thus if one even begins to discuss evolutionary epistemology one is already impaled upon the horns of a dilemma. There are several options open to one:

  1. abandon or ignore the abstract philosophical approach and concentrate on descriptions of the actual learning and evolutionary processes that result in knowledge (this choice is often called naturalism);
  2. conclude (maybe reluctantly) that evolutionary processes have nothing to do with epistemology;
  3. ignore the contingent properties of actual evolutionary processes and only consider them in an abstract, idealised sense (thus bringing them within philosophy).
The contributions in this volume are more shaped by the choices their authors make in this regard, than by their surface disagreements about the universality of the BVSR process. Most take the naturalist route - it seems that Campbell's naturalism that has been more deeply influential than his enthusiasm for BVSR.

David Hull (chapter 9) faces up to this choice by explicitly taking choice (2). He puts it nicely: "... the fault with evolutionary epistemology lies not with it being evolutionary but with its being epistemology" (page 163). The nub of the argument being that "Adaptation does not guarantee truth" (page 162). Hull's chapter follows the development of Campbell's thought in a clear and coherent narrative, making it the best introduction to this collection. He concludes that although the evolutionary processes can not give us a philosophically acceptable epistemological warrant, it does tell us much about science.

Richard Giere (chapter 4) comes down firmly down to choice (1), seeking a thoroughly naturalistic account of the acquisition of knowledge in science. In this search he abandons any hope of a universal a priori argument and settles instead for a set of methodological rules for developing scientific knowledge. He remains, as always, crystal clear, relevant and abounding with common sense - altogether one of my favourite philosophers (being atypical in all three of these regards).

Michael Bradie (chapter 3) attacks the necessity of the realist assumptions behind much of Campbell's work. He distinguishes between the EEM (evolution of epistemic mechanisms) and EET (evolution of epistemic theories). He criticises the latter on the grounds that "This picture of beliefs "fitting" to the world provides only the semblance of an explanation of the "success" of science" (page 51) and later that "the EET schemas are in danger of becoming empty formalisms" (page 52). The EET schemas correspond to the choice (3) above whilst the EEM version is closer to the naturalistic account (1). Thus in effect Bradie takes choice (1).

Michael Ruse (chapter 5) looks at the evidence in terms of the development and acceptance of the theory of biological evolution over the last 200 years. As a result he rejects the bald philosophical positions of realism and constructivism and plumps for a more naturalistic description of the process that seemed to occur, writing: "It certainly shows that things are a lot more interesting and complex than one might have thought just by a priori speculation!" (original italics reversed). Thus Ruse also goes for choice (1).

Both Linnda Caporael (chapter 8) and Henry Plotkin (chapter 7) stress the role of culture. Caporael argues from two presumptions about human nature Namely: that our senses have presumably evolved to give us a pretty robust and reliable picture of our immediate world; and that our linguistic and cognitive apparatus are evolved so that we can adapt and pass on social constructions (i.e. cultural elements) that allow different niches to be exploited by different groups. This is projected in philosophical terms as the tension between realism and constructivism. Plotkin tries to suggest ways forward for the naturalistic (i.e. non-philosophical) ways of understanding culture, suggesting memes as one avenue towards this.

A couple of the contributors go for choice (3) and concentrate on more abstract characterisations of evolutionary processes. Gary Cziko (chapter 2) makes two distinctions: within-organism vs. between-organism BVSR; and prior and current BVSR. He uses this to explicate how BVSR processes are ultimately responsible for many examples of adaptation and defends this claim against the criticism that this is an empty analytic truth, since how BVSR comes in is a contingent fact. However, this defence is not effective against the underlying assumption that BVSR processes are somehow be behind any `fit' of an organism with its environment. This is also a common difficulty in memetics - the evolutionary paradigm is so powerful for thinking about processes that its protagonists seem to take the step from the fact that: it is difficult to imagine what else might be the underlying cause of adaptation to the assertion that it must be the underlying cause of all adaptation.

Kyung-Man Kim (chapter 6) also defends BVSR as a characteristic of the social processes in science. She focuses on competing teams of scientists, where each team co-operates to develop and promote a competing theory. She argues that although each team of scientists is not developing their competing theories at random, that nevertheless the process as a whole is as if the search was blind. The reason for this claim of blindness seems to be that some of the competing theories must be wrong - so the teams had not managed to infer the correct theory before selection. This seems to go too far - just because there are mistakes and some blindness it does not mean that the searches for the correct theories are completely blind. One key piece of evidence in this regard is that completely blind BVSR processes need very large populations of candidate solutions if they are to be successful, while there are relatively few competing scientific teams (and hence competing theories). The relative success of the social process whereby only a few competing teams manages to come up with useful knowledge, implies that the search is not completely blind but heavily preselected. Here we do seem to have the promotion of an abstract idea (3) taking precedence over a more naturalistic account.

Perhaps what makes all these accounts uncomfortable is the sharp "jump" from evidence about the nature of the actual processes involved to the philosophy and back again. There is little in the way of intermediate level modelling between reports of specific observations and philosophical abstractions. None of the contributors here draw on any results from analytic or computational models of evolutionary processes. In a sense, the movement towards naturalistic explanation reflects this lack and anticipates a more complete chain of models with descriptions and data models of evolutionary phenomena and scientific processes at the bottom, and computational models of these in the middle. This would allow the development of a more useful and insightful "generation" of abstractions to be developed at the top.

In conclusion, this book seems to accurately reflect the diverse impact of Donald Campbell's naturalistic and evolutionary approach to accounts of scientific knowledge. It shows that many of the disagreements in memetics have already been extensively discussed, and underlines the importance of concrete modelling to more fully connect ideas and observation in a more useful way.

© JoM-EMIT 2002

SUNY have a web page about this book (http://www.sunypress.edu/backads/c50554.html), including a page of its contents (http://www.sunypress.edu/TOC/C50554_toc.html). One can order this book from SUNY at http://www.sunypress.edu/order.html or writing to them at State University of New York Press, 90 State Street, Suite 700, Albany, NY, 12207, USA. ISBN 0-7914-5055-4 (hbk.) or 0-7914-5056-2 (pbk.).

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