B. (2004).The Evolution of Language and Science Studied by means of
Journal of Memetics -
Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 8.
The Evolution of Language and Science
Studied by means of Biological Concepts
This study examines certain mechanisms
underlying the evolution of language and science — including
mathematics — using concepts developed in the field of biological
evolution. Developmental processes are particularly emphasized.
Analysis of developmental processes, processes such as human embryonic
development, children’s verbal development, and adolescents’ scientific
conceptual development reveals the unifying principle referred to as
“condensation” — the successive shortening of developmental stages. The
mechanism of condensation is coupled to the rate of evolutionary
The analysis examines the applicability of the concept of the meme.
Regarding the evolution of language, we suggest a cooperative
combination of genetic and memetic replication; while early on in the
evolution of science only memetic replication is envisaged.
Key words: Evolution,
development, memes, cultural evolution, language, science, mathematics.
This paper examines the mechanisms underlying the evolution of language
and science, applying concepts developed in the field of biological
evolution. Common to these various manifestations of evolutionary
process is developmental growth, as observed in the embryo, child, and
adolescent. The significance of the developmental process in its
various guises forms the main subject of my study. Such a broad
approach is highly multi-disciplinary, and in this introduction I will
comment on some relevant fields of research.
In an early work, Stephen J. Gould (1977)
reviews the widespread notion of a coupling between the developmental
and evolutionary processes. More recently, our rapidly growing insight
into genetics has lent this controversial field renewed respect. One
such new field of research focuses on the developmental genetic
machinery that underlies embryological phenotypes (Arthur
2002). It is recognized that evolutionary change occurs not by
direct transformation of adult ancestors into adult descendents, but
rather when developmental processes produce the features of each
generation in an evolving lineage (Raff 2000).
Wagner et al. (2000) have examined
another theme, the role of development in the origin of evolutionary
innovations. In this study I will build on the same principal insight
of the central in role of development, but restrict my discussion to
the lineage of humans.
Concerning cultural evolution, there is an overwhelmingly abundant
literature on the relationship between cultural and biological
evolution within which one can discern several different approaches.
One such approach is socio-biology. As Edward O. Wilson has suggested,
certain cultural norms may survive and reproduce better that other
competing norms, causing culture to evolve along a track parallel to
and usually much faster than genetic evolution. Wilson, however,
contends that the connection between genes and culture is never
completely broken and discusses this connection in terms of
gene-culture co-evolution (Lumsden and
Wilson 1981), a concept that supports the general notion of a close
relationship between cultural and biological evolution.
Another approach that examines the connection between cultural and
biological evolution is memetics—an approach likely familiar to readers
of this journal. Memeticists attempt to explain cultural evolution
without reference to any benefit for genes. The Darwinian principle of
natural selection is expanded, and is regarded as working not only on
genes but also on memes. Works by Dawkins (1976),
Dennett (1995), and Blackmore (1999, 2000)
introduce and develop the concept of memes. These authors attempt to
grant memes an analogous role in cultural evolution to that played by
genes in organic evolution. I will analyze this idea at length in this
In studying children’s psychological development, psychologists have
attempted to apply concepts from evolutionary theory. Advocates of this
influential field of research, called evolutionary psychology,
emphasize that understanding the principles governing evolution is
indispensable in attempting to understand human nature (Tooby and Cosmides 1992, p. 50). Such a
general statement may stand as a guiding principle for the present
investigation. However, if I have understood evolutionary psychologists
correctly, they also seem to imply that all behavior ultimately comes
back to genetic advantage. Such a view is questioned, for instance by
Dennett and Blackmore, and I will demonstrate that genes are
insufficient to explain many characteristics of cultural evolution.
Language is an important constituent of culture, and there is a
tremendously rich literature dealing with the enigmatic question of the
origin and evolution of language. There has recently been exciting
debate as to whether or not language has evolved by means of a
principle analogous to natural selection; Dennett provides a survey of
this debate (1995, pp. 384-400). I suggest
that any explication of the evolution of language, while incorporating
elements from natural selection, should have recourse to additional
mechanisms as well.
There is a widespread notion that the evolution of science has much in
common with biological evolution. Thus Blute (2003),
for instance, discusses a new field of research called evolutionary
ecology. I will refer to such analogies, and in particular analyze
their implications for children’s and adolescents’ learning of science.
The referenced literature testifies to the many notions of connections
between cultural and biological evolution. These connections are
elaborated in the analysis I will propose in this paper. It builds on
my previously introduced model (Ekstig 1985, 1994), and here I will focus on the evolution
of language and science. First I will recapitulate the main features of
2. The pattern
My study assigns the developmental processes of individual human beings
a central role in the analysis of biological and cultural evolution.
The role of development in biological evolution stems from the fact
that genes carry and transmit instructions for self-replication and for
development, not for
because organic evolution proceeds as a result of continuous
modifications in the developmental program. The continuity of this
process means that many vestiges of early evolutionary stages are
stored in the genes and manifested as phenotypic developmental stages
in the present-day embryo. Or, as Darwin long since observed, “the embryo comes to be left as a sort of
picture, preserved by nature, of the former and less modified condition
of the species” (1859, p. 338). Such
common stages or traits, called parallels,
are thoroughly examined by Gould (1977).
Likewise, the continuity of the transmission of cultural traits over
generations means that stages from our cultural history are now
discernible as developmental stages in the present-day child and
adolescent. Such parallels in the cultural realm have long been
observed and discussed, and are also surveyed in Gould’s review. In the
field of mathematics and physics, Piaget and Garcia (1983) have reported a thorough study in
which they find striking coincidences.
I have earlier (1994)
analyzed the relationship between individual development and the
evolutionary process, taking as a point of departure the pattern that
appears when the developmental age at which each trait appears is
compared to the period of time that has elapsed since it first arrived
on the scene in evolutionary history. The essential features of the
model appear in Figure 1. The pattern encompasses
both the organic and mental aspects of human development, and indicates
an intimate relationship between biological and cultural evolution.
Diagram of ontogeny
versus phylogeny in the lineage of humans. The ontogenetic age is
measured from the moment of fertilization. The ordinate also gives the
individual’s postnatal and fetal ages. Both scales are logarithmic. The
diagram is a revised version of a diagram appearing in Ekstig (1985
), and the reader is referred to that
reference for comments. It should be mentioned that the uncertainty
regarding the Phonetic organs point is very great. If the phylogenetic
age is assumed to be one million years, which is not unrealistic, the
point will be situated on the line. (Click on figure for larger version)
As is immediately obvious, the diagram includes very few of the traits
found in a growing organism. The principle behind the selection of the
traits forming the pattern, organic as well as cultural, is that these
traits appear in an inflexible order in the individual’s developmental
program as well as in the evolutionary process. I suggest that such
traits be denoted cumulative traits.
Organic evolution proceeds through the successive addition of novel
developmental traits, thus forming the evolutionary pathway of the
species. These novel traits predominantly manifest themselves towards
the end of individual development, i.e., just before sexual maturity,
because, by and large, the progeny’s genetic constitution is not
influenced by selection exerted on the parent after conception. These
novel traits are called terminal
additions, and since they manifest themselves before sexual
maturation they tend to lengthen the development process and therefore
also generation length. However, there is a counteracting process as
Lineages with shorter generation lengths increase their relative number
in the gene pool. Hence there is a ubiquitous selection pressure
favoring shorter generations, as analyzed in life-history theory.
Stearns (1992) shows that for organisms that
mature earlier, generation length is shorter and populations grow more
rapidly. There is thus a trade-off between terminal additions and
acceleration of maturation. Delayed maturation caused by terminal
addition of a novel trait is selectively favorable only if the benefit
of the novel trait is greater than the loss in fecundity due to the
resulting prolonged generation length.
Shortening of generation length may be realized by eliminating
unnecessary traits or by gradually shortening early developmental
stages. Such gradual shortening of developmental stages is called condensation in the literature on
evolution (the term “condensation” is also used in psychology, but with
a different meaning).
Condensation and terminal addition act simultaneously and
independently. Thus even if generation length increases—the most common
trend—condensation may simultaneously have been at work. This implies
that it is difficult to separate out and individually observe or
measure the two processes. However, in the lineage of humans,
condensation is indirectly revealed even by superficial analysis of the
diagram in Figure 1. With time, all points in the
diagram are displaced to the right, but due to the logarithmic form of
the time scale, at unequal distances in the diagram. Therefore,
linearity would not prevail unless the points were simultaneously
displaced downwards at an appropriate rate. This reasoning rests on the
assumption that the pattern will persist, because it is very improbable
that it should appear just in our own time. I presume that the
displacement of the traits towards earlier ages is accomplished by
condensation, a conclusion that, in the case of biological evolution,
is made plausible by the general selection pressure discussed above.
The model also predicts the action of condensation in the cultural
realm, and this subject will be explicitly discussed later in this
One may conclude that the condensation of an evolutionarily old trait,
appearing early in development, is less than that of a more recent
trait appearing later in development. This seems reasonable, since one
may assume that condensation of a specific trait is harder to
accomplish the more condensed the trait has already become. Actually,
mathematical analysis of the pattern revealed in Figure
1 (Ekstig 1985) indicates that the rate
condensation for a particular trait is inversely proportional to the
age of the trait. For instance, the condensation of the development of
the embryonic heart is 3% over 10 million years, while Newtonian
science is condensed at a rate of 5% per decade. Thus, according to the
present model, condensation of the manifestations of memes is about one
million times faster than that of genes. This does not imply a claim to
measure the rate of the evolutionary process; it only indicates the
relative rates of change of biological and cultural evolution.
4. Parallels in cultural evolution
This study will attempt to apply concepts that have emerged from a
biological interpretation of the pattern in Figure 1 to the evolution
of human culture. Therefore, my analysis of cultural evolution will
bring the child’s mental development to the fore and examine how
successive changes in the child’s developmental program are initiated
by different modes of selection pressures and how they add up to
A conspicuous feature of the pattern in Figure 1
that it includes the realm of cultural evolution, forming a continuous
extension of the trend established by biological evolution. Indeed,
just because organic change happens so slowly, compared to cultural
change, as to be imperceptible over human time scales, it does not mean
that biological evolution does not proceed simultaneously with cultural
evolution. Cultural evolution comprises the cumulative development of
many cultural manifestations involved in complicated interactions.
Nevertheless, a few of the multifarious traits, namely cumulative
traits associated with language and science, form the pattern. Other
well-known cultural manifestations, such as mythologies, religions, and
political ideologies, are not relevant to this discussion since they
are not cumulative.
The selected traits exhibit parallels between their manifestation in
the individual developmental process and in cultural history. This
point is crucial to present model. Consider the ability to perform
arithmetic calculations using whole numbers. This faculty emerged
several thousand years ago and was later developed into the ability to
handle the more sophisticated rational numbers. For an individual human
it was and still is necessary first to be acquainted with whole
numbers. As a matter of fact, it is generally impossible to omit a
former stage of mathematical knowledge before acquiring a latter one,
nor is it possible to study math issues in reverse order. This is
characteristic of cumulative cultural traits. Therefore, the individual
acquisition of these stages follows the same order in which the
corresponding stages are observed to appear in the historic record.
This cumulative characteristic is not related to psychology, education,
or any other external factors, but is a logical necessity inherent in
many mathematical concepts. It is only in cultural features possessing
cumulative developmental stages, I repeat, that one can expect to find
Not all stages of mathematical development, however, are strictly
cumulative in the present sense. Thus negative numbers can be acquired
somewhat earlier by modern youths than could be expected from their
first appearance in history. This illustrates the fact that the points
in the diagram are not arbitrary, but are selected according to the
criterion of being cumulative.
During the course of cultural evolution new cumulative cultural
manifestations are added to the individual’s developmental program
analogously to the way terminal additions are added in biological
evolution. Thus the time needed for a child’s mental growth has
increased, and this can be broadly verified by referring to the
evolutionary record. The infants of chimpanzees, to whom our ancestors
are supposed to be related, reach adulthood faster than human children
do. Relying on the continuity of the evolutionary process, this
indicates that human childhood — viewed from a long-term perspective —
has grown longer.
Simultaneously, according to our present approach, condensation has
been acting on many cultural traits acquired before maturation,
resulting in a continuous shortening of cumulative cultural stages.
This hypothesis will be discussed with specific reference to the
evolution of language and of science.
5. The evolution of language
Noam Chomsky is reluctant to accept a Darwinian interpretation of the
evolution of language, and instead suggests that an inherited universal
grammar is the crucial, operative concept. Gould concurs, and further
contends that “the universals of
language are so different from anything else in nature…, that origin
rather than as a simple advance in continuity from ancestral grunts and
gestures, seems indicated” (Gould 1989,
p. 14). Dennett (1995, pp. 384-400),
however, vehemently rejects such non-Darwinian explanations. In
considering language as an instinct, Steven Pinker tentatively
approaches natural selection in suggesting that if language is like
other instincts, it presumably evolved by natural selection (Pinker
1994, pp. 354–355).
Terence Deacon (1997) has articulated a more
comprehensive Darwinian framework in his analysis of the evolution of
language; I will take this as a point of departure for my discussion.
Deacon accentuates the role of development by stating that children are
the vehicle by which a language gets reproduced (ibid., p. 109), and that “the structure of a language is under
intense selection because in its reproduction from generation to
generation, it must pass through a narrow bottleneck: children’s minds.
… Language operations that can be learned quickly and easily by
children will tend to get passed on to the next generation more
effectively and more intact than those that are difficult to learn. So,
languages should change through history in ways that tend to conform to
children’s expectations; those that employ a more kid-friendly logic
should come to outnumber and replace those that don’t” (ibid., p. 110).
Deacon indicates the existence of a mutual adaptation between language
and humans, children in particular, in declaring that, “we should not be surprised to find complex
human adaptations to language on the one hand, whose purpose is to
ensure that language is successfully replicated and passed from host to
host, and language adaptations to children on the other, whose purpose
is to make languages particularly ‘infective’ as early as possible in
human development” (ibid., p. 113). He thus arrives
at a notion of language as an autonomous process: “The evolution of symbolic communication
... created a mode of extrabiological inheritance with a particularly
powerful and complex character, and with a sort of autonomous life of
its own” (ibid., p. 409).
If we assume that such an autonomous language has evolved as a result
of some kind of selection process, we must make intelligible the very
basis of such a selection principle. To this end we may take hold of
Susan Blackmore’s suggestion: “I have
assumed that people will both preferentially copy and preferentially
mate with people with the best memes — in this case the best language”
(Blackmore 1999, p. 104). Blackmore’s
assumption thus implies two kinds of selection, one acting directly
through imitation, a central principle in her works on memetics, and
one through sexual selection.
I will now discuss these ideas in light of the present model, and
attempt to distinguish between two particular evolutionary mechanisms.
The first mechanism comprises the reproductive benefits induced by
language, in other words, language as evolved by natural selection. The
second comprises the mechanisms that might have caused language to
evolve without reference to any influence on the genes of the host, the
speaking human. As a consequence of these, I will introduce a third
mechanism that has to do with the time children have available for
The existence of the first mechanism is commonly accepted. It is
associated with conventional natural selection and thus coupled to
genetic changes, in particular those implying the growth of the human
brain. I would like to be more specific about natural selection.
Following Blackmore, I think that in the case of language, sexual
selection is the most powerful mechanism; I will outline this view as
By and large, an adult of high verbal ability will gain a high social
ranking. Such people are supposed to enjoy more frequent access to
mates and certainly also better access to food and other necessities of
survival. In other words, they have greater reproductive success than
the average citizen. But such high verbal ability is made possible by a
genetically determined high brain capacity, and hence the selection on
behalf of language also benefits genes for great brain capacity. In
Deacon’s words: “The remarkable
expansion of the brain that took place in human evolution ... was not
the cause of symbolic language but a consequence of it” (Deacon 1997, p. 340).
In attempting to tackle the question of language evolution in terms of
memes, Susan Blackmore has apparently come up with a similar line of
reasoning. She suggests what she calls a meme-gene co-evolution that
functions as follows. People are assumed to mate preferentially with
those possessing the best language ability. “These people then pass on geneticallywhatever it was about their brains that
made them good at copying these particularly successful sounds. In this
way, brains gradually become better and better able to make just these
sounds” (Blackmore 1999, p. 104,
emphasis in the original).
Of course, other factors quite independent of language contribute to
the selection pressure for a large brain, factors such as skill at
hunting, foraging, tool making, and warfare. These are mainly coupled
to natural selection and contribute to the co-evolution of language and
the brain. Actually, one must assume that such abilities were the
target of selection for increased brain capacity before humans crossed
the symbolic threshold, to use Deacon’s terminology.
My second item, language evolution without reference to influence on
genes, brings us back to Blackmore’s suggestion that language is
acquired by imitation. The important point in this view is that one
must assume that the best speakers have the greatest impact. In other
words, imitation implies a process of selection: the best speakers are
selected as models.
This process is most important in children’s learning. In their
imitative activities, children are strongly influenced by peers with
more developed language ability, in particular by older children. But
of course, children predominantly learn from their parents and this
circular coupling, parents-children-parents, opens up the possibility
of an additional mechanism that I will call feedback.
Let us imagine a human being at the dawn of humankind who is endowed
with a somewhat better than average talent for the primitive spoken
language of the time. This person probably influenced his or her
children such that they acquired language more efficiently than did
other children. When these children became parents the process was
repeated, but, as one may assume, at a somewhat higher level. Such
positive feedback improves the language ability of those participating
in it. Of course, one can also imagine a negative feedback process
having a corresponding opposite effect. Thus, although not having any
direct total effect on the evolutionary rate of change, such feedback
affects the degree of variation in language ability that, in a second
step, influences the rate of change as follows.
Every feature exhibits a certain variation, formed as a Gaussian clock
curve, as measured with regard to its fitness in the actual
environment. Natural selection works on this variation both by favoring
the best-fit features and by disfavoring the less fit. In this way, the
clock curve is successively displaced, which illustrates the continuity
of evolutionary change. Obviously, the selection pressure is stronger
the more a feature deviates from the mean value, and this has an
important bearing on the functioning of the discussed feedback process
in the evolution of language. Both the positive and the negative
feedback processes contribute to broadening the distribution curve of
language ability. However, since the selection pressure is strongest on
the most deviating features, such broadening will strengthen the
selection pressure. So when considering the evolution of language as a
selection process at which people preferentially copy those with the
best language, we may conclude that the feedback process will increase
the pace of evolution towards higher language ability.
The suggested feedback process differs somewhat from what is
characteristic of feedback circuits. In an electronic amplifier, say, a
limited part of the output signal is fed back to the input of the same
unit and causes a reinforced amplification. In the feedback that
reinforces the evolution of language, the information is fed back to
children in the next generation, and thus not to the same “unit.”
However, to label the suggested mechanism as feedback is legitimate, I
think, because of the otherwise great similarity in function.
Of course, someone could object that other animals’ ordinary
reproductive processes also involve such feedback in the transition
from parent to offspring. However, I think that the difference lies in
the learning process human children undergo in childhood. This learning
process enhances parental influence and it is that very process that
may be seen as analogous to amplification in electronic amplifiers,
whereas in animals the offspring’s behavior is determined mainly by its
genetically unchangeable constitution.
Before leaving the discussion of the evolution of language I will
suggest a third process that is a consequence of the mechanisms so far
discussed. As we have seen, these mechanisms imply enhanced childhood
learning and thus earlier language acquisition. This contributes to the
evolution of language as follows. By acquiring language earlier in life
the child will have more time to practice talking before adulthood,
hence improving its verbal competence as an adult.
To sum up, there are two categories of mechanisms that I believe
underlie the evolution of language. The first is the co-evolution of
language and the brain, and this has an impact on genes. This mechanism
works mainly through sexual selection. The second mechanism has no
direct impact on genes, but works through imitation and an associated
selection process. In addition to this selection process I have
suggested a feedback process that either enhances or weakens parental
influence, thus reinforcing the selection pressure and increasing of
the rate of evolutionary change in favor of higher language ability.
Finally, I have proposed a third mechanism according to which the
enhanced and hence earlier acquisition of language lengthens the time
children have available for learning. This mechanism would also
contribute to increasing of the rate of evolutionary change.
The suggested processes are mutually reinforcing, resulting in
progressively enhanced language sophistication. They also demonstrate
the importance of children’s learning for the evolution of language,
thus supporting the present model of condensation as an intrinsic
principle of all evolution.
6. The evolution of science
Let us now examine the most recent phase of cultural evolution, the
evolution of science. I use the word science to refer to the natural
sciences, including mathematics.
There is a widespread notion that science evolves in a way analogous to
biological evolution. Thus Hull (1988) suggests
that scientific ideas develop in lineages in an evolutionary process. A
similar notion is expressed by Plotkin (1993),
in his discussion of science as a product of a “Darwin machine.”
Holton and Brush (1985, p. 196), in
their cogent account of the evolution of scientific concepts, analyze
the analogies between the biological and scientific evolutionary
processes in a most clarifying way. These authors compare the
evolutionary mechanisms of species and those of science, finding four
both processes presuppose continuity. This means that a species or a
science can persist only if there is some stable means for handing on
its structure from generation to generation. In science this continuity
is identified as the operational and quantitative nature of concepts.
Second, there is the mechanism
of mutation, the opportunities for individual variations. In science,
these variations are assured by the boundless creativity of the human
Third, there is the mechanism
of multiplicity of effort. Science and species alike must rely on a
large number of individual attempts from which ultimately come those
few that turn out to be useful. The innumerable pages of scientific
research documentation of past years testify to the wastefulness of
Fourth, scientific theories
are subject to a selection process not unlike Darwinian selection
acting on mutant forms. Scientists create a multitude of competing
theories and concepts; these are subject to tests in which the internal
rules of science are applied, as are external conditions such as
applicability, potential for further development, or contribution to
It must be emphasized that the type of selection acting on concepts is
not coupled to selection acting on human genes. In other words, there
is no coupling between scientific ability and reproductive success, as
we posited in the case of language. A scientist does not give birth to
more children than the average citizen. I therefore conclude that the
leash between genes and culture, to use Edward Wilson’s oft-cited
metaphor, is broken as far as the scientific part of culture is
concerned. Another consideration is that science has only been in
existence for a few thousand years, too short a time to have had any
influence on genes.
Though the similarities between scientific and biological evolution as
discussed in the cited literature are descriptive analogies, that does
not mean that they lack explanatory power. Selection in particular is
commonly regarded as the decisive cause of scientific progress. In our
own time such selection is intentional, performed mostly by scientists
themselves. However, I doubt that such intentional selection was really
operative in earlier epochs during which scientific thinking was
tentatively forming its own character.
If one wants to posit a non-intentional selection process acting on the
early evolution of science, one must pose the critical question: who
would benefit from this selection? Since the benefit cannot be for the
genes, the remaining possibility is that science has evolved to its own
advantage, an idea in line with the notion of how memes work.
When humans passed the threshold of the symbolic, they obviously
increased their ability to imagine abstract concepts. But in
mathematics and science the employment of abstract thinking is still
more accentuated, mathematics being totally abstract. The fact that we
nevertheless put considerable effort into these activities shows, I
believe, that such conceptual thinking must have increasingly attracted
people. It must have been, as it still is, irresistibly attractive to
the human mind to create the abstract conceptions that have led to the
metaphysical notions of mythologies and religions, as well as to the
logical and rational explanations of natural phenomena that have led to
science. Deacon (1997, p. 421) reminds us in
this context of the story of Archimedes running naked through the
streets yelling “Eureka!” This myth illustrates the fascinating
experience of recoding a familiar observation into abstract scientific
concepts, and I think such experiences have had vital influence on the
evolution of scientific thinking. Even more importantly, children’s
minds must also have developed such a fascination in understanding
We find another approach to selection in the reasoning Terence Deacon
applies to the case of language. Regarding science, we may tentatively
infer that scientific concepts are under intense selection pressure: in
their reproduction from generation to generation, they must pass
through a narrow bottleneck — children’s minds. Scientific concepts
that can be learned quickly and easily by children and adolescents will
tend to get passed on to the next generation more effectively and more
intact than those that are more difficult to learn. For example, we may
consider the invention of the position system that made arithmetic
calculations much easier. This efficient although more abstract system
quickly replaced the Roman way of denoting numbers and thus contributed
to the evolution of mathematics.
Scientific concepts are, I believe, typical memes and as such must have
proliferated because they are attractive to the human mind. This is
also selectively advantageous for their own reproduction in their
specific environment, the human brain. In this enterprise they have
continuously been exposed to competition with other memes, most
pronouncedly, with those of religion. It is thought provoking to
interpret White’s (1896) classic account of
the “warfare” — to use his own word — between science and religion as a
struggle between memes.
The discussed process works by adapting concepts to children’s learning
abilities and also, possibly, by adapting teaching content and
practices in view of the requirements imposed by science itself. As a
result, the learning of specific scientific concepts is being
accomplished at successively earlier ages. In other words, our
discussion supports the notion, as predicted in the present model, of
the condensation of scientific concepts.
Let us discuss a second example. Euclidian geometry in its original
form has been taught to children for about two thousand years. Nowadays
in many countries such axiomatic geometry is replaced by abridged
versions. This is because children can generally learn such a
simplified geometry in less time, allowing room in the curricula for
other parts of mathematics that have developed in the meantime and are
considered as more important.
Earlier learning enables young adults to begin contributing to
scientific knowledge from an earlier age, and hence contribute for a
greater total time. These people will thus exert a greater than average
impact on the growth of science and, presumably, on education.
The accumulation of concepts is equivalent to the terminal addition
that we discussed in the case of biological evolution. By and large,
this process causes a prolonged learning period in spite of the
superimposed action of condensation.
It should be noted that the present model does not claim to cover the
modern phase of scientific evolution, i.e., the last three hundred
years or so. In our own time, however, a school system has been
developed with the explicit purpose of, among other things, enhancing
science learning. Moreover, recognition of the importance of science
education has in recent years resulted in the development of the
specific research disciplines of mathematics and science education, the
aim of which is to improve instruction methods and thereby, of course,
learning. Extensive educational projects with such a purpose have been
developed, such as Project 2061 (AAAS 1989). No doubt, the school system has strongly
enhanced concept learning in science, presumably also causing a rapid
increase of condensation.
To sum up this discussion of the evolution of science, in addition to
the general notion of intentional selection, for earlier epochs of
science history I have suggested two co-operative mechanisms for the
selection process. The first is a self-selection of scientific concepts
for their own benefit in their own environment, the human brain. This
can be considered a memetic explanation. The second is related to the
way children and adolescents acquire scientific concepts, implying an
adaptation of concepts to those most easily learned. This second
mechanism leads to earlier acquisition, thus extending the individual’s
active period as scientist, and hence contributing to the progress of
Analysis of various manifestations of evolutionary processes in the
human lineage indicates some common principles. One such principle is
the crucial impact of development as manifested in embryonic
development, in the verbal development of the child, and in the
conceptual development of the adolescent mind. These developmental
processes are characterized by a specific kind of trait, cumulative
traits, which turns out to reveal a pattern that unites the
evolutionary process in its biological, verbal, and scientific
manifestations. This pattern is a consequence of condensation, a
regular shortening of developmental stages. An explication of
condensation remains to be made.
The present model shares central ideas with universal Darwinism in as
much as it points out mechanisms common to both the biological and
cultural realms of evolution. In so doing it also demonstrates the
explanatory power of the notion of the meme, since symbols and
concepts, as typical memes, are the cornerstones of culture. There is
another, somewhat more speculative conclusion. If the observed trend
toward the condensation of developmental stages, maintained since the
emergence of early life, is not to be broken in our own time, the
continued improvement of science and mathematics education is
I have also discussed several principles for the selection of
information to be transmitted between generations in the various
manifestations of the evolutionary process. Biological evolution
employs natural selection of genetic information. As to the evolution
of language, I suggest a process of selection acting cooperatively on
both genes and memes. Finally, in the evolution of science, I
conjecture that early in the evolution of science memetic selection was
in charge, while in our own time we humans have taken over, and carry
out an intentional selection. This sequence of principles of selection
should be regarded in the light of the pattern visible in Figure 1, whereby one can perceive how the various
principles of selection have contributed to the steadily increasing
rate of evolutionary change.
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Issue 1 Volume 8