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Folk biology and the anthropology of science: Cognitive universals and cultural particulars

  • Scott Atran (a1)
  • Published online: 01 August 1998
Abstract

This essay in the “anthropology of science” is about how cognition constrains culture in producing science. The example is folk biology, whose cultural recurrence issues from the very same domain-specific cognitive universals that provide the historical backbone of systematic biology. Humans everywhere think about plants and animals in highly structured ways. People have similar folk-biological taxonomies composed of essence-based, species-like groups and the ranking of species into lower- and higher-order groups. Such taxonomies are not as arbitrary in structure and content, nor as variable across cultures, as the assembly of entities into cosmologies, materials, or social groups. These structures are routine products of our “habits of mind,” which may in part be naturally selected to grasp relevant and recurrent “habits of the world.” An experiment illustrates that the same taxonomic rank is preferred for making biological inferences in two diverse populations: Lowland Maya and Midwest Americans. These findings cannot be explained by domain-general models of similarity because such models cannot account for why both cultures prefer species-like groups, although Americans have relatively little actual knowledge or experience at this level. This supports a modular view of folk biology as a core domain of human knowledge and as a special player, or “core meme,” in the selection processes by which cultures evolve. Structural aspects of folk taxonomy provide people in different cultures with the built-in constraints and flexibility that allow them to understand and respond appropriately to different cultural and ecological settings. Another set of reasoning experiments shows that Maya, American folk, and scientists use similarly structured taxonomies in somewhat different ways to extend their understanding of the world in the face of uncertainty. Although folk and scientific taxonomies diverge historically, they continue to interact. The theory of evolution may ultimately dispense with the core concepts of folk biology, including species, taxonomy, and teleology; in practice, however, these may remain indispensable to doing scientific work. Moreover, theory-driven scientific knowledge cannot simply replace folk knowledge in everyday life. Folk-biological knowledge is not driven by implicit or inchoate theories of the sort science aims to make more accurate and perfect.

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Behavioral and Brain Sciences
  • ISSN: 0140-525X
  • EISSN: 1469-1825
  • URL: /core/journals/behavioral-and-brain-sciences
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