This book is based on the proceedings of a conference held near Newcastle (Australia) in 1987. Evolutionary epistemology applies the principle of natural selection to scientific theories and to knowledge generally. It is concerned with problem-solving and error elimination under various forms of selective pressure including the tests of logic and empirical evidence. This is a very subversive approach compared with most schools of thought in philosophy which are essentially conservative in their preoccupation with the justification of beliefs or the analysis of linguistic usage and the explication of concepts.
One of the central insights of evolutionary epistemology is the fallibility and plasticity of our mental and sensory apparatus. This contrasts with the dogmas of the two main streams of Western epistemology which posit something like infallibility or at least foundational status for, on the one hand, rational insights (Descartes) or sense impressions (the empiricists). In each case knowledge is regarded as a purely mental or psychological phenomenon. In contrast the evolutionary perspective helps to make a distinction between subjective or personal knowledge which needs to be treated from a biological point of view, and objective or public knowledge which calls for appraisal as a human product or perhaps a social construct. From this perspective mind and language are viewed as linked evolutionary products which emerge and develop in parallel as brains and social life become more complex.
The book contains 21 chapters in four parts. First, New Approaches to Evolutionary Epistemology; second, Enlarging the Scope: New Applications of Evolutionary Epistemology; third, Critical Evaluations; fourth, Evolutionary Epistemology and the Nature of Mind. IEE is a useful companion to an earlier collection edited by Gerard Radnitzky and W. W. Bartley titled Evolutionary Epistemology, Rationality and the Sociology of Knowledge (Open Court, 1988). In IEE various authors note that Popper and Campbell are among the major pioneers in the field and the earlier volume contains two major papers from each of them. It also contains a discus of Bartley's very important work on rationality and the limits of criticism which creates a new context or metacontext of thought that reinforces the critical and subversive tender of evolutionary epistemology (see "Agreeing to Disagree:Bartley's critique of reason" in the Age Monthly Review, October 1985). As noted below, some other gaps in lEE are plugged by papers in the other book.
The most ambitious contribution to lEE is provided by the editors in a large opening chapter. They sketch the modern rise of evolutionary epistemology under the leadership of Popper and Lorenz, backed up by Piaget, Toulmin and Campbell. Some important figures are missing from this account, namely the psychologists Kulpe and Buhler who promoted a non-reductive epistemology that underpins the thought of Popper, Piaget and also Wittgenstein.
Hooker and Hahlweg argue that the dynamics of biological evolution and the growth of knowledge are one and the same This is a much stronger thesis than the claim that there is some degree of similarity in the trial and error processe in biology and in intellectual endeavour. To pursue their case they must demarcate their product from others in the field such as Popper's but this leads them to misrepresent some aspects of his work and to ignore the major growth areas his programme. These are his theory of metaphysical research programmes and his linked theories of language and objective knowledge.
Krohn and Kuppers apply the theory of self-organizing social systems to science. Remarkably they do not refer to Hayek who has probably written as much as anyone on "spontaneous orders" in social systems. This prompts the thought that economics and political economy appear to offer promising niches for colonization by evolutionary epistemology, though this is not followed or even suggested by any of the papers in this collection. As it happens, something like this approach has been pursued the little-known "Austrian school" of social and economic theory initiated by Carl Menger last century, pursued by Mises (1878--1971) and lately by Hayek. This calls for an ecological approach to social systems to take account of their complexity, their evolving nature and the likelihood unintended consequences when they are disturbed.
A beautiful paper that deserves special mention is a posthumous contribution from C Brian Cragg titled `Evolution of the Steam Engine' . Hooker must be congratulated for the effort he expended in editing the large and incomplete manuscript. The task of pumping water out of mines afforded a `niche' where the great bulk, immobility and low fuel-efficiency of the early machines were not serious disadvantages. Cragg explains James Watt did not invent the steam engine but he pioneered a special type of applied research to radically improve its efficiency. When the power to weight ratio of the engines improved then other `niches' became contestable, especially when the iron and steel industry made more robust rails available.
Another significant contribution is provided by the New Zealand historian and philosopher Peter Munz. He begins with the contention that a comprehensive theory of evolution must account both for the emergence of cultures and also their subsequent evolution. However he proposes that the notion natural selection is probably misplaced in this context. To support this proposition he advances the startling and counter-intuitive thesis that some institutions and modes of thought survive not by evolving and adapting to changing circumstances but rather by remaining static. It has been noted before that "true believers" who, for example, know that the second coming is due on a particular date, do not abandon their faith when the event fails to happen. Perversely, their faith and solidarity are likely to be reinforced. Munz suggests that "A nonadaptive falsehood is required in order to act as a foundation charter or catechism for a human society".
The papers which offer critical assessment of evolutionary epistemology do not appear to strike any very telling blows. Some provide comments on individual writers, such as Stokes on Popper and Jacobs on Toulmin. A paper by William Bechtel provides a stimulating account of the revival of cell biology after the war, aided by new experimental technology in the form of the electron microscope and the ultracentrifuge.
In conclusion, this is an important collection, though no quite as important as is suggested on the dust jacket - "the fullest philosophical examination of theories of evolutionary epistemology now available".