April 14 1994
The study of knowledge has for over two thousand years been a province of philosophy. But today we are beginning to develop a science of knowledge. As this pioneering book makes clear, research is uncovering unexpected links between our capacity for knowledge and the struggle for survival and reproductive success. If we really want to understand the nature of learning, rationality and intelligent thought, it is now less to philosophers than to evolutionary biologists that we should turn.
To elucidate this startling thesis, Henry Plotkin explores the idea of Universal Darwinism. The same basic mechanisms – random generations of variants, selection of the ‘fittest’ and retention of the survivors – may underlie not only the origin of species but the functioning of the immune system, the development of language and even the progress of science. The human capacity to acquire knowledge is both a result of our evolutionary development and a process that itself develops in an evolutionary fashion. And natural selection itself can usefully be understood as a process of the acquisition of biological knowledge: the seemingly miraculous ‘fit’ between an animal and its environment – between, for example, the coloration of a camouflaged insect and the surface on which it lives – represents a laboriously attained ‘knowledge’ of its surroundings acquired over many generations of selection.
For humans this kind of knowledge is not enough. Although we use instinct when confronted with dangers like a charging bull, we must also acquire knowledge as individuals to guide us in an unpredictable and complex world. Advanced intellectual abilities are spin-offs of the more fundamental forms of knowledge essential to survival.
After instinct and knowledge acquired by trial and error comes the jointly shared knowledge we call culture, the final level on which we all operate. Plotkin illustrates his argument with a fascinating range of examples: the Somerset-born chaffinches, brought up in Sussex, who acquire a Sussex ‘dialect’ of bird song; the space scientists using the principles of learning from experience as they built the Mars Rover; the male flies who only manage to mate with ferocious females by offering them ‘gift-wrapped’ delicacies (or tricking them with ‘gift-wrapped’ pebbles). The result is a book which is clear, lively and of breathtaking scope, since it offers nothing less than a compelling three-dimensional theory of our nature.
Born in 1940 in South Africa, Henry Plotkin came to England in the 1960s where he obtained a doctorate in physiological psychology and worked for the Medical Research Council. Awarded an MRC Travelling Fellowship he worked at Stanford University for a time and returned to the UK in 1972. Dr. Plotkin was appointed a Lecturer in Psychology at University College London in 1972 and a Reader in 1988. He has edited a number of collections of essays in the field of evolutionary epistemology, and acts as an editorial advisor to several scholarly journals.