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Extending the Evolutionary Epistemology paradigm
into Economics
What is Evolutionary Epistemology (EE)?
Terminology coined by Donald Campbell (1974). But various definitions:
PC website: “EE is an approach that sees knowledge as a product of variation and
selection processes“
Also: “organisms with better knowledge of their environments would have been preferred
to organisms with less adequate knowledge.”: better/more ↔ adequate ?
Two strands of EE:
Weaker version, focuses on sources of knowledge:
Knowledge is generated by Darwinian selection and retention processes, both biologically
embodied knowledge (phylogenic, in genes) and cognitive learning (ontogeny)
Stronger version, focuses on substance of knowledge:
All “bodies” and “structures” emerging in evolution are repositories, embodiments of
knowledge – even those that emerged “before” biological evolution and those “after”
ontogenetic cognitive development
My summary:
Weak: knowledge accumulation is the red threat that runs through bio-cognitive evolution
Strong: all evolution is cognitive evolution
Extending the Evolutionary Epistemology
paradigm into Economics
3. My objectives today:
Expand the EE paradigm into social structures, “beyond” ontogenetic cognitive
In particular into economics, or the organisational structure of human societies
Demonstrate how the stronger version of the EE paradigm is applicable in the
Weak interpretation has found some application in social science/economics:
Schumpeter, Nelson & Winter, evolutionary economists
These remain partial explanatory mechanisms, strong on formalism but weak in
I will focus on substantive issues in social organisation of knowledge: distributed
knowledge, exchange (costs) of knowledge, role of external repositories of
I start from Entropy Law and applications in economic development, and move
towards an information/cognitive interpretation of this Law to explain the selforganising nature of economic systems
Extending the Evolutionary Epistemology
paradigm into Economics
4. Evolution of human societies from Rift Valley (-2.5 Myears) to Silicon Valley
Genetically, no significant differences
Knowledge: massive differences
4.1. Is it learning only? Or organisation of knowledge?
Difference in organisation: distributed knowledge, including incentives to learn & external
4.2. How much knowledge is there in economic systems?
Economic systems revolve around production, trade
Production = transformation of goods, energy only:
In thermodynamic terms: external entropy up, internal down (cfr Georgescu-Roegen, Boulding)
Link with information: entropy concept = probability concept
Cfr: pile of papers
4.3. Link production – information – knowledge:
Information content of a set = number of distinctions in a set
Knowledge accumulation or learning = identification of regularities in a set of distinctions
Extending the Evolutionary Epistemology
paradigm into Economics
5. Link economics – entropy – knowledge
“Simple” Nature: 1st/2nd Law of Thermodynamics apply:
conservation & decay
“Complex” Nature:
• “dissipative systems” (Prygogine): produce order by using energy
• Examples: molecules, crystals
• Maturana: Allopoetic systems (“Hedgehogs”)
Living cells:
Autopoetic systems (“Foxes”):
• Homeostatis, the ability to maintain internal order by giving a variety
of responses to external perturbations = cognition
Knowledge = the “range” of available responses, behaviours (Plotkin)
Extending the Evolutionary Epistemology
paradigm into Economics
6. Learning knowledge, accumulation of responses:
Mechanical: only 1 response, invariable
Organisms: genotypes, knowledge accumulation through Darwinian
selection across generations, range of responses available
Cognitive systems: phenotypes, knowledge accumulation within a single
generation, wider and adaptable range of responses
Humans: knowledge transmission across a single generation, group of
individuals and different genetic branches, and specialisation
Example: Inuit can benefit from learning in tropical forests
Three types of transmission:
• Imitation (Boyd & Richerson): no evolutionary advantage, except restrictive
conditions (Rogers, 1985)
• Symbolic
• Economic (embodied knowledge)
Extending the Evolutionary Epistemology
paradigm into Economics
7. Distributed knowledge in human societies
Advantages of distributed H:
• If H accumulation would be purely individual, than HT = Hi
• If H accumulation under full specialisation, than HT = n Hi
• Except for transaction costs (degree of overlap): HT < n Hi
• Distributed H goes beyond individuals: external storage
Historic evolution:
• Paleolithic (2.5 M years): no artefacts, no symbols, no external
storage, barely a language, mostly mimetic transmission (M Donald)
• Neolithic (30-40 k years): artefacts, symbolic transmission,
development of written language, starting with figures (Goody)
Extending the Evolutionary Epistemology
paradigm into Economics
Evolutionary efficiency:
• Symbolic transmission is more efficient than imitation, but reduces
distributed knowledge
• Economic transmission of embodied H is more efficient, minimizes
the H interface
• Example: buy a computer
• Problem with economic transmission: incentives for learning, how to
avoid free riding?
• Embodiment in excludable goods, with private property rights
Evolutionary consequences:
• transmission across individuals: lineages disappear, there is only 1
• optimizes use of scarce learning capacity
Extending the Evolutionary Epistemology
paradigm into Economics
8. Conclusions:
1. Symbolic transmission and Economic transmission of embodied
knowledge are stages of evolution beyond genotypic and
phenotypic: external storage, increasing evolutionary advantage
As such, they are an extension of the EE paradigm
2. Next step: “Active externalism”, “the extended mind”: external
knowledge storage and learning becomes active allopoetic system
(Hedgehogs), possibly autopoetic (Foxes)?
3. Back to definition to Darwinian selection: selection on basis of
“better” or “adequate” knowledge?
- With distributed knowledge, neither applies,
- Group selection may become an issue (as opposed to individual
selection in Darwinism)