Evolution and devolution of folkbiological knowledge

Phillip Wolff*, Douglas L. Medin, Connie Pankratz

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

68 Scopus citations


In this paper we present evidence in support of the hypothesis that the average person's knowledge about trees, and about the natural world in general, has declined during the 20th century. Our investigations are based on examination of a large sample of written material from the 16th through 20th centuries contained in the Oxford English Dictionary. In Analysis 1, we show a precipitous decline in the use of tree terms after, but not before, the 19th century. In Analysis 2, we analyze tree terms at different levels of organization and show that the decline observed in Analysis 1 occurs for all levels of organization. This second analysis also reveals that during the 16th to 19th centuries tree terms became progressively more specific, suggesting that during these periods knowledge about trees increased. In Analysis 3, we show similar rates of decline in other folkbiological categories, indicating that the change in tree terms reflects a general decline in knowledge about living kinds. Also in Analysis 3, we show that several non-biological categories have experienced evolution during the 20th century, indicating that the declines in the 20th century for folkbiological categories are not an inevitable outcome of the corpus. Finally, Analysis 4 also shows declines in the frequency of quotations for which the tree term was not the topic of the sentence, and thus incidental to the purposes of the writer. The results from Analysis 4 reassure us that the results from Analyses 1-3 were not solely due to change in the aims and purposes of writers over the centuries. In sum, the analyses indicate that in the domain of trees, there has been a long and sustained period of conceptual evolution followed by a recent pronounced period of devolution. Copyright (C) 1999 Elsevier Science B.V.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)177-204
Number of pages28
Issue number2
StatePublished - Dec 7 1999


  • Conceptual change
  • Folkbiology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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