Evolution and devolution of knowledge: A tale of two biologies

Scott Atran*, Douglas Medin, Norbert Ross

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

88 Scopus citations


Anthropological enquiry suggests that all societies classify animals and plants in similar ways. Paradoxically, in the same cultures that have seen large advances in biological science, practical knowledge of nature has dramatically diminished. Here we describe historical, cross-cultural, and developmental research on the ways in which people ordinarily conceptualize organic nature (folk biology), concentrating on cognitive consequences associated with knowledge devolution. We show that the results of psychological studies of categorization and reasoning from 'standard populations' fail to generalize to humanity at large. The populations most commonly used in studies by psychologists (Euro-American college and university students) have impoverished experience of nature, and this generates misleading results about knowledge acquisition and the ontogenetic relationship between folk biology and folk psychology. We also show that groups living in the same habitat can manifest strikingly distinct behaviours, cognitions, and social relations relative to it. This has novel implications for environmental decision making and management, including commons problems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)395-420
Number of pages26
JournalJournal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2004

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


Dive into the research topics of 'Evolution and devolution of knowledge: A tale of two biologies'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this