Folkbiology doesn't come from folkpsychology: Evidence from Yukatek Maya in cross-cultural perspective

Scott Atran, Douglas Medin, Elizabeth Lynch, Valentina Vapnarsky, Edilberto Ucan Ek', Paulo Sousa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

121 Scopus citations


Nearly all psychological research on basic cognitive processes of category formation and reasoning uses sample populations associated with large research institutions in technologically-advanced societies. Lopsided attention to a select participant pool risks biasing interpretation, no matter how large the sample or how statistically reliable the results. The experiments in this article address this limitation. Earlier research with urban-USA children suggests that biological concepts are (1) thoroughly enmeshed with their notions of naive psychology, and (2) strikingly human-centered. Thus, if children are to develop a causally appropriate model of biology, in which humans are seen as simply one animal among many, they must undergo fundamental conceptual change. Such change supposedly occurs between 7 and 10 years of age, when the human-centered view is discarded. The experiments reported here with Yukatek Maya speakers challenge the empirical generality and theoretical importance of these claims. Part 1 shows that young Maya children do not anthropocentrically interpret the biological world. The anthropocentric bias of American children appears to owe to a lack of cultural familiarity with non-human biological kinds, not to initial causal understanding of folkbiology as such. Part 2 shows that by age of 4-5 (the earliest age tested in this regard) Yukatek Maya children employ a concept of innate species potential or underlying essence much as urban American children seem to, namely, as an inferential framework for understanding the affiliation of an organism to a biological species, and for projecting known and unknown biological properties to organisms in the face of uncertainty. Together, these experiments indicate that folkpsychology cannot be the initial source of folkbiology. They also underscore the possibility of a species-wide and domain-specific basis for acquiring knowledge about the living world that is constrained and modified but not caused or created by prior non-biological thinking and subsequent cultural experience.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3-42
Number of pages40
JournalJournal of Cognition and Culture
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2001

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Cultural Studies
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


Dive into the research topics of 'Folkbiology doesn't come from folkpsychology: Evidence from Yukatek Maya in cross-cultural perspective'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this