- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Harvard University Press (April 25, 1997)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0674192818
- ISBN-13: 978-0674192812
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,610,107 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge
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Plotkin is a psychologist and his book places most emphasis on learning or the acquisition of knowledge and the cultural transmission of that knowledge. It is an extended essay on 'evolutionary epistemology', a phrase coined by D. T. Campbell and rightly seen by Plotkin as a barrier to understanding. Indeed, one of this book's great virtues is that Plotkin writes incomparably more clearly than most others who have ventured into these fields. His exposition, even of complex issues, is beautifully lucid, his arguments well thought through and his illustrations apt. (Nicholas Mackintosh Nature)
Plotkin makes evolutionary epistemology accessible to nonspecialists, developing a model in which sense-based knowledge anchors mind-based knowledge, coupling more tightly to individual intelligence than to the 'knowledge' constructs of cultures. Plotkin offers an extremely readable account and defense of evolutionary epistemology, a prominent, if controversial, position in contemporary philosophy of science. (Steven L. Goldman Science, Technology & Society)
Plotkin ties together philosophy, evolutionary biology, and psychology to provide a new examination of the science of knowledge. The nature of learning and intelligence are seen as the extension of instincts that are deeply rooted in our biology...Plotkin is excellent at describing difficult and convoluted issues. (Choice)
An outstanding example of a bold and thought-provoking struggle for a unified viewpoint on the nature of knowledge. Plotkin's intention is not just to show connections between various accounts of knowledge from evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and philosophers--he is going for more. He attempts to develop and unified point of view, based on Darwin and twentieth-century evolutionary epistemology. This book is extremely lucid, clear, and well-written. (Gerd Gigerenzer, University of Chicago)
In his Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge, Plotkin does for evolutionary epistemology what Richard Dawkins did for gene selectionism in The Selfish Gene. As in the case of gene selectionist versions of evolutionary theory, most of the work in evolutionary epistemology is highly esoteric and extremely hard to follow. Plotkin decided that it was time to summarize the advances in ways that more general readers can comprehend and appreciate. He has simplified this large literature without distorting it. I read the book with enjoyment. (David Hull, Northwestern University)
From the Back Cover
Learn and survive. Behind this simple equation lies a revolution in the study of knowledge, which has left the halls of philosophy for the labs of science. This book offers a cogent account of what such a move does to our understanding of the nature of learning, rationality, and intelligence. Bringing together evolutionary biology, psychology, and philosophy, Henry Plotkin presents a new science of knowledge, one that traces an unbreakable link between instinct and our ability to know. Contrary to the modern liberal idea that knowledge is something derived from experience, this science shows us that what we know is what our nature allows us to know, what our instincts tell us we must know. Since our ability to know our world depends primarily on what we call intelligence, intelligence must be understood as an extension of instinct. Drawing on contemporary evolutionary theory, especially notions of hierarchical structure and universal Darwinism, Plotkin tells us that the capacity for knowledge, which is what makes us human, is deeply rooted in our biology and, in a special sense, is shared by all living things. This leads to a discussion of animal and human intelligence as well as an appraisal of what an instinct-based capacity for knowledge might mean to our understanding of language, reasoning, emotion, and culture. The result is nothing less than a three-dimensional theory of our nature, in which all knowledge is adaptation and all adaptation is a specific form of knowledge.
Top customer reviews
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After a short introduction, Plotkin devotes a chapter to sketching the theory of evolution and its natural outcome: adaptation. He continues with the statement that the concepts of evolutionary theory have far broader applicability. They can be used to explain aspects of how our immune system works, the organisation of our brain, or the way science works. Plotkin introduces a model that can be used to study all these different subjects from the same evolutionary point of view. After these chapters we are well prepared to follow Plotkin in the application of his theoretical framework to the origin of knowledge.
The fourth chapter contains the core of Plotkin's argumentation. Here he states that knowledge (also behavioural knowledge) and adaptation are closely related concepts. In fact, he maintains that all adaptations can be viewed as a form of knowledge, and knowledge as an adaptation. With this in mind he examines different kinds of behaviour. He discusses behaviour without thought, also known as instincts. Instincts are adaptations, evolved to cope with predictable changes of the environment. However, when the environment changes in an unpredictable manner, organisms need more than instincts. According to Plotkin, our intelligence is an adaptation which makes it possible to handle such unpredictable changes.
Plotkin believes in the modularity of the mind. This theory states that the brain contains certain modules involved in processing modular-specific information. The most famous example is Chomsky's language module. The knowledge obtained through these modules has epistemic boundaries. Plotkin finds evidence for this point of view when he examines our ability to reason logically, the development of language, emotions and culture. He states that because of these boundaries, our intelligence is also restricted. We cannot learn anything we want. In our struggle to cope with the unpredictable changes in our environment, we are condemned to make failures.
In the last chapter we turn to philosophy. Hume stated that induction can never lead to reliable knowledge. Plotkin agrees and confines that evolutionary epistemology cannot say anything about this reliability problem. Kant maintained that we can only know things in the way they are modulated by the mind, hence we cannot obtain true knowledge. Here Plotkin does not agree. Evolution provides the evidence for the fact that the surviving organisms `got it right' most of the time. So we are capable of generating knowledge that is reliable (enough). In fact we are still getting better, we can even see a glimpse of the future nowadays.
I think this is a great book for everyone interested in the combination evolutionary biology and philosophy. It isn't an easy read, but the author developed some really great ideas, worth the effort. This doesn't say one has to agree with the author on all points. I found it very hard to deal with the adaptation=knowledge idea and his argumentation wasn't always clear to me. I'm also not as modularity minded as Plotkin is and I think he relies heavily on this principle.
In spite of my doubts, I really enjoyed reading this book. For me it was a nice acquaintance with epistemology from a surprising perspective.
--Richard Brodie, author, Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Mem