Skip to Main content Skip to Navigation
Book sections

Modular and cultural factors in biological understanding: an experimental approach to the cognitive basis of science

Abstract : What follows is a discussion of three sets of experimental results that deal with various aspects of universal biological understanding among American and Maya children and adults. The first set of experiments shows that by the age of four-to-five years (the earliest age tested in this regard) urban American and Yukatek Maya children employ a concept of innate species potential, or underlying essence, 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. The second set of experiments shows that the youngest Maya children do not have an anthropocentric understanding of the biological world. Children do not initially need to reason about non-human living kinds by analogy to human kinds. The third set of results show that the same taxonomic rank is cognitively preferred for biological induction in two diverse populations: people raised in the Mid-western USA and Itza' Maya of the Lowland Meso-american rainforest. This is the generic species  the level of oak and robin. These findings cannot be explained by domain-general models of similarity because such models cannot account for why both cultures prefer species-like groups in making inferences about the biological world, although Americans have relatively little actual knowledge or experience at this level. The implication from these experiments is that folk biology may well represent an evolutionary design: universal taxonomic structures, centred on essence-based generic species, are arguably routine products of our ‘habits of mind,' which may be in part naturally selected to grasp relevant and recurrent ‘habits of the world.' The science of biology is built upon these domain-specific cognitive universals: folk biology sets initial cognitive constraints on the development of any possible macro-biological theory, including the initial development of evolutionary theory. Nevertheless, the conditions of relevance under which science operates diverge from those pertinent to folk biology. For natural science, the motivating idea is to understand nature as it is ‘in itself,' independently of the human observer (as far as possible). From this standpoint, the species-concept, like taxonomy and teleology, may arguably be allowed to survive in science as a regulative principle that enables the mind to readily establish stable contact with the surrounding environment, rather than as an epistemic concept that guides the search for truth.
Complete list of metadata
Contributor : Scott Atran <>
Submitted on : Tuesday, September 3, 2002 - 10:58:08 PM
Last modification on : Friday, July 2, 2021 - 9:58:02 AM
Long-term archiving on: : Saturday, April 3, 2010 - 8:10:01 PM


  • HAL Id : ijn_00000122, version 1



Scott Atran. Modular and cultural factors in biological understanding: an experimental approach to the cognitive basis of science. Peter Carruthers, Stephen Stich, Michael Siegal. The Cognitive Basis of Science, Cambridge University Press, 2002, 3. ⟨ijn_00000122⟩



Record views


Files downloads