Thinking about biology. Modular constraints on categorization and reasoning in the everyday life of Americans, Maya, and scientists

Mind and Society 3 (2):31-63 (2002)
This essay explores the universal cognitive bases of biological taxonomy and taxonomic inference using cross-cultural experimental work with urbanized Americans and forest-dwelling Maya Indians. A universal, essentialist appreciation of generic species appears as the causal foundation for the taxonomic arrangement of biodiversity, and for inference about the distribution of causally-related properties that underlie biodiversity. Universal folkbiological taxonomy is domain-specific: its structure does not spontaneously or invariably arise in other cognitive domains, like substances, artifacts or persons. It is plausibly an innately-determined evolutionary adaptation to relevant and recurrent aspects of ancestral hominid environments, such as the need to recognize, locate, react to, and profit from many ambient species. Folkbiological concepts are special players in cultural evolution, whose native stability attaches to more variable and difficult-to-learn representational forms, thus enhancing the latter's prospects for regularity and recurrence in transmission within and across cultures. This includes knowledge that cumulatively enriches (folk expertise), overrides (religious belief) or otherwise transcends (science) the commonsense ontology prescribed by folkbiology. Finally, the studies summarized here indicate that results gathered from “standard populations” in regard to biological categorization and reasoning more often than not fail to generalize in straightforward ways to humanity at large. This suggests the need for much more serious attention to cross-cultural research on basic cognitive processes
Keywords domain-specificity  diversity  folkbiology  Maya  modularity  science  typicality
Categories (categorize this paper)
DOI 10.1007/BF02513147
 Save to my reading list
Follow the author(s)
My bibliography
Export citation
Find it on Scholar
Edit this record
Mark as duplicate
Revision history Request removal from index
Download options
PhilPapers Archive

Upload a copy of this paper     Check publisher's policy on self-archival     Papers currently archived: 15,974
External links
Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server
Configure custom proxy (use this if your affiliation does not provide a proxy)
Through your library
References found in this work BETA

View all 22 references / Add more references

Citations of this work BETA
Andrea Guasparri (2013). Explicit Nomenclature and Classification in Pliny’s Natural History XXXII. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 44 (3):347-353.

Add more citations

Similar books and articles

Monthly downloads

Added to index


Total downloads

13 ( #190,121 of 1,725,806 )

Recent downloads (6 months)

5 ( #134,315 of 1,725,806 )

How can I increase my downloads?

My notes
Sign in to use this feature

Start a new thread
There  are no threads in this forum
Nothing in this forum yet.