Essay #2 May 2016: Knowledge and Natural Selection.

Knowledge, Natural Selection and useful metaphors…,

Here is a Prezi linked to this essay title, the Prezi highlights what I consider to be the main points in this essay.

Here is a link to a YouTube video in which I give an overview of the essay, using the Prezi.

Make sure that you get the full question from your teacher. I can’t write the full question here as it’s copyrighted, and IB may issue a DRM Takedown notice if I do put the full question here.

First word of interest here is the word ‘discipline’ in the title, this means subject (e.g. the discipline of Economics, or the discipline of Biology) – therefore , not the full AoK – just the subject.

Students will need to define their interpretation of Natural Selection early in the title – I would take it as meaningΒ  (in the popular sense) the key aspects of Variance, Selection and Fitness. Biologists may argue about the exact meaning(s) of the term, but remember this is a ToK Essay – not a Bio essay, so don’t get too bogged down in exact meanings of the term natural selection, the essay does ask you to comment how useful the term is as a metaphor, not as an understanding of biology.

Knowledge Framework

The Knowledge Framework is central to this question. Each AoK has a specific framework which defines that AoK. These can be found in the ToK Study Guide (if your teacher is yet to give you this guide ask them for it immediately). The Knowledge Framework details the relationships between underlying assumptions, values, methodology and the scope of each AoK. As such the KF tells us about the development of knowledge within an AoK, and it’s constituent disciplines.

Students could take the Knowledge Framework of any AoK, identify a discipline within that AoK, and measure the development of ideas in that discipline against the apparent processes of natural selection. This approach would leave a lot of scope for a more critically evaluative approach.

Ideas arising from use of the KF to understand knowledge development.

The ‘best’: Using fitness as a metaphor suggests that ‘the best’ ideas are the ones that are most suitably adapted. However, this idea, in itself is problematic. First of all we must ask what are these ideas apparently adapting for ? The answers could range from social, economic and psychological need to perceived status or attributed value. There are myriad answers, especially if we take a relativist approach (arguing that need changes at an individual level) .

If you’re interested in the concept of need you may want to consider the Functionalism of Emile Durkheim, and the related ideas of the individual in relation to the whole (link to Shared Knowledge and Personal Knowledge).

Real Life example to illustrate the problem of ‘the best’ – the increase in support for same-sex marriage in Europe / N.America demonstrates the decline of one set of ideas, and the growth of a new set of ideas. Is this best explained by adaptation to need, or by a more sophisticated interpolation of social trends and structural changes (such as the family unit, and our relations to employment) ?

Knowledge is provisional and contextual.

It could be argued that knowledge changes according to a range of situational and experiential factors. Further, it could be argued that the interpretation of knowledge changes according to the context in which it is presented. As such it would be very hard to argue that there are consistent standards that constitute ‘best knowledge’ regardless of situation and time.

Real Life Examples of Provisional & Contextual Knowledge: Solley & Haigh (1958) Children painting Santa Claus (Human Sciences). Understanding of the causes of Black Death in London 1348-1350. Change in beliefs regarding inter-ethnic relationships.

The reifed external reality: Using Natural Selection as a metaphor suggests that there is a set external reality in which human ideas compete for success, or suffer failure (akin to how many of the factors of habitat environment are set beyond the control of any individual organism competing within that environment). However, this idea could be contested using a constructivist approach. The knowledge frameworks, and their interaction, can be understood as human constructs, made according to the perceived needs and cultural prevalences of an historic era. As such it is not clear how we can separate out the ideas (and their survival) from the knowledge frameworks within which they exist, they are in many senses mutually inclusive co-entities.

Real Life Example to illustrate the problem of reified external reality: The development of understanding of neuroplasticity through the 1990’s was not separate from the discipline of Neurobiology, but an integral part of the development of our understanding of neurobiology. The methodology of the research of neuroplasticity was concordant with the methodology of research of Biology, as such the findings were integrated into the growth of the discipline of Biology. This process was particularly accelerated when the findings of fMRI were used to consolidate laboratory research findings into neuroplasticity.

Counterclaim to the above: the exclusion of impressionists from The Salon of 1874. They were not accepted as ‘legitimate of the discipline labelled painting’, however their ‘new knowledge’ was later fully assimilated into being seen as ‘art’.

What’s Natural ?

Natural Selection seems to suggest a system which is not manipulated by humans, it would be a system free of interference. Yet when we consider the nature of Knowledge Production, and the subsequent sustenance of certain ideas we could argue that it is anything but ‘natural’, and free of interference. It could be argued that advertising and politics, are institutions designed to promote certain ideas over others. Far from being ‘naturally selected’ some knowledge is ‘unnaturally selected’ to dominate over other knowledge.

Β  Useful Metaphor ?: the questions asks the writer to consider the usefulness of the metaphor. As such students will need to devise some measure of usefulness. Such measures could be:

  • does the metaphor provide us with an accurate understanding of knowledge development ?
  • does the metaphor explain the existence of disciplines ?
  • does the metaphor open up debates about the development of disciplines ?

An alternative way to approach the essay would be to base it around the concept of usefulness. Writers could have an interesting structure looking at the relationship between the usefulness of knowledge, and the usefulness of the metaphor.

Enjoy your ToK Writing !



25 thoughts on “Essay #2 May 2016: Knowledge and Natural Selection.

    1. Hi, there are many many examples which can be drawn from Nat Scis. I recommend that you think about your studies in Group 4, and draw your RLS from the things that you have learned there, or draw on any science stories that you’ve read recently in the newspapers or in journals.

  1. Just really thankful you made this. It really helped me a lot especially when they have different questions each year which makes it hard for IB students to find guidelines and help.

  2. Hello, great and helpful article, but I have one question. Is it plausible to discuss two AoK concerning the metaphor and also discuss the usefulness of using a metaphor? What I mean is, could I give a pro and con to using metaphor?

    1. I don’t think that discussing the usefulness of metaphors is really the aim of the question, however it could be part of an answer in which the author discusses ways of understanding knowledge construction.

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