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Evolutionary epistemology is a theory in metaphysics, applying the concepts of biological evolution to the growth of human knowledge and, in particular, scientific theories. It argues that human knowledge advances by trial and error, in which various competing conjectures are put to the test (ultimately by the real world, but also by empirical testing). As such, it bears remarkable similarities to the process of evolution by natural selection.

Karl Popper is considered by many to have given evolutionary epistemology its first comprehensive treatment, though Donald T. Campbell coined the phrase in 1974 (Schilpp, 1974).

One of the hallmarks of evolutionary epistemology is the notion that empirical testing does not justify the truth of scientific theories, but rather that social and methodological processes select those theories with the closest "fit" to a given problem. The fitness of a theory, then, may be related to the concept of biological fit; that, although adaptation is the process by which a species survives the hazards of its environment, fitness in the present does not predict continued survival. Likewise, the mere fact that a theory has survived the most rigorous empirical tests available does not, in the calculus of probability, predict its ability to survive future testing. Popper used Newtonian physics as an example of a body of theories so thoroughly confirmed by testing that it was considered unassailable; only to be overturned by Einstein's bold insights into the nature of space-time. For the evolutionary epistemologist, all theories are true only provisionally, regardless of the degree of empirical testing they have survived.

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  • Schilpp, P. A., ed. The Philosophy of Karl R. Popper. LaSalle, IL. Open Court. 1974. See Campbell's essay, "Evolutionary Epistemology" on pp. 412-463.

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