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  • Cited by 6
  • Print publication year: 2002
  • Online publication date: November 2009

2 - Human evolution and the cognitive basis of science


The capacity for science is likely to have a biological basis that evolved in a piecemeal fashion during the course of human evolution. By examining the anatomy and activities of human ancestors from the earliest Homo at 2.5 mya to anatomically modern humans engaged in farming at 8,000 BP, this chapter attempts to identify when, and in which order, several of the key facets of scientific practice emerged. While it recognizes that to emerge as a recognizable entity science required a particular suite of social and economic circumstances, that emergence can be fully understood only by examining both the abilities and the constraints of the evolved human mind.


The cognitive basis of science needs to be explored from at least two different perspectives – the developmental and the evolutionary. These may be intimately connected. A nativist stance to the development of mind in the child argues that emergent modes of thought are significantly shaped by our evolutionary past (e.g. Pinker, 1997). This stance requires any study of the origin of science in the child to involve a concern for the thought, behaviour and environments of our human ancestors. That concern should involve going beyond the guess-work and just-so stories favoured by many evolutionary psychologists to examining the evidence itself – the fossil and archaeological records (Mithen, 1996).

Even if a nativist stance was thought quite inappropriate, the study of early prehistory remains an essential undertaking if one wishes to understand the cognitive basis of science.