Extended Evolution and the History of Knowledge

Jurgen Renn and Manfred Laubichler


This paper provides a framework for analyzing the history of knowledge from the perspective of extended evolution, a conceptual framework that analyzes evolutionary processes as transformations of extended regulatory network structures, and is designed to apply to a whole range of phenomena, from genome and biological to cultural and technological evolution. Regulatory networks, such as gene regulatory networks or institutions, control the behavior of individual elements within systems, whether these are genes within cells or organisms or individuals within societies. All of these phenomena can be seen as a form of extended evolution. Our framework is inspired by Ernst Mach, a scientist turned historian and philosopher who developed a distinctly evolutionary conception of knowledge. For Mach the dynamics of highly structured systems of knowledge, such as science, was a logical outgrowth of the evolutionary roots of human cognition. He focused specifically on the role of memory—information from genomes to cultural traditions in present-day terminology—and emphasized how all life forms extract “knowledge” or information through a continuous process of trial and error. As a consequence of these processes of knowledge acquisition, tested “hypotheses” are incorporated into the (genetic or cultural) make-up or memory of each species. Indeed, Mach’s ideas about the cultural transmission of shared or collective memories and the role of institutions in that process are an early version of what we call cultural evolution today (Mach 2011).

J. Renn (*)

Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, Germany e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

M. Laubichler

Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USA e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

F. Stadler (ed.), Integrated History and Philosophy of Science, Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook 20, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-53258-5_9

The proposal of extended evolution is a conceptual framework for the evolution of complex systems based on the integration of regulatory network and niche construction theories (Laubichler and Renn 2015). It applies equally to cases of biological, social and cultural evolution. A general feature of this framework is the transformation of complex networks through the linked processes of externalization and internalization of causal factors between regulatory networks and their corresponding niches. Externalization refers to the stable or lasting transformation of niches (biological, cultural, social and technological) through the actions of systems, whereas internalization captures those processes that lead to the incorporation of stable features of the environment(s) into the regulatory structures governing the actions of systems. These processes extend previous evolutionary models and focus on several challenges, such as the path-dependent nature of evolutionary change, the dynamics of evolutionary innovation and the expansion of inheritance systems (Laubichler and Renn 2015). Extended Evolution is in several ways a further development from previous models of cultural evolution that have focused on extending standard evolutionary dynamics to different domains (e.g. Richerson and Boyd 2005; Tomasello 2014) and of niche construction (e.g. Laland et al. 2008). The focus of our theory of extended evolution is both on the transformations of regulatory structures and the generation of variation and novelty and the resulting dynamics of evolutionary change.

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