HPS Colloquia Series for 1997-98


The Program in History and Philosophy of Science presents:


"Ontogeny, Phylogeny and Conceptual Development"

By Stephen M. Downes
Department of Philosophy, University of Utah

April 23, 1997, 4:30 pm

History Bldg. Room 307 Stanford University


Some nineteenth century biologists believed that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny: that an individual organism passes through stages of development that represent the adult stages of its evolutionary ancestors. Haeckel was one of the main proponents of this view, naming it the Biogenetic Law. Due to the overwhelming evidence against it, the law was rejected and has not been defended in biology since the nineteen twenties.

A version of this view is held by a significant number of contemporary philosophers of science and developmental psychologists who propose that children's cognitive development recapitulates conceptual development in the history of science. Closer examination reveals that few people argue for the strict recapitulation of scientific development in children's cognitive development. Rather, theorists claim that the psychological investigation of children's cognitive development will lead to a better understanding of the cognitive development of science.

In this paper Downes argues that neither the strict recapitulation view, nor its weaker derivative provide plausible accounts of scientific development. To reject both the strict and weak versions of the recapitulation thesis is not, however, to reject the claim that scientific development and other kinds of conceptual development are analogous to some kind of evolutionary process. He concludes by discussing some other evolutionary accounts of conceptual development.


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