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The Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 144-146 ( 17 April )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/fb.html

Book Review

The Biology of the Masses:
A Review of Medin and Atran’s Folkbiology
MIT Press, 1999

By William D. Casebeer, Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy, US Air Force Academy, CO 80840, USA.

While there has been much talk in the cognitive science literature of “folk psychology” and “folk physics,” there has been relatively little discussion of the everyday understanding that most people use to classify and reason about living things. This is surprising, since as biological creatures we spend probably the most important and meaningful segments of our life-cycle interacting with other biological creatures-our spouses, children, pets, food, and the like. Douglas Medin and Scott Atran fill this gap in the literature in an interesting way with Folkbiology (published by The MIT Press in 1999), a collection of essays featuring such luminaries as Jared Diamond (of Guns, Germs, and Steel fame), Frank Keil and David Hull. These three authors represent, respectively, the fields of anthropology, cognitive science, and philosophy of biology. This gives some indication of the interdisciplinary flavor and range of this collection of original articles.

Folkbiology can be roughly divided into three sections: the anthropology of folkbiology, folkbiology related issues in cognitive development and cognitive psychology, and philosophical points about both these subjects. The first section consists of interesting cross-cultural essays in the anthropology of folkbiology. These essays provide empirical data that informs the discussions that take place later in the volume about, for example, the presence (or absence) of folkbiological “universals” (such as taxonomic judgments that are shared by members of all cultures). Authors here include Jared Diamond and K. David Bishop (“Ethno-ornithology of the Ketengban People, Indonesian New Guinea”), Brent Berlin (“How a Folkbotanical System Can Be Both Natural and Comprehensive: One Maya Indian’s View of the Plant World”), and Scott Atran (“Itza Maya Folkbiological Taxonomy: Cognitive Universals and Cultural Particulars”).

A representative essay from this section is Eugene Hunn’s “Size as Limiting the Recognition of Biodiversity in Folkbiological Classifications: One of Four Factors Governing the Cultural Recognition of Biological Taxa.” In it, Hunn argues for a more far-reaching explanation for the similarities and differences between folkbiological classificatory schemes and the Western Linnaean species-centric scheme. Traditionally, both phenotypic and cultural salience has been used to account for the presence of both these things; the presence of a near-universal can be accounted for by the similarities in the way we all process sensory input, while differences can be accounted for owing to cultural variability regarding what is considered to be important (so that, for example, mushrooms play no significant role in many Western lives, which is why most of us have no folkbiological knowledge of their different varieties). Hunn proposes two additional factors: ecological salience and the size factor, where both of these are treated as aspects of perceptual salience. Ecological salience is a measure of how often a member of a culture is likely to come in contact with the organism in question, while the size factor is a logarithmically scaled measure of how large an organism is. Not surprisingly, but nonetheless importantly, Hunn concludes that “…the fact that size strongly constrains the recognition of biodiversity in traditional ecological knowledge systems suggests caution. Folkbiologists are highly knowledgeable about the biotic resources of their immediate environment and in many cases clearly cherish and husband those resources. However, a very large portion of the total biodiversity of their traditional lands is culturally unrecognized for the simple reason that it is invisible.” This conclusion demonstrates the importance of the issues considered in this collection; scientific corrections to folkbiological schemes are often needed if we are to have an accurate picture of the biodiversity we are trying to protect.

The essays from the second section deal with fascinating issues in the cognitive science of folkbiology. A representative essay is Sandra Waxman’s “The Dubbing Ceremony Revisited.” In it, Waxman argues that the categories into which we group objects are strongly influenced by the process in which we name them. She summarizes: “For infants who are on the threshold of object naming, novel words highlight commonalities among objects and, in this way, foster the formation of object categories. This initial expectation is powerful. It…guides the acquisition of stable conceptual systems…[and]…is modified as a result of infants’ experience with the range of objects and the structure of the native language they encounter.” In other words, it might very well be that the structure of our conceptual schemes (be they related to folkbiology or not), is intimately linked with the structure of our learned language. The fundamental process of mapping a word onto its meaning, Waxman concludes from her study of infant formation of object categories, is similar across cultures and languages. This no doubt reflects the fact that our native neural substrates of cognition do not vary widely much either.

The third section’s essays deal with big-picture philosophical issues that are discussed in and raised by the first two sections. A typical essay here is Michael Ghiselin’s “Natural Kinds and Supraorganismal Individuals.” Ghiselin argues, contrary to the way the folk talk of species, and contrary to the way in which some professional biologists construe the term, we ought to consider a species to be an individual, not a class of organisms. That is, a species is a concrete particular, not a group noun. When we talk of a particular species, it is really more like talking of a person (say, Bob) than of a group of organisms. Ghiselin offers, among others, two arguments for this position: first, this conclusion follows from the way both systematists in biology and metaphysicians in philosophy use the term; secondly, it follows from the way we give meaning to particular species terms (that is, by pointing, which is a form of ostensive definition, the same process by which we identify individuals… “Lo! There is Bob!”). This may seem like a tempest in a teapot. However, recognizing that species are individuals has upshot for the practice of biology. For instance, we normally don’t think of individuals as being bound by laws of nature; that is, there is no “law” governing how a particular Bob must act (as there has only been one Bob and never will be another Bob); laws of nature refer to classes, not individuals. Another upshot: individuals have histories, whereas classes do not. Both these conclusions have the potential to impact the practice of biology in interesting ways, and promise to bring an end (or perhaps merely stoke the flames) of longstanding disputes in the philosophy of biology about the nature of our concept of species.

The book’s introductory and capstone essays are excellent. Medin and Atran concisely discuss the several issues covered in the book in a helpful manner, and David Hull’s concluding essay (“Interdisciplinary Dissonance”) is lively and provocative. All in all, the essays are linked in interesting ways and are uniformly good, with several of them being excellent contributions to the literature.

Douglas Medin and Scott Atran have done great service to the ethnobiological community by collecting together these original pieces. Moreover, this work has the potential to more broadly impact anthropology, cognitive science, and philosophy of biology, whether it be by expanding anthropological horizons via a consideration of cross cultural folkbiological taxonomies, providing another example to inform cognitive scientists’ deliberations about cognitive development and the presence of cognitive universals, or by helping philosophers of science settle the ongoing dispute about the exact nature of the term “species.” I commend this book to you if you are interested in any of these issues.

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© William D. Casebeer.

* William D. Casebeer, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy, HQ USAFA/DFPY, 2354 Fairchild Drive, Suite 1A10, US Air Force Academy, CO USA 80840.

Dr. Casebeer’s interests include the philosophy of biology, issues in cognitive philosophy, and the relationship between these two fields and the naturalization of ethics. His book Natural Ethical Facts: Evolution, Connectionism, and Moral Cognition is forthcoming from The MIT Press.


Casebeer, W. D. (2002). The Biology of the Masses. Human Nature Review. 2: 144-146.

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