In his autobiography, the German science journalist Hoimar von Ditfurth explains his views of evolutionary epistemology. He writes (p. 250):
It is important to become clear about the fact that even the most primitive organism knows something about the world already. Even the protozoa […] possess such knowledge. Of course, on such a primitive level of development, their world view is infinitely more paltry than that of higher animals, not to mention that of human beings. But the little bit they “know” about the world we all share is correct.
He is then following a line of arguments taken from Konrad Lorenz: a paramecium hitting an obstacle will retreat and swim into another direction. It “knows” that it cannot swim into the original direction. It might have a few other bits of knowledge on this level, but not much more.
Ditfurth continues (p. 251):
In comparison with the world view of a jelly fish already, and even more so in comparison with that of a fish or even of a chicken, the paramecium’s worldview appears as comparatively poor and incomplete (as do all world views actualized below one’s own level of development). From the perspective of a chicken, the world view of a reptile appears as collapsed into a few environmental signals […]. A monkey, in turn, would look down upon a chicken pitifully if it could have any idea of its world view.
Ditfurth now raises the question where the position of humans is in this comparison. The idea here is that each organism’s world view is complete from its own perspective but turns out to be incomplete and poor if looked at from a higher level. Ditfurth thinks that the world is unlimited, or open upwards (“nach oben offen”) but that each life form, including humans, has, by nature, a limited world view. He argues that it would be a kind of hubris to assume that the world view of humans is not just as limited as well. He thinks it is unlikely that human beings have reached the top of what is possible. He thinks the idea is ridiculous. From its own perspective, any animal’s world view looked complete but evolution was able to yield a more extended one. Why should this not also be the case with humans?
Ditfurth, on one hand, concedes (p. 254):
As the first terrestrial form of life, we have managed to exceed the limits of our innate horizon of knowledge […]. Using artificial sense organs of technology we have found properties of the world that are hidden from us “by nature”[…]. Moreover, the most intelligent of us have achieved the nearly unbelievable accomplishment, using abstract mathematical formulas […] to account for structures of reality which are not only imperceptible for us but also unintuitive: the […] non-Euclidian structure of space […].
So the horizon of knowledge assigned to us by our genetic constitution has indeed been transcended by us. […] The question is, however, how far this break-through has actually allowed us to get.
But despite these developments, Ditfurth thinks our world view is limited.
I do not agree with him here. What Ditfurth fails to see is the following: evolution may be seen as a learning process that is open in the sense that for each world view, it can generate a more comprehensive, richer one that captures more properties of the “real world” (or the “thing in itself”). So he assumes that such an open learning process is possible. But if an open learning process is possible (evolution itself being one), it appears possible that evolution will produce an animal in whose brain an open learning process is implemented.
If rationalistic philosophers are right who think that there is a fixed, genetically determined structure of cognition (be it Kant’s system of categories and pure forms of perception or any system of assumed innate concepts and algorithms of cognition), we would indeed have to assume that these fixed forms of cognition lead to a limited world view. The “thing in itself” would be inaccessible and there would be an impenetrable screen beyond which our knowledge cannot reach because of the limitations of our cognitive structure (and, in the tradition of Kant, things like free will, life after death, and the divine could be placed behind that screen).
If, on the other hand, we take into account the possibility that our cognitive structure is (re-)programmable, the human mind would appear as an open process of learning, as open as evolution (or even more so). While our view at each moment is definitely limited, we would have the potential of expanding it (and we have witnessed such expansions in the past already). We then arrive at a view of human cognition as something historically evolving, but not only because of changes in our genetic structure but, from some point on, because of changes in our culture. Our cognitive structure, at each point of its development, does not, in fact, present us a perfect image of how the world actually is in itself, but we can always extend the cognitive structures and, as a result, our world view, removing the limitations of previous versions of it.
Basically, I view the human brain as reprogrammable and therefore as able to transcend the limits of each world view implemented in it at a given time. The brain is a result of evolution but a large part of its structure is plastic and is creatively programmed. Both evolution and the human brain may be viewed as creative systems.
Moreover, I think that the system observing the world is no longer the single human brain that is a result of biological evolution but instead, it is our culture as a whole, with subsystems like science and scholarship as embedded parts of it. The system that observes the world is not a brain with ears and eyes, but a system consisting of people, libraries, computers, classrooms, conferences, the internet, telescopes, particle accelerators, publishers etc. This system is producing knowledge and it is restructuring itself all the time as needed. The development of “higher” systems of observation and knowledge generation has been taken out of the hands of biological evolution already. The interface of the observing system with reality is not limited by our biology.
Evolutionary epistemology, therefore, might be useful when it comes to describing the world views of animals, but it has become irrelevant in the realm of human culture, science and scholarship.
(The picture, showing a protozoon of the species Paramecium Caudatum (in the process of dividing, I think), together with algae and some other microorganisms, is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paramecium_caudatum_(248_06)_Native_preparation.jpg.)
 Citations from: v. Ditfurth, Hoimar: “Innenansichten eines Artgenossen”, DTV, München, 1989.
Translations are my own.
Ditfurth (1921 – 1989), probably less well known outside Germany, was famous in Germany for his extraordinary and outstanding TV science series “Querschnitt” and his fascinating books. I have chosen the text of Ditfurth not because he is especially important as a thinker himself but because he is formulating the points I want to write about here very clearly.