Evolution without Inheritance: Steps to an Ecology of Learning

Tim Ingold* (Corresponding Author)

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Attempts to integrate human culture, history, or symbolic imagination into a comprehensive theory of evolution have, up to now, foundered on a bifurcation between mind and nature deeply embedded in the project of modern science. This article attempts to overcome the bifurcation by foregrounding the process of learning, understood neither as the lifetime expression of evolved attributes nor as a supple-mentary (nongenetic) mechanism for their inheritance but as an intergenerational life process unfolding in a matrix of relations that overflows the emergent boundaries between organisms and their environments. The argument is presented in three steps. The first is to explain how a distinction between life and inheritance came to be built into the “modern synthesis” of evolutionary biology. In the second step, this synthesis is shown to have been stymied by its failure to deliver an adequate account of the role of ontogenesis in evolution. Of the several attempts to rectify this failure by extending the synthesis, the article focuses on just one, which introduces the paired concepts of “niche construction” and “ecological inheritance.” The third step reveals that the residual commitment of such an extended evolutionary synthesis to the logic of inheritance leaves it compromised. To resolve the impasse, the article proposes a revitalized theory of learning that promises to unify the fields of evolution and ecology. This can be achieved, however, only by relinquishing the concept of inheritance.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)S32-S55
Number of pages24
JournalCurrent Anthropology
Early online date9 Nov 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2022


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