Learning Evolved, Part I: Darwinism-Cognitivism

Students are social animals that think. What else does one need to know?

Evolutionary Psychology is a cousin to that other great movement, the Cognitive Revolution. Both desire to explore how one , and are unhappy with vague or mentalist answers. Bruning described the Cognitivists as believing “Unlike the associationist-behavioral view, which focused on environmental influences on behavior or “conditions of learning. Cognitive psychology seeks to understand the mind’s structures and processes” (1995). Similarly, Evolutionary Psychology was founded in reaction to the “general-purpose, content-independent” (Tooby & Cosmides, 1992, 41). As the old paradigms are now in their “last throes” (Carmen, 2006), it is time that Evolutionary Psychology and Cognitive Psychology be combined to give educators the best possible guide.


Evolutionary Psychologists and Cognitive Psychologists agree that human mind is composed of modules of domain-specific applications. Humans possess “modules” that are pre-existing mental processes that allow context-specific learning and whose differing operations make us unique (Pintrich and Garcia, 1994, 125) . As Smirnov, Arrow, Kennet, and Orbell put it, “The idea that human cognitive architecture consists, in substantial part, of functionally specific information processing modules is standard in evolutionary psychology and in cognitive neuroscience more broadly” (2006). In other words, “the mind/brain consists of many modules/organs/intelligences, each of which operates according to its own rules in relative autonomy from the others” (Garnder, 2003). Medical tests show that various modules of the mind are related to specific regions of the brain (Jung-Beeman et al 2004; Gilbert, Regier, Kay, & Ivry 2005). From the everyday, such as talking (Buller, 2005; Pinker, 2002) and judging attractiveness in others (Olson & Marshuetz), to pro-social activities such as voting (Fowles, Baker, & Dawes, 2006) , to the more abstract areas such as political orientation (Alford and Hibbing 2004, Alford, Funk, and Hibbing 2005; Morris et al 2003), how our species evolved influences how we act and what we do.

Thus, I propose a theory of motivation rooted in exploiting student’s neural-cognitive modules. I will outline methods of motivation that are adapted to small group and large group interactions and defend them with new research. Just as it is sad and foolish for researchers to ignore the importance of teaching (Halpern, 2002, 5), teachers must improve their methods by utilizing the latest research. I will argue as follows: For students to be motivated, they would have had to practice motivation for hours. It is unlikely that students have put in this practice, so teachers must use indirect mechanisms for creating motivation. Framing and group competition are two such mechanisms teachers such should. Framing is straight-forward and hangs on the known predilection to avoid losses more avidly than seeking gains. Group competition relies on altruism and altruistic punishment. These are not merely broad categories that contradict each other (as are, say, Csikszentmihalyi, 1996), but quantitatively defined qualities that are seen in laboratory conditions.

We know what expertise requires: “endless hours of practice” (Ridley, 2003, 260). Practice separates the talented from the incompetent (Gardner, 1998, 28) and sustained effort separates critical thinkers from the naive (Reiter, 1994, 302) . It takes around ten years to become really good at something (Ross, 2006), whether the activity is academic publishing (Kiewra, 1994) or even showing emotions (Crawford, 2006). Learning how to be motivated is no less a skill than writing articles or overcoming the flat effect, but many teachers ignore this lesson when they assume that students can just turn motivation on. Merely telling students to be motivated cannot possibly work, any more than one can just tell someone to be good at any other talent domain. Additionally, relying exclusively on motivation may be unfair, as many learners may be genetically predisposed to depression, novelty-seeking, and other conditions that detract from purposeful practice (Caspi et al, 2003; Hammock & Young, 2005). Therefore, I propose a subversive style of motivation that bypasses a conscious desire to excel at the material and instead achieves results. As one might trick a geographer into caring about literature by mapping literary lands (Cooper-Clark, 1996, 172) or subvert a student into thinking by contradicting established beliefs (Ruiz, 1996, 159), students should manipulate the environment to make students act as if they were truly motivated.


Learning Evolved, a companion series to Classroom Democracy
1. Darwinism-Cognitivism
2. Social Motivation
3. Coalitionary Education
4. Bibliography

18 thoughts on “Learning Evolved, Part I: Darwinism-Cognitivism”

  1. Mark,

    I am in the middle of a helping with a big conference (15 hour days blah blah blah) so I’m light on the blogging (I haven’t even posted on Dreaming 5GW [1] recently), so I am not able to properly comment on the Dyson piece. For now a comment on just one paragraph:

    “Now, after some three billion years, the Darwinian era is over. The epoch of species competition came to an end about 10 thousand years ago when a single species, Homo sapiens, began to dominate and reorganize the biosphere. Since that time, cultural evolution has replaced biological evolution as the driving force of change. Cultural evolution is not Darwinian. Cultures spread by horizontal transfer of ideas more than by genetic inheritance. Cultural evolution is running a thousand times faster than Darwinian evolution, taking us into a new era of cultural interdependence that we call globalization. And now, in the last 30 years, Homo sapiens has revived the ancient pre-Darwinian practice of horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals, blurring the boundaries between species. We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species will no longer exist, and the evolution of life will again be communal.”

    I’m not sure that Dyson’s words are as smart as they appear.

    Whether cultural evolution is darwinian depends on your level of analysis: at the level of memes culture is darwinian, but at the level of humans it is lamarckian. (Gould was similarly half-right [2])

    Likewise, Darwin was a believer in group selection within a species. But as there are genetic differences between groups, only some linguistic jujitsu allows one to pretend that such group selection and genetic selection among humans has ended [3]

    Likewise, DNA transfer is not new, as human DNA is substantially viral. [4]

    As far as we know, only two mammals ever evolved before the dawn of man that engaged in coalitionary warfare: chimps and wolves. One of the first acts of our human ancestors, the third species of coalitionary mammals warriors, was to create a fourth: dogs. We have been altering the ecosystem for a long time. (Catholicgauze has talked about a similar topic: the desertification of the great plains by stone-age paleo-indians [5])

    [1] http://www.fifthgeneration.phaticcommunion.com/
    [2] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2006/09/08/where-does-war-come-from.html
    [3] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2006/09/09/synthesizing-stephen-j-gould-s-beloved-punctuated-equilibriu.html
    [4] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2006/06/17/leftist-censorship-and-the-nature-of-modularity.html
    [5] http://catholicgauze.blogspot.com/2006/02/take-away-my-home-so-buffalo-may-roam.html

  2. I agree with Mark Safranski, completely. This Lamarckian heredity is what allows Sigmund Freud to state that acquired characters are transmitted–for example, the Superego. Our hyper-morality is transmitted as a Lamarckian structure–as a language. Here is the hole in the whole of cognitivism. And here is where the Unbewusste begins.

  3. Sorry but just now I saw this question here.
    The Superego is this Coca-Cola effect on morality, first isolated by Freud: you drink Cola because you are thirsty, but after that you want more.
    We have a sort of parasite in ourselves: it functions as an imperative. Yet when we choose to obey this inner voice, it turns more exigent. An “alien” which is us, an intimate us. It is transmitted with things heard from our parents or surrogates. It is not genetic.

  4. Marco,

    Gotcha. Thanks for the reply!

    Now that I understand, I can disagree. Executive control is genetic heritable, and socially heritable. Freudianism as a whole is pseudoscience.

  5. 1-Calling by names does not make an argument, on the contrary.
    2-If you were waiting to “understand , and so to disagree”, well this makes even less of a logic argument.
    3- Freudianism is an “ism” . I dont remember having used this sort of argument.
    I only want to underline that “socially heritable” is another adjectivation.
    Freud discovered something we may like or not, and it is this: Superego. The more moral we pretend to be, the more probably the effect will be a-moral.
    Lacan demonstrated very basically that what you call “social” is intimately attached to language. Sade, for example, was he immoral? Not less than Kant, not less than the priest of “Fanny and Alexander”.
    “socially heritable” with the reading of Freud with Lacan, is much more akin to “science” than the neurobiology or Darwinism that has a finality–(with a religious scent) in every corner.

  6. Marco,

    Thanks for the quick reply!

    To answer your points:

    1-Calling by names does not make an argument, on the contrary.

    No name-calling, only an assertion: Freudian psychology is pseudoscience. Karl Popper’s (1963) work, Conjectures and Refutations, contains a classic explanation for why Freudianism is not science. [1]

    2-If you were waiting to “understand , and so to disagree”, well this makes even less of a logic argument.

    I can neither agree nor disagree if I don’t understand.

    I do not understand your next two sentences.

    Continuing on…

    Freud discovered something we may like or not, and it is this: Superego. The more moral we pretend to be, the more probably the effect will be a-moral.

    Freud claims to have discovered this, but provides little evidence and little way for us to test his claims.

    Lacan demonstrated very basically that what you call “social” is intimately attached to language.

    I don’t deny that he said this. Rather, I am not sure how useful his claims are.

    I don’t understand the rest of your comment.

    [1] http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/popper_falsification.html

  7. Popper’s assertions are well known. Less known are Bertrand Russell’s. who said that who does not understand the scientific value of psychoanalysis, does’nt understand science.
    We have also Althusser’s punctuations. Science is not determined by quantification, but by its object. And psychoanalysis has an object: Unconscious.
    How useful they are–Lacan’s comments? Well we have a new opening in XXI century, with psychoanalysis being a non-authoritative approach to mental disease–contrary to cognitive psychology, which is not a science, because it dos not have an object, but it defines itself by its influence on its subjects, as hypnosis.
    Secondly, only try to give a chance to Superego in your “social” explanations. Every social order must reach the subject by identification: propaganda for example. Superego is a residue of the most important identifications.
    You dont answer about Sade. Sade was less “sadist” than many “moral” subjects. How many Bishops are suspected of pedophilia in USA? If Bishops or Church people are interesting in this case, it is because they are social Superego–more perverse than those who declare who are “clean” and “examine” other’s morality.
    See for example what Arthur Miller wrote about Clinton’s impeachement. Arhtur Miller knew something about what is the social superego. He wrote that Clinton’s accusers were witch burners. This is what Freud discovered. It has a value beyond any Popperian assertion.
    See Russels “The impact of science in society”. You will find there a description, non-popperian, of how Bentham supposition that men search tue most useful goes astray when it is perfectly clear what Freud discovered as Death Instinct: sometimes people search the evil for themselves. NOt always the subject wants its own good.
    This is Superego. read please, not Lacan yet. Read “Civilization and its discontents” chapter 7.
    Thank you for this dialogue.

  8. Marco,

    Popper’s assertions are well known. Less known are Bertrand Russell’s. who said that who does not understand the scientific value of psychoanalysis, does’nt understand science.

    Russell’s assertion is a clear example of special pleading. As such, it is a logical fallacy that can be disgarded. We are thus left with Popper’s assertion, which you can argue are wrong, if you disagree with them.

    We have also Althusser’s punctuations. Science is not determined by quantification, but by its object.

    This would seem to be a false dichotomy in the first place. In the second place, however, its clearly wrong. The study of plants is the study of an object in the natural world. Biology is the scientific study of plants. Anism, however, is not science, even if we’re talking about a stream of anism that is focused on plants.

    contrary to cognitive psychology, which is not a science, because it dos not have an object

    No idea what you mean by this.

    Thank you for the dialogue, though I find your comment hard to follow.

  9. Biology would be the study of life. What is life?
    The best thing written about was not by a biologist, but by Schrodinger.
    Popper discarded Freud and Marx. Now , Marx, though “not scientific”, is very much closer to what happens today with crises, and with false remedies such as bailing to banks. See Noam Chomsky last article about this.
    Darwinism is plagued with finality reasoning–specially those of Darwinist psychology: “everything is calculated such that…”
    Let’s take for example what we call in psychoanalysis–and in life, by the way–”desire”.
    What is desire according to Darwin?–
    A mechanism of survival.
    In Lacan, human species is not fit for survival, but for jouissance.
    Do you know what Lacan calls “jouissance”? That which takes us to do unuseful things.
    For example this conversation.
    One more and last thing. When we dont understand something, this is what is called an “reading effect”. We read what we dont understand.
    So, I am glad if there were really points “hard to follow”. One more problem with Darwinist psy is that it is so easy to follow. It is like reading “Superman”. You know where to go, all the time.
    Thank you.

  10. Marco,

    Biology would be the study of life

    This is true, if you are describing biology instead of definition it, or are definiting it broadly enough to include animism, astrology, and so on.

    I am sure one can read Marx as being relevant to what happens today, in the same way that one can read the astrology column. Of course, neither are scientific, falsifiable, or so on.

    The rest of your comment is incomprehensible.

  11. My name is Marco, not “Macro”.
    You insist in adjectives, that taste too much calling by names for me. If every time you use the “the other is animist” as an argument, well, you are unfalsifiable. You win.
    I am not astrologist, nor animist. On the contrary, I say that Darwinism today–not Darwin himself, who was a pretty interesting researcher and writer– Darwinism today is finalist: “everything is calculated in genes so that is the most advantageous solution.”
    It is possible to justify anything in this spirit. Even the capitalist market, including the financial crisis, even Ponzi schemes.
    I guess that the logical form Marx gave to these events–the dissociation between credit money and cash money–has nothing animist or astrology like. If I go to the bank, the bank favors credit cards over checks, and many people have reach the point in their lives where they had to sell their homes because of the credit industry–what we know as Ponzi in our modern, Darwinist era.
    Is this survival of the fit? I doubt it. I agree with Chomsky and with others–Nobel Prize Paul Krugman for example–that granting bails to the rich and powerful only gives more time.
    Is capitalist system Darwin-justified? I doubt it is eternal. It may be another religion. I prefer common religion.
    Communism , true, has not been so much better. But also true, people who visited Cuba experiment a sort of relief from the global sell all-buy all –because it is Coca-Cola and we are happy.
    Freud also disbelieved that universal utopias can give universal solutions.
    I read Darwin with great pleasure, but I dont agree with the qualifications you give me. Mildly said, it is argumentum ad hominem. Not so mildly, it sounds that you take Darwin as your personal religion. I dare to not agree with it. So what?

  12. Marco,

    You insist in adjectives, that taste too much calling by names for me. If every time you use the “the other is animist” as an argument, well, you are unfalsifiable. You win.

    There’s nothing name-calling in reductio ad absurdum. It’s a legitimate logical attack on your position. If you dispute it, do so. Otherwise, don’t engage in special pleading.

    You say that science is defined by its object. In which case, all studies of life (Freudianism, Marxism, astrology, animism) are science. This is an absurd position.

  13. 1- You plead that the names you call me–proof: you write them with capital letters, and “isms”–are absurd.
    This is a petitio principii. I dont agree with it, and I continue in my assertion that you use “bad names”, even as “insults”, so to feel free from those “bad things”. This may be auto-reinforcing, Ego-trip autohypnosis. It does not answer any of the points in discussion.
    2- Any attempt to define “life” will arrive into the “soul problem”. Even Shrodinger recognized that.
    3- “Object” as defined by Althusser, is a non-phenomenic object. It must be a clear theoretical object, something arising from our pencils. Our pencils must be capable of writing something more free of prejudices than accusing the others of being “not scientific enough”. This smells to science as religion, Lissenko. besides, who said that science is the ultimate value? Does science teach you how to make love with your partner?

  14. There is no petitio principi in my remarks.

    Rather, you had said that “Science is not determined by quantification, but by its object.” In which case, any study of an object that is always studied by science is therefore science. Thus, astrology, anism, etc., are science, in the same way that Marxism, Freudianism, and so on are.

    If you disagree, you can state why you disagree.

    Please keep in mind this blog’s policy on trolls [1]. You are welcome to a dialog here, but not a monolog.

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2008/06/22/trolls.html

  15. As Marco is engaging in a monologue, refusing to defend his assertions while raising new topics, his most recent comment has been deleted. He is welcome to resume his dialog at any time.

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