Student Nature, Introduction: Students as Genetic Organisms

My last series, Learning Evolved, was inspired by the fourth post in Classroom Democracy, “The Evolution of Learning.” I took a two-page reaction paper and turned it into a sixteen page report because I was interested in the nexus between our evolutionary history and educational present. And now this series follows the pattern, turning the rumination of the first part of Learning Evolved, “Darwinism-Cognitivism,” into a survey of the effects of genetics on teaching. Yet it also is inspired by the fourth part of that series, the humble bibliography. I had taken notes on and read many articles that I was not able to fit into the pages of Learning Evolved. Therefore, I went out of my way to write a series with as many previously neglected citations as possible.

Besides this prologue, Student Nature has four parts. The synopses below introduce the readings, but the individual posts should speak for themselves.

  • Part I, The Nature of the Student
    As all people share a common Universal Human Nature, all learners share a common Universal Student Nature. The all-student cognitive apparatus includes such things as the information-processing system (the OODA Loop), social cooperation, and automaticity.
  • Part II, The Natures of Our Students
    No two students are alike, and the particular student natures vary with age, sex, group, and of course individual. Some ideas are genetically harder for some students to grasp than others, while some types of intelligences and classroom behavior are irregularly distributed around the globe. A one-size-fits-all philosophy cannot possibly work.
  • Part III, Nature and Her Consequences
    Old ideas fall away when exposed to genetic scrutiny, and others stand only perilously. Yet if we aren’t critical of our beloved ideas, reality will be. If they are not reinforced and adapted now they will be crushed later.
  • Part IV, Bibliography
    From Academy of Management Review to WITI Women, Alas Poor Darwin to Human Nature Review, the academic and popular literature is scoured to provide the best possible tdaxp series.

As I said once before: To all those who are interested in the intersection between evolution and education: enjoy!

Keep Politics Away from the People

First: My seminar in genetic factors in political behavior, and the Hendricks conference, have been very valuable to me. I have already been able to use concepts and articles in this class in major papers for two others this semester. Eating with the guests, as well as listening to the final roundtable, were eye-opening experiences for me. The way this research crosses old lines is exciting. It feels wonderful to be able to take articles from Science, or Molecular Psychiatry, and combine with them political laboratory experiments to suggest new classroom teaching methods, for example. So much thought and effort has gone into these academic silos. It just feels good to apply them to each other.

Substantively: For instance, in an earlier reaction paper I criticized “identity” and “rationality.” Without going into to much detail, “identity” is how you would describe yourself to yourself in words while “rationality” is having good, explicit reasons for something. I was extremely skeptical of these claims when I learned them last semester, but I was limited in my “good reasons” against them. The best I could do was describe both as the outcome of a power-bargaining game, because what people say and write are goods than can be traded for other goods. I believe that is a solid criticism, and the readers and presentations for this week back me up.


Alvarez et al. look at how subconscious mental processes affect our view of someone’s trustworthiness. This and similar research questions the wisdom of relying on anything that takes cognition, because if we have learned such social interaction so well that it is now automatic (or have been evolved to survive society so well that it is now evoked) then why waist time on a slower and more error-prone conscious-linguistic-rational method?

This is especially true when we consider how easily manipulated we are. Tooby presents a model to show how outrage is an evolutionary adapted mechanism to signal a need for increased group cooperation. Likewise, Wolak & Marcus show us how anger and personality affect political behavior. Meanwhile, Mutz shows us how television camera position varies how much legitimacy we give those who agree with us.

Still, this raises an interesting problem. People are not built to be rational, because the mind has internal mechanisms which are faster and often better than rationality. Yet even these mechanisms can be manipulated by cunning others. And I think the word “cunning” is important here — merely knowing how to manipulate others (and perhaps oneself) into supporting different positions does not mean that the cunning person is rational — only that they have skill in manipulation. What should people in a democracy do when rational decisions and unconscious decisions are both such flawed mechanisms?

To me the answer is obvious, and comes from cognitive psychology. People get better at something the more they do it. A “ten year rule” seems to cover creativity, talent, and expertise in nearly every talent domain. The more you do something, the more you purposefully practice something, the better you get. At the same time, people have an inborn capacity for “learned helplessness,” where people save time for purposeful practice in a domain that matters to them by eschewing domains where they have less skill (and thus, have practiced less). Thus: politics should be left to the experts.

This approach is fully compatible with democracy. Research by the professors in this class have indicated genetic predispositions to democratic norms, including a preference for deliberative justice and an aversion to corruption and “big-man” behavior. In democracies the people will feel when this behavior becomes uncomfortable to them and will be able to throw the crooks out. Absent such social freeriding by politicians, however, it may make more sense for the government to by run by people who actually know what they are doing. For every decision that actually affects people’s well-being in a way they can predict (which, as we have seen, normally involves corruption or big-man behvaior) there are innumerable ones that require a modicum of experience and knowledge, unobtainable from slogans and rallies.

On most issues mass politics is probably the worst of all possible systems, because it combines our inability to think rationally with our genetic predilections for manipulable thought. The government should not be corrupt, should not be ostentatious, and should not have an agenda obnoxious to the people. Beyond that, leave politics to the politicians. Leave it to the experts. And whatever you do, keep it away from the people.

Global Guerrillas as Advocacy Theory

Recently I was puzzled by an online comment. Responding to something Tanguerna wrote:

It is a tragedy when someone refuses to acknowledge that their baby is dead.

John Robb seconded:

Or stillborn like tdaxp’s “secret war.”

To me this is strange. My post on 5GW, or SecretWar, attempt to describe something that I see as actually happening. If my thoughts on soundlessness and formlessness, say, are inaccurate, I would expect them to be that way: wrong from the beginning, not wrong the the day they are born (written?). Likewise, if they are accurate, they were no more “born” of me than any process is born of a discoverer — the researcher outlines what already exists, but does not create anything new.

Then I realized the obvious: Global Guerrillas is an advocacy theory. The reason that “global guerrillas” do not exist is that Robb hasn’t invented them yet. For his theory to be “true” he does not have to match the facts on the ground, but create the facts. Robb outlines his unique perspective on war not to describe something that exists but to create something new. For him, his idea could truly be stillborn if no groups can be convinced if the existence of his “systempunkt” and other ideas. This also explains his use of incoherent definitions. Robb’s theory becomes “true” if it actually happens, not if his words, deeds, &c agree with each other. “Truth” becomes defined by reality, not by our more traditional scales of veracity. This freedom from the demands of logic, allowing him to claim that the instability of grand coalitions is somehow something new, etc.