Student Nature, Part III: Nature and Her Consequences

This series doe not argue that only genes matter. The emergent rules of complex systems (Bloom, 2000; Johnson, 2006, 2), in addition to more mundane matters such as instructional processes (Beins, 2002, 308; Fels, 1993, 365; Zubizarreta, 1996, 126), detailed syllabi (Barker, 2002, 382), and perhaps classroom size (Lisska, 1996, 93), effect education and classroom enjoyment in obvious ways. Still, genes interact with the environment, so both are important to educators. Just as series life decisions are correlated with an interaction between environment and genes (Capsi, 2003, 386), so education is as well. Next I outline how our genetic heritages should effect how we teach. Controversy should not keep us from the truth. A highly successful method of peer teaching, Cooperative Learning (see, for example, Slavin, 1999, 74)), is often not used because of aversion to the use of rewards that are external to the student (Slavin, 1996). Similarly, if genetic knowledge is ignored because it does not fit our pre-existing biases, shame on us.

Rationality may be overrated. Lieberman, Schreiber, and Ochsner noted that “”Because behavior is often driven by automatic mechanisms, self-reports of mental processes are notoriously unreliable and susceptible to many forms of contamination” (2003, 682). Yet many texts argue that reflection and self-reports are valuable tools (Moshman, 2005, 43) instead of dubious, context-specific guesswork (see, for example, Bower, 2006; Kurzban & DeScioli, 2005, 20-21). For instance, when asked to give as much force as they received, subjects will inadvertently hit harder than they were hit because of evolved quirks in our nervous system (Shergill, 2003, 187). This is because, literally, people do not know what they are doing. Further, people put much more value on losses than gains of equal magnitude, when logically there is no reason to do other than emotional predisposition (Jervis, 2004, 165-167). The emotional system is tied up with the logical thinking in the brain (McDermott, 2004, 693; Spezio & Adolphs, 13) so much so that “those who were instructed to think of reasons why they liked or disliked [a chose made in an experiment] ended up, on average, less happy with their choice… than subjects who were not asked to provide reasons” (Camerer, Lowenstein, and Prelec, 2003, 23). Does this call rational discourse into any doubt?

Likewise, group deliberations must be rethought. Constructed group identities lead to conflict (Maalouf, 2003, 21) because xenophobia and ethnocentricism are often genetically adaptive (Hammond & Axelrod, 2006, 10). Though it is clearly possible to reduce actual conflicts (Sapolsky, 2004), group aggression is a function of environment and genes, after all, the capacity for violence is in our genes. What to do with this? What to do with the fact that fear seems conducive to learning (Lupia & Menng, 2006, 3-4,7). We get nowhere if we do not ask.

Politics, too may be a concern. The finding that people like those who have similar attitudes to themselves (Mutz, 2006, 8) immediately strikes us as a problem for socialization, but learning that not only attitudes but also, and seperately (Alford & Hibbing, 2006, 13), political beliefs (Alford & Hibbing, 2004) are generally heritable shows us that socialization may have limits. Compound this with the historical politicalization of education (Fass, 307) as well as that differences are as conflicting as they are “enriching” (Taylor, 1996, 137), or even a world where terrorism is positively correlated with educational achievement (Atran, 2003, 1536) and you have a recipe for trouble.

In other papers, for other classes, I have argued for deliberative proceedings and group work. I believe these are effective tools and that student empowerment is vital for proper classroom education. I also believe that evolutionary theory and population genetics will give us educators important clues about how to best teach our students, whatever their age. But if we shirk from hard work because we are uncomfortable with some of the possibilities, or retreat with disgust as the questions raised we are like a farmer who, too lazy to reach his hands high, never picks the tastiest fruit.

Student Nature, a companion series to Learning Evolved
1. The Nature of the Student
2. The Natures of Our Students
3. Nature and Her Consequences
4. Bibliography

12 thoughts on “Student Nature, Part III: Nature and Her Consequences”

  1. Dan,

    Great stuff, and thanks for all the references. Don't leave out the original “people don't know what they are doing” treatise: Cialdini's “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”!


  2. pop quiz, hot shot: how would you analyze the role of genetics in your own political opinions? is there a gene for 'contrarian'? 'come to your own conclusions'?

  3. Mike,

    Good point… but I think the original “people don't know what they are doing” treatise is Genesis 1 ;-p


    Reality isn't environmental-determinist, or genetic-determinist, but apparently determinist on the interaction between environment and genetics. Some things, particularly basic body parts, some diseases, etc, are caused “entirely” by genes, but most things are GxE.

    One of the professors who teaches our genetic factors class has wondered if radical-ness and “intensity” are as genetically influenced, as political orientation [1] and political obsession [2] seem to be. My assumption would be yes, and that political contrariness would not be strongly associated with personality.

    The implications of pondering the determinants of one's behavior — whether environment, genetics, or both together — raise interesting questions for rationality and identity. Fortunately, as rationality and identity are relatively worthless [3], it doesn't much matter! :-p


  4. Sean,

    Genesis 3:4-5

    “”You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.””

    With 3, humanity knew just a little more about what it was doing: just enough to become dangerous 🙂

    PS: Do you use the Bible Gateway firefox search engine? [1] It's very handy.


    Thanks! 🙂


  5. yeah, i probably should have asked that as a question. didn't know if you were going for ignorant, faithful bliss or knowing, unfaithful toil 😉

    naw. you don't need that search engine when you've got it memorized like me 😉

  6. “naw. you don't need that search engine when you've got it memorized like me ;-)”

    Repent ye bibliolator!

    Memorize not, ye, words in ink and paper, but Love, and Faith, and Hope, these three!

    (I'd've made a great prophet! 🙂 )

  7. Sean, thanks 🙂

    PSST: How's this for 5GW?

    “Stay alert. This is hazardous work I'm assigning you. You're going to be like sheep running through a wolf pack, so don't call attention to yourselves. Be as cunning as a snake, inoffensive as a dove.”

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