Evolutionary Cognitivism, Part VI: More Than Genes

The central realization of Bjorklund & Pellegrini’s text is on page 335: “Evolutionary developmental psychology assumes that not only are the behaviors and cognitions that characterize adults the product of natural selection, but so are characteristics of children’s behaviors and minds.” For too long educators have assumed that children are incompetent adults when in fact they are competent, and adapted, as children. When we ignore this, or fight this, we place outside normative concerns about the vital task of educating children.

To their credit, the authors tackle this subject. They write that “formal school may represent the best example of the ‘evolved-mechanisms-are-not-always-currently adaptive principle” (340). Bjorklund & Pellegrini are surely write on the same page that “just because some tendencies… are ‘naturally” based on evolutionary examination does not mean that they are morally ‘good’ or inevitable,” surely it is morally wrong to ignore these differences out of a concern for political correctness. If our job as educators is to get the best from every student, then we must leverage the nature of those students.

For instance, the authors also report that “Beginning during the preschool years, boys in all cultures (and males in many nonhuman mammalian species) display higher rates of rough-and-tumble play (R&T) than girls” (338). The implication of this is that boys and girls run different sets of genetic programs, or at least genetic programs tuned in different ways, and are optimized for different environments. It may well be, for instance, that boys would do better with schooling where R&T play was used as a reward for academic achievement while girls would do best in an environment where R&T is absent. Unfortunately, our school system does not recognize this, and we pretend that both boys and girls can be optimally educated in a classroom designed for a generic, sex-neutral “child.”

Other changes may be more controversial, but should be addressed. If we expect the best out of each student, is it wise to expect all students to exceed in all areas? For instance, if there is a biological component to mathematical reasoning ability in which boys score higher (Benbow, 1988; Benbow, Lubinski, Shea, & Eftekhari-Sanjani, 2000), or a biological component to language ability in which girls score higher (Stanley, 1993) . Similarly, if males show more variation in many attributes, from chess ability to physical height (Howard, 2004). For that matter, if height predicts IQ when correcting for environmental variation (Magnusson, Rasmussen, & Gyllensten, 2006; Silvertoeinen, Posthuma, van Beijsterveldt, Bartels, & Boosma, 2006) would it make sense to divide a similarly age cohorot into classes by height than the current, semi-random system? Alternatively, if we prefer a policy of “dumbing-down” anti-elitism (Benbow & Stanley, 1996) then should this not be decided rationally and openly, instead of being the default result of the status quo?

On another note, I found the Bjorklund & Pellegrini’s concept of culture fascinating. For culture I what I think they mean when they write “[Infants are born with] epigenetic programs that have evolved over eons and are responsive to the general types of environments that our ancient ancestors experienced.” Bjorklund & Pellegrini share with Tooby & Cosmides (1992) an idea that genes and environment interact to produce behavior, this text’s author stress that “biological and environmental factors at multiple levesl of organization transact to produce a particular pattern of ontogeny” (335). This “developmental systems approach” teaches us to view culture not merely as a set of arbitrary dictates, but as a darwinian algorithm that has evolved just as our genes have evolved. We are rightfully fearful of large-scale genetic engineering because we do not understand how such complex machinery works. We should equally be fearful of large-scale social engineering because society, no less so than genetics, as both are equally part of our epigenetic inheritance. Both are programs designed to keep us alive in a species-typical environment.

Benbow, C.P. (1988). Sex differences in mathematical reasoning ability in intellectually talented preadolescents: Their nature, effects, and possible causes. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 11: 169-232.
Benbow, C.P. & Stanley, J.C. (1996). Inequity in equity: How “equity” can lead to inequity for high-potential students. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law 2(2): 249-292.
Benbow, C.P., Lubinski, D., Shea, D.L., Eftekhari-Sanjani, H. (2000). Sex differences in mathematical reasoning ability at age 13: Their status 20 years later. Psychological Sciences 11(6): 474-80.
Bjorklund, D. F., & Pellegrini, A. D. (2002). The origins of human nature: Evolutionary developmental psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Howard, R.W. (2005). Are gender differences in high achievement disappearing? A test in one intellectual domain. Journal of Biological Sciences 37: 371-380.
Magnusson, P.K.E., Rasmussen, F., & Gyllensten, U.B. (2006). Height at age 18 years is a strong predictor of attained education later in life: cohort study of over 950 000 Swedish men. International Journal of Epidemiology 35(3): 658-663.
Silvertoinen, K., Posthuma, D., van Beijsterveldt, T., Bartels, M., & Boosma, D.I. (2006). Genetic contributions to the association between height and intelligence: evidence from Dutch twin data from childhood to middle age. Genes, Brain, and Behavior 5(8): 585-595.
Stanley, J.C. Boys and girls who reason well mathematically. Ciba Foundation Symposium178: 119-134.
Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1992) The Psychological Foundations of Culture. In The Adapted Mind, Jerome Barkow, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, eds. New York: Oxford University Pres.

Evolutionary Cognitivism, a tdaxp series
1. Selection and Cognition
2. Epigentics and Diversity
3. Children and Civilization
4. The Implicit and the Explicit
5. Man Among Men
6. More Than Genes
7. Bibliography

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