The second chapter reviews some what we know from evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology and archeology about how we learn and think. The human mind is both built for and by culture. Although our brains are essentially the same as those of our Palaeolithic ancestors, our access to the vast accumulation of human culture is what makes us special.
However, learning is a costly activity and we have evolved to maximise what can be learned in as short a time as possible. All learning is either social (copying) or asocial (trial and error) and, while we might all enjoy a small amount of asocial experimentation, almost everything we learn – and almost certainly everything useful – will be due to our ability to observe and emulate.
Culture relies on our capacity for learning which allow us to benefit not only from our direct experience but from ideas developed in the distant past and from the other side of the globe. Over time, what has been thought and known is aggregated and refined and we are each able to partake in the fruits of this accumulated wisdom. A school curriculum that favours a trial and error approach to reacquiring what has previously been discovered as the result of several millennia of iterative copying is fighting against biology.
Everything we store in our brains is either the product of evolved instinctive responses to environmental stimuli or the result of learning, probably through copying. Instinct and learning are often seen as opposites: instinct is genetically determined whereas learning is the product of experience. But it might be better to say that we have an instinct for learning, and learning some things seems to be more instinctive than learning others.
Things that are easy to learn have been dubbed ‘biologically primary’. These things are species-wide universal constants (language, theory of mind, manipulating the physical world). Other types of hard-won knowledge are culturally specific and as such we don’t have the same kind of instinctive ease for learning them. We tend not to pick up biologically secondary knowledge from the environment, instead requiring some sort of apprenticeship or instruction.
When it comes to the project of making kids cleverer, we should think very carefully about whether what we are seeking to teach is biologically primary or secondary. If it’s culturally acquired it needs to be taught; if it’s a primary adaptation, then demonstration and coaching is all we need.
Schools – spaces where children are taught biologically secondary knowledge by adults – have emerged as the simplest, most effective way to handle the business of education. Most of the knowledge taught in modern schools is culturally specific; that is, it does not emerge in the absence of formal instruction.
If biologically secondary knowledge is difficult to master, the aim of teaching should be to make this process as straightforward and clear as possible. If schools are to make children cleverer they must provide an environment where children are made to attend to what they would otherwise prefer to avoid. If you believe in social justice and giving children a fair chance to escape the constraints of their backgrounds, using schools to promote effective social learning is the best option.