This View of Life Anything and everything from an evolutionary perspective.
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Is The Ability To Learn Language Different From The Ability To Learn Math?

David Geary has outlined an evolutionary perspective on education that assumes a rather clear distinction between “primary” and “secondary” abilities. He contends that children acquire primary abilities (e.g. native language and ability to make social attributions) through their natural play and exploration but do not acquire secondary abilities (e.g. reading and mathematics) in these ways. According to Geary, primary abilities are those that have been crucial to human survival and reproduction throughout our evolutionary history, and secondary abilities are those that are evolutionarily novel. Thus, according to Geary (Educational Psychologist, 42, 2008, p 187), “If our goal is universal education that accompanies a variety of evolutionarily novel academic domains (e.g. mathematics) and abilities (e.g. phonetic decoding as related to reading), then we cannot assume that an inherent curiosity or motivation to learn will be sufficient for most children and adolescents.”

My views on education are also informed by evolutionary theory but are very different from Geary’s. Through analysis of the literature on hunter-gatherer cultures and a survey of anthropologists, I have found that children in these cultures acquire, through their self-motivated play and exploration, skills that are cognitively complex and evolutionary novel. For example, hunter-gatherer groups in different climates and terrains have very different ways of tracking game, and these change over time. Learning these tracking skills requires enormous effort and focus, yet essentially all boys learn them through their self-directed play and exploration. In our culture, today, children and adolescents similarly acquire complex computer abilities that amaze the adults around them and are certainly evolutionary novel.

In a nutshell, my evolution-based education theory is this: We have been cultural animals throughout our evolutionary history. The key adaptation, which distinguishes us from other apes, is our ability to acquire the unique skills, beliefs, and values of the culture into which we are born. Until very recently, the responsibility for this always lay with children. Natural selection led children to attend to the activities around them, to be curious about those activities, and to incorporate the skills that seem crucial to success in the culture into their play so as to develop expertise in them.

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One observation that runs counter to Geary’s view, concerning reading, is that some children learn to read fluently well before they start school – without any explicit instruction. Research indicates that these children do not necessarily have higher IQs than others, but instead are children who – for one reason or another – became engaged with reading at an early age.

What would happen if we didn’t force-teach reading, writing, and arithmetic to young children in schools but instead provided an environment in which children would regularly see these skills used around them and would have ample opportunity to play and explore with peers (some older than themselves) who have already acquired these skills and use them in their play? I have been studying children’s learning in precisely such contexts, both at a radically alternative school and among homeschooling families that adopt the philosophy of natural learning referred to as unschooling. I have found that essentially all children in these conditions learn to read, write, and perform whatever numerical calculations are useful to them through their own initiative and motivation with minimal, if any, formal instruction. I described these observations in my talk and have summarized them in online articles (here, here, and here).

Watch Peter Gray’s Interview here.


Join the discussion


  1. Marcel Harmon says:

    Relative to Peter Gray’s interview above, I don’t see how a purely grass roots transition to a more egalitarian/Hunter Gatherer model of education that involves the abandonment of K-12 public schools doesn’t result in more inequality of education and subsequent post-education opportunities (at least in the near term). Since I don’t see such a transition happening over night, such a “wild west” version of throwing out different models and seeing what works best seems like it could make things worse for some people over the course of a generation or two. I think we’ll have to work both within and outside the existing public K-12 system (combination of top down and bottom up) to move towards a better education model that’s evidence based while minimizing negative impacts on equality/equity.

    Regarding the difference between Gray’s and Geary’s models of education, it seems like they can partially be resolved by seeing the difference between secondary and primary abilities/education partially a function of the education/knowledge environment students are in – or the frequency that they’re exposed to specific knowledge/information. Computer skills might seem like a secondary ability, but if they’re around people doing this everyday and their “play” involves working with computers, does this become a primary ability?

  2. Denise Cummins, PhD says:

    “The key adaptation, which distinguishes us from other apes, is our ability to acquire the unique skills, beliefs, and values of the culture into which we are born. ” Geary presents no evidence to support this claim, which, incidentally, is contrary to a large body of comparative studies showing quite the opposite. Examples of cultural knowledge that is group (not species specific) and acquired through instruction or observation include sweet-potato washing by Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata) at Koshima (Imanishi, 1957), stone handling by Japanese macaques at Arashiyama (Huffman, 1996), nut cracking among chimpanzees (Boesch, Marchesi, Marchesi, Fruth, & Joulian, 1994), and termite fishing among chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) in Gombe which differs from termite fishing techniques used by chimpanzees in the Taï National Park of the Ivory Coast (Boesch & Boesch, 1990). Psychologists need to be more careful when making claims about human uniqueness that run contrary to research in other disciplines.