By Daniel B. Berch

Recently, a science commentary by David Sloan Wilson appeared in the newspaper, Education Week, entitled “Teaching Evolution and Using Evolution to Teach” (December 22, 2011). Although the meaning of the first phrase of this title is immediately obvious, how evolution can be used for teaching is much less apparent. To clarify this idea, Wilson begins his piece by stating “Whenever evolution and education are mentioned together in my circles, it is usually to discuss teaching evolution and keeping creationism out of public school classrooms. But evolution has an even more important role to play in education as a theory that can inform the design of more effective school programs and improve the teaching of all subjects.” The objective of the present article is to describe the evolutionary precepts that can guide research and theorizing in this rapidly developing area.

One might initially respond to the idea of using evolution to teach by asking precisely how a perspective based on the way our ancestors learned can inform the design of contemporary educational programs. After all, is it not true that the academic competencies which today’s youth have to acquire to prosper in modern-day economies differ appreciably from the types of skills that youngsters in hunter-gatherer societies had to learn in order to successfully adapt as adults during the late Pleistocene period? Furthermore, as the latter abilities were probably acquired predominantly through observation, imitation, and apprenticeship, how could these modes of learning have any practical implications for the design of instructional strategies needed to facilitate the learning of abstract concepts and reasoning skills demanded by present-day educational requirements? In this essay, I will attempt to answer such questions by describing some of the leading theoretical perspectives concerning the implications of evolutionary science in general and evolutionary psychology in particular for improving educational policy and practice.

In order to properly frame both the educational and evolutionary contexts for this piece, I first need to provide some relevant background information. For those unfamiliar with the current status of research in the field of education, it should be recognized that education science has matured significantly during the past decade, developing a generally higher degree of methodological rigor than had previously characterized this discipline (e.g., the interested reader might wish to browse the standards of evidence for evaluating the efficacy of interventions designed to enhance educational outcomes, established by the Institute of Education Sciences’ What Works Clearinghouse. A variety of comparatively sophisticated research designs and data-analytic approaches are currently being employed to provide a solid, evidenced-based foundation for implementing effective educational policies and practices.

Despite the commendable methodological advances that have been achieved in this field, by far the vast majority of contemporary educational research is designed to explain “how” economic, organizational, school leadership, curricular, pedagogical, psychological, social, and other situational factors influence the academic learning and achievement of students. Evolutionary scientists refer to these kinds of causes as “proximate” explanations in that they focus on the manner in which such immediate factors operate. Correspondingly, efforts to improve academic outcomes increasingly make use of research approaches that are designed to develop and test educational interventions based on theories of change which incorporate potentially modifiable mediators. From an evolutionary perspective, such mediators constitute the proximate or temporally contiguous mechanisms through which an educational intervention may exert its effects. However, what has received much less consideration is the potential value of designing instructional interventions informed by “ultimate” explanations, which focus on the “functionally adaptive origins” of children’s learning. This type of framing can provide insights into “why” natural selection may have favored specific modes of learning over the course of our species’ phylogenetic history (Scott-Phillips, Dickins, & West, 2011). Such a perspective could assuredly foster innovative studies about the goodness of fit, or lack thereof, between evolved learning and motivational biases and the modern-day demands of formal schooling.

Although proximate and ultimate causes frequently have been characterized as contrasting approaches, in actuality they constitute complementary explanations, with both being required for achieving a complete understanding (Scott-Phillips et al., 2011). Indeed, as Confer and colleagues (2010) point out, these explanations mutually inform one another in that “Knowledge of ultimate functions is invaluable in guiding the search for the proximate causes, just as understanding proximate implementation informs the search for ultimate function” (p. 112).

Evolutionary Perspectives on Formal Schooling

Evolutionary developmental psychologist David Bjorklund and his colleague Jesse Bering (2002) maintain that evolutionary psychological theory should be regarded as an overarching framework for studying the ways in which youngsters’ developing cognitive and social skills may be adaptive or maladaptive in school environments. Most scholars working in this emerging area would probably agree with the following claim by Bjorklund (2007): “Children did not evolve to sit quietly at desks in age-segregated classrooms being instructed by unrelated and unfamiliar adults” (p.120). Of course, as he has acknowledged, this view should not be taken to imply that schools ought to adopt a “back-to-nature” approach to instruction (Bjorklund & Bering, 2002). This being said, an evolutionary psychologist who probably comes closest to espousing such a position is Peter Gray of Boston College. Gray (2011) contends that an examination of education in hunter-gatherer groups suggests that through natural selection, children have evolved to acquire their culture through self-directed play and exploration. In addition, based on our phylogenetic history and data from extant traditional societies, he argues that an ideal educational environment would, among other things, permit age-mixed interactions, provide access to culturally relevant tools and equipment, and allow freedom of expression and debate. Gray suggests that a future direction for research would be to study the environmental features that maximize children’s abilities to educate themselves.

The most comprehensive and well-developed evolutionary perspective on education to date is that of evolutionary psychologist David Geary (2007), who has formulated the conceptual foundations for an emerging discipline known as “evolutionary educational psychology.” This field is concerned with the study of how children’s inherent motivational biases influence their ability and need to engage in activities that will lead to acquiring the evolutionarily novel academic knowledge and skills demanded by formal schooling. More specifically, this theorist has put forth a series of principles for this comparatively new domain, suggesting that these should be viewed as a “blueprint” a) for conceptualizing the development of academic skills, and b) that can guide instructional research and theorizing. Essentially, Geary argues that the evolved cognitive systems and inferential biases that define folk knowledge (i.e., beliefs used to reason about everyday physical, social, and psychological entities and events) are not sufficient for learning the kinds of complex abstract knowledge required to succeed in contemporary society. Furthermore, he contends that children possess inherent motivational and behavioral biases to engage in activities that will adapt these folk abilities—what Geary calls “biologically primary knowledge”— to their local surroundings, such as socializing with peers and exploring their own physical environment. However, according to Geary, these motivational dispositions will often be incompatible with the need to engage in activities that will result in learning culturally-specific, novel information. Geary refers to these kinds of abilities as “biologically secondary knowledge,” which developed only quite recently in our species’ intellectual history (i.e., over the past several thousand years)—such as learning to read or to solve math problems. Finally, at least during the initial stages of acquiring such skills, he maintains that students need to exert an effortful focusing of their attention as well as to allocate limited working memory resources to the learning of such evolutionarily novel academic information.

As it turns out, the concept of working memory limitations serves as a fundamental tenet of another educational theory that draws on evolutionary science—Cognitive Load Theory (CLT)—which has had a major impact on both educational researchers and instructional designers. Formulated by Dr. John Sweller of the University of New South Wales, this theory alleges that the evolution of the structures and functions of human cognitive architecture is analogous to the ways in which biological structures and functions have evolved (Sweller, 2004). Building on the assumption that the learning of novel information can be hindered by the limited capacity and duration of working memory, CLT has generated a series of principles for designing strategies to reduce the load on students’ working memory during instruction. One of these is the “modality effect,” where using a visual presentation of pictorial material accompanied by auditory presentation (narration) of textual material yields learning that is superior to instruction using only one modality, such as presenting the same material solely in visual form—pictures accompanied by written text. (It should be noted here that this effect is only found under conditions in which the two sources of information are incomprehensible when isolated and must be mentally integrated in order to be understood.)

Historically, the explanation for the modality effect as derived from CLT is that whereas students in the single modality condition can rely on only the cognitive resources of the visual subsystem, those who are administered the information in an audiovisual format can draw on the independent cognitive resources of two separate subsystems. As a consequence, their working memory capacity is effectively increased. However, Paas and Sweller (2012) recently argued for an “evolutionary upgrade” of CLT based on Geary’s evolutionary account of the distinction between biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge, and the accompanying cognitive demands associated with the latter. In this paper, they explain how several cognitive load effects can be interpreted as relying on the use of biologically primary knowledge to assist in the learning of biologically secondary information. For example, with respect to the modality effect, these scholars suggest that from an evolutionary perspective, the use of both an audio and a visual instructional format is advantageous because “We may have evolved to listen to someone discussing an object while looking at” (p. 39). Concomitantly, they note that “We certainly have not evolved to read about an object while looking at it because reading itself requires biologically secondary knowledge” (p. 39).

Conflicting Instructional Practices Informed by Evolutionary Theory 

The theoretical positions of Gray and Geary, both derived from an evolutionary perspective, are relatively commensurate with respect to acquiring biologically primary knowledge, especially as it occurs in children prior to their introduction to formal schooling. As Bjorklund and Bering (2002) aptly describe it, this kind of knowledge consists of evolved abilities acquired universally in species-typical environments for which children are inherently motivated to learn and practice, often spontaneously. And although the implications of Geary’s and Gray’s views as they pertain to the optimization of educational settings and practices for young children are generally similar, the instructional practices advocated by these two scholars for the acquisition of evolutionarily novel (biologically secondary) knowledge differ markedly. Namely, whereas Gray contends that self-directed learning will be sufficient for acquiring even complex abstract knowledge, Geary maintains that direct or explicit instruction will be needed when students have to learn such information. According to Gray, as long as students have the freedom to explore their academic environment and have free access to books, computers, and knowledgeable as well as caring adults (if they request such assistance), they will be able to learn what they need to know to become successful even in today’s modern economy. In contrast, Geary argues that to acquire evolutionarily novel concepts and skills, like solving linear algebra problems or learning basic Newtonian physics, students have to execute complicated and effortful cognitive operations, such as inhibiting automatic and implicit processing of folk-related knowledge. It is because of these kinds of challenges that he strongly recommends the use of formal, well-organized, and explicit instruction by teachers.

At this point, one might ask whether Geary’s evolutionary perspective has any implications for using a cooperative learning or small group approach for acquiring biologically secondary knowledge. A major reason for posing this question is that many teachers believe such methods to be effective—even though their actual use, as measured by classroom observational studies, appears to be quite rare (Pianta et al., 2007). From Geary’s point of view, although social interactions permit children and adolescents to learn about their peer group as well as how to organize and manipulate the dynamics of these groups, socializing with one’s peers may not be beneficial for mastering abstract, evolutionarily novel information (Geary, 2007). I have argued elsewhere (Berch, 2007) that it should be possible to co-opt students’ interest in socializing with their peers by having them engage in cooperative learning and problem-solving in the service of acquiring biologically secondary knowledge and skills. But the key to doing this successfully appears to require orchestrating the interactions among students and forming a reward structure that regulates their motivation in a way that directs it toward working cooperatively to reach a shared goal. In addition, as Dansereau, Johnson, and Druckman (1994) pointed out almost 20 years ago, improving individual achievement in cooperative learning situations can be achieved if teachers supply explicit interaction scripts, train students in essential peer interaction skills, and guide as well as monitor these interactions.

Consistent with the latter recommendations, David Sloan Wilson and colleagues (2011) recently carried out a study with at-risk high school students (9th and 10th graders) in Binghamton, NY who qualified for a program called the Regents Academy if they had failed at least three of five courses taken during the previous year. This program was based on three bodies of knowledge: 1) the work of the late Elinor Ostrom, a political economist who won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2009, by adapting the eight design features she developed for groups to cooperate in order to manage common pool resources. These include, for example: consensus decision-making, monitoring to detect lapses in cooperation, rapid conflict resolution that is perceived by group members as fair, and relations among groups that correspond to the same principles as relations among individuals within groups; 2) providing a safe and secure school environment; and 3) giving short-term rewards for cooperating and for learning. Using a randomized-control design, these investigators demonstrated that the Regents Academy students not only outperformed the comparison group, but also performed as well as the average high school student in Binghamton on state-mandated exams in all subjects. Importantly, Wilson et al. point out that although none of the program’s design features were unusual, the use of a theoretical framework based on evolutionary science permitted them to be organized in a manner that yielded a remarkably successful set of outcomes.

In sum, it should be noted that the learning environment and some of the instructional approaches (e.g., cooperative learning) implemented by Wilson and colleagues seem more closely aligned with those recommended by Gray than by Geary. That said, a detailed examination of their design features reveals the use of a more structured set of approaches than Gray might endorse, including behavior management techniques (e.g., extrinsic rewards), specific curricula, learning progressions, and various assessment strategies. Consequently, one can view the methods used by Wilson et al. as representing a rapprochement between the more extreme positions advocated by Geary and Gray. Furthermore, it should be recognized that the conflicting instructional approaches advocated by these two theorists constitute legitimate scientific differences and also demonstrate that adopting an evolutionary perspective does not necessarily lead to a monolithic theoretical stance (Confer et al., 2010).

An Evolutionary Perspective on Bullying

Although we have seen how evolutionary theory can inform the design of educational environments as well as effective instructional strategies, the potential benefits of incorporating such a perspective when developing other kinds of school-related programs, practices, and activities are much greater than most educators and policymakers might appreciate. One such example concerns the escalating growth of bullying in schools. According to Anthony Volk and colleagues (2012), bullying is universal across cultures with an estimated several hundred million adolescents directly involved when considered on a global scale. Although many researchers view that bullying behaviors emerge as a consequence of maladaptive development, evolutionary psychologists consider bullying to be an evolved, facultative adaptive strategy in that it is likely to develop and be manifested only under particular environmental conditions (Ellis et al., 2012). More specifically, even with a predisposition to engage in bullying, adolescents will do so only when its benefits outweigh its costs. The benefits include greater access to somatic (health and survival), sexual (e.g., increased dating or sexual opportunities), and/or dominance (social status) resources (Volk et al., 2012). Furthermore, as Ellis and colleagues convincingly point out, many anti-bullying interventions do not succeed because they are based on an erroneous stereotype that bullies are socially incompetent. These researchers also contend that from an evolutionary perspective, for an intervention to be effective in school settings it would need to modify the cost–benefit ratio of engaging in bullying so that adopting such a strategic approach for acquiring resources would cease to be adaptive.

The Evolutionary Origins of Teaching 

Although an evolutionary approach to the design of instructional strategies has great potential for improving academic learning and achievement, proper application of such techniques of course constitutes only part of the expansive toolkit that teachers must employ to be effective in their classroom practice. Among numerous other day-to-day responsibilities, they have to create an optimal learning environment, implement the designated curriculum with fidelity, monitor student progress, and make judicious use of both formative and summative assessments. Although the study of pedagogy, the constellation of skills needed to teach something to someone, is of great interest to contemporary educational researchers, it is primarily the role of proximate explanations of high quality teaching that are the focus of most such investigations. But it is the ultimate or functional origins of teaching skills that are of principal interest to evolutionary scientists, including anthropologists, archaeologists, zoologists, and psychologists. These researchers and theorists use a variety of methods to investigate the phylogenetic history of pedagogy, including the analysis of archaeological and ethnographic records to assess how ancestral youth acquired hunting, craft, and tool-making skills through observation, imitation, and formal apprenticeships. Although still a nascent domain of inquiry, this research has begun to yield some exciting findings and novel theoretical developments that may eventually have important practical implications for modern educational policy and practice.

To begin with, Kim Sterelny (2012), a leading philosopher of biology acknowledges in his book The Evolved Apprentice that the role of explicit teaching in traditional society is recurrently controversial. Take for example the position of anthropologist David Lancy, who after reviewing the ethnographic record and to some extent the historical record asserts in an article provocatively titled “Learning from Nobody” that “Teaching has been largely superfluous in the process of cultural transmission throughout human history” (2010, p. 97). Rather, according to Lancy, skills such as herding, foraging, gardening, and caring for infants in pre-modern society were acquired through observation, imitation, replication, and practice in a stepwise sequence he refers to as “the chore curriculum.” He concludes that children have traditionally acquired their culture through “self-guided learning” rather than a dependence on “active” teaching by an adult who systematically intervenes with the objective of changing a learner’s behavior.

Alternatively, evolutionary anthropologist Jamshid Tehrani and archaeologist Felix Riede arrived at the following conclusion after they reviewed ethnographic case studies and the archaeological record pertaining to the learning of complex craft skills: “The evidence we present suggests that pedagogy has played an essential role in securing the faithful transmission of skills across generations, and should be regarded as the central mechanism through which long-term and stable material culture traditions are propagated and maintained” (2008, p. 316). Their review suggests that pedagogy in these contexts can be characterized as entailing “the gradual scaffolding of skill in a novice through demonstration, intervention and collaboration” (p. 316).

Yet another perspective on the evolution of pedagogy has been put forward by cognitive psychologists Gergely Csibra and György Gergely (2009). These scholars have hypothesized that what they call “natural pedagogy,” a type of human communication, arose during hominin evolution to enable the rapid and efficient transmission of generic knowledge and skills between individuals. In contrast to Lancy’s perspective, Csibra and Gergely argue that even craft and tool-making skills include content, features, and action sequences that are “cognitively opaque” to the naïve observer (i.e., both causally and teleologically), thus making them difficult to acquire solely through observational learning.

After reviewing these different perspectives along with other findings, Strauss and Ziv (2012) recently concluded that teaching is not only species-typical, appearing to be ubiquitous across cultures, but also unique to our species. They claim that this uniqueness is based on the requirement of a “theory of mind,” meaning that teaching consists of: a) an intentional activity that is b) undertaken to increase a learner’s knowledge or understanding (i.e., based on recognizing the learner’s mental state).

But precisely how can we account for the emergence of teaching in our evolutionary history as well as the factors that led to the selection of the requisite behavioral traits that were adaptive with respect to their fitness consequences? Although we still know very little about such ultimate causes, some headway has been made in characterizing how these changes may have transpired. As Thornton and Raihani (2008) have pointed out, “Teaching will be favoured by selection only where the costs to teachers of facilitating learning are outweighed by the long-term fitness benefits they accrue once pupils have learned, and these benefits will be scaled by the ease with which pupils could learn without teaching” (p. 1823). Furthermore, they suggest that natural selection probably favors different types of teaching, depending on whether it advances the learning of declarative information (i.e., “knowing that,” meaning content and facts) or procedural information (i.e., “knowing how” to perform skills).

At the very least, this brief review of multidisciplinary research and theorizing about the evolutionary origins of pedagogy indicates that some important progress is being made in uncovering the phylogenetic history of explicit teaching skills and behaviors. What we learn from this work may well have important implications for how to best prepare and train not only teachers, but also parents—with respect to their pedagogical role in facilitating their children’s acquisition of cultural norms, practices, and knowledge. Importantly, however, for those who maintain that active teaching has been relatively uncommon in our species’ history, this does not preclude adults from trying to construct children’s home, school, and after-school settings and surroundings so as to maximize conditions that will enhance learning and achievement. In other words, as Sterelny (2012) has cogently pointed out, “. . . while the role of teaching in traditional societies is often quite limited, adults can and do structure and engineer the learning environment, even without explicit teaching” (p. 36).


Taken together, the research and theoretical frameworks I have described here clearly demonstrate the promise that evolutionary science holds for improving educational research, practice, and policy. However, it is equally obvious that it will take a concerted effort on the part of not only researchers, practitioners and school administrators, but also parents and other education stakeholders before the full potential of adopting an evolutionary perspective on schooling can be realized.


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Daniel B. Berch is a professor of educational psychology and applied developmental science at the University of Virginia. He studies the development of mathematical learning disabilities, and more recently has been working on the implications of evolutionary theory for educational practice. Among other honors, he has received the National Institutes of Health Award of Merit, and was elected Fellow of the American Psychological Association’s Division of Experimental Psychology.

Published On: November 10, 2014

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