Education through an Evolutionary Lens

Take a look at the picture above this article. Does it look familiar? It could be a snapshot from almost any elementary classroom in Western society. If you were to ask the boy in the front row how he spends his schooldays, he probably won’t tell you he’s collaborating with mixed-aged peers on meaningful tasks that are obviously relevant to survival. Rather he’d probably tell you the same thing that almost any American schoolchild would: That instead, he spends disproportionate time preparing for standardized exams. That he is more likely than the usual young nomad to do word-study worksheets while sitting quietly at a desk. That he belongs to the only hominid species whose young are required to be sedentary as they memorize times tables, state capitals, and the periodic table. And you can see for yourself that he does most of his learning in a physical environment very different from that of most primates.

Children today are educated in a very different way than they used to be. But even though the ways in which we educate children have changed, their brains have not. Modern children have essentially the same brains and accompanying tendencies, abilities, and adaptations as their nomadic hunter-gatherer ancestors. Further, many parts of their brains originated even deeper in the evolutionary past – long before written symbols, spoken language, deliberate instruction, or creatures like us even existed.

When humans (i.e., members of the Homo genus) first emerged two or so million years ago, we lived in small, nomadic bands and made our living hunting and gathering. Children spent their days playing on their own in packs in the outdoors. Their education was informal and new skills were learned “on the job” as they collaborated with multiage peers on tasks meaningful to everyday life. The reasons for learning each new skill were apparent. We didn’t show children how to identify edible plants merely so they could demonstrate that knowledge on next Tuesday’s biology exam. Rather children learned this skill so they could forage for lunch safely.

Such was education until about 10,000 years ago when humans gave up their nomadic ways, established stationary communities, and domesticated plants and animals. Maintaining this new sedentary and agrarian lifestyle from one generation to the next depended on a certain amount of technological knowhow being transmitted to children. At first, much of this education was still done on the job. But as the tools and technological skills needed to thrive in adulthood ratcheted up in complexity over time, instruction “out of context” emerged.

Today, formal education is necessary for success. But the newness of this practice cannot be understated. Humans evolved some two or so million years ago, yet it’s been only within the last few hundred years that formal schooling has become part of the ecology of childhood. That’s about 1/100th of 1 percent of the human brain’s entire existence – an evolutionary wink-of-an-eye.

This recognition of the deep evolutionary history of our brains means that we were not designed for formal schooling, but rather we evolved to be educated in a very different way. Today’s children come into the world with the very same brains as their hunter-gatherer peers, yet we sit them down in classrooms, give them textbooks, and ask them to take standardized exams. We ask them to learn things that their brains never expected and in contexts that are completely foreign. It is this mismatch between children’s evolutionary past and their modern human present that makes today’s formal education system ineffective for some children and stultifying for others.

An appreciation of this deep history of our brains makes it clear that the classroom and many of the skills that we teach in school, like reading, writing, and most of modern day mathematics, are foreign elements in the natural ecology of children. Considering the unnaturalness of formal education, we should not be surprised that not all children thrive in the classroom and that many lack the motivation for the out-of-context learning that goes on in most schools. Significantly, an evolutionary framework can provide keen insights into the sorts of instructional approaches, curricular materials, and educational contexts that best fit children’s natural dispositions and tendencies. Indeed, an evolutionary perspective can help educators understand a range of classroom behaviors and learning styles that make little sense through any other lens.

In late 2013, leading scholars from a range of disciplines – developmental science, educational psychology, evolutionary biology, cognitive psychology, and cultural anthropology – gathered to share their programs of research on issues relevant to education and to discuss the value added by couching their work in evolutionary theory. Following this introductory article are brief summaries of each scholar’s presentation. These summaries were written by workshop participants specifically for TVOL and with a wide audience in mind. Most summaries are accompanied by a podcast that broadcasts an interview with the author and two TVOL contributors: David Sloan Wilson, President of the Evolution Institute and TVOL Editor-in-Chief, and Gabrielle Principe, TVOL Education Section Editor. Beginning Thursday April 17, TVOL will publish one article/interview pair per week, establishing a weekly series entitled: Thursday Thoughts on Education.

Despite the breadth of fields represented in this series on education, a common strand that runs throughout the pieces is the ways in which an evolutionary lens affords deep understanding of how individuals teach, learn, and lead in educational contexts. This collection of articles and accompanying podcasts demonstrates potently how evolutionary theory can serve to unify seemingly disparate findings and, in this case, produce a comprehensive science of education that is much more meaningful when couched within an evolutionary frame. While all of the authors agree that there is much to be gained by viewing education through an evolutionary lens, their perspectives for remedial pedagogies differ.

We invite responses to this divide in terms of discussion, debate, and dialogue, which we will publish in upcoming weeks.

Gabrielle Principe

Gabrielle Principe

Gabrielle Principe is Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at the College of Charleston. She received her Ph.D. in developmental psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and later completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Cornell University. Her research has been federally funded by the National Institutes of Health and she has published her research in numerous scientific journals including Psychological Science, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, and Cognition and Development. She has a lifelong fascination with the implications of evolutionary ideas on cognitive development and a serious interest in translating the latest scientific research about human development into information that parents and teachers can use to better rear and educate children. She is the author of Your Brain on Childhood: The Unexpected Side Effects of Classrooms, Ballparks, Family Rooms, and the Minivan (Prometheus, 2011)..


  • W. Jason Niedermeyer says:

    I just defended my dissertation entitled “REvolutionary Education: A Modern Synthesis of John Dewey’s Evolutionary Philosophy and Educational Theory” and thought it might be relevant to the discussion you are hoping to generate.  Below I have provided the abstract.

      John Dewey was one of the first philosophers who intentionally used the principles of evolution to produce his perspective. He was also the foremost educational theorist of a generation. In both fields, he was a pragmatist, and he sought to lay waste to the dualisms that prevented progress. It is therefore ironic that he erected an artificial wall between the evolutionary thought that pervaded his writings on philosophy, psychology, and even art, and his works on education. I argue in this dissertation that the true power of Dewey would come through the synthesis of his evolutionary and educational thoughts.
    Using Dewey’s works and the trajectory of his career as a template, I identify three key problems in education that Dewey needed to solve for his vision of education to align with his evolutionary philosophy. The first problem is that of the separation between subject and method, the second is from where education’s direction should derive, and the third seeks to achieve balance between the concrete and abstract knowledge that is taught in the classroom. Following Dewey’s model of using various disciplines to inform his reasoning, I draw upon research in fields that include cognitive ethology, neuroscience, anthropology, and archaeology in my quest solve Dewey’s aforementioned problems.
    In the dissertation’s final chapter, I conclude that the vehicle for the success of Dewey’s evolutionary educational philosophy will be a classroom suffused with art and science, or more broadly, invention and inquiry. This conclusion aligns with some of the recent movements in education, and that provides me with hope. It is time for John Dewey to be revisited. We need the change in education to be not just about a revolution, but also about evolution.

  • David Sloan Wilson says:

    Thanks to Jason for his interesting comment about Dewey. My recently minted PhD student, Rick Kauffman, frequently cites Dewey’s educational side as consilient with a modern evolutionary perspective. And Dewey’s philosophical side is also highly consilient, as recounted in the excellent book “The Metaphysical Club” by Louis Menand.

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