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Biology of Education

Biology of Education

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Published by Frederick Turner

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Published by: Frederick Turner on Feb 27, 2009
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09/30/2010

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The Biology of Education
Frederick TurnerThirty years ago the dominant paradigm of human development was behaviorism, the belief thata human being is born a
tabula rasa
, and that social, cultural and economic forces shape this rawmaterial into the kind of adult he or she would become. Since then a flood of evidence fromcomparative anthropology, neuroscience, psychophysics, the study of human evolution,sociobiology, ethology, child psychology, linguistics, twin studies, and so on has demolished thefoundations of this view, though it still hangs on in the humanities, in such fields as discourseanalysis, feminist theory, and cultural studies. The new paradigm envisages a human nature thatis the result of a feedback between biological inheritance and life-experience. Feedback is a
nonlinear 
process, in which the chain of causes and effects is not a simple unidirectional one, butcontains loops and mutual influences, giving all participants in it both a say in the result and anenvironment and context determined by its neighbors. Such a feedback system is capable of generating unique and unpredictable emergent features. Human genetic inheritance is not enoughto make us what we are; nor is the human social inheritance into which we are born. Both sets of determinants are involved in a complex process of development that can produce the uniquequality of creativity that we prize so highly.This interplay between biology and sociocultural forces was the key factor in the evolution of thehuman species itself; our early culture favored the reproductive success of individuals with moresophisticated social and cultural abilities, and those abilities in turn made possible more complexand demanding forms of culture. This process of gene-culture "coevolution" gives rise to aperspective on human nature that I have called natural classicism. Natural classicism can besummed up in an aphorism: human beings have a nature; that nature is cultural; that culture is
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classical, in the sense that it aspires to a kind of perfection of proportions, means, and ends that isrecognizable across all human cultures. However, if we accept that human beings do indeed havea nature, one that is the product of their evolutionary history, education becomes a crucial issue.If our genes determine who we are, what is the point of education, and how do we educate forcreativity? The evolutionary perspective suggests an interesting answer.Studies of the relative weight of hereditary as opposed to socially acquired characteristics seemto indicate that our genes are about three times as influential as our upbringing. Suppose for thesake of argument we accept the roughly 70/30 ratio of nature-nurture determinants given us bythe scientists, as far as it goes. But it does not go very far, and indeed falls short on two counts.The first is that advanced animals, especially ourselves, seldom inherit complete behaviors, butrather predispositions that must be activated by experiential and social triggers. Thepredisposition, for instance the human capacity for language, often has its own weakly-determined structure, that is revealed when a society must reinvent that behavior from scratch.Derek Bickerton ("Creole Languages."
Scientific American
, July 1983) has discovered thatwhenever a community of people is cut off from their ancestral language, they tend to invent aCreole language whose basic grammatical and lexical structure is always the same. Baby-talk,the transitional phase through which infants must pass to get to full mastery of their language, isstructured like a simple Creole. However, that default structure is not necessarily the best thatcould be found; nor is a human baby constrained to use it forever, or seriously hampered byhaving to pass through a period of creole-structured baby-talk to get to the more complicated andrefined structure of a regular "natural language." A simple analogy would be the capacity ahuman being has, given a tennis racquet, to hit a ball over a net when one has never done itbefore. This default option is replaced later, with the help of a tennis pro, by a proper forehand orbackhand.
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But suppose there is no sociocultural encouragement to use a given capacity--suppose a child isbrought up where nobody speaks, or is kept so confined that it never has the chance to developthe sensory-motor skills of standing, looking, handling. Such a child never has the chance todevelop even the default option; and thus an inherited capacity--part of the "70% nature"--can beaborted by a crucial absence in the "30% nurture." Human genes need cultural triggers; ournature is designed open on one side (though closed on the other) so that our inherited skills canbe completed by a cultural context. Often those triggers will only work during a short period of an individual's lifetime--in human beings, the first five years are especially important forlanguage and other skills. Among those "skills" are moral capacities, and forms of self-discipline, and insight from other points of view than our own. After the trigger period it is toolate, and a person who has missed them will behave exactly as if he or she were geneticallylacking in those capacities. Educating for creativity is essentially providing a cultural trigger toactivate human capacities during the most crucial period.But if our educational philosophy is based, as it has been, upon a "tabula rasa" or "blank slate"theory of human capacities, upon which society inscribes its determining cultural patterns (whatone might call a "0/100" theory), then we will fail to recognize the existence of suchpredispositions. We will thus fail to trigger them in time, fail to arrange a smooth passage fromthe default option to the elaborated cultural form, and perhaps totally neglect certain fundamentaltraditional skills that have not received theoretical attention, or that are culturally unfashionable.In earlier books I have pointed out the terrible disservice we do children by neglecting to teachthem the fundamentals of the human arts--meter and rhyme in poetry, representation in the visualarts, tonality in music, and so on--because of modernist esthetic theories that falsely held suchdisciplines to be arbitrary and outworn cultural impositions.Thus our social-determinist educational establishment has unknowingly committed a crime, an
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