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What role does the concept of adaptation play in learning?

Learning is a psychological process which results in a long-term change of behavior as

species interact with the environment. Changes in behavior occur as species acquire knowledge
based on their experience as well as the knowledge to deal with that particular experience.
Learning can be described as an adaptive specialization; forms of learning have evolved through
the process of natural selection to provide species with solutions to adjust to external
circumstances. Through their direct experience, species learn and acquire knowledge which
enables them to survive. By learning to obtain food, dealing effectively with danger as well as
increasing chances of escape and reproducing to prevent extinction, species deal effectively with
problems of survival (Frieman, 2002).
Adaptation refers to the changes which are learnt by individuals to adjust and adapt to their
own position within their species’ niche. To reach their goals, different species use different
navigational cues which depend on their specific ecological requirements. For instance, forest
dwelling ants use a land mark strategy i.e. they learn and recall visual markers such as the forest
canopy and its relationship to objects, turning points and other visual details while foraging for
food. This land mark strategy employed by ants is adaptive as these ants stay closer to home. On
the other hand, desert dwelling ants use an orientation strategy i.e they maintain their position by
deriving compass information from the sun to navigate their way. As these ants travel a long
distance, it is adaptive for them to employ this navigational strategy. Similarly, Janson contends
that animals adopt different foraging strategies based on the nature of their environment. In
laboratory experiments of brown Capuchin monkeys, the monkeys adapt to the confined
environment where food is available for only a limited period of time by eating at all sites.
However, unrestrained Capuchins in their natural habitat adapt differently as they do not
consume what cannot be digested during the course of the day as it is of no advantage to increase
food intake beyond that which can be digested within a limited period of time (Choi and
Silverman, as cited in Buss, 2005).
Although Phase-Specific learning occurs during specific times in an individual’s life, it plays
a significant role in the adaptive process as the behaviors which are learnt are not just exclusive
to that particular moment of the individual’s life. Phase-specific learning results in the
accomplishment of song learning, language learning, observational learning and instructed
learning. These processes comprise the modes of communication and provide an exchange for
the transfer of information between social groups. Imprinting is another example of phase-
specific learning, through which individuals form long-term exposures with the things, events, or
activities which they encounter at specific phases of their life. For instance, young salmon
identify and clearly remember the stream in which they were hatched. This serves an adaptive
purpose, as they return to the same stream to carry out their reproductive function (Frieman,
Conditioned responses enable individuals to optimize interactions with forthcoming
biological important events such as food, predators, mates, rivals etc. Through the process of
Pavlovian conditioning, individuals can identify the event, the conditioned stimulus, which
signals a motivationally significant event and enables the individual to behave accordingly. This
function is described as ‘prefiguring’ by Holis who regards conditioned responses not only as
preparatory which allows individuals to deal effectively with significant events but also as
anticipatory i.e. it enables animals to respond to those stimuli which signal the approach of
harmful or beneficial stimuli. At times the conditioned stimulus acts as an occasion setter, a
certain CS-US relationship is signaled, it is up to the individual to learn to recognize such signals
and infer whether positive or a negative contingency is indicated by the environmental context
and adapt accordingly. It is advantageous to make a causal inference of the conditioned response;
conditioned stimuli which signal the onset of food may result in anticipatory salivation as well as
anticipatory gastrointestinal responses such as increases in digestive juices and increases in
stomach and intestinal motility. These anticipatory responses increase the efficiency of the
digestive process (Frieman, 2002).
Individuals may experience and learn changes in preference, evaluations and palatability as a
consequence of evaluative conditioning which occurs between two events which are in close
temporal proximity. Consequently, the affective value of the event (CS) is affected by an
individual’s evaluation to another event (US). This is proven by an experiment conducted by
Garcia et al; wolves fed with mutton laced with lithium chloride, developed an aversion for
mutton. After one exposure of this, they continued to attack sheep, but released them after one
bite. Hence, it is evident that food aversions which are learnt when consumption of food is
followed by gastrointestinal illness, act as adaptive specializations as they enable species to
identify and avoid poisonous foods. They are effective as after only one trial, individuals learn
the association between the conditioned stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus and learn to
avoid those stimuli that are detrimental to their health (Frieman, 2002).
Through the process of natural selection, species possess innate knowledge and may be
predisposed to certain behaviors. This can be explained by the evolutionary transfer of
information of the adaptive behavior undertaken by their ancestors’ for the purpose of survival in
their niche. For instance, as infants, humans prefer sweet substances as opposed to bitter tasting
food which can be explained by the fact that foods containing natural sugars were an integral part
of the prehistoric diet of our ancestors (Choi and Silverman, as cited in Buss, 2005). Similarly,
fear is a conditioned emotional reaction which is automatically activated when individuals
encounter evolutionary prepared danger stimuli such as snakes, spiders and falling objects.
Hence, fear responses, such as the act of drawing back automatically from a snake, reflexively
occur without conscious awareness of the subject. This phenomenon is explained by Ohman and
Mineka; to prevent the individual from danger, motor reflexes were directly connected to threat
detectors in evolutionary ancient fear systems. This idea can also be explained by predator-prey
encounters; as hunting played a significant role in human subsistence in prehistoric times, human
evolution has endowed individuals with the adaptive machinery used by their ancestors to
combat dangerous situations of predator-prey encounters and to achieve their goals i.e. capturing
prey for food acquisition for consumption purposes and evading predators for survival. This idea
can be linked to the patterns which constitute defensive behavior mechanisms amongst different
species (Barrett, as cited in Buss, 2005).
Upon encountering a predator, an individual will engage in certain behaviors; Pavlovian
conditioning enables individuals to recognize stimuli which indicate danger and to undertake
strategies for escape. The advantage of responding to conditioned responses for defense purposes
is that individuals learn to respond to a predator using a shorter reaction time. This defense
mechanism is described by Faneslow and Lester as ‘predatory imminence continuum’.
Individuals may undertake both Pre-encounter defensive behaviors as well as Post-encounter
defensive behaviors. For instance Vervet monkeys have separate alarm calls for, and react
differently to snakes, leopards and raptors, because different escape strategies and adaptation
methods are appropriate for each (Barrett, as cited in Buss, 2005). Other Pre-encounter defensive
behaviors which minimize the risk and reduce opportunities of being preyed upon include
organization of the activity of foraging for food as well as cautious movements. Perchance, a
predator or danger is detected, then the individual may undertake inherited defensive behavior
patterns known as species-specific defense reactions such as flight and freezing. Species-specific
defense reactions are an effective method of survival with different species employing different
methods based on different situations. For instance rats engage in flash behavior; if the predator
is not close the rat may run a short distance and freeze which may deceive the predator into
believing that the prey has vanished. On other occasions, when in circa-strike mode, rats may
engage in threat displays and may turn and fight. Hence based on their situations, animals adapt
accordingly and learn to distinguish between different behaviors and can evaluate which
behavior will maximize chances of survival (Frieman, 2002).
In some instances, recognition of predators which may prove to be dangerous is not innate in
certain species. As this may be problematic and reduce the chances of survival for these species,
individuals obtain knowledge about events by a process of social learning i.e. interaction with
other members of the same species. Hence, via learning through a process of cultural
transmission of knowledge, knowledge and skills are passed from one generation to another.
This provides an adaptive advantage to individuals as it enables them to profit from the
experiences of others and reduces time for learning to occur. Through the process of
observational conditioning, a form of Pavlovian conditioning, individuals learn to fear
threatening stimuli from one another as a result of which they develop adaptive mechanisms for
survival purposes. For instance, Mineka et al. discovered that captured rhesus monkeys exhibited
fear to snakes as opposed to their laboratory- reared offspring who were fearless in the presence
of snakes. However, after subjecting the juvenile monkeys to observational learning of their
parents’ behavior, five of the six monkeys exhibited fearful behaviors to the snakes. Similarly,
blackbirds transmit a mobbing cry which is taken up by their entire population via observational
learning, to transmit information about the presence of predators in their niche and to drive them
away (Frieman, 2002).
Likewise, the process of social learning can be used by many species, including rats, birds
and humans, to evaluate food preferences by distinguishing between beneficial foods which
contain a high nutritional value and those which are deleterious to their health. Galef et al.
conducted experiments on Norway rats to examine social transmission of food preferences. They
discovered that an inadvertent communication exists between specie members; specie members
can develop a preference for a particular food by smelling its odor on the breath and snouts of
members who have consumed the food. Similarly, upon observation of specie members, rats
develop aversions to foods which have made their specie members fall sick. An identical
phenomenon occurs in the case of red-winged blackbirds. Such forms of social learning are
critical to the adaptive process; they are highly effective as species do not have to face adverse
consequences after dealing with aversive stimuli directly but can adapt accordingly (Frieman,
The analogy of Natural Selection to Operant Conditioning is an apt one; through innate
mechanisms species are able to identify certain things important for survival purposes. Through
operant conditioning, individuals learn and perform only those behaviors which are positively
reinforced. Species strive to survive and adopt those behaviors which enable them to gain finite
resources such as food, water and potential mates etc which act as positive reinforcers. Rivals,
dangerous situations, predators etc are negative reinforcers which reduce chances of survival. It
must be noted that as no experience is required to identify these things as beneficial or
detrimental to their survival, these things function as Primary reinforcers. These primary
reinforcers can be classically conditioned by experience to work as Secondary Reinforcers. The
idea behind this is that individuals learn to recognize aversive discriminative stimuli, which
function as occasion setters and take practical measures i.e. adapt accordingly to avoid them via
the process of avoidance conditioning. Those behaviors which are positively reinforced are learnt
and as they are repeated, they increase the individual’s chance of survival, and can be
categorized as successful behavior. Those behaviors which are not repeated often in the future as
they are negatively reinforced are seen to be unsuccessful. This is highly significant as by this
process, only useful behaviors, which enable species to adapt to their environment, are learnt as
unsuccessful behaviors are not selected (Frieman, 2002).
Operant learning is highly effective, as individuals are instilled by drives and are motivated to
obtain specific incentives. For instance, incentives such as food containing a higher nutritional
value can increase the probability of adaptive behaviors to occur. Crespi’s experiment of
increasing the number of food pellets given to rats from one to sixteen demonstrated that rats ran
at a faster rate to obtain the increase in the food. This indicates that increasing the incentive value
of reinforcers, results in a greater degree of adaptation to obtain the reward. As the Operant
learning mechanism uses a procedure known as differential reinforcement in which only
selective behaviors which satisfy certain criteria are reinforced, it is highly adaptive. This is
because the individual does not waste time in learning behaviors which are prone to be useless
with regard to the target behavior. Hence, efficiency is maintained as an individual becomes
highly skilled in performing the desired goal without the wastage of time, resources and skills
(Frieman, 2002).
The analogy of Hill-climbing evocatively displays how individuals learn to perform a
complex task using a large number of successive trials. Hill-climbing is seen to provide effectual
adaptive mechanisms which minimize problems of survival which are encountered by most
species. As an individual crosses each successive stage, their previous performance provides
them with information which is built upon by learnt behavior. As successful target behavior is
achieved through many repeated processes, hill-climbing results in improvements in behavioral
performance to a large extent. As positive reinforcers provide individuals with a high incentive
value to achieve their intended goals as various stages or thresholds are crossed i.e. via a process
of shaping, this process results in an improvement in the performance of the behavior as well as
decreases the frequency or variability of other behaviors. Hence, the process of hill-climbing is
highly successful as it enables individuals to achieve their goal i.e. performance is improved as
the desired behavior is reached gradually (Frieman, 2002).
Melioration is an adaptive process which aims to explain the process of Matching by the
phenomenon of Molecular feedback in the Operant Conditioning mechanism. The Matching Law
explains how individuals select appropriate behavior patterns by evaluating both the favorable
and adverse results of previous choices i.e. time and efforts are matched with the beneficial
rewards provided by reinforcers. This can be linked to the idea of successful-behaviors and is
therefore adaptive. The matching law can be derived by examining how individuals select a
particular choice of doing work by looking at concurrent schedules of reinforcement i.e. more
than two different schedules of partial reinforcement. Instead of using molar feedback to produce
matching, molecular feedback is used as it is by far a more efficient process. Molecular feedback
involves a moment-to-moment relationship between behaviors and consequences i.e. it
constantly evaluates and measures the current cost incurred by an individual during
reinforcement as opposed to molar feedback which is more long-term oriented. In molar
feedback, individuals choose those behaviors which maximize the greatest outcome of the
choice. Melioration is more sensitive to molecular feedback than molar feedback because
immediate consequences of a particular choice govern behavior as opposed to long term choices.
The underlying idea is that only the consequences of a particular behavior do not govern learning
in Operant conditioning. Instead, the process is a highly evaluative and efficient one in which all
possible outcomes of behavior are evaluated, and that behavior which affects survival to the
greatest extent is learnt (Frieman, 2002).
The example of sign-tracking, a form of autoshaping, in species is critical to understand the
link between Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning. The term sign-tracking is used to
describe how behavior is affected by stimuli which act as signals. These signals may indicate the
presence or absence of events, and the process aims to examine the behavior which is learnt
consequently. An experiment was conducted by Brown and Jenkins to examine learnt behavior
of pigeons. The conditioned stimulus, a lighted key, was followed by the delivery of food. The
results of the experiment indicated that the pigeons would peck the lighted key which signaled
the onset of food. As pecking behavior was followed by food, behavior was rewarded i.e. food
was seen to be a positive reinforcer, as a result of which the behavior was learnt. Although,
Williams and Williams provided evidence of learning by sign-tracking a form of classical
conditioning by omission training, in which 12 out of 13 subjects continued to peck at keys
which resulted in loss of food. However, another experiment indicated that Omission training
cannot disprove the idea of learning by Operant Conditioning. This is because when two keys
were presented to pigeons, with only one being followed by food after which the procedures
were reversed i.e. the alternate key was rewarded, the birds stopped pecking the key which had
previously been rewarded and began to peck the new key. what these experiments suggest is that
through classical conditioning individuals learn about signals which indicate important event,
whereas operant conditioning results in the learning and repetition of the rewarded behavior.
Hence, Sign-tracking is a highly adaptive process as learning occurs by both the processes of
Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning in which the pigeons learn to identify
appropriate signals and behave accordingly (Frieman, 2002).
The example of sign-tracking is of much significance; it implies that the learning mechanisms
provided by Operant conditioning are more specialized and contribute to greater adaptation of
the species as opposed to adaptations learnt by the Classical Conditioning mechanism. The
reason being, that Operant conditioning operates on a level higher than that of Classical
conditioning; classical conditioning mechanisms enable individuals to recognize stimuli and
make appropriate causal inferences whereas Operant conditioning mechanisms enable
individuals to practically adopt the learnt information via an efficient feedback mechanism.
Learnt information about a particular action is evaluated and previous behaviors are modified to
integrate the new effective behavior (Frieman, 2002).
However, all three forms of learning i.e. learning through Classical Conditioning, Operant
Conditioning and Social Learning play an integral role in the performance of species and enable
them to accomplish certain tasks which would not be possible otherwise. Although all species
possess innate mechanisms, these are highly limited and simple in their functions and occur
mostly in simple organisms. Complex species require specialized solutions to resolve specific
problems which are encountered in their ecological niche. As Darwin’s theory of ‘evolution by
natural selection’ focuses on the idea of survival of the fittest, only those species will survive and
will be able to face environmental stresses and selection pressures which possess characteristics
which enhance survival. Therefore, species must learn to adapt to their environment or face
extinction. Hence, learning can be described as an adaptive specialization which enables species
to cope with problems of survival by providing flexible and appropriate solutions (Frieman,

Barrett, H, C. (2005). Adaptations to Predators and Prey. In Buss, D, M. “The Handbook of

Evolutionary Psychology” (pp.177-199). John Wiley & Sons

Choi, J and Silverman, I. (2005). Locating Places. In Buss, D, M. “The Handbook of

Evolutionary Psychology” (pp.177-199). John Wiley & Sons

Frieman, J. (2002) “Learning and Adaptive Behavior”. Wadsworth Group.