Evolutionary Theory as a Bridge over Troubled Water

The theory of evolution has two major roles when we think about children. First of all, the theory can be the basis from which to view children from a biological perspective. That is to say, the theory of evolution cuts across a number of fields in biology and is also an effective tool for looking at human beings from a biological perspective rather than the conventional humanistic approach. Secondly, using the theory of evolution, we can draw analogies between the evolution of life and human knowledge in education, a field that closely involves children.

Human Beings from the Evolutionary Perspective

Evolutionary theory can be a useful tool that links various diverse fields of study. This usefulness can be considered in three ways. First, it serves as a foundation for the humanities and social sciences. Generally speaking, the conventional humanities and social sciences concern the biological basis of human character. For example, social norms dictate that one should not kill other human beings, and ethics has established a complex system of values, but they do not provide us with a strong reason for why human beings, as living beings, require such a value system. The theory of evolution and its application in studies is a necessary tool that will allow us to consider such questions and establish a foundation for viewing human beings as a biological organism.

Secondly, when used to view human behavior, evolutionary theory enables us to identify the characteristics of educational activities that are unique to human beings. According to the dual inheritance theory of Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, U.S. anthropologists at the University of California, humans, unlike other animals, transfer information through both genes and culture. In other words, not only do human beings transfer information through the genes as other animals do, but they also transfer information to the next generation by culture. If education is a system to transfer culture in a broad sense, educational activity by human beings then assumes unique characteristics and an importance from a biological point of view.

Third, many experts in educations with a background in the humanities, in particular, distrust or are uncomfortable with viewing human beings in terms of biological theories. This can be attributed to an unfortunate history in which such ideas as eugenics were used to support racial discrimination in the past. It is necessary to correctly educate public opinion so that study of human beings from a biological perspectives or evolutionary theory is no longer considered taboo, but rather a fruitful and productive inquiry. For that purpose, biologists should learn how to communicate with experts in education and other fields. The theory of evolution can play an important role in discussions on "what children are" or "why human childhood is so long."

Analogy of Knowledge and Life

Next, I would like to make an analogy between human knowledge and life. Considering human knowledge as a sort of biological system that evolves, educational psychologists like Donald T. Campbell as well as philosophers of science such as Karl Popper, Stephen Toulmin, Michael Ruse and David Hull, have studied the evolution of knowledge.

Creatures evolve through the process of copying genetic information. That is to say, genetic information is copied by successive generations and gradually changes through mutation and natural selection. On the other hand, human knowledge and cultural information is also copied through transmission, a process similar to the copying of genetic information. Noting this commonality, the above-mentioned scholars and scientists have attempted to explain human knowledge through an analogy with the evolution of biological life.

A gene is the unit of genetic information that is transferred by living organisms. In his book called The Selfish Gene, English zoologist Richard Dawkins coined the word "meme" to refer to a unit of information of human culture that is copied and transferred. In the past several years, there have been many international symposia and conferences to discuss whether "meme" is an effective concept in thinking about human culture and knowledge. This level of interest and discussion shows that the study of memes or "memetics," is a quite hot and productive area.

Beside the "meme," another idea that makes an analogy between knowledge and life is the universal selection theory by Gary Cziko, an educational psychologist at the University of Illinois in the United States. According to this theory, the mechanisms of natural selection and mutation which create adaptive traits of living organisms to the environment are also able to be applied in human knowledge. Cziko contends that it is detrimental for complex systems, whether the human body, knowledge, or a corporation, to advance in a linear fashion toward a predetermined goal. On the contrary, better results are assured through a process of trial-and-error or reinforced learning which allows a certain range of diversity within which variation occurs at random and only the successful are retained. This is quite equivalent to natural selection with random mutation, hence Cziko termed this idea "universal selection theory." In relation to education, this confirms both the importance of transmitting social traditions, equivalent to strong selection, and the freedom of thought and imagination, or random mutation.

As our living environment becomes more and more complex, the diversity of knowledge takes on increased significance. These diverse variants of knowledge, or what might be considered non-directional mutation will become the basis for producing robust and flexible knowledge for a predominantly information society. In this way, analogy-making between biological life and human knowledge may provide us with an opportunity to think about new forms of education.
Write a comment

*CRN reserves the right to post only those comments that abide by the terms of use of the website.


About CRN

About Child Science


CRN Child Science Exchange Program in Asia

Japan Today

Honorary Director's Blog