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Sunday, 6 December 2009

The Good Aztec

"Hold him closer to the flames, Anacoana" said Huemac, the Good Aztec, "otherwise he'll never learn"

Anacoana dutifully lowered the struggling child closer the flames of the fire while Huemac poked more cactus spines(dipped in chilli oil) into the soft flesh of the boy's thigh. After about five more minutes, Huemac nodded and Anacoana let the child go. Huemac addressed the child solemnly:

"Now son, do you understand how important it is not to make your toy houses more than one storey high?...." The boy nodded "....and why?" asked Huemac. "Yes" said Huemac's son, "The Jaguar God doesnt like us to have houses more than one storey high. Unless we're nobles, its an insult to Heaven and we should be killed if we build a two strorey house. Or wear cotton. Or cough from the left side of our mouths. " Satisfied, Huemac turned to Anacoana "Give him some extra cocaine with his chocolate at bedtime - he's been a good boy to accept his punishment and learn from it."

Huemac threw on a cloak and headed for the door. "I'm off to watch our oldest lad at the ball game. Hopefully he'll score a few goals and have his still beating heart ripped out of his chest later tonight" he said, but just as he was about to step outside, a final thought struck him, so he turned back to Anacoana "Make sure you wrap the little one's head tightly - it's not pointy enough. If that kid's head isnt as pointy as an arrow by the spring plantings, he'll wont grow up clever enough to be an architect."

All of which explains why evolutionary psychologists are, fundamentally, wrong.

I should, perhaps, expand. Throughout the voyages that constitute my scholarly endeavours, I have been subjected to a barrage of theories, models and paradigms on learning. Fairly soon after starting my degree, it became obvious that rather than a neat procession of modelling, experimentation, observation and hypothesis forming leading to a narrower and more accurate focus which eventually becomes a consensus forming a solid theoretical base from which aspiring pedagologists could launch their careers, the field of studying learning more resembled a disorganised yacht regatta.

From the headlands of studenthood, one gazes down at the harbour of theory. Yachts of different shapes and sizes mill around, apparently at random. Some boats, the good ship "Paiget", for example, work but only for very short journeys. Others, like the "SS Learning Styles" have their sails rigged underwater - tides getting them to their destinations, although the crew swear it's the wind doing the work. Still others - the "Merry Humanist" for example, sail round in ever decreasing circles in a knid of self satisfied ballet. At the moment, the one catching my attention is the "Veritable Evolutionist" - a brilliantly designed ship - sleek of line, ruthlessly efficient, relentlessly logical and 'yar'. Oh! how 'yar'. The only problem with this ship is that it has no room for humans.

I realise as I have been writing this that, like a post_Modernist trying to explain why a combustion engine works, I have become completely caught up in my own metaphor and, in true post Modernist vein, have completely failed to say anything of significance. So I will try again.

The evolutionary psychology, or evolutionary anthropological theories of human development mostly hold that the preponderance of human behaviours can be explained in terms of evolution. Lately these theories have been - once again - gaining ground, especially in the educational field as the nonsense of learning styles, split brains and beating the child senseless have all fallen by the wayside. Simply put, evolutionary psychology/anthropology are fairly deterministic, biologically based models that ascribe and try to explain the bulk of human behaviour through evolutionary principles. Some of the work, especially that of Geary( see for example who I've been ploughing through recently is very powerful. Geary, (in short and with apologies to him because his theories are nuanced and elegant) presents a two-fold mechanism for human learning - a "folk" mechanism whereby we learn easily (things that are directly related to survival) and a "novel learning" mechanism that requires us to exert some effort via accessing memory, working memory and active cognitive processes. Because most of what we learn in schools is "novel", school learning is for most people effortful.

But heres the rub. Humans throughout the history of civilisation have overwhelming been the cause of our own "novel" situations as we have invented cultures like Huemacs. So while evolutionary ideas might well explain HOW we negotiate the cultural structures and oddities we construct, they still do not explain WHY we constructed diverse cultures in the first place that were so heavily laden with practises and behaviours that were at best irrelevant (adaptationally) and at worst such a bad idea (like binding your children's head or adopting agriculture) that we had to employ an enormously "expensive" (biologically speaking) "novel learning" mechanism practically continuously.

It is a monstrous problem - just how different are humans from animals? In fact, the answer is already partly out there(in some very diverse, but reputable, literature), and itself presents a whole bunch of new problems, because other strands of research have begun to suggest that we arent that much different form animals but that animals are much, much, much more complicated than we previoulsy believed. Evolution it seems, explains a hwole bunch of things. Apart from the ones I am interested in.

1 comment:

William Large said...

Evolutionary psychology like all simplistic models explains too much and too little at the same time, but it has been around for ages and will never go away because people want certainty.