Are humans “biological learning machines”?

[631 words]

The other day, I blurted out that human beings are “biological learning machines.”

I would like to take a step back and think about this a bit more. I realize now that a significant part of the impetus behind my words were readings that I had been doing about human evolution and the fact that homo sapiens seems to have developed a very particular cognitive profile. One book in particular, Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2015) points toward what he calls a “cognitive revolution” which he suggests was one of the most important developments in the history of our species that took place approximately 70,000 years ago. For Harari, this “revolution” was the result of changes in the hominid brain that allowed the development of contrary-to-fact thinking, vast imagination, and complex conceptualizations expressed through language. These capacities undergirded the emergence of generalized human culture, of myths, of ideologies, of concrete and abstract representations (and misrepresentations), of large-scale social organization and cooperation. Those evolved aspects of the human brain are responsible for our being able to think about the past and the future as well as the present, and being able to plan, to imagine alternatives and to critique and analyze. They make possible the development of writing, record-keeping, archiving and inter-generational learning. I note that Yuval attributes a somewhat lesser role to memory than I think the word “learning” evokes, although he does note that it is homo sapiens’ ability to retain and recall a large amount of relevant information that allows individuals to operate effectively in complex social systems. Still, individual, collective and archived memories are an important part of my own broad view of learning, as are communication networks and shared understandings.

What I believe and what I was trying to say in my blurted declaration about “what human beings are” is that all of these characteristics make us high-capacity, highly adaptable, highly effective learners. Indeed, that complex fact may be the principal evolutionary advantage of homo sapiens. We are learning machines. We learn from experience; we learn through abstract conceptualization and theorization; we learn through experimentation; and we employ intense cognitive processing to make our learning memorable and durable. Add writing, archiving and mutually negotiated standards to the mix and it is clear that we humans constitute a living, global, rhizomatic network of learners and repositories of learning. It is clear that we are programmed for learning and knowledge development, much in the way that viruses are programmed to take over protein production in targeted living cells, to produce additional viruses.

Learning is, perhaps, what humans do best and it is the thing that our evolutionary heritage impels us, indeed, compels us to do. By “learning,” I obviously do not mean simply memorizing information in order to pass a test. I mean it in the largest sense of developing new knowledge, new insights, and new understandings that we share broadly in a way that informs the knowledge, insights and understandings of others, assuring both a measure of homeostasis and change across a social-cognitive network of education and scholarship. We humans have an astounding talent for generating, refining, improving, and interconnecting meaningful ideas. We produce systems of concepts, formulae and metaphors that model the universe and that make our understandings communicable. This high capacity for learning, both individually and collectively, has made us into a kind of creature somewhat beyond all other evolved beings on this planet. So, while there are many ways to characterize what we have become as a species (neurotic and domineering animals, the ultimate apex predator, featherless bipeds, agents of planet-wide destruction, self-obsessed and hubristic creatures, the talking animal, the writing animal, the self-identified “highest form of consciousness”), it is clear to me that my improvised bon mot the other day was absolutely on-target. Beyond that observation, I would point out that my formulation has significant implications for the future of education.

Humans are indeed biological learning machines, an idea that I’ll explore further in later posts.

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