The same genes that dictate the birth of the human with such a premature brain are also responsible for empowering that premature brain to mastermind its own subsequent growth through the operation of mental predispositions (something which Howard Gardner hinted at with the theory of multiple intelligences, but never elaborated on). Predispositions are not the same as instincts. Instincts operate of their own volition; you don’t have to work at them – they are literally “instinctive.” Predispositions are different, they are more like a set of metaphorical DIY guides sitting on a metaphorical bookshelf in that forty percent of the brain the child is born with. They were written, as it were, by the successful experiences of our very distant ancestors and show the techniques they used to get the right results. They are a critical part of our evolutionary “legacy.” Just how these predispositions are transmitted we don’t yet understand. Whether any of these “guides” are actually taken off that metaphorical shelf by the individual and acted upon, depends on one key instinct – that of humankind’s insatiable curiosity. The asking of endless questions – how, when, where, why, what, who – the kind of questions that young children can use to drive their parents crazy! We are the learning species because we are compelled to ask questions when we don’t understand something.
Many researchers now suspect that there are a number of such latent predispositions. At a young age a child develops a sense of place – largely babies don’t crawl over the edge of a precipice, and they don’t learn that simply through trial and error! Very early on babies learn to decode the meaning of facial expressions. They learn to speak their native language by about the age of three (and several languages if they are living in a multi-linguistic community). Scientists now know much about this wondrous process for, it seems, a child born anywhere in the world will learn, apparently spontaneously, the language heard around it. In so doing linguistic researchers believe that a baby apparently calls upon a basic mental configuration (a kind of complex software programme) that was somehow devised by the experience of our ancestors as being the most effective way to structure concepts into words, and subsequently convey meaning to others.
This language predisposition appears to be time limited for if a child does not hear language spoken, and does not speak itself by the age of about eight, it is highly unlikely that that child will ever speak. There are other critical periods, it is being discovered, during which particular metaphorical DIY guides can be accessed; miss that time frame and the brain appears, quite automatically, to prune that potential capability.
In terms of critical time frames it is almost as if the brain has an efficient librarian systematically, but subconsciously, getting rid of unused manuals, so that other parts of the brain can expand. Any readers who found it hard to learn a foreign language later in life would have found that all those DIY guides had been destroyed… they were only available to “young” readers, and we adults can no longer access that part of the library. Adults have to learn the hard way. There are no shortcuts. All an adult can do is to envy the thirty-month-old child’s ability to learn ten new words a day – three and a half thousand words a year – with no apparent effort. Adults have to work at learning a language through endless repetition and much practice.
Cognitive scientists see language development as a key human skill, while evolutionary psychologists go further, and see language as a key survival skill. The distinction is important. The child who, out in the ancestral environment, could speak and understand what other people said, would have a higher chance of surviving than the child that did not understand the message about, say, a wolf coming around the corner. Such inarticulate children were likely to die before passing on their genes, while the successful language speaker – the learner – would live to pass on its genes. This language adaptation has become encased in the human genome. Our ability to acquire and use language is a key aspect of our humanity.
Section Four. The Deep History of the Human Race – where, and when, our mental predispositions were formed
It is now necessary to step back into the deep prehistory of the human race to see what other successful adaptations our distant ancestors evolved to enable us, their descendants, to use our brains well. It is a story that starts hundreds of millions of years ago but can conveniently be noted, as far as humankind’s separate evolution is concerned, as starting seven million years ago – nearly half a million generations back. It will take a real effort of mind to hold such a thought together as this story unfolds. To comprehend that we act as we do because of the experiences of our ancestors thousands of generations back, not simply because of our parents or grandparents, inevitably stretches our limited powers of imagination.
The story ultimately takes us right forward into an explanation for why those eighteenth century apprentice/craftsmen were able to lead England into the Industrial Revolution. It will also give substance for why this Paper argues that the roughly two hundred years of mass schooling that followed, was indeed an aberration – a wandering of the intellect – resulting in the turmoil of the non-convergence of many parts of the human psyche that actually makes so many features of modern life – not just schooling – dysfunctional. Here is the radical thought; maybe schooling has created more problems for modern man than it has solved.
Anthropologists and other scientists are now close to agreeing that for the greater part of those seven million years, our ancestors lived as tiny groups of wandering hunter/gathers on the savannah lands of central Africa. These were people who owned nothing, planted no crops, domesticated no animals, and for whom every day was a new struggle. The archaeological record shows that although their brains were getting steadily bigger, they appear not to have learnt much – if anything – from such day-to-day experience that enabled them to improve their lot. The axe heads they left behind showed few improvements until about a million years ago.
As a puny species it appears from evidence in the Stirkfontein caves just to the north of Johannesburg, that we humans in the earliest days were more often the hunted, rather than the hunters. Lone families of our early ancestors often ended up as tiger food. Bones found in those caves suggest that something highly significant happened about one and a half million years ago, for the bones recovered from the cave floor reveal that, from that date onwards, it was the animal bones that showed signs of the meat having been cut from them, while the human bones that have been found are largely intact. It was as long ago as that, so evolutionary psychologists now speculate, that we humans learnt to collaborate when we went hunting. We did this not through the use of language (which came far later) but because we became sufficiently good at understanding what was going on in each others’ minds that we could anticipate each others possible reactions. In short we became expert in reading peoples’ faces, and understanding body language.
Most other animals have only a limited ability to do this. Empathy, evolutionary psychologists now argue, was the key skill that propelled the human species on its ever more rapid upward spiral. Faces matter to us; the eyes of very young babies search our faces for clues as to our intentions. Women, it seems, are far better than men in understanding such nonverbal expressions and feelings because, argue evolutionary psychologists, over all that time in the ancestral environment, women worked in small groups to collect fruit and berries, and chatted while they did so. Men were so busy hunting, and often out of earshot of each other, that they became better – so the same argument goes – at talking silently to themselves, than talking to each other. It is the same in 2005 – girls develop language skills more rapidly than boys; girls seem to enjoy language, whereas boys often simply “grunt.” Maybe many a modern woman would agree! Even now, in our highly technological world, it is easier to tell a lie in a letter or an e-mail, or even over the phone, than it is face-to-face. Here is another adaptation. (Incidentally if you are thinking of investing in third generation mobile phones you would probably be advised not to – most men like the anonymity of talking whilst not being seen!)