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An Evolutionary Theory of Education
   Joseph J. Pear

Department of Psychology, University of Manitoba,
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada R3T 2N2


The capacity to learn is a product of evolution, in that it promotes survival and the perpetuation of an individual's genetic material. An individual that can learn can be taught. Hence, a next step in evolution was teaching of the young by caretakers (usually the parents). Training of the young is carried out in many species but has evolved to its highest degree in humans. Humans also possess language, which has enabled them to develop complex cultures. These cultures perpetuate themselves and compete for resources and for members. This competition leads to the evolution of cultures similar to the manner in which species evolve. Education is analogous to the reproductive system; it is the mechanism by which cultures perpetuate themselves. Eventually in cultural evolution, education became institutionalized in some human cultures because of the evolutionary advantages it provided to those cultures. Educational techniques, however, have changed very little since ancient times despite research showing that some educational techniques are superior to others. Despite this resistance to change, certain applications of computer-based technology may provide the next step in the cultural evolutionary process.

An Evolutionary Theory of Education

The theory of education with which this paper deals considers evolution of education and culture as a natural process. Being based on learning, the evolution of education is based in the evolution of species. We therefore first consider the evolution of learning. We then consider the evolution of training, which is carried out by many species in which parental and other care of the young is provided. We next discuss how this training is most advanced in humans, largely because of they have evolved a facility for complex language. It is this ability that makes human cultures and institutionalized education possible. The paper concludes by considering what the next step in educational and cultural evolution might be.

The evolution of learning

Along with other properties of organism, the capacity to learn is a product of evolution. Learning occurs because it promotes the propagation of the genetic code of the organism that possesses the capacity to learn (see Pear, 2001). There are several types of learning, including sensitization, habituation, imprinting, classical or respondent conditioning, and instrumental or operant conditioning. Of these, it is the last with which we are concerned here; roughly speaking, operant conditioning is the modification of behavior by its consequences. Education is mostly concerned with changing behavior by arranging for favorable consequences to follow desirable behavior. For example, when a student's excellent essay receives praise from the teacher, we expect that the student will write praiseworthy essays in the future.

Operant conditioning evidently appeared quite early in evolutionary history. It exists in the earliest vertebrates. Any one who has kept fish knows that they swim expectantly to the sight or sound of someone getting ready to feed them. This is operant conditioning, because the fish receives the food faster if it is nearer the location in which the food enters the water. Fish will also learn to push a response key if this results in food dropping into the fish tank (Talton, Higa & Staddon, 1999). The operant conditioning of similar responses in rats, pigeons, and monkeys is well known to every student in an introductory psychology course. What is perhaps not so well know is the pervasiveness of operant conditioning; it occurs in organisms whose evolutionary paths diverge considerably from that of the vertebrates. For example, it occurs in insects, such as ants (Schneirla, 1943) and honey bees (Grossman, 1973). Since these invertebrates have nervous systems that are quite different from those of vertebrates, there is a suggestion that the ability to learn through operant conditioning may have evolved independently in different genetic lines.

The evolutionary advantage of operant conditioning is fairly obvious in a changing environment. A location that once provided food may no longer do so; an unfamiliar potential prey item may turn out to provide a nutritious meal or an illness-producing toxin. Another unfamiliar animal may turn out to be relatively harmless or a dangerous predator. An animal that is to survive and pass on its genetic material must adjust to these diverse circumstances, and learning obviously permits it to do so. What may not be so obvious, however, is the connection this all has to education. Physical survival does not usually depend on being able, for example, to write a commendable essay. However, the same process that enabled our ancestors learn to how to hunt efficiently can be enlisted to enable us to learn to write effectively. Both involve small shaping steps punctuated by positive feedback. In the case of hunting, the feedback was from the physical environment (a successful kill) and from other humans (praise for performing actions that led to a successful kill). In the case of essay writing, the shaping steps and feedback is from the teacher, who incidentally has been operantly conditioned to provide this feedback.

Training of the young

For many species, the parental function consists simply in reproduction. For certain others (i.e., those unable to fend for themselves at birth), however, there is care-giving from one or both parents and perhaps other members of the social group, until the young are able to make it on their own. Inevitably, animals learn from their caretakers and other members of their social group, but most of this learning occurs incidental to other activities. There is no deliberate attempt to teach. In some cases, deliberate teaching appears to occur but can be explained as phylogenetic; e.g., a mother lion teaching her young to hunt or a bird teaching its young to fly. Although the teacher may employ sound pedagogical principles (e.g., shaping, fading, scaffolding), their utilization has been developed by evolution rather than by learning.

Moving up the phylogenetic scale we do not find any evidence for deliberate teaching until we come to the apes, most notably our closest relatives, chimpanzees. These animals engage in certain complex tool-use behaviors, such as termite fishing (with a long stem inserted into a termite hole) and nut cracking using a hammer-and-anvil technique (using two stones). These are complex skills that take many years to perfect. There is some evidence of mothers actively teaching their young (thought physical guidance) proper techniques in performing these skills (Boesch, C. Teaching among chimpanzees. Animal Behaviour, 41, 530-532.).

Only humans show clear evidence of deliberate systematic teaching. The earliest evidence of this is from between 11,000 and 15,000 years ago. The stone chips found around certain stone-age hearths shows that evidence a master stone chipper encircled by learners who practiced the master's demonstration of the proper way to chip out stone tools, such as axes and knives (Fisher, 1990; Pigeot, 1990). Hence, humans carried out classroom-style teaching as early as 11,000 years ago.

Although there was no permanent record of it, these early teachers were undoubtedly doing more than merely demonstrating and the students were not merely imitating. The teacher undoubtedly was providing verbal instruction and reinforcement, and the students were responding to that instruction and reinforcement. The human propensity for speaking and listening – for language – probably evolved from early social bonding (Dunbar, 1991, 1993). In primates social bonding occurs though physical contact (e.g., grooming) and vocalizations. Language developed when humans evolved the capacity to imbed information more complex than simple "stroking" (e.g., the equivalents of "how are you?" and "fine, thank you") in their physical gestures and vocalizations. Language enabled the development of human cultures.


We may define a culture as a set of learned practices (including laws, values, ways of doing things) passed on from one generation to the next. Cultures evolve in a manner similar to the way in which species evolve (for discussions of cultural evolution and values, see Handy, 1960; Pepper, 1958, 1960; Skinner, 1953, 1971). Some cultures are well adapted to their environments and survive. Others are not well adapted and perish. Part of a culture’s environment includes other cultures. Hence cultures compete in a manner similar to that in which species compete. A culture survives only if it has members that survive and perpetuate it. Hence, cultures compete for resources and for members.

The practices of a culture may promote or hinder its survival. Some practices are more successful in promoting a culture's survival than others are. Some practices are harmful, and may lead to the demise of a culture. Some practices are not beneficial, or may even be harmful, but the culture may nevertheless survive for a long time because other practices counteract them or because no competing culture is present to exploit those weaknesses.


If a culture is analogous to a species, then education is the reproductive system of a culture. Just as the reproductive system is responsible for transmitting traits from one generation to the next, education replicates or transmits cultural practices, including values, rules, laws, customs, and skills. Also included in the practices of a culture is its social structure.

Education mirrors the culture in which it occurs. If the technology and social structure of a culture is relatively simple, education is simple. In a "simple" culture, education consists of the young learning from other members simply by participating in the activities of the culture. As the technology and social structure become more complex, special instruction becomes necessary. Chipping stone tools is a difficult skill but vital to a stone-age culture, hence classes apparently were required to facilitate members learning it.

A number of cultures developed a degree of complexity in which members are stratified into several strata or classes. These might include slaves (e.g., ancient Greece, ancient Rome, the United States before the Civil War), and lower, middle, and upper classes. Slaves received virtually no education, the lower classes might receive some sort of vocational training (often in the form of apprenticeships), the middle classes received training needed to be merchants, government administrators, and teachers, while the upper classes received training that enabled them to rule more effectively. Simplifying somewhat, universities developed to fulfill these last-two mentioned functions (Barzunm 2000, pp. 228-229). Complex verbal behavior, including the ability to discuss, reason, and argue are always useful to the governing and ruling classes. Even in the upper classes, women throughout all complex (stratified) societies, up until recent times, received only enough education to enable them fulfill the roles of mothers and homemakers. It is clear that education served to maintain the social structure of these cultures.

As described above, a culture may perpetuate itself by spreading its practices to succeeding generations. Another way it may perpetuate itself is by invading other cultures and attempting to transform them into replicas of itself (the analogy of a virus invading a cell comes to mind here). This is imperialism, which has been practiced so successfully by Western countries. True to its function as a replicator, education has been critical in the success of imperialism. The transplanting of the invaders’ educational systems into other countries (or, alternatively, sending members of the "host" country to be educated in the invading country) is analogous to the transplanting of viral DNA into host cells. That is, largely as a result of the transplantation of the invader's educational system into the host, the host country becomes more like the invader. It is interesting to note that this ultimately works to the disadvantage of the invader, because once the ruling members of the host are sufficiently educated in the practices of the invader, the host country tends to declare its independence. Similarly, the transfer of genetic material through sexual reproduction does not necessarily work to the advantage of the individual making the transfer.

In some cases the educational system of an invading country has been used to obliterate (or come close to obliterating) an indigenous culture. A prime example is the forcible removal of Native children from their parents and the placement of these children in residential schools, which occurred in Canada. Forced to learn the language and practices of the dominant culture, the children in these schools were severely punished for speaking their own language and were kept from learning anything about their own culture.

Conflict between dominant and subordinate groups over education

Since education tend to preserve the social order, members below the ruling class strive to obtain educational opportunities that would allow them to move into a higher class. The middle class presses for access to universities. The lower class presses to obtain basic education such as instruction in reading. And women press to obtain the same educational privileges men enjoy.

Cultural changes also help to bring about changes in the availability of education. By promoting the idea that each individual should be able to interpret the Bible for him or herself, leaders of the reformation successfully diminished the power of the Catholic Church. However, this idea makes sense only if everyone can read the Bible. The logical consequence of the change in the culture brought about through the reformation was that education in reading should be available to all. For the first time, therefore, government was in the position of having to provide universal education.

With the industrial revolution, a skilled labor force was needed. In addition, to protect the upper classes from social disruption and mayhem, youthful industrial workers needed to be occupied during the times that they were not at work. Hence, universal education was implemented on Sundays, and gradually extended to other days of week.

In more recent times, members of minority cultures have successfully petitioned to right to educate their members in their own culture. Politicians have responded favorably to this as means of winning votes and diffusing tensions.

Conflict between educators and the state

The state – i.e., the governing or ruling body of a culture – attempts to use the educational system to preserve itself. Dissidence is not to be tolerated if the ruling body has any say in the matter. This can bring the educational system into conflict with the state, and with the education administration – the representatives of the state within the educational system. One way in which this conflict appears is in the struggle within the educational system between those who favor restrictions on what can be taught and those who advocate academic freedom. Two important activities of education, at least as it exists today, are examining new ideas and questioning the status quo. These activities, however, can threaten the stability of the culture, and therefore tend to be resisted by those outside the educational institution (and often by some within). In the long run, similar to favorable mutations, the new ideas that are developed and promulgated in the educational institutions may lead to changes in cultural practices that strengthen the culture. This is why academic freedom has become a firmly entrenched value in some cultures, although it is still suspect in others.

The Shifting Role of Educators

Ever since the printing press was invented and books became widely available, lectures have been largely redundant. This is not to say that lectures have no value. In many cases they can be very beneficial. But they are not of equal value for everyone; and there are some who are able to learn quite well just by reading. Suppose, however, that a student went to the president of a university and said, "I have read every book in your library; please have your faculty test me and if I pass give me a degree." It is highly unlikely that such a student would have his or her request granted. At best the student might be granted an exemption from a few classes, but would have to sit through many more. Educators can rationalize this requirement in a number of ways; however, a case can be made that the underlying reason for it is that such a student is seen as a threat. It represents a loss of power. If you can learn without having to sit in our classrooms and listen to our lectures, then we have no power over you.

Some educators may also see the new technology of web-based instruction as a threat. Students on line do not have to be in the classroom. Some educators have attempted to adapt the lecture method to the new technology. In this format, students "meet" at a specified time, read a text-based "lecture" prepared by the instructor, and engage in online discussion by typing in comments on the lecture and comments on other students comments. This approach has the advantage that students do not have to be physically present on campus in order to take a course. This results in an increase in the number of people who can take courses and receive the benefits of education.

More could be done for students by taking advantage of research findings on different educational techniques. The data are quite consistent in indicating that mastery learning methods and cooperative learning work far better than lectures (Kulik, Kulik, & Bangert-Drowns, 1990). Real advances in education may occur when these methods are combined with web-based technology (for perhaps a start in this direction, see (Crone-Todd, Pear & Read, 2000; Pear & Crone-Todd, 1999; Pear & Novak, 1996). Given that educational practices have changed very little since the days of Socrates, despite many attempts to improve them over the centuries, it is probably unwise to predict that fundamental change will occur anytime soon. However, although educators have been strongly conditioned to preserve their traditional practices, they have also been conditioned to work for the betterment of their culture. The advances in technology that rapidly are making all forms of information widely available to everyone may demand new approaches to education. The next large evolutionary jump in education may be at hand.


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Pigeot, N. (1990). Technical and social actors: Flint knapping specialists and apprentices at Magdalenian Etiolles. Archaeological Review Cambridge, 9, 126-141.

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