The Biology of Education

The Biology of Education
Frederick Turner

Thirty years ago the dominant paradigm of human development was behaviorism, the belief that a human being is born a tabula rasa, and that social, cultural and economic forces shape this raw material into the kind of adult he or she would become.  Since then a flood of evidence from comparative anthropology, neuroscience, psychophysics, the study of human evolution, sociobiology, ethology, child psychology, linguistics, twin studies, and so on has demolished the foundations of this view, though it still hangs on in the humanities, in such fields as discourse analysis, feminist theory, and cultural studies.  The new paradigm envisages a human nature that is the result of a feedback between biological inheritance and life-experience.  Feedback is a nonlinear process, in which the chain of causes and effects is not a simple unidirectional one, but contains loops and mutual influences, giving all participants in it both a say in the result and an environment and context determined by its neighbors.  Such a feedback system is capable of generating unique and unpredictable emergent features.  Human genetic inheritance is not enough to make us what we are; nor is the human social inheritance into which we are born.  Both sets of determinants are involved in a complex process of development that can produce the unique quality of creativity that we prize so highly.

This interplay between biology and sociocultural forces was the key factor in the evolution of the human species itself; our early culture favored the reproductive success of individuals with more sophisticated social and cultural abilities, and those abilities in turn made possible more complex and demanding forms of culture.  This process of gene-culture “coevolution” gives rise to a perspective on human nature that I have called natural classicism.  Natural classicism can be summed up in an aphorism: human beings have a nature; that nature is cultural; that culture is classical, in the sense that it aspires to a kind of perfection of proportions, means, and ends that is recognizable across all human cultures.  However, if we accept that human beings do indeed have a nature, one that is the product of their evolutionary history, education becomes a crucial issue.  If our genes determine who we are, what is the point of education, and how do we educate for creativity?  The evolutionary perspective suggests an interesting answer.

Studies of the relative weight of hereditary as opposed to socially acquired characteristics seem to indicate that our genes are about three times as influential as our upbringing.  Suppose for the sake of argument we accept the roughly 70/30 ratio of nature-nurture determinants given us by the scientists, as far as it goes.  But it does not go very far, and indeed falls short on two counts.  The first is that advanced animals, especially ourselves, seldom inherit complete behaviors, but rather predispositions that must be activated by experiential and social triggers.  The predisposition, for instance the human capacity for language, often has its own weakly-determined structure, that is revealed when a society must reinvent that behavior from scratch.  Derek Bickerton (“Creole Languages.”  Scientific American, July 1983) has discovered that whenever a community of people is cut off from their ancestral language, they tend to invent a Creole language whose basic grammatical and lexical structure is always the same.  Baby-talk, the transitional phase through which infants must pass to get to full mastery of their language, is structured like a simple Creole.  However, that default structure is not necessarily the best that could be found; nor is a human baby constrained to use it forever, or seriously hampered by having to pass through a period of creole-structured baby-talk to get to the more complicated and refined structure of a regular “natural language.”  A simple analogy would be the capacity a human being has, given a tennis racquet, to hit a ball over a net when one has never done it before.  This default option is replaced later, with the help of a tennis pro, by a proper forehand or backhand.

But suppose there is no sociocultural encouragement to use a given capacity–suppose a child is brought up where nobody speaks, or is kept so confined that it never has the chance to develop the sensory-motor skills of standing, looking, handling.  Such a child never has the chance to develop even the default option; and thus an inherited capacity–part of the “70% nature”–can be aborted by a crucial absence in the “30% nurture.”  Human genes need cultural triggers; our nature is designed open on one side (though closed on the other) so that our inherited skills can be completed by a cultural context.  Often those triggers will only work during a short period of an individual’s lifetime–in human beings, the first five years are especially important for language and other skills.  Among those “skills” are moral capacities, and forms of self-discipline, and insight from other points of view than our own.  After the trigger period it is too late, and a person who has missed them will behave exactly as if he or she were genetically lacking in those capacities.  Educating for creativity is essentially providing a cultural trigger to activate human capacities during the most crucial period.

But if our educational philosophy is based, as it has been, upon a “tabula rasa” or “blank slate” theory of human capacities, upon which society inscribes its determining cultural patterns (what one might call a “0/100″  theory), then we will fail to recognize the existence of such predispositions.  We will thus fail to trigger them in time, fail to arrange a smooth passage from the default option to the elaborated cultural form, and perhaps totally neglect certain fundamental traditional skills that have not received theoretical attention, or that are culturally unfashionable.  In earlier books I have pointed out the terrible disservice we do children by neglecting to teach them the fundamentals of the human arts–meter and rhyme in poetry, representation in the visual arts, tonality in music, and so on–because of modernist esthetic theories that falsely held such disciplines to be arbitrary and outworn cultural impositions.

Thus our social-determinist educational establishment has unknowingly committed a crime, an atrocity against our children.  The results of that atrocity, the underclass, are now being blamed on racism in society, which is actually only indirectly at fault for this, if at all.  Racism surely exists in our society; but it is not in itself to blame for the lack of educational achievement.  Minority children are brought up in racist or xenophobic societies all over the world without damage to their education–indeed, in many cases, such as the Chinese in Indonesia, Jews everywhere, Hungarians in Rumania, Asians in the United States, and so on, the “oppressed” minority children end up better educated and more economically viable than the majority.  The reason is that very deeply rooted, almost invisible traditions of family education have been preserved, and the intellectual, moral, and esthetic triggers have been pulled at the appropriate times.  Those triggers may be as homely as babytalk, fairytales, parental discipline practices, nursery rhymes, family rituals, riddles and baby games.

The second major flaw in the “70/30″ theory is that it fails to take into account the extraordinary factor of the sudden catching fire of a person’s moral, esthetic or intellectual imagination that can sometimes happen when the normal conditions of development have not been interrupted.  In the language of chaos theory, the nonlinear dynamical system of genes and culture has produced an emergent structure.  This “catching fire” is not heavily dependent upon native inherited talent, and it should therefore not be confused with the eruption, despite itself, of some miraculous inherited genius (which may happen despite, rather than because of, an individual’s choices and good offices).  The ignition does not require a special education, merely an adequate one; though often, after the breakthrough, the person will seek out her proper mentor and compel her to teach.  It consists, I think, fundamentally in some combination of imaginative attraction with moral dedication, a combination that is usually mediated by some marvellously true and powerful idea.  That idea need not by any means be original–Mother Teresa, who is a good example, had pretty mainline Catholic views.  Most important, it is a feedback process, in which the individual bootstraps him or herself into new levels of awareness and will.  It is thus a very advanced example of chaotic self-organization, whereby a system, drawn by a strange attractor, can irreversibly ratchet itself up into entirely new forms of stable and ordered activity.  People who have achieved this breakthrough have an enormous and disproportionate effect on society, one which is often unrecognized and unacknowledged.  Today, for instance, in the arts, we are much more interested in the extraordinary productions of inborn talent than in the results of such breakthroughs–though I believe the latter are more esthetically interesting and in the long run more influential, as well as more beautiful.  A person who has “caught fire” or “broken through” is free in a far deeper sense than the freedom that is preached by political dogma; such a person has become a self-creating, self-organizing system, and can play a part in the universe analogous to that of a highly limited but original divine being.  Education for creativity is less a matter of “bringing out” inborn talent than of marrying it to the rich disciplines of the cultural tradition where it can find challenging partners among the great dead artists and thinkers of the past, and an expressive medium in which to embody itself.

We might summarize the three theories of education that are implicit in this discussion in the following way.  The first theory is the traditional “aristocratic” theory, which in its commonsense has recognized that the majority of our capacities are inherited, not socially-constructed.  The aristocratic theory correctly believes in the “70/30″ ratio of nature to nurture; and moreover its essential conservatism preserves the family education traditions which accurately trigger human innate capacities.  The talented, it says, should rule; and if we took the “70/30″ ratio at face value and without further thought, we might find the proposition very reasonable.  Indeed, opponents of aristocratic social structures have felt forced to deny the nature-nurture ratio, because they did not have the wit or the imagination to look further and see that it did not necessarily entail political aristocracy.  The aristocratic theory has perfectly good faults of its own, that invalidate it, without our going to the drastic lengths of denying good scientific knowledge because it is socially inconvenient.

One major problem with the aristocratic theory is that inheritance of superior talent only works up to a point, and is statistically bound to erase itself after a few generations.  That is, with very complex human characteristics such as intelligence, though intelligent parents are more likely to produce intelligent children, those children are statistically likely to be less intelligent than their parents, though still more intelligent than the norm.  The result, though, is that in a few generations any innate distinction in intelligence between the descendents of the original couple and the general population will, on average, be wiped out.  (Likewise, stupid parents are likely to produce children less stupid than themselves, with the paradoxical result that by reproducing, clever people are making their own group of clever people less clever, while stupid people are making their own group smarter).  Thus the aristocratic theory breaks down in a way that is very familiar: the son is less creative than his heroic father, the grandson merely consolidates the family gains, the great-grandson is feeble and lackluster, and the great-great grandson is a wastrel who squanders the family fortune.  Meanwhile bright descendents of the peasants rise up through craftsmanship, commerce, or the church, and challenge the decadent barons.  For there are other factors than inheritance of specific configurations of genes that can produce high innate intelligence: hybrid vigor, freak combinations of genes that can throw up a novel and beneficial talent, and sheer statistical “noise.”

The aristocratic theory fails on another count, too: it is threatened by, and must oppose, the “breakthrough” phenomenon except when it occurs within the ranks of the aristocracy.  For the breakthrough partially invalidates the determinism of inheritance, and it is likely to create political challenges if it occurs in the wrong place, in the hovel rather than in the castle.  Thus aristocracies tend to monopolize education, where the breakthrough is most likely to happen, for themselves, and to deal with clever commoners by directing them into a celibate priesthood where their genes are likely to die with them while their energy can serve society.  Such a culture cannot really progress.

The second theory of education is the one which I have already criticised: the 0/100 theory, the behaviorist, tabula-rasa, Deweyan theory which assumes that all children are equal in being blank slates, and that all human characteristics are socially constructed.  Its advantages are that at least on the face of it, it seems to serve the democratic values of equality and ideological neutrality; it neatly avoids all the possible religious and political issues of human nature, natural law, and the soul; and it seems to be a sound rebuff to racism.  It fits a sociology based upon engineering and the natural sciences, especially the sciences of non-living matter that were so finely developed in the nineteenth century, and it suggests a straightforward, no-nonsense, linear cause-and-effect procedure for going about education that can be taught to teachers without special talent or special personal experiences.

Unfortunately, this system is even more deeply flawed than the aristocratic system.  First, of course, it is simply wrong about the nature/nurture ratio.  Second, it ignores the inherited talents of children in such a way as to actively frustrate their actualization–it de-educates bright children, so that they would be better off fending for themselves outside school.  It enforces a linearity of thought which is deeply alien to the human brain and to any living organism, while avoiding the conscious and reflective philosophical disciplines by which a nonlinear mind can master linear ideas (the rigors of grammar, logic, math, and science), because those disciplines seem too hard for people of some backgrounds.  It discourages the homely old traditions of family education, because its theory does not believe in them, and its esthetics are steeped in the efficient modernism of abstraction, atonality, and “free verse.”  It encourages a mediocre breed of teachers who are given methods and training rather than ideas and education, teachers who are unsuccessful demonstrations of the belief that by democratic training and specialization you can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Worst of all, it does not really believe in the breakthrough, which is the purpose of all education, because breakthrough implies a kind of human soul that is inconvenient to a secular state, because breakthrough implies a certain elitism, and because breakthrough denies the proposition that it is social conditioning that determines a person’s capacities, not their own, mysterious, moral and imaginative, nonlinear selfwill.  The tabula rasa theory hates the positive feedback that happens inside a person, because that feedback denies the linear positivism of its sociology.  If an individual can turn him or herself into a free, happy, creative, effective and original being, what is the use of the teaching profession and of the helping bureaucracy in general?

At present the American educational authorities have tacitly agreed on a combination of the tabula rasa theory and the aristocratic theory.  The public education system, from primary school through university, has been ceded to the proponents of the tabula rasa.  An increasingly “dumbed-down” scientific and technical curriculum is pawned off on the general public, especially its ethnic minorities, with a sugar coating of self-esteem provided by an arts education that is based on self-expression and cheap praise, and a humanities and social-science education committed to representing cultural and personal failure as victimhood and martyrdom.  Meanwhile the liberal elite sends its own children to private schools and universities based on the aristocratic theory of education. The elitist mission of such schools is heavily camouflaged by generous scholarship programs for poor and minority students, who are expected in return for their grants to stay out of subjects requiring real discipline, such as science, languages, philological scholarship and technical arts apprenticeship, and to gravitate instead toward studies of social inequality.  I have often observed the odd phenomenon of gifted minority or female candidates for tenure-track positions in the humanities being rejected by politically correct search committees because they had clearly ignored this tacit rule, and had acquired expertise in some subject, like medieval musical instruments or biochemistry, that it was not politically proper for them to have.  After all, an unvictimized black or woman, who was interested in a patriarchal western subject like French poetic meters or classical Chinese art or neutron stars, constitutes a living refutation of the whole Weltanschauung of such a committee.

The tabula rasa theory leads eventually to the horrible proposition that nobody is free and nobody is responsible; in which case any atrocity is permissible, since it is only social thinking that makes it an atrocity.  We must, therefore, reject the tabula rasa theory; but this does not require that we go back to the aristocratic theory instead.  The aristocratic theory of human talent, though old, is not the oldest.  It was essentially invented by feudalism.  Plato hints that it is a Noble Lie in his myth of the metals in the Republic .

There is an older theory, which maintains that though good blood can supply you with many advantages, you are at least potentially a person with your own powers of affecting the world and its treatment of you; your own moral decisions and choices are the determining forces in making you what you are.  This perspective is central to most fairytales, from whatever part of the world they are collected.  Fairytales see human life as a story, with branchpoints in the narrative at which heroes or heroines can make decisions, sometimes apparently minor or trivial ones, that partly, though irreversibly,  determine what will become of them.  In such a story your good genes are perhaps like the magic Helpers, who can warn you with their fine hearing, or see things far away; or like seven-league boots or a magic sword or ring or purse.  But those powers must be won to your use by some greatness of moral choice or generosity, or boldness of insight and self-denying truth.

This story view of education, elaborated, assumes that a human being has a free and responsible soul, which is ultimately the arbiter of its own fate: a soul which must be won in the first place, since only the makings of it are given; a soul which can also be lost, or aborted during the bootstrapping process of self-discipline by which it emerges, if the right choices are not made.  Given such a soul, the injustices of the world are but temporary handicaps in the achievement of Heart’s Desire; and Heart’s Desire will be the kind of thing that cannot be given or taken away by social prejudice or economic injustice or racial bias.  Indeed, paradoxically, the hero or heroine of the fairy tale needs a somewhat hostile world, of stepmothers and giants and oppressive kings, in order to make their souls.

The “fairytale theory,” as we might call it, as opposed to the aristocratic theory and the tabula rasa theory, corresponds rather closely with what we now know about the development of the human self.  It does not divide us into 70/30 or 0/100, but shows how even a very small inheritance, social and natural, can by exponentiation, by iterated multiplications of itself, approach the infinite.  This is the meaning of the parable of the talents.  We do not need to hypostasize the soul into some eternal, infinite, preexistent and immaterial entity.  But all those old descriptions of the soul might well be as close as people could get, before they possessed the language of nonlinear self-organizing processes, and the wonderful mathematics of fractal geometry by which we can now visualize the beautiful structures that emerge from such processes.  There is not space here to give a full account of the new field: James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science (Viking, 1987) and Order out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialog with Nature by Isabel Stengers and Ilya Prigogine (Bantam, 1984) can provide a good introduction, and Koen dePryck’s Knowledge, Evolution and Paradox (State University of New York Press, 1993) explores some of the educational implications.  The important point for our purposes is that such a language now exists, and the implications are thus thinkable.  It is a language can now describe forms of stable order that are open-ended, since they keep on revealing further fractal depths, yet also apparently shaped in advance by a strange attractor; and that are relatively independent of the matter that flows through them, though not of the energy gradient upon which they feed.

The problem with the fairytale theory, as an educational principle and as a guide to social policy, is that it expects, or at least demands, that everybody go through the breakthrough experience.  But this seems to me to be an advantage rather than a problem.  Though Japanese education has its own very deep flaws in other areas, it succeeds in taking all of its pupils far further along the road of mathematics than American education does; and it does it by a sort of moral expectation and demand, a strict call to account of the student’s honor as a human being, which is consistent with the fairytale theory.  Japanese education neither writes off the genetically inferior, nor assumes that every child is equal until social deprivation skews the odds: rather, it expects that a human soul will be able to work hard enough to come to understand, and is unforgiving of failure.  Partly as a result of this call to account, the average intelligence of the Japanese is measurably higher than that of Americans.  I believe that there are versions of the fairytale theory of education that will work well in the kind of individualistic and multiracial society we have in America and elsewhere; but in order to put them into practice it is clear that we must abandon the present compromise between behaviorism and tacit aristocracy.

For if we take gender to be socially constructed, and the traditional intellectual and artistic disciplines to be instruments of political oppression, as do the proponents of the myth of social construction, we will be depriving our daughters of their human birthright as clear-sighted agents and creative contributors.  And if we remain paralysed by the pathos and hopelessness of the gallant nonwestern culture enchained by the oppressive culture of the west, where the latter controls the values, and the members of the former are constrained, by the social determinism of their bondage, to failure, addiction, and misery, then we can scarcely escape the double-binds of the tabula rasa theory of education.  Indeed, the tabula rasa theory underpins the myth of the patriarchal west, and the myth underpins the tabula rasa theory.

The “fairy-tale” theory of education, on the other hand, is consistent with new, more constructive myths of the sexes and of ethnic difference.  It offers grounds for hope and suggestions for a program of action to solve our problems.  But it also contains some as yet unexplored mysteries, the chief of which is the magical pleasure–we called it “heart’s desire”–that draws the true learner into and across the threshold of imaginative breakthrough.  That pleasure is beauty; and the recognition and pursuit of beauty, whether intellectual, moral, or esthetic, should be the goal of creative education.