Thursday, April 20, 2006

Learning and evolution

The Baldwin effect, proposed by James Baldwin in the late 19th century, has been recently revived in evolutionary biology and places learning at the centre of evolutionary theory. He proposed that learning gave individuals significant survival and reproductive advantage, allowing learned behaviours to become instinctual through genetic transmission. If true, learning becomes a major component in evolutionary theory.

In general, learning theory has a lot to learn from Evolutionary Biology. Once we recognise the predictive power of evolution, we see why some things are easy to learn, such as our first language, walking, talking, listening and so on, whereas non-selected skills such as writing, mathematics and counter-intuitive science is so difficult to teach and learn. Stephen Pinker has shown how attention to this pays dividends in teaching. For example, when you understand how regular and irregular features of a language are learned, stored and recalled in an entirely different way from each other in the brain, you see why it is important to teach languages in a way that is sensitive to these findings.

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