Jan. 11, 2012
The Evolutionary theory of learning is a sub- category of the school of Evolutionary psychology. The study of evolutionary psychology focuses on a combination of sciences, evolutionary biology and cognitive psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience. The basic theory seeks to explain, through universal mechanisms, why humans act and learn the way they do. EP (evolutionary psychology) theorists attempt to reconstruct early humans’ problems and problem- solving tactics. From these reconstructed problem-solving adaptations, the science then attempts to establish the common roots of our ancestral behavior, and how those common behavioral roots are demonstrated today in the widely scattered cultures of the planet. The goal is to understand human behavior that is universally aimed at the passing of one's genes into the next generation. The evolutionary theory of learning states that the way humans learn has evolved from generations and generations of adaptations. Evolutionary psychology starts with a necessary insight of cognitive psychology. The brain is a machine designed to process information. From this standpoint, the mind can be defined as a set of information gathering and processing procedures (cognitive programs) that are centrally located in the neural centers of the brain. Anthropologically, these cognitive adaptations were developed in the brain through years and years of evolution. The question evolutionary psychology seeks to answer is why some neurological processes chosen while others were eliminated. The main principle of evolutionary psychology is the theory that views human nature as a result of a universal set of biological and physiological adaptations to repetitive problems in the ancestral environment. At its core evolutionary psychology is the belief that all humans on the planet have innate areas in their brains which have specific knowledge that help them adapt to local environments. These areas are highly specific, and only activate when the information is needed. These areas give the brain specific step by step instructions that have evolved from our ancestral pasts to adapt to all situations, including the situations that we face today. The basic tenet of Evolutionary Psychology is that, just as evolution by natural selection has created morphological adaptations that are universal among humans, so it has created universal psychological adaptations. "The fact that any given page out of Gray's Anatomy describes in precise anatomical detail individual humans from around the world demonstrates the pronounced monomorphism present in complex human physiological adaptations. Although we cannot directly 'see' psychological adaptations (except as described neuroanatomically), no less could be true of them" (Cosmides & Tooby 1992, p. 38). The goal of Evolutionary Psychology, then, is to discover and describe the functioning of our psychological adaptations, which are the "proximate mechanisms" that cause our behavior (Cosmides & Tooby 1992). The construction of complex adaptations takes hundreds of thousands of years, therefore evolutionary psychologist theorize that our psychological adaptations are not designed for modern life. Instead they are designed to solve problems faced by our ancestors in the Pleistocene. Given the diverse natures of these many problems, Evolutionary Psychologists argue, a successful solution in one problem domain cannot transfer to another domain; so each adaptive problem would have selected for the evolution of its own dedicated problem-solving mechanism (Buss 1995; Cosmides & Tooby 1987, 1994; Symons 1987, 1992; Tooby & Cosmides 1992, 1995). According to Evolutionary psychologist the mental processes of learning are hard- wired into our brain from generations of problem solving of ancestors. That ancestral inheritance weeded out the “unnecessary” processes while keeping the more essential. The brain is a computer designed by natural selection to extract information from the environment. Human behavior is caused by the brain’s response to the environment around an organism and understanding it requires reading into the cognitive programs that makes up that behavior. The computer programs are adaptations that formed because they created a behavior in our ancestors that helped them to survive and reproduce, though they are not adaptive now they were in ancestral environments. Natural selection ensures that the brain is composed of many different modules and not a general make up; describing the evolution of that make up allows us to understand many universal, cultural and social phenomena. It is a lot like upgrading computer program. First, the basics are created then after it is in use the error reports are sent out and the surveys are read and the programmers get to work on an upgrade. The purpose of the upgrade is to get rid of unnecessary hardware, fine tune the operating system and to basically get the computer running as efficiently as possible with as few glitches as possible. That is what evolutionary psychologist believe, that evolution continued to upgrade our brains until our behavior, motor and language skills were fine- tuned enough to ensure human survival. Evolutionary psychology also proposes that prior experience was a key in determining which mental processes were passed down through genetics. The processes that did not yield the correct results died out through the process of evolution. It is not the present day experience that is the key, but the ancestral experience. Danger that was faced by our ancestors taught them what was to be avoided and how to avoid it. With each experience a new line was written into the programming of the human brain which was passed down in the internal encoding of genetics called mental processes. The best example for this explanation is the fight or flight response that is instinctive to all organisms. When an organism feels like it is in danger, instinctively it choses whether to fight or flee, this is most likely an example of a mental process passed along from ancestors past. While the fight or flight response clearly can be learned, it also involves an innate reaction that operates largely outside consciousness. When a person feels like they are in danger the brain stimulates a sequence of events to physiologically prepare the organism to attack or flee. The hypothalamus sends out a distress signal to the nervous system, the endocrine system and the circulatory system. The heart starts beating faster and harder to supply the limbs with blood and oxygen. Adrenaline and endorphins are released to heighten speed and strength and mask pain. This response is helpful when you need to escape a hungry bear or confront a hostile rival and it served our ancestors well, ancestors who lived in an environment far more dangerous than ours. These same mental process adaptations serve us socially as well. Socially humans have learned to adapt to the culture around them. No matter the different customs or language one does not grow up with an “American” attitude if he/she is born and raised in Kenya. Business is somewhat the same; one does not make the same comments with someone they are trying to get into a business deal with as with their buddies in the bar. It is not something that has to be drilled into someone; it is instinctual to adapt behavior to situation. Imagine a person being extremely different or unique in such a group dynamic culture, where the very survival of the clan/ tribe was dependent on everyone knowing and performing their allotted duties. There was, it can be assumed, very little flexibility for someone far out of the “norm”, therefore social adaptation was important to one’s survival. Even in today’s society it is second nature to adapt to one’s cultural and social environment, which is why you will find a person’s accent changing when they live for a time in another place. One notable theorist of evolutionary psychology is David Buss. Buss has written several books and papers on the subject, focusing most of research and writings on the mate selection process, the conflict between the sexes, jealousy and social reputation. He has written over 200 articles on these subjects as well as several books and has also received many awards including the American Psychological Association Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution to Psychology in 1988. Though well respected in scientific circles Buss’ theories are controversial. He applies the theories of evolution to explain why as humans we make some of the decisions we make. He uses this theory to explain certain things that arise in relationships such as why some relationships stand the test of time while others are plagued with jealousy and infidelity. He applies the modern evolutionary theory to the explanation of human behavior. Another theorist is Steven Pinker. Pinker focuses most of his research on the evolution of language, his strongest point being that children are biologically prepared to imitate and create speech. Pinker proposes that a grammar module within the brain specifically prepares the brain for the acquisition of grammatical rules, such as adding an’s’ to make a word plural. In this view, brains are primed to acquire natural language with all its many rules; The brain also possesses a mental dictionary for storing vocabulary, as well as irregular verb forms and pluralization, idiomatic expressions, and other linguistic idiosyncrasies that cannot be derived from ordinary grammatical rules (Pinker 1999). Pinker wrote a book titled Words and rules in which he took a specific topic, irregular verbs, from a psychological, biological, historical and linguistically point of view. Lastly, Robert C. Bolles’ main contribution was debunking the drive theory that had prevailed for almost a half of a century prior with his Theory of Motivation. Bolles’ theory concentrated on expectancies. It supposed that organisms develop learning on the expectation that one event automatically precedes another. He surmised that this type of learning required no reinforcement other than past experience. Bolles’ theory was closely related to Tollman’s, another psychological theorist; however Bolles stressed that his theory emphasized an innate learning pattern. An example of an innate S-S relationship is when a young infant displays fear of a loud noise, suggesting that the infant expects a dangerous event to follow. Innate R-S expectancies are exemplified by the stereotyped behavior many species of animals show in the presence of food, water, danger, and other biologically significant objects or events (Olsen& Hergenhahn 2010). There can be little doubt that evolution has occurred and that Homo sapiens is among its products. There can also be little doubt that the evolutionary history of our lineage has left its marks on human psychology just as assuredly as it has left its marks on human biology. The human mind, unquestionably, is the product of evolution. Evolutionary Psychology claims that, once we accept the fact that the human mind is the product of evolution, we can immediately infer a number of facts about the nature of the human mind. Therefore, Evolutionary psychology has opened up a vast area of research in the areas of learning and personality that have just begun to be tapped into.
Barkow, J.H., Cosmides, L., and Tooby, J. (eds) 1992, The Adapted Mind. Oxford University Press, New York)
Bolles, Robert C., (1975). Theory of Motivation, 2nd Ed.
Buss, D., (ed.), 2005, The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, Hoboken, NJ.
Buss, D., 1990, “International preferences in selecting mates: A study of 37 cultures”, Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology, 21: 5–47.
Hergenhahn (2010). An Introduction to the Theories of Learning  (VitalSource Bookshelf), Retrieved from http://online.vitalsource.com/books/0558415547/id/ch15lev1sec6 Komarova N.L., Niyogi P., Nowak M.A. The evolutionary dynamics of grammar acquisition (2001) Journal of Theoretical Biology, 209 (1), pp. 43-59. Pinker, S. (1999). Words and rules: The ingredients of language. New Jersey: Harper- Collins. Retrieved from http://library.thinkquest.org/C004367/la2.shtml Pinker, Steven and Paul Bloom. Natural language and natural selection. Barkow, Cosmides & Tooby (1992), pp. 451-493. Tooby, J. and L. Cosmides, 1992, “The Psychological Foundations of Culture”, in H. Barkow, L. Cosmides and J. Tooby (eds.), The Adapted Mind, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 19–136. Tooby, J. and L. Cosmides, 2005, “Conceptual Foundations of Evolutionary Psychology”, in The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, D. Buss (ed.), Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, pp. 5–67.