Why do we learn? — A Stone Age Perspective (Part I)

According to Evolutionary Psychologists, learning is in a sense an extension of evolution itself. The theory of Evolution argues that humans and all other living creatures, are the way they are because they have adapted to their environment, as a means to gain a survival and reproductive advantage.

Although we traditionally tend to think of evolution in terms of physical changes to the body and the origin of species, evolutionary processes has also affected our minds. For example, we might ask how come we humans have a deeply engrained fear of snakes? It could be argued that it might be due to cultural transmission, meaning that it is because we have been taught through culture that snakes are deadly. However, if this was so,

how come we don’t have a similar fear of cars, which statistically kills a lot more people than snakes?

The answer to this may be found far away both in terms of space and time, at the African savannah at the dawn of mankind. Imagine the early human ancestors being exposed to snakes for the first time, a meeting which for most of them would prove fatal, but which a lucky few would survive, due to a small disposition to avoid snakes caused by random genetic variation. Of course, with time these lucky few would get lucky and reproduce, and with that also genetically pass on their fear of snakes for generations to come.

Considering that learning can be defined as change caused by prior experience, we now see that evolution itself may be conceptualised as a learning process, adapting our bodies and minds, and storing the lessons learned in our genetics. With this said, it should also be noted that evolution somewhat paradoxically is not the main learning process in the modern day.

This due to that a long time ago evolution started to favour those who were able to adapt (learn) more efficiently by other means than genetics and evolutionary processes, such as for example the human brain and more specifically cognitive mechanisms. This consequently leading to evolution being rendered irrelevant as a learning process. Nevertheless, the purpose of learning still carries its evolutionary legacy as a process which allows us to adapt to our environment.

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