Friday 31 October 2014

Mind and Evolution

There are parallels between talking about learning and talking about evolution. Like learning, we can't actually 'see' evolution. Evolution was Darwin's "explanatory principle" for the diversity of species and fossil evidence he observed on his travels. What was 'seen' was diversity. We see a little bit more of learning than we do evolution, although we don't actually 'see' learning in the sense that we ever see anything happening in someone's head. With learning we see differences and relations between abilities, and we see transformations of those relations. But the evolution question and the learning question is the same: what could produce this diversity?; what agency produces the transformations of relations? I think the answers to these questions as they relate to evolution, and the answer to the questions as they relate to learning are tied together.

Richard Lewontin has argued that whilst sociologists talk of the outgrowth of Darwinism in 'social Darwinism', it was actually the other way round. Social Darwinism - or rather the varieties of thinking that saw atomised entities selecting particular favoured sets of properties in order to maximise chances of survival - was in fact endemic in social life from the early 19th century. This is an important point because it pulls the rug from those who criticise social Darwinism (for example, Hodgson's work on Darwinism in economics) as some sort of misrepresentation of Darwinian thinking: Darwinian thinking grew (evolved?!) from the social conditions of the time. It was these ideas which effectively drove the social, industrial, and political transformations of the period within which Darwin grew up. Here is the link to learning: the early 19th century was a time of remarkable transformation. Innovators, engineers, scientists were making discoveries which transformed the relations between themselves and the rest of the world in ways which hadn't been conceived before; industrial transformations disrupted social and political structures; the move from what Veblen calls 'handicraft' industries towards to the world of the 'captain of industry' (and eventually 'absentee ownership') was something that powerful families could see in their own personal histories. The question about agency, technology, development as transformations of relations was starkly present for the 19th century entrepreneur.

Darwinism as a contribution to natural history laid a scientific veneer over a pre-existing narrative. The issue was that through study and cataloguing of biological diversity, geography and natural history, the 19th century ethos was stretched in a procrustean way over scientific objectivity. Darwinism gave this old idea new content and scientific status which made it more powerful. Yet unlike any scientific theory before, evolution was never seen to act. The only process that could be seen to act were those social transformations of the period.

The Darwinian scientisation of the process had a number of effects, and one of them was in the direction of thinking about human development. The folk-theories which surrounded the transformation of social position could now become scientised. Piagetian theories of adaptation-assimilation, genetic co-adaptation and so on owe much to Darwin, not only in their application of systemic processual mechanisms that lead to transformations in relations between things, but also in the fundamental methodological move which starts with observed diversity and then seeks to explain it.

What are these explanations of diversity? Fundamentally, within an evolutionary scheme, they are - as Elster notes - explanations of homology and analogy. The bird's wing is analogous to the bat's wing, whilst the bird's wing is homologous to the shark's fin. In education, patterns of homology and analogy are perhaps less obvious - partly because the lens through which homology and analogies might be identified are so contaminated with the paraphernalia of the education system. The curriculum displays both: the music exam is homologous to the maths exam, for example, whilst the art show (whilst being examined) is also analogous to the artist's career (which involves putting on shows), in a way that the maths exam is not analogous to the work of the professional mathematician. When we talk about the diversity in performances of individual learners, and the ways in which their performances might be improved, we tend to talk in terms of 'levels'. Our learners are naturally ordered, and "get the basics right" is a typical mantra. Levels exist in relation to one another, and a level in one subject may be either (or both) homologous and analogous to a level in another subject.

Analogies between levels in different subjects are as problematic as the analogies across the curriculum. Yet we convince ourselves that this isn't a problem and education succumbs to a kind of abstract Darwinism. The failure to think critically about analogies is also a failure to think properly about homologies. The relations between the basic and the "advanced concepts" are extremely complex and varied across different fields, yet our analogies wash over the subtleties. Depending on how you look at it, there is little that's "basic" in music - a single note can be as complex as Boulez's 1st piano sonata. Yet maths - certainly as we now regard it - is difficult without knowing your tables. And it is not unusual for some subjects to effectively have to 'unlearn' their basic concepts in order to master the more sophisticated ones.

The deep problem here, however, is that the patterns of relations between things - the patterning that Darwin saw from the Beagle - or the patterning that we see in the relations of ability between learners is in some way bounded by pre-existing criteria. Darwin, for example, examined homologies and analogies between form, habitat and so on, but paid little attention to the mind (notwithstanding his book on emotions in animals - which was perhaps a recognition that something was missing). Lamarck, however, cast his homologous and analogous net much wider: form and habitat are there, but so too is creativity and the imagination. In education we too often only look for homologies and analogies in the differences between learners, yet do not look at ourselves and our relation to our learners, or the relation between our culture and the situation we all find ourselves in. As we cast the net wider in determining diversity and relations, our explanations have to change.

The biggest problem Darwin has bequeathed us in education is the atomisation of learners and teachers. Ulanowicz complains of the 'Platonic' idealised interpretation of Darwinism as having won the day. By this he means that organisms are seen as ideal types, each individual and connected in specifiable ways. This seems plain wrong. Ideal types suited the Victorian biologist's butterfly cabinet, but our learners are not butterflies. Each presents us with an ecological situation which is unique. Each demands of a teacher a journey of discovery and of self-discovery: the teacher must ask "what is going on in your head?", "how did it come to be like this?", "how might I change it?". In front of the teacher is a set of relations of abilities, communications, skills and so on. If we cast the net wide enough, then these relations cannot be separated from the situation in which the learner exists, or the situation within which the teacher operates. Each teacher with each learner has to engage in their own Beagle voyage.

If we were to characterise what the education system does to us in frustrating this process of inquiry, it would be as if the diversity of relations between species was pre-created before sending Darwin out to look for it. It would then ensure that the methodologies for observation would be rigidly applied, resulting in the diversity being observed as expected, and that its explanation would uphold the rationale for the status quo of the system! This is basically what our so-called "quality" systems do.

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