What Is Species Learning?
“In time of profound change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” – Al Rogers
Why is it that when you see sweet fruit – you salivate, a charging bear – you run, and a good looking member of the opposite sex – you gape? Mere moments after you exit the womb you automatically searched out your mother’s face and breast: Who taught you to do this? Why do you hoard more stuff than you need? Who taught you how to flirt? When fashions change, why do most of us feel compelled to imitate the current style? Why is it that when you get caught doing something wrong, you often feel an urge to lie? When you sleep in bed with your mate, why does one side of the bed become “your territory” and one side of the bed become “their territory”? When you find yourself in a group, why do you unconsciously search out your place in the pecking order?
Read on to gain a greater understanding of species learning
Increasing Your Survival Chances
All of the above instincts arise from species learning. This is learning that has proven so successful to our ancestors’ survival in past environments that it has been passed down to each generation. Without species learning, the survival chances for the present human generation on earth would be quite limited. An infant who fails to suckle or an adult who fails to run from a charging bear are members of our species who lack good survival advantages. In order to get a firm grasp on the fundamentals of the Learning Code, in this Element we look at how a species’ ability to adapt to the world (our Adaptability / Intelligence [AI] Factor, see “What Is Intelligence?” and “Reasons for Learning Failure in the 21st Century“) is increased and how species learning is passed from one generation to the next. As you read this Element, an important point to keep in mind is that what you remember most easily is what you find meaningful, and what you find meaningful in life has it foundations in species learning.
Today, biologists and geneticists recognize that a species’ Adaptability/Intelligence Factor is increased through a Darwinian process of selection, which is totally dependent upon change at the level of genes. Species learning occurs when an individual is born into the world with specific genetic variations which help him “fit” the environment better than his peers. In each species no two individuals come into the world with the exact same genetic makeup. New research shows that even what we call identical twins develop genetic variations as they age.
When the specific genetic variations that an individual possesses fit the environment, these changes provide that individual with survival advantages, which, through sex, are passed on to his or her offspring, who, in turn, pass them on to their heirs and so on and so on, until the whole species possesses changes in its genetic makeup, which provide learned survival advantages. Bonding, territory protection, hoarding, nesting, deception, and imitating were initially individual genetic variations that proved so successful they were eventually selected into the whole species.
Genetic Variation the Fuel of Species Learning
One way to look at genetic variation between individuals of a species is as powerful resource fuel which the species draws upon in order to learn how to successfully fit its environment. Lack of variation among members limits the species’ survival fuel. It is estimated that only about 1 percent of the approximately one billion species that have made an appearance on the face of the earth exist today. What happened to the other 990,000,000? They lacked variation fuel. The reason that species such as trilobites, woolly mammoths, and albatrosses failed to make it through the sieve of evolution is because they lacked enough genetic variations among their members to be able to increase their AI Factor high enough to successfully fit themselves to changing environments. The human species can be said to have a high AI Factor, because we possess a great degree of variation among our members. This reservoir of variation allows us to select into our genetic makeup the changes (species learning) that support successful survival in diverse environments.
Once all members of the species have acquired the genetic changes that support overall species survival, each member comes out of the womb with these successful genetically implanted learning programs already in place and ready to be activated. This is why an infant does not need to go to school or be instructed how to search out its mother’s breast, cry when it is in discomfort, or bond to its primary caregiver. As humans mature, species learning helps us find a place to nest, hoard more than we need, consider deception when caught doing wrong, and search out a partner with which to mate. Eons of evolution have proven that those who do not possess this innate pre-learned information do not survive.
Appreciating Our Genetic Family Tree
The Bible teaches us to honor our mother and father. Genetics and evolutionary biology are telling us we have to honor much further back than just our mother and father. We must also honor our great great – great – great – great – great – great – great – great – great – great grandparents going way back past Homo habilis and Homo erectus. It was our ancestors from many millennia past who possessed the successful genetic changes that were eventually selected into the whole human species that provide for our innate survival advantages. Our DNA is like a river of learning that flows to our generation from the thousands upon thousands of generations that have lived before us.
Genetic investigations are proving Darwin’s concepts about species learning, developed over 150 years ago, to be right: Learning from our less-evolved ancestors is indeed held in our human biology. Unlike what Aristotle proposed over 2,300 years ago, research shows that nature does not start anew with each species. Nature uses a sort of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rule. For every bone in your body there is a corresponding bone in your pet’s body. Shapes and sizes differ, but Mother Nature conserves the basic plan, modifying it to create a new species from the existing plan. The successful learning that served a species on a lower branch of the evolutionary tree is retained and passed to those species higher up the tree. As Erich Janstch points out, a biological system “keeps the memory of its evolutionary path.”
Different Animals, Same Behavior
It has been apparent since Darwin’s time that under similar circumstances very different animals behave in very similar ways. Evolutionary psychologist Robert Plutchitk puts it nicely: “Although a deer may run from danger, a bird may fly from it, a fish may swim from it, there is a functional equivalence to all the different patterns of behavior; namely, they all have the common function of separating an organism from a threat to its survival.” The most successful survival learning is coded into DNA strands, which are conserved across species. Howard Gardner comments, “Everything that we have ever achieved has been coded into our DNA.” The stretches of DNA that code for our human instincts were so successful in helping our amoeba, reptile, and animal relatives survive that they easily made it through the sieve of evolution, which allowed them to be selected into the genetic material of modern humans.
DNA is amazingly uniform in each species; the difference between an amoeba and a human can be reduced to how the nucleotide bases A, T, C, and G are strung out upon the double helix. Eric Davidson of the California Institute of Technology says, “All genes that a liver or a brain uses are already there in worms.” Geneticists are discovering incredible similarities between segments of DNA, which animals and humans all share. Some human genes are so similar to worm genes that scientist have inserted human genes into worms and watched as the implants worked perfectly. In the end, humans are really only slightly remodeled chimpanzees, as we share 99.4 percent identity on functionally significant genes.
Brain Built Bottom Up
In the 1970s, decades before efforts like the human genome project allowed science to recognize that genes segments were transferred between the species, Dr. Paul MacLean, the director of the Laboratory for Brain Evolution and Behaviors at the National Institute of Mental Health, worked out which brain regions hold our ancestral learning. Genes not only transfer learning from one generation to the next, they also build the brain parts that store and implement this learning. Back then, to find out which brain regions held genetic learning, MacLean performed what MIT neuroscientist Steven Pinker describes as “reverse engineering,” that is, taking the brain apart so that we may see what evolution was up to when the thing was put together in the first place.
MacLean saw that evolution used a bottom-up approach. The least-evolved and lowest structure of the human brain he called the “reptilian brain,” which first appeared 350 million years ago. The reptilian brain contains the brain stem, pons, and medulla, which regulate and maintain vital body functions such as digestion, reproduction, circulation, and breathing. MacLean pointed out that this part of the human brain contained the same structures as the complete brains of turtles, alligators, and lizards.
The next piece of the MacLean evolutionary puzzle is filled by the limbic system. At the time, MacLean called this area the paleomammalian brain, because this area corresponded to the arrival of non-placental mammals. This brain area appeared 250 million years ago on the evolutionary scale, at about the same time dinosaurs were dominating the earth. MacLean noted that we share this brain structure with lower mammals such as rats, rabbits, cats, kangaroos, and horses. These structures are housed in the midbrain and include the hippocampus, mammillary bodies, amygdala, and the cingulate cortex. The limbic brain is responsible for the production of base emotions such as fear, anger, sadness, and joy. As author Daniel Goleman says, “When we are in the grip of craving or fearing, head over heels in love or recoiling in dread, it is the limbic that has us in its grip.”
MacLean’s research into these two brain regions was instrumental in helping to dismantle the behaviorist school of psychology, which at the time maintained that reward and punishment during an individual’s lifetime was the sole source of learned survival routines. “If all human behavior is learnt,” MacLean asks, “why is that, in spite of all our intelligence and culturally determined behavior, we continue to do all the ordinary things animals do?”
The instincts held in the limbic and reptilian brain areas are very resistant to change, as well they should be, because the information coded here over millennia ensured the survival of literally trillions of our ancestors. A very bad joke among neuroscientists is that these two brain areas house the 4Fs of survival: fighting, fleeing, feeding, and sexual reproduction. The power of these two lower brain areas on man’s behavior led MacLean to comment, “We might imagine that when a psychiatrist bid a patient to lay on the couch, he is asking him to stretch out alongside a horse and a crocodile.” While more recent brain research has revealed some flaws in MacLean’s initial claims, his overall theory has stood the test of time.
In the book Cracking the Learning Code and in future newsletters you will discover:
How learning from your ancestors is written into your genes.
That our genes have a four-letter alphabet used to create a language of learning.
How the species learn from each other. Yes, you have even learned from bacteria!
How outdated concepts about where instincts came from inhibited scientists from recognizing that humans learned from our animal cousins.
How the ancient theory called spontaneous generation, which held that all matter arose spontaneously from nonliving matter, prevented biologists from recognizing how we humans acquired our instincts.
How Darwin’s theory of natural selection has been a major building block in the process of helping neuroscientists grasp how the brain learns.
That genetic and brain variations are so important to species survival and learning that evolution created programs that prompt them to be produced.
How a 19th century monk named Gregor Mendel was the first to find that all organisms have within them hidden instructions, or an intelligence, which could be passed from parent to offspring.
How our misunderstanding of what Darwin meant when he used the term “survival of the fittest” has caused us to build faulty learning systems.
How species learning lays the foundations for what you find personally meaningful in your life.