The Drawbacks of Species Learning: Why Organisms Need Faster Ways to Learn
“To solve the sever limitations presented by genetic learning, evolution created a hundred billion neurons and trillions of connections. Now the platform is set for learning to really accelerate.”
– JW Wilson, Advanced Learning Institute
In the Element “What Is Species Learning?,” we see how the Adaptability / Intelligence Factor, or AI Factor, of a whole species is increased through biological change that takes place at the level of genes. In this Element we will learn about the drawbacks of species learning and why organisms need a faster way to learn.
The type of biological change that puts learning into the genetic makeup of a whole species has many disadvantages. The biggest problem is that it is a glacially slow process; genes are not capable of making split-second adaptations. In general, it takes hundreds to thousands of generations of a species before successful variations in the structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) can be selected into the genome of a whole species. Changes of body shape or behavior that can increase a species’ Adaptability/Intelligence Factor take a phenomenally long time to occur. It took three billion years of genetic learning before organisms bonded strongly with their young and 550 million years of genetic adaptations to free the front appendages from supporting the upper body, allowing them to be used for efficient grasping.
Another problem with the survival information packed into each and every one of our cells is that it is not easily changed. Genetic learning is highly inflexible and very resistant to change, as well it should be. Evolution saw it was a good idea to keep extremely indelible the memory of drinking water when our bodies needed H2O, how to escape from nasty charging things, and how to pass our genes to our heirs through sex. Another predicament is that genetic learning cannot possibly be precoded to deal with the incredible flood of complexity that our current world throws at us. Our limited number of genes – estimated at around 35,000 – could not possibly be preset to deal with the changing array of the billions of micro and macro environmental juxtapositions presented to us during our lifetimes.
Read on to learn more about why organisms need a faster way to learn
The Flexibility of the Nervous System
To create organisms that could substantially increase their individual AI Factors, Mother Nature had to come up with learning devices that had greater learning speed, flexibility, and capacity than genes. To solve the limitations presented by genetic learning, evolution produced the cells and connections of the nervous system and brain. Once these cells and their connections were created, organisms for the first time could immediately make split-second adaptations in response to complex and rapidly changing environmental stimuli. Writing of nervous system learning in River Out of Eden, Richard Dawkins points outs, “It is important because now action can be taken on a time scale much faster than the one that genes… can achieve directly.”
The nervous system has the wonderful capability to improve on information that has been previously coded into our genes. Our genetic makeup not only codes for instinctual information such as fighting, fleeing, hoarding, and marking our territory, but provides the code for the nervous system to improve on this preexisting survival data. Genes lay down the general plan for survival, and the cells and connections in the nervous system refine that information. Genes tell us to run from big furry things, while our nervous system and brain cells allow us to make the distinction between a bear and our unshaven Uncle Harry.
The nervous system also has an almost unlimited learning capacity. With over 100 billion nerve cells and over 1027 connections, the human brain is considered the most intricate learning instrument on earth. This huge number of neurons and connections provide more than enough storage capacity for all the information humans need to survive and thrive in our modern and ever changing world.
Even Chickens Can Learn Fast
When compared to the titanium-hard, inflexible quality of genes, nerve cells and their connections are extremely flexible learning devices. The effervescent quality of the nervous system allows it to quickly reshape itself over and over again in response to changing environmental stimuli. Chickens, for example, are not known for their brilliance, yet their nervous systems can adapt and learn new information in mere seconds. In a fascinating experiment, scientists covered chrome pellets with a bitter substance, which represented poison to chickens’ taste buds and nervous systems. They then mixed the chrome pellets with the chickens’ normal food. Shortly after the chickens pecked at the bitter pellets for only a short period of time, the researchers found that key neurons in the chicks’ brain sprouted up to an amazing 60 percent more connections. These new connections ensured that the chick would never peck at the perceived poison again.
Nerve and brain cells have another distinct learning advantage over genes: They can improve on information that already exists in their structures without having to rely on chance variations. Unlike genes, cellular learning devices can select new information into their structures through use. Genetic learning is a slow and laborious process which takes eons to accomplish, as random variations are tried and discarded over and over again, until the ones that best fit the environment are selected into the whole species. By eliminating variation as the only criterion by which change can take place, the nervous system is able to adapt its shape and structure in seconds. The nervous system cannot only quickly improve on genetic information passed to us from our ancestors, it can improve on information we acquire during our lifetime.
How Lamarck’s Theory Proved to Be Correct
Fifty years before Darwin detailed his theory of natural selection, the French master botanist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck put forth his theory that the existing traits and structures of a species (like the long neck of the giraffe) were changed through reactions to their environment, and that these changes could be passed to the next generation. For over a century and a quarter after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Lamarck’s idea of change through use fell into disfavor and was ridiculed by the scientific community. If Lamarckism worked, you could pass on the information you have learned about how to run the Windows operating system or how to drive a car to your heirs through your genes.
In an interesting turn of events, today neuroscientists are taking a fresh look at Lamarckism as a model for learning in the nervous system. Research now shows that, in the nervous system and brain, a new generation of cells is created each time the structure of an existing generation of cells is improved upon through use,. Improvements in the structure and function of first-generation nerve cells is what creates second-generation nerve cells, and changes and improvements in second-generation nerve cells is what creates third-generation nerve cells and so on, ad infinitum.
In the end, what allows nerve cells to learn in seconds is life experiences that can create new generations of nerve tissue. (In “We Learn Through Selection, Not Instruction,” we take an in-depth look at how the brain can only select new information based on information that has already been previously laid down by our genes and life experiences.)
How an Individual’s AI Factor Is Increased
Once we are clear that, because humans have the most complex brain of any species on earth and the highest AI Factor of any animal on earth, the question then arises: What biological change must take place inside the brain before an individual’s AI Factor is amplified? This is an important question, for it allows us to look inside the brain and get a visual representation of what the ultimate goal of any personal or institutional learning system must be. Without an understanding of what specifically creates learning and long-term memory, we have little hope of developing learning systems that effectively increase an individual’s AI Factor. To answer this question go to “What Is Learning?“
In the book Cracking the Learning Code and in future newsletters you will discover:
How the modern human brain evolved into the pinnacle of learning speed and capacity.
How, over the last 3 million years, the historic use of tools indicates the level of intelligence (A/I Factor) that each generation of humans has possessed.
How the appearance 50,000 to 100,000 years ago of the bulge in your forehead (frontal lobe) dramatically increased your personal Adaptability/Intelligence Factor.
How your frontal lobes provide for what makes you most human, including insight, self-awareness, empathy and altruism.
How our frontal lobes act as the CEO in charge of all our other brain functions.
How stress cuts off your frontal lobe functions, inhibiting your humanity and forcing you to act more like a reptile than one of the most evolved beings on earth.
How the stress-induced inhibition of the upper brain centers become the basis of world conflicts like the problems we have in the Mideast.