A response to Without Miracles

This past Tuesday in our Technology, Society, and Culture (CEP 951) course, our instructor (Yong Zhao) provided us the opportunity to video conference with the author of one of our assigned texts, Gary Cziko, author of Without Miracles: Universal Selection Theory and the Second Darwinian Revolution.  Published in 1995, this text tackles evolution in both the traditional sense (exploring and explaining human evolution with concrete examples like the functioning of the immune system, all the while keeping an eye on notions of fit as a result of adaption through blind variation and selection) as well as exploring the ways evolutionary theory applies to ideas beyond those traditional examples to encompass the way in which we learn, interact, and even the design of our culture.  Echoing themes from Human Natures and Guns, Germs, and Steel (previously read for the course and reflected on here), it was  Cziko’s discussions of technology and education that I found most provocative and compelling.

It so happened that the day after class, I attended a lecture entitled, “Taking Montessori Home” Usha Mangrulkar , a thirty-year veteran of teaching Montessori method (full disclosure: she was also my pre-school teacher), discussed the Montessori ethos of teacher as curator, and the ways in which the Montessori method utilized “self-correcting” materials.  It immediately struck me that, as I have so often observed in my toddlers, they are indeed engaged in learning process that is a combination of  variation (albeit not always blind: they, afterall, do mimic what they see)  and selective retention.  Additionally, the Harvard Education letter included an article, “Kids Haven’t Changed; Kindergarten Has,” that discussed that, even with the advent of technology and increasing expectations on younger and younger children to know more and do better, that there remains a fixed set of developmental milestones that still hold fast:

What’s tricky, says Guddemi, is that children can be trained to perform tasks (called “splinter skills”), such as writing names or counting. But just because “April” can pen her name doesn’t mean she can perceive letters with oblique angles. “You can train them, but the knowledge and understanding—the true learning—has not happened,” she says. “Our country has this hang up that if the child can perform, that they know.”

So how to reconcile the idea that all learning is the result of blind variation and selective retention with the idea of developmental readiness?  In my understanding, while the perceptual control theory view of learning (variation + retention) is a useful theoretical model for the processes that occur when learning happens, but is still partially limited.  While I really like the ideas in the text, it did not seem to wholly encompass some of what we are learning from cognitive science in terms of learning and even technology use.

I would encourage widespread reading of this text, especially for those interested in education and learning. Also, check out Chris Sloan’s excellent post, On Spiders and Miracles, over at his blog, Hybrid Composition.

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