Parenting According to Nature: Excerpt #1
Why cultural learning is now a critical part of rearing children
This excerpt from my new book describes examples of why teaching our children is so important to producing competent and successful young adults. This is the link to the Amazon ad for my book.
"Scientists have found that cultural adaptation and learning are different for different cultures and are usually precisely matched to the environment. Even today, people of different cultures find it very difficult to move to a different geographic area such as from high rainfall plains to the desert, or the tropics. They must be specifically trained for each environment.
It takes a tremendous amount of highly sophisticated training to create a successful human, well adapted to his environment. Here is just one example: Anthropologists studying a very primitive tribe in Tierra del Fuego, South America, were amazed at the complex process used by the hunters of the tribe to create weapons. Sitting with highly skilled elder hunters, the researchers found that there are 17 different precise steps in the production of an arrow. The elders explained how to straighten the shaft, which is preferably made from branches of a certain tree that are not originally very straight. Just adding the feather fletching requires several steps using particular wing feathers of a particular kind of hawk, with the left-wing feathers used in a different way than the right-wing feathers. Young boys spend many hours and days learning the construction of and perfecting their weapons, not to mention how much practice it takes to hunt rabbits and birds with these weapons. Let’s just say that it takes probably a lot more sophistication for primitive del Fuegians to learn the skills needed to construct effective arrows than it takes today’s teenagers to learn algebra. Another key point I will address later is that the primitive young hunters are much better motivated to learn their arrow-making skills because their skills are much more relevant to their everyday survival than algebra is to teenagers.
Cultural evolution has become the most rapid form of human evolution
Genetic evolution is still occurring within the human species, but that process is too slow to provide the adaptations humans need in our rapidly changing environment. Cultural evolution is a better and faster alternative. Now, our large brains with their huge capacity for learning allow us to pass on innovations to our young, resulting in an accelerated rate of human progress to create more and more complex societies. This modern form of evolution is suitable for transmission to offspring by making use of the long training and enculturation period for which human children are genetically designed.
Humans did not genetically inherit the knowledge or skills needed for making fire, bows, arrows, boats, pottery, or computers. They had to learn these skills from their parents or other, wise elders in the tribe or, in our case, sometimes from modern scientists. Compare these learned skills to the inherited skills used by bees to give directions to other worker bees to a newly discovered pasture filled with nectar rich flowers. Bees are not taught this direction giving system, which consists of a sort of “dance” that tells other bees the direction and distance of the flowers. That system of direction-giving which is encoded in their genes probably developed over millions of years and cannot easily be changed to adapt to new conditions. In humans, giving directions to other humans to a beehive loaded with honey can be much more precise and more versatile because it is learned behavior conveyed by using language.
The development of language in humans was a form of cultural adaptation based on the need to communicate information about the construction of complex tools, hunting and fishing techniques, plant identification, seasonal changes, and transmission of knowledge to succeeding generations. It is believed that spoken languages in human ancestors were gradually developed probably starting over a million years ago. The development of language caused a type of genetic co-evolution in humans that selected for improved adaptations of the mouth, throat, and larynx making speaking easier and allowing language to be more complex. Language has continued to evolve, giving us the ability to transmit ideas more effectively, which Henrich (see note below) believes raises the average IQ (intelligence quotient) of the species. Researchers have found that the IQ of children is very closely related to the number of words they know and their resultant ability to communicate and even to think more effectively. This is an important discovery that should be utilized in teaching our children to be better adapted to the modern environment using a greater mastery of vocabulary and language."
Note: Joseph Henrich, a leading evolutionary scientist, has developed successful new theories explaining the importance of cultural learning in humans. His work shows why it is so critical that we carefully train our children for success in life.