02/07/2013 01:52 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2013

Darwin's iPhone: The Politics and Rhetoric of Neuroscience, Evolutionary Psychology, and Online Education

In a recent speech, John Tooby, one of the founders of evolutionary psychology, compared the human brain to an iPhone full of different apps. His argument was that evolution has selected certain mental programs because they help to solve discrete human problems like finding a suitable mate or detecting who is cheating the social group. These inherited biological programs -- or apps -- are mostly unconscious and intuitive, and since they are derived from evolution, they are also universal. In other words, while we think we are mostly shaped by culture and our surrounding environment, evolutionary psychologists believe that we are pre-programmed by nature, and these programs are mostly derived from our early hunter-gather period. Since it takes a long time for natural selection to shape our genetic material, these scientists affirm that our brains are running on old and outdated software.

The metaphor of seeing our brains as computers or iPhones is also prevalent in neuroscience, where recent research shows how most of our mental process are not conscious; in fact, like the evolutionary psychologists, the neuroscientists tend to see the mind as determined by specific inherited biological structures, and these structures or programs can be localized using new brain imaging technologies such as fMRIs, which not only tie a specific mental function to a specific part of the brain, but these functions are, in turn, connected to specialized neurotransmitters. In this new mapping of the mind, computer scientists and cognitive scientists translate neural networks into language processing machines.

By seeing the human mind as a computer or iPhone, it becomes apparent that we are pre-programmed by nature to perform certain mental tasks in a quick and automatic fashion, and yet, I will argue that this entire theory is in actuality a political philosophy dressed in the rhetoric of science. The first move in this rhetorical construction of science is to equate the mind with the brain, and therefore, the difference between thinking and processing information is erased. This move is followed by the idea that any mental process that is unconscious or automatic must be by definition universal and biological. Here, two goals are accomplished at once: the unconscious is removed from Freud and psychoanalysis, and the importance of culture and history is eliminated. In short, 150 years of the social sciences are erased by arguing that any social mental function, which is super-fast and non-conscious, must have been inherited from natural selection, and therefore its origins predate modern culture and current social influences. These moves have tremendous politic implications.

For example, a recent evolutionary psychology study purported to show that the reason why some people do not like social welfare programs is that we have inherited a biological app that helps us to detect cheaters. The way that this evolutionary software is tested is that people are given a survey online, and if they answer very quickly to particular questions, it is assumed that their responses are unconscious, automatic, and thus, biological. These findings are then reversed engineered and projected back onto the hunter-gatherer period, which evolutionary psychologists believe was dominated by a social environment of scarcity and uncertain resources. According to this logic, since the people in the hunter-gather society never knew when they would find their next prey, they needed to save their food and make sure that no one took too much. According to this theory, when people today think about welfare programs, they utilize their inherited cheater detector programs, and thus they base their support or rejection of welfare on their perceptions of whether the recipients of governmental programs are cheating the group.

Underlying this entire theory is a logic of scarcity and a need to detect social cheaters -- whether they are constructed as being "Welfare Queens" or "illegal immigrants." Moreover, the theoretical foundation of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology tends to support the notion that we are preprogrammed by our genes, and our genes are controlled by natural selection, and therefore it is hard to have any real type of education or social intervention. This is also a new form of Social Darwinism: neuroscience and evolutionary psychology reinforces the idea that our abilities and mental functions are inherited, and thus our social hierarchies and inequalities are natural and inevitable.

Although some neuroscientists do stress neuroplacticity and the effect of current environment on our genes (epigenisis), books like Stephen Pinker's The Blank Slate emphasize that our minds are dominated by inherited universal biological structures. At the end of his book, Pinker lists over 200 of these evolutionary universals, and they range from aesthetics to weapons. From this perspective, culture is mostly window dressing covering our pre-programmed intuitions. Yet, even though Pinker rejects the value and effect of culture and political intervention, he spends most of his book attacking social science and liberal political policies. In other words, at the same time that he argues biology trumps culture, he obsesses over how liberal culture has mis-educated our society.

Pinker's attacks on feminism, the welfare state, anti-prejudice education, and progressive parenting techniques feed a conservative libertarian ideology, which has as its central premise the idea that we cannot change people's minds or their lives by education or social welfare programs because they function largely in an intuitive and irrational way. Thus any conscious attempt to regulate markets or redistribute income will fail; moreover, the unregulated free market mimics natural selection by automatically determining the winners and the losers in a distributed and unconscious way. Interestingly, one of the greatest heroes of this libertarian ideology is the economist F. A. Hayek, who argued that governmental policies often lead to serfdom because no single individual can understand the totality of an economic and social system. Furthermore, Hayek saw free markets as affirmations of Adam Smith's idea that people acting selfishly will contribute to the common good, and thus prices are stabilized by a bottom-up process where individual demands meet the appropriate supply.

Hayek's economic model should remind us of the ideology of the Web and the notion that everyone in the hive knows a little, and by combing our knowledge, we can come up something like Wikipedia, which is a social network of information. In an early experiment based on this principle of the wisdom of the crowd, a professor places a glass jar of jellybeans in front of a class of undergraduate students and asks each student to guess the number of beans. The professor then shows that while no one guessed the exact number, the average of all of the guesses is very close to the truth. The lesson here is that individually we are dumb, but together we are smart.

Many educators have been seduced by this notion of collective or distributed intelligence, and we shall see that it fits well with evolutionary psychology's metaphor of Darwin's iPhone and our current political order. From a libertarian perspective, the ultimate value is individual liberty and the right of individuals and corporations to trade freely with each other. In this model of society, we are all isolated individuals plugged into particular social networks and markets that serve to select winners and losers in an ongoing natural experiment. Like the craze for Reality Television, competitive games, and social rankings, we spend our time invested in structures of naturalized social selection. In the case of Reality TV, real people often compete for a scarce resource as members are voted off the island or judged to not make the next round. In terms of education, standardized tests rate and rank students and schools in order to select who will survive and who will fail. Here, education becomes a competitive game not based on learning but rather based on earning (grades, credits, degrees).

Kathy Davidson's book Now You See It brings together many of the themes discussed above. She believes, like many educational technology enthusiasts, that we need to turn education into gaming and replace lectures and books with online projects and problem-solving activities. In her fragmented conception of the human mind, she argues that we now live in a multi-tasking culture that does not reward sustained attention on a single task, and our students are often bored after only a few minutes of reading or listening. She has also proposed that students grade each other through a crowdsourcing process.

Many of Davidson's ideas have made their way into the latest education craze: MOOCs (massive open online courses). Online providers like Coursera and Udacity claim that thousands of students can be given a superior education for virtually no cost through the magic of distance education. At the heart of their project is the idea that huge online classes can be made personal through the use of computer grading and student crowdsourcing. They also proclaim that by getting rid of the traditional lecture and textbook, students can be instantly tested on how well they do on specific tasks or quizzes. Borrowing from evolutionary psychology, the new online providers see the student as an iPhone with separate apps responding to specific tasks; some of these tasks are presented in games or challenges, while other tasks are collaborative and crowdsourced. Yet, what is missing from this type of education is any idea of a student as a complete person with a single consciousness. In short, while evolutionary psychologists, neuroscientists, and high-tech educators tend to see us as just a collection of apps, which can be tested through our quick response time, in reality, we are embodied humans with an integrated mind and the possibility of free will, creativity, and deliberate reason.

Another theme that unites together evolutionary psychologists, neuroscientists, and high-tech educators with libertarian economics and politics is the notion that no one is an expert, and therefore, we must trust the wisdom of the crowd and not reward people with tenure or job security. Since students are good at grading their own papers, we do not have to hire professors, and since citizen journalists can crowdsource the news, we do not have to invest in traditional on-the-ground investigative journalism. Likewise, many students believe that since everything you need to know is on the Web, there is no real need for education, teachers, or residential institutions of learning.

What is so strange about all of these movements is that they are often being led by progressive professors who are supported by the very institutions they want to dismantle. One possible explanation for this contradictory development of scientific knowledge is that universities have themselves become free market systems where researchers are constantly chasing scarce resources (grants) as schools compete for the "best" students with the highest SAT scores. Meanwhile, as the majority of the faculty are working without any type of job security, star professors and administrators renegotiate their salaries and workload by receiving outside offers from competing institutions. Of course, most of this corporatization of the academy is being driven by the reduction of state funding and the hiring of administrators from outside of the faculty ranks.

Another driving force behind the downsizing of expertise and the rise of libertarian economics is the role played by the Web. As a decentralized system catering to user-generated media, the Internet has opened the door for the triumph of the amateur and the degrading of modern institutions like universities, newspapers, bookstores, "value-free" science, and museums. Some of these transformations may be very beneficial, but they do point to a general tendency to transform occupations into hobbies or cheap labor. Moreover, the emerging libertarian consensus makes it hard to imagine how we can ever solve most of our pressing social, political, and economic problems. As the free market mimics natural selection and computer networks replicate our neural connections, our current social inequalities become naturalized and taken for granted.

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