Marvelous Learning Animal: A Review


The thesis of Arthur W. Staats’ new book The Marvelous Learning Animal: What Makes Human Nature Unique is that patterns of behavior in humans are all too often attributed to instinct and genes when in fact they are the result of learning, both individual and accumulative.  Well aware that his thesis goes against the currently popular, one might even say faddish, belief that genetics explains all, Staats develops his theory in thorough detail.  He begins the book with an indictment of what he calls “The Great Scientific Error,” i.e., the failure of Darwin and his most fundamentalist descendents, particularly in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, to “distinguish between physical and behavioral traits” (p. 14).  Physical traits, whether eye color or the anatomy of human speech, are clearly genetic, but behavioral traits, even those which seem most rooted in anatomy, are learned.

In an interesting and insightful discussion of language, Staats argues that the great scientific error persists in large part because it is embedded in our everyday language.  As he rightly points out, “we all grew up absorbing the explanations of human behavior our language provides for us.  That language is part of each of us, rock-hard belief, so natural it is not open to consideration, giving all of us a common core theory” (p. 12).  For example, the word “altruism” is often applied to the behavior of the social insects such as honeybees and ants, in which it appears that the sterile workers sacrifice their individual chance at reproduction in service to the super fertile queen and the safety of her offspring, thus better ensuring that their gene pool survives into future generations.  But altruism is a moral term, not a biological one, and worker bees and ants are not moral creatures because they do not have minds capable of moral thought.  Jesus was an altruist, Barry B. Benson is not.  (This reference to an animated movie is not intended to be merely clever—language that attributes thoughtful motives to creatures who cannot think, regardless of how seemingly metaphorical and innocuous, create fantasies just as absurd.)  Likewise, consider all the trouble and misconceptions that have flowed from Dawkins’ misstep in calling genes “selfish” (an error, alas, which Staats himself also falls into:  on page 17 when he writes, “Has anyone ever found a selfish gene in an ant, let alone a human?  Has anyone ever manipulated a selfish gene and changed any behavior thereby?” he is misreading Dawkins in the same way many others have done).

The accumulated learning which Staats so beautifully describes later in his book explains the mess that language often lands us in.  As any amateur etymologist can attest, words may start out with precise denotations, but over time they become larded with multiple and often contradictory connotations.  They change their denotative meanings as well.  The word “intercourse” used simply to mean social interaction, but today refers exclusively to coitus.  I will never forget the student who wrote an entire paper on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw maintaining that the governess was a child molester purely on the basis of one passage in which she wrote of the improvements in her intercourse with the ten-year-old Miles.

The confusions of an old language are not limited to the amusing missteps of young students.  Our current language, including the ways we use it when explaining or arguing a scientific theory, is laden with the legacy of bygone world views, including the teleological verbiage of that old-time religion.  It may be harmless that we still say that the sun rises and sets, but it is not harmless that we speak of traits evolving in order to achieve a certain survival goal or to adapt to a new environment.  Genes cannot think, so they cannot mutate towards a specific goal or purpose.  Feathers, for example, did not evolve in order to enable birds to fly; new fossil research reveals that many dinosaur species had “feathers” which could not have provided the slightest lift to their possessors—they were mutations which dinosaurs were able to use for other purposes, perhaps mating or territorial displays or insulation.  Flight feathers were a later “accident” (all mutations are accidental rather than intended).  Read any book by just about any well-known evolutionary scientist, and you will find it riddled with teleological language, including gushing over the beautiful perfections of nature that a theist preacher of old would approve[i]—and don’t get me started on amateur science journalists!  But it must be admitted that ridding one’s language of such encrustations would be a massive and probably thankless task.

But language is not the only problem.  I suspect there are much deeper levels of ideology underlying the linguistic surface, a possibility suggested by the furious atheism of certain icons of the genetic view such as Richard Dawkins, whose book The God Delusion is an embarrassment in the history of thought.  One very serious problem pointed out by Staats is that the human genome simply does not contain enough genes to account for all the behaviors human beings have displayed over time (p.37).  He cites the old number of approximately 100,000 genes, but the Human Genome Project discovered that in fact we have far fewer, perhaps only 20,000 to 30,000; in comparison, tomatoes have 31,760, and corn has 32,000.  The Paris japonica has a genome 50 times larger than the human genome.  One might wonder if the larger genomes of plants are necessary because they are sessile organisms, that is they do not move about under their own muscle power, and so have no “behaviors.”  Perhaps what genes accomplish in plants, in humans is accomplished by learning.

In Staats’ view, learning begins with anatomy.[ii]  A four-legged creature does not require a specific instinct for walking and running on four legs; having been given those four legs by genetic inheritance, it learns how to use them in a manner appropriate to their construction.  This explains why puppies, kittens, foals and calves do not take off running as soon as they’re born; there is a learning curve, sometimes protracted as in cats and dogs, sometimes very quick, as in calves and foals, which need to be able to escape predators as soon after birth as possible.  In contrast, less brainy creatures such as insects and spiders can run about immediately—there seems to be no learning curve for their behaviors.  Humans are bipedal, but it is months after birth that we take our first hesitant steps, and years before we attain the grace and efficiency of the typical human gait.  With further directed learning we can attain the proficiency of athletes and ballet dancers, gymnasts and marching soldiers; no other creature can achieve such diversity and high levels of locomotive skills.  And while we may think that such things as male aggression are instinctive, Staats asserts that they are learned.  A large muscular male will quickly learn that he can get what he wants (in behavioral terms, his rewards) through physically aggressive action—whereas a smaller, more gracile male will learn that social skills are more effective for him than is aggression.

Language, too, is not an instinct, but a cultural or learned behavior.  Yes, it is dependent on certain anatomical features, such as flexible lips and tongue, and of course a brain capable of managing the complexities of language.  But these features did not evolve in order to bless Homo sapiens with speech.  The structure of the human mouth and throat are in large part the effects of upright posture, of walking on two legs rather than four, and were already in place when our ancient ancestors first experimented with making controlled vocalizations that, through a process of accumulative learning over generations, were eventually developed into symbolic language.  (Staats suggests this occurred as early as the australopithecines, on the grounds that their tool-working abilities suggest accumulative learning, that is learning passed down from one generation to the next and modified and expanded upon by successive generations, i.e., culture, but there is no way of proving that.)  Just as feathers were not at first used for flight, so the anatomical features that enable language were not at first “intended” for it.[iii]

What is the role of the brain in all this?  Staats asserts that the particularly stereotyped and species-specific behavior patterns that we call instincts do not exist in humans, are not “hard-wired” in the brain.  Rather, the human brain is a learning machine that gets most of its “programming” from the environment, including other human beings.  We begin learning from the moment of birth and, potentially at least, continue learning throughout our lifetimes.  I won’t repeat the extensive explanations Staats provides for this view, but I will say that he makes his case.  That learning trumps instinct in human beings is evidenced by our flexibility in a wide variety of environments, not only as manifested today but throughout our history.  Learning certainly would serve a creature such as humans much better than instinct as we move about and interrelate with others in an environment rich in both patterns and surprises.

Although he makes no mention of it, I believe Staats would not be impressed by the naturist just-so story that because humans evolved on the African savannahs we are maladapted to our urban, digital social world of today.  Our culture is the result of learning accumulated over millennia; it’s a world we have made, and lacking instincts, we are perfectly capable of adapting to it.  The challenge is to continue learning and not to be discouraged by theories that say we are driven by instincts over which we have no control.


[i] For a rare exception, see John Gray’s Straw Dogs.

[ii] This idea is not original to Staats.  Lucretius stated the same idea over 2000 years ago.

[iii] See also Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, What Darwin Got Wrong, for a discussion of  insect wings as originally functioning as temperature regulators rather than for flight (p. 87).  See also R. C. Lewontin’s review of their book in the New York Review of Books, 27 May 2010.

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  • By It’s All in the Staats | The VisionHelp Blog on December 13, 2012 at 7:05 AM

    […] well received, particularly for its emphasis on learning as a counterbalance to what he considers The Great Scientific Error – an overemphasis on biological determinism and over-attribution of human traits when one […]

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