educating the evolved mind: education

The previous two posts have been about David Geary’s concepts of primary and secondary knowledge and abilities; evolved minds and intelligence.  This post is about how Geary applies his model to education in Educating the Evolved Mind.

There’s something of a mismatch between the cognitive and educational components of Geary’s model.  The cognitive component is a range of biologically determined functions that have evolved over several millennia.  The educational component is a culturally determined education system cobbled together in a somewhat piecemeal and haphazard fashion over the past century or so.

The education system Geary refers to is typical of the schooling systems in developed industrialised nations, and according to his model, focuses on providing students with biologically secondary knowledge and abilities. Geary points out that many students prefer to focus on biologically primary knowledge and abilities such as sports and hanging out with their mates (p.52).   He recognises they might not see the point of what they are expected to learn and might need its importance explained to them in terms of social value (p.56). He suggests ‘low achieving’ students especially might need explicit, teacher driven instruction (p.43).

You’d think, if cognitive functions have been biologically determined through thousands of years of evolution, that it would make sense to adapt the education system to the cognitive functions, rather then the other way round. But Geary doesn’t appear to question the structure of the current US education system at all; he accepts it as a given. I suggest that in the light of how human cognition works, it might be worth taking a step back and re-thinking the education system itself in the light of the following principles:

1.communities need access to expertise

Human beings have been ‘successful’, in evolutionary terms, mainly due to our use of language. Language means it isn’t necessary for each of us to learn everything for ourselves from scratch; we can pass on information to each other verbally. Reading and writing allow knowledge to be transmitted across time and space. The more knowledge we have as individuals and communities, the better our chances of survival and a decent quality of life.

But, although it’s desirable for everyone to be proficient reader and writer and to have an excellent grasp of collective human knowledge, that’s not necessary in order for each of us to have a decent quality of life. What each community needs is a critical mass of people with good knowledge and skills.

Also, human knowledge is now so vast that no one can be an expert on everything; what’s important is that everyone has access to the expertise they need, when and where they need it.  For centuries, communities have facilitated access to expertise by educating and training experts (from carpenters and builders to doctors and lawyers) who can then share their expertise with their communities. and training is not just for school

Prior to the development of mass education systems, most children’s and young people’s education and training would have been integrated into the communities in which they lived. They would understand where their new knowledge and skills fitted into the grand scheme of things and how it would benefit them, their families and others. But schools in mass education systems aren’t integrated into communities. The education system has become its own specialism. Children and young people are withdrawn from their community for many hours to be taught whatever knowledge and skills the education system thinks fit. The idea that good exam results will lead to good jobs is expected to provide sufficient motivation for students to work hard at mastering the school curriculum.  Geary recognises that it doesn’t.

For most of the millennia during which cognitive functions have been developing, children and young people have been actively involved in producing food or making goods, and their education and training was directly related to those tasks. Now it isn’t.  I’m not advocating a return to child labour; what I am advocating is ensuring that what children and young people learn in school is directly and explicitly related to life outside school.

Here’s an example: A highlight of the Chemistry O level course I took many years ago was a visit to the nearby Avon (make-up) factory. Not only did we each get a bag of free samples, but in the course of an afternoon the relevance of all that rote learning of industrial applications, all that dry information about emulsions, fat-soluble dyes, anti-fungal additives etc. suddenly came into sharp focus. In addition, the factory was a major local employer and the Avon distribution network was very familiar to us, so the whole end-to-end process made sense.

What’s commonly referred to as ‘academic’ education – fundamental knowledge about how the world works – is vital for our survival and wellbeing as a species. But knowledge about how the world works is also immensely practical. We need to get children and young people out, into the community, to see how their communities apply knowledge about how the world works, and why it’s important. The increasing emphasis in education in the developed world on paper-and-pencil tests, examination results and college attendance is moving the education system in the opposite direction, away from the practical importance of extensive, robust knowledge to our everyday lives.  And Geary appears to go along with that.

3.(not) evaluating the evidence

Broadly speaking, Geary’s model has obvious uses for teachers.   There’s considerable supporting evidence for a two-phase model of cognition ranging from Fodor’s specialised, stable/general, unstable distinction, to the System 1/System 2 model Daniel Kahnemann describes in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Whether the difference between Geary’s biologically primary and secondary knowledge and abilities is as clear-cut as he claims, is a different matter.

It’s also well established that in order to successfully acquire the knowledge usually taught in schools, children need the specific abilities that are measured by intelligence tests; that’s why the tests were invented in the first place. And there’s considerable supporting evidence for the reliability and predictive validity of intelligence tests. They clearly have useful applications in schools. But it doesn’t follow that what we call intelligence or g (never mind gF or gC) is anything other than a construct created by the intelligence test.

In addition, the fact that there is evidence that supports Geary’s claims doesn’t mean all his claims are true. There might also be considerable contradictory evidence; in the case of Geary’s two-phase model the evidence suggests the divide isn’t as clear-cut as he suggests, and the reification of intelligence has been widely critiqued. Geary mentions the existence of ‘vigorous debate’ but doesn’t go into details and doesn’t evaluate the evidence by actually weighing up the pros and cons.

Geary’s unquestioning acceptance of the concepts of modularity, intelligence and education systems in the developed world, increases the likelihood that teachers will follow suit and simply accept Geary’s model as a given. I’ve seen the concepts of biologically primary and secondary knowledge and abilities, crystallised intelligence (gC) and fluid intelligence (gF), and the idea that students with low gF who struggle with biologically secondary knowledge just need explicit direct instruction, all asserted as if they must be true – presumably because an academic has claimed they are and cited evidence in support.

This absence of evaluation of the evidence is especially disconcerting in anyone who emphasises the importance of teachers becoming research-savvy and developing evidence-based practice, or who posits models like Geary’s in opposition to the status quo. The absence of evaluation is also at odds with the oft cited requirement for students to acquire robust, extensive knowledge about a subject before they can understand, apply, analyse, evaluate or use it creatively. That requirement applies only to school children, it seems.


Fodor, J (1983).  The modularity of mind.  MIT Press.

Geary, D (2007).  Educating the evolved mind: Conceptual foundations for an evolutionary educational psychology, in Educating the evolved mind: Conceptual foundations for an evolutionary educational psychology, JS Carlson & JR Levin (Eds). Information Age Publishing.

Kahneman, D (2012).  Thinking, fast and slow.   Penguin.

evolved minds and education: evolved minds

At the recent Australian College of Educators conference in Melbourne, John Sweller summarised his talk as follows:  “Biologically primary, generic-cognitive skills do not need explicit instruction.  Biologically secondary, domain-specific skills do need explicit instruction.”


Biologically primary and biologically secondary cognitive skills

This distinction was proposed by David Geary, a cognitive developmental and evolutionary psychologist at the University of Missouri. In a recent blogpost, Greg Ashman refers to a chapter by Geary that sets out his theory in detail.

If I’ve understood it correctly, here’s the idea at the heart of Geary’s model:


The cognitive processes we use by default have evolved over millennia to deal with information (e.g. about predators, food sources) that has remained stable for much of that time. Geary calls these biologically primary knowledge and abilities. The processes involved are fast, frugal, simple and implicit.

But we also have to deal with novel information, including knowledge we’ve learned from previous generations, so we’ve evolved flexible mechanisms for processing what Geary terms biologically secondary knowledge and abilities. The flexible mechanisms are slow, effortful, complex and explicit/conscious.

Biologically secondary processes are influenced by an underlying factor we call general intelligence, or g, related to the accuracy and speed of processing novel information. We use biologically primary processes by default, so they tend to hinder the acquisition of the biologically secondary knowledge taught in schools. Geary concludes the best way for students to acquire the latter is through direct, explicit instruction.


On the face of it, Geary’s model is a convincing one.   The errors and biases associated with the cognitive processes we use by default do make it difficult for us to think logically and rationally. Children are not going to automatically absorb the body of human knowledge accumulated over the centuries, and will need to be taught it actively. Geary’s model is also coherent; its components make sense when put together. And the evidence he marshals in support is formidable; there are 21 pages of references.

However, on closer inspection the distinction between biologically primary and secondary knowledge and abilities begins to look a little blurred. It rests on some assumptions that are the subject of what Geary terms ‘vigorous debate’. Geary does note the debate, but because he plumps for one view, doesn’t evaluate the supporting evidence, and doesn’t go into detail about competing theories, teachers unfamiliar with the domains in question could easily remain unaware of possible flaws in his model. In addition, Geary adopts a particular cultural frame of reference; essentially that of a developed, industrialised society that places high value on intellectual and academic skills. There are good reasons for adopting that perspective; and equally good reasons for not doing so. In a series of three posts, I plan to examine two concepts that have prompted vigorous debate – modularity and intelligence – and to look at Geary’s cultural frame of reference.


The concept of modularity – that particular parts of the brain are dedicated to particular functions – is fundamental to Geary’s model.   Physicians have known for centuries that some parts of the brain specialise in processing specific information. Some stroke patients for example, have been reported as being able to write but no longer able to read (alexia without agraphia), to be able to read symbols but not words (pure alexia), or to be unable to recall some types of words (anomia). Language isn’t the only ability involving specialised modules; different areas of the brain are dedicated to processing the visual features of, for example, faces, places and tools.

One question that has long perplexed researchers is how modular the brain actually is. Some functions clearly occur in particular locations and in those locations only; others appear to be more distributed. In the early 1980s, Jerry Fodor tackled this conundrum head-on in his book The modularity of mind. What he concluded is that at the perceptual and linguistic level functions are largely modular, i.e. specialised and stable, but at the higher levels of association and ‘thought’ they are distributed and unstable.  This makes sense; you’d want stability in what you perceive, but flexibility in what you do with those perceptions.

Geary refers to the ‘vigorous debate’ (p.12) between those who lean towards specialised brain functions being evolved and modular, and those who see specialised brain functions as emerging from interactions between lower-level stable mechanisms. Although he acknowledges the importance of interaction and emergence during development (pp. 14,18) you wouldn’t know that from Fig 1.2, showing his ‘evolved cognitive modules’.

At first glance, Geary’s distinction between stable biologically primary functions and flexible biologically secondary functions appears to be the same as Fodor’s stable/unstable distinction. But it isn’t.  Fodor’s modules are low-level perceptual ones; some of Geary’s modules in Fig. 1.2 (e.g. theory of mind, language, non-verbal behaviour) engage frontal brain areas used for the flexible processing of higher-level information.

Novices and experts; novelty and automation

Later in his chapter, Geary refers to research involving these frontal brain areas. Two findings are particularly relevant to his modular theory. The first is that frontal areas of the brain are initially engaged whilst people are learning a complex task, but as the task becomes increasingly automated, frontal area involvement decreases (p.59). Second, research comparing experts’ and novices’ perceptions of physical phenomena (p.69) showed that if there is a conflict between what people see and their current schemas, frontal areas of their brains are engaged to resolve the conflict. So, when physics novices are shown a scientifically accurate explanation, or when physics experts are shown a ‘folk’ explanation, both groups experience conflict.

In other words, what’s processed quickly, automatically and pre-consciously is familiar, overlearned information. If that familiar and overlearned information consists of incomplete and partially understood bits and pieces that people have picked up as they’ve gone along, errors in their ‘folk’ psychology, biology and physics concepts (p.13) are unsurprising. But it doesn’t follow that there must be dedicated modules in the brain that have evolved to produce those concepts.

If the familiar overlearned information is, in contrast, extensive and scientifically accurate, the ‘folk’ concepts get overridden and the scientific concepts become the ones that are accessed quickly, automatically and pre-consciously. In other words, the line between biologically primary and secondary knowledge and abilities might not be as clear as Geary’s model implies.  Here’s an example; the ability to draw what you see.

The eye of the beholder

Most of us are able to recognise, immediately and without error, the face of an old friend, the front of our own house, or the family car. However, if asked to draw an accurate representation of those items, even if they were in front of us at the time, most of us would struggle. That’s because the processes involved in visual recognition are fast, frugal, simple and implicit; they appear to be evolved, modular systems. But there are people can draw accurately what they see in front of them; some can do so ‘naturally’, others train themselves to do so, and still others are taught to do so via direct instruction.  It looks as if the ability to draw accurately straddles Geary’s biologically primary and secondary divide.  The extent to which modules are actually modular is further called into question by recent research involving the fusiform face area (FFA).

Fusiform face area

The FFA is one of the visual processing areas of the brain. It specialises in processing information about faces. What wasn’t initially clear to researchers was whether it processed information about faces only, or whether faces were simply a special case of the type of information it processes. There was considerable debate about this until a series of experiments found that various experts used their FFA for differentiating subtle visual differences within classes of items as diverse as birds, cars, chess configurations, x-ray images, Pokémon, and objects named ‘greebles’ invented by researchers.

What these experiments tell us is that an area of the brain apparently dedicated to processing information about faces, is also used to process information about modern artifacts with features that require fine-grained differentiation in order to tell them apart. They also tell us that modules in the brain don’t seem to draw a clear line between biologically primary information such as faces (no explicit instruction required), and biologically secondary information such as x-ray images or fictitious creatures (where initial explicit instruction is required).

What the experiments don’t tell us is whether the FFA evolved to process information about faces and is being co-opted to process other visually similar information, or whether it evolved to process fine-grained visual distinctions, of which faces happen to be the most frequent example most people encounter.

We know that brain mechanisms have evolved and that has resulted in some modular processing. What isn’t yet clear is exactly how modular the modules are, or whether there is actually a clear divide between biologically primary and biologically secondary abilities. Another component of Geary’s model about which there has been considerable debate is intelligence – the subject of the next post.

Incidentally, it would be interesting to know how Sweller developed his summary because it doesn’t quite map on to a concept of modularity in which the cognitive skills are anything but generic.


Fodor, J (1983).  The modularity of mind.  MIT Press.

Geary, D (2007).  Educating the evolved mind: Conceptual foundations for an evolutionary educational psychology, in Educating the evolved mind: Conceptual foundations for an evolutionary educational psychology, JS Carlson & JR Levin (Eds). Information Age Publishing.


I thought the image was from @greg_ashman’s Twitter timeline but can’t now find it.  Happy to acknowledge correctly if notified.