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Non-Kin Collaborations and Complex Projectiles
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
published an intriguing article in which Curtis Marean provided an
explanation for how Homo sapiens carried out its world-wide
colonization and domination over approximately 60,000 years (Marean,
2015). Marean suggested that two cognitive capabilities emerged to give
sapiens an evolutionary edge over other forms of humans:
- The discovery that linguistically-driven cooperation with unrelated others was often better than individual activity.
- The development and use of increasingly complex projectiles. Over
thousands of years sapiens moved from throwing rocks and stabbing with
spears to thrown spears, bows and arrows, guns, and rocket-propelled
These eventually led to "the most consequential migration event in the
history of our planet" as Marean put it. We humans affected (and often
ruined) the ecosystems of many environments in order to improve our own
lot. The result is that the current planetary epoch is called
Anthropocene, the Human Age. We're now seven billion with serious
environmental problems and we're growing at a rate that will exacerbate
Good articles get readers to think beyond the basic message, and
Marean's article certainly did that for me. I thought about educational
applications that went beyond the article. I'll start with my musings
and I expect that you'll continue with yours.
Inbreeding occurred in small primitive kinship groups, but most
human societies no longer mate with immediate kin. Since inbreeding can
have serious repercussions, it's preferable to extend one's genetics.
Consider extending this biological reality into the concept of cultural inbreeding.
We've become a global community through mass media, the Internet, and
faster transportation. The result is that things that occur anywhere
are often known almost everywhere. Such global awareness often makes
sense in the contemporary world.
We thus educate (or should educate) young people within unrelated
groups. It's cheaper than an apprentice approach, but it's also more
socially efficient for sapiens. Since family interactions focus on
bonding, young people also seek out others their age as companions and
playmates. These non-kin interactions typically use play and games to
develop social skills. They provide young people with a
non-threatening, analogical, exploratory venue for the types of general
challenges that they'll confront during their adult lives.
Play involves informal explorations with a minimal focus on defined
goals and rules. Children then wonder how their skills compare with
those of others, so games emerge for that task. Games are organized,
rule-bound, goal oriented, usually competitive, and usually include a
scoring mechanism. A game is played by an individual or teams of
individuals. We engage in physical games (such as basketball) when
we're young, but we tend to watch them when we're older. Our social and
intellectual skills will have developed while our physical capabilities
waned. We continue to play cerebral games such as card or board games
throughout life. A golf foursome is about exercise and competition but
it's also about the social bonding and extension of friends.
Interaction with unrelated others can lead to disagreements that can
include war. War is losing its heroic preservative perspective. During
recent years, wars have become less oriented towards the colonization
of the presumed inferior inhabitants of an area and more about
borderless ideological disagreements. The U.S. spends more on its $610
billion annual military costs than the combined spending of the next
seven countries (China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Britain, India,
Germany. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_military_expenditures). Rational negotiation is cheaper and more tuned to our presumed cognitive capabilities to expand ideas beyond our group.
Our nation's most significant contribution to the world was
representative democracy. It's cooperation at a national level. We've
gone from a relatively small group who developed the basic idea of
representative democracy to a nation of 300 million that's trying to
maintain it. That we can't seem to agree on many issues isn't a
negative, but rather an example of the value that democracy should
place on the beliefs of everyone, regardless of wealth or intellectual
One wonders if the effort made to create a more perfect union could be harnessed to create a more perfect planet in
which all humans, animals, and plants become a combined concern. Could
we help get the world to come together to seriously reduce military
spending and increase our understanding of how to enhance peaceful
coexistence? Schools are the best vehicle for beginning what will
probably be a long transformative process.
Earlier IAE Newsletter articles have presented many such possibilities. For example, the Kagan program http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2014-140.html and the Caine program http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2013-107.html make
imaginative adaptations of the things that good teachers have long done
to help groups of students work together to solve problems.
Expanding the Projectiles Analogy
Technology is additive. In search for animal food, a found
stabbing stick and human creativity led to a thrown spear that led to
bows and arrows that led into various kinds of guns. Neanderthals were
human competitors who hadn't collaboratively begun to develop such
technologies, and their narrow traditional hunting procedures
eventually helped lead to their extinction.
The general concept of projectiles can also be applied to the movement
of people and information. Consider the movement of people. A person is
projected (moved) on a horse. With the aid of technology, we expanded
from horseback riding to use of a horse and wagon. We learned to build
boats to project ourselves over water surfaces. Over thousands of
years, further technological advances led to the train, powered boat
and ship, car and truck, airplane, and space travel that project us
over land and water, in the skies, and in space.
We learned to preserve and project our thoughts through the development
of reading, writing, and books. We learned to project our written and
spoken messages via use of photography, telegraph, telephone, radio,
television, and the Internet.
Computer technology probably doesn't represent the final development in
the projection of information, but it will certainly rank high on the
list as our era's contribution. What's important is that only a few
innovators and their collaborative supporting engineers were critical
to the development of the computer technology, but it has taken
widespread cooperation to gain the widespread availability and use that
has changed the world.
How do we identify and nurture the innovators and engineers who will
determine how to process the kinds of movement that subsequent
generations will confront? We now know from millennia of experience
that non-kin creative collaborative effort works. What we don't know is
which individuals within a group will develop the next innovation. It
might seem foolish to develop schools that must teach throngs to locate
a few creative people, but recall that a relatively few collaborative
sapiens with simple projectile tools initially began the process that
eventually conquered the world.
What's wonderful about Homo sapiens is that the young don't wait around
for the older folks to give directions. The creativity of informal play
and games gets us started on social interaction. Formal education will
introduce the wonders of linguistic and mathematical communication,
explain what we currently know, illustrate cultural efficiencies and
deficiencies, and suggest possible imaginative extensions beyond the
known. Beyond that, each generation has managed to interactively
develop what it needs to survive and thrive.
I was born in 1927, the year our family got its first car after
15 years without one. We got a radio when I was six. It's been
wonderful to experience what's occurred during my life. Our first
great-grandchild was recently born, and I can't even imagine what his
life will experience. Sapiens moving to other planets?
My advice: Read Marean's excellent "The Most Invasive Species of All"
and see where it takes you in thinking about emerging educational
challenges, such as to collaboratively come together, and then to
disseminate useful information beyond one's collaborating group.
Marean, C. (August 2015, pps 33-39). The most invasive species of all. Scientific American. Dr. Marean is a Professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University.
Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and co-editor of the IAE Newsletter. His most recent of 10 books are A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007,
Corwin Press). He also helped to write/edit six books for the IAE
Newsletter. He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run. Contact information: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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