Column #40, posted September 26, 2007

Cave Man Didn't Have Classrooms

We have begun, as a society, to question what we eat. One line of argument involves cave men. The reasoning is that modern man evolved over 1,000,000 years and that agriculture has been around for only the last 10,000 years. The population size grew tremendously as a result of the fact that things like rice, wheat, potatoes, and such could be grown in sufficient quantity to feed large numbers of people. But, the consequence of this was less healthy people. We evolved to eat fruits and nuts, fish, and sometimes some meat. Eating corn chips was never in the plan. Maybe 50,000 years from now our descendents will need ice cream, and assorted chemical preservatives, in order to thrive. But, today, we are still those people who evolved from the natural selection process of being able to function well on what was available to hunt and gather. We are still cave men biologically. We just wear better clothes.

I take seriously the idea that, biologically, we are still cave men. And, mentally we are cave men as well. Just as we were evolved to live off the land without excessive alteration to what we find there, so have we evolved to think and learn in a certain way, a way that may not be consonant with how we think we think, and how we learn in the modern world.

It seems a silly question to ask, for example, but do you think that cave men had classrooms?   Did cave men give and listen to lectures? Did cave men read and write? These questions matter a great deal, and the fact that we have not asked them has had bad results in just the way that eating corn chips has had bad results.

Why does it matter that cave men did not have classrooms? The existence of classrooms is based on the assumption, an assumption that is never discussed but always assumed, that people can learn by sitting quietly and listening. We imagine that people learn by being told the truth by experts and practicing to take tests to see if their minds can retain that truth.

What about the mind of the cave man? Is it reasonable to assume that a cave man was in the habit of sitting quietly and listening to someone who was trying to teach him to know something? The image of that seems so funny that one doesn’t even have to add in the image of the cave man taking the multiple choice tests that would naturally follow.

Why do these images seem absurd? Because, we imagine, that cave men taught their children by example. We imagine that they took them along on the hunt when they were ready and that they practiced, by playing, prior to that. We assume, that learned to build shelters by doing simple tasks first and that they learned to defend against predators by watching and later helping. We don’t really have to imagine this very hard, as there are primitive societies where this still takes place today. In fact, prior to the idea of mass compulsory education, like that of mass feeding, we knew how to educate children properly, that is in the way that their minds were set up to work after 1,000,000 years of evolution. Instruction in cave man society, indeed in all societies until very recently, was by long-term apprenticeships. Knowing was not valued. Doing was seriously valued.

To put this another way, the cave man’s mind was never prepared for, or concerned with, knowing. There was no test. There were no game shows. There was no Nobel Prize. There was action. The winner was the person who brought down the elk or buffalo. He didn’t have to know how to do it, at least not consciously. He had to be able to do it. What knowledge he had was unconscious. He may not have been able to say what he knew that helped him throw a rock straight. He could just do it. He practiced a lot.

On the other hand, we can assume, again from looking at current primitive societies, that he could talk about what he had done. After the hunt, the story of the hunt would be told, perhaps many times. And, we can assume, that the story would be told interactively, with many contributing and with remarks from the audience. There probably was no lecture. There certainly was no test. Least of all was there Power Point?

Why does this matter? The cave man could not listen to a lecture. His mind was not ready to absorb information in that way. He needed images painted in his mind because his memory was very visually oriented. He could remember easily places he had been and how to get there. He could remember faces, and smells. He could sense danger. Before he had words, he had these things. Modern man has words, but our minds have not changed so much that images, smells, sounds, and how things feel would not be more important as items in memory. Our memories were set up to recall in this way and to use images and senses, long before we knew any words.

And when there finally were words, there were stories. Man has had language, but not reading and writing for hundreds of thousands of years. Hundreds of thousands of years of telling and hearing stories has set us up to be able to tell and hear stories and relate them to experience. We like it. We are good at it. We crave stories.

Sometimes technological innovations help us be more who we are. Movies, for example, would work well for cave men. They liked stories and they liked images. As long as the movies they saw corresponded to their experiences, they would, I am guessing, be able to enjoy them. Technology can enhance the abilities of our basic cave man selves, if it is in concordance with those selves. Or, if it discordant, it can be worse than useless.

Modern man needs stories, but he doesn’t always get them. Or, if he gets them they provide more information than he can possibly absorb. Modern man is not set up to listen to anyone talk for an hour without interruption, let alone remember much of what that person said. So when airlines blather on about safety precautions we can safely assume that people cannot remember any of it because their minds are not set up to absorb information in that way.

What about books? People read books and remember what they read don’t they? Well… no.

People remember some of what they read. They certainly don’t remember the words. If they think about what they read they can remember some of the ideas, or the gist of story. But much is forgotten. Why?

Reading was not a cave man activity. In other words, we do not have hundreds of thousands of years of mental evolution in support of the ability to gain information from books. This brings up the question of what kind of mental activity evolution does support.

Cave men needed to know the roles they played in their society. They needed to know how to perform the actions associated with those roles. They needed to have the concept of a goal and they needed to be able to figure out a course of action that might achieve that goal.

Of course, in reality, there probably was not all that much ‘figuring out’ going on. Most roles and associated actions, and most of the goals and associated plans needed to achieve them, would have been thought out for ages by their ancestors.  The real issue would be the transmission of known plans that achieve those goals and the tasks associated with the standard roles in society.   To put this another way, people know how to learn by copying others and by doing it themselves, perhaps with just-in-time advice offered by a more senior practitioner.

The mental apparatus used by the cave man and thus inherited by modern man would have to be all about roles, tasks, goals, plans, and learning by watching and learning by doing. Just in time storytelling would also have a big role to play. Modern man is equipped to do this kind of mental functioning in the same way as he is equipped to absorb the nutrients from fruits and nuts. And similarly, he is not equipped to absorb tightly packed time consuming information about what he might need to know in the future should a particular situation ever come up any more than he is equipped to live well from the nutrients in a mocha cappuccino.

Cave Men didn’t calculate the surface area of a potato chip

But cave men did know F=MA. Cave men had to know a great deal of physics in order to effectively use a spear or any other weapon. They didn’t know the language of mathematics (or physics) one can assume. But, mathematics is just that, a language. And, it is language that gets in the way of our understanding how the mind works. The mind understands well enough that more force makes more impact, Force and impact are very basic notions. They are some of the indices that the mind would have to use in order to function. Formulas are for those who want to discuss and analyze how the mind functions, not for its actual functioning.

The cave man was probably not conscious. There is lots of evidence that consciousness is a fairly recent arrival on the human scene. If we teach to the conscious, if we say how to do something, or worse teach the theory of how something works, rather than show how to do something, we lose the student because his mind does not work that way. If experience is separated from knowledge, if what we teach is not about doing at all, then we teaching to the conscious. Conscious people may make good intellectuals, but those intellectuals are unlikely to become practitioners. 

Call me crazy but I think we have plenty of intellectuals and the ability to train more. Teaching people to work together, reason about new situations, achieve their goals, just as cave men did, is what education should be about.


There is a great deal of information available about cavemen diets. Here is a link to one - see R. D’Andrade,  Cultural Darwinism and Language, 2002, American Anthropologist 104(1): 1-10

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