Well versed in the expanses
that stretch from earth to stars,
we get lost in the space
from earth up to our skull.
Wislawa Szymborska, To My Friends
What do we mean by learning? To tell the truth, even as a teacher of twenty-five years experience, I am not sure.
Professor Robert Coe has suggested that learning happens when people have to think hard. In a similar vein, Daniel Willingham contends that knowledge is the residue of thought. Siegfried Engelmann proposes that learning is the capacity to generalise to new examples from previous examples. I have also heard learning defined as a change in the long term memory.
One thing is certain, learning involves some sort of change in the learner’s brain. But what is acknowledged less often is that it doesn’t just happen in human brains.
Contrary to standard social science assumptions, learning is not some pinnacle of evolution attained only recently by humans. All but the simplest animals learn . . . [And some animals execute] complicated sequences of arithmetic, logic, and data storage and retrieval.
— Steven Pinker, How The Mind Works (1997), p.184
An example recounted by Pinker is that of some species of migratory birds that fly thousands of miles at night and use the constellations to find North. Humans do this too when we find the Pole Star.
But with birds it’s surely just instinct, right?
Wrong. This knowledge cannot be genetically “hardwired” into birds as it would soon become obsolete. Currently, a star known as Polaris just happens to be (nearly) directly above the Earth’s North Pole, so that as the Earth rotates on its axis, this star appears to stand still in the sky while the other stars travel on slow circular paths. But it was not always thus.
The Earth’s axis wobbles slowly over a period of twenty six thousand years. This effect is called the precession of the equinoxes. The North Star will change over time, and oftentimes there won’t be star bright enough to see with the naked eye at the North Celestial Pole for there to be “North Star” — just as currently there is no “South Star”.But there will be one in the future, at least temporarily, as the South Celestial Pole describes its slow precessional dance.
Over evolutionary time, a genetically hardwired instinct that pointed birds towards any current North Star or South Star would soon lead them astray in a mere few thousand years or so.
So what do the birds do?
[T]he birds have responded by evolving a special algorithm for learning where the celestial pole is in the night sky. It all happens while they are still in the nest and cannot fly. The nestlings gaze up at the night sky for hours, watching the slow rotation of the constellations. They find the point around which the stars appear to move, and record its position with respect to several nearby constellations. [p.186]
And so there we have it: the ability to learn confers an evolutionary advantage, amongst many others.