Career of the Month: Evolutionary Psychologist

Evolutionary psychologists analyze human behavior for traits that evolved to increase the odds of survival and reproduction. They may then apply this knowledge to redesign aspects of today’s cultural institutions and practices—such as schools, workplaces, and child rearing—in ways that better align with human nature. Peter Gray is an evolutionary psychologist affiliated with Boston College. His area of focus is education, and he also writes the Freedom to Learn blog on the website of Psychology Today magazine.

Work overview.

As a retired professor, I now mostly research and write about how children educate themselves when they are free to do so. I also examine how education data fit with evolutionary analysis.

A typical researcher may try to figure out which teaching method increases test scores. But when you look at education from an evolutionary perspective, you start to ask more basic questions, such as: What is the purpose of education? One experiment will not answer such questions. Instead, it’s a scholarly approach that synthesizes knowledge from different fields, such as anthropology, history, and even animal behavior.

For example, diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have increased possibly because society no longer tolerates children’s normal unwillingness to sit still for long periods. Instead of adapting school to children, children are being adapted to school. It’s also plausible that depriving children of play is leading to more impulsiveness, because play controls impulsiveness.

Career highlights.

My biggest fulfillment has been writing for the public, first through the blog
and then through my book, Free to Learn. Many people find meaning in my writing, and it has led to speaking invitations and other opportunities.

Career path.

I went to college planning to major in physics. But then I started thinking that the world’s biggest problems are about human behavior, and I wondered how we could bring out the better aspects of people’s being. I became more drawn to psychology and biology. After getting my degrees in psychology and biological sciences, I accepted a job in the psychology department at Boston College.

Many of the introductory textbooks seemed superficial, so I wrote one that covered the usual topics (personality, development, and so on) but from a bio-evolutionary perspective. While I was writing that book, my young son was getting in trouble for questioning his teachers.

We found an alternative school called Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts, where children can follow their own interests. For him, it was a dream come true, but I had my doubts. So I studied the school’s graduates and learned that they went on to do well in college and in a range of careers.

I became intrigued by children’s burning curiosity and desire to play. I began to study education from an evolutionary point of view, wondering what could be learned about children’s natural instincts by knowing about hunter-gatherer cultures.

After surveying anthropologists, I learned that in every hunter-gatherer band studied, children played and explored all day long. It was basically the same philosophy as at Sudbury, where children were free to do what they wanted, to interact with adults who were not judgmental, and to play with children in a mixed-age group. This is how they acquired the skills they needed.

Cultures evolve, sometimes in ways that run counter to human nature. Today’s schools originated at a time when it was believed that children were sinful, and one of the main goals was to break their will and drive out that sin. Humans tend to hang on to cultural things even when they are no longer functional because we are creatures of social norms. Our strong tendency to conform can help us survive in the short term but can be harmful in the long run, unless we create more suitable norms.

Knowledge, skills and training needed.

To be a scholar and researcher is to be curious, to question, and to learn new things. There shouldn’t be any transition between learning and doing.

Advice for students.

Don’t decide what field to go into based only on how you’re doing in your courses. Think about what you like to do in your free time, and that will point you to the career you should pursue.

Bonus Points
Gray’s education: BS in psychology from Columbia College; PhD in biological sciences from Rockefeller University

On the web:
www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn;
https://evolution-institute.org; http://bit.ly/Free-to-learn

Related occupations:
biologist, anthropologist, economist

Editor’s Note

This article was originally published in the February 2017 issue of The Science Teacher journal from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA).

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2 Comments

  1. Mark Stupka
    Posted February 27, 2017 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    I love science, but I hate to see the evolutionary model presented as the one and only means of obtaining Truth by the NSTA and other organizations. The complexity of the tiniest cells to the largest galaxies point to an Intelligent Designer of it all. I believe that this Designer also wonderfully creates children to be unique reflections of His image. You stated that schools in the past “believed that children were sinful, and one of the main goals was to break their will and drive out that sin.” This statement is only partially true. Yes, the schools of the past, ranging from the small Latin-Grammar schools to colleges like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton believed in the Biblical truth that all people are born with sin natures. I believe that a scientific research study would confirm this Biblical truth to be a fact. Yet mature Christian educators realize that the only cure to the sin nature is God’s forgiveness and a changed heart through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. It cannot be cured by “breaking the will” of a child or “driving out the sin” by human means. I could preach a whole sermon on this, but not today. 🙂 Please just keep in mind that there are many who read your materials who do not agree with the evolutionary mindset. We are scientists who have chosen to believe in an Intelligent Creator of it all.

  2. Spencer Adkisson
    Posted February 27, 2017 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    I found this video to be very interesting, and it crystallized, for me, something that I have been grappling with since I transitioned from teaching middle school science and math in a Montessori setting to High School science in the public school setting. That is; how can I provide freedom for autonomy and for students to follow their own curiosity and learn what they need to know when they are ready to know it within the structure of a standards framework and curriculum sequence and pacing expectations? Peter Gray felt that it would not be possible within the public school setting to incrementally shift to they type of environment that exists at the Sudbury School. However, I wonder if a compromise could be reached whereby students were given freedom to choose which topics they were going to investigate and learn about within the structure of the NGSS High School Science standards that are applicable to a course title (Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Earth Science), and evidence of their learning is compiled in portfolios that document their learning and show that standards are being taught (or at least learned). Seems like that type of system would be great for allowing students the freedom to follow their curiosity and enthusiasm for a subject, which would lead to deeper learning. Great video. Very interesting. Thank you for sharing!

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