Humans as Learners

Human beings are unique creatures. We walk upright, and this freed our forelimbs so we developed unusual dexterity allowing us to build and use tools. Because we walk upright, our pelvises are narrower than the pelvises of other primates. To accommodate birth through such a pelvis, human babies are born small and helpless (despite this, our births can still be very dangerous to our mothers). Human babies are born too small to support even the basic movements necessary for independent life until months after birth, and we are dependent on adults for years. During these years, we learn. We learn a lot.

We learn to recognize those who take care of us and we respond to their faces and voices within hours of birth. We learn basic concepts of physics such as objects are solid, unsupported objects fall, and a moving object that strikes a still object will cause it to move. When crafty psychologists show us phenomena that appear to violate these physics, we react with surprise and stare longer at unusual situations than we stare at expected situations. We learn the basics of anatomy and are able to recognize (for example) our arms and that we can control (or at least move) our arms at will. We learn to recognize emotions and we learn we can influence the behavior of others; “dad smiles when I smile” and “mom feeds me when I cry.”

We learn the nuances of human interaction; we compete and cooperate, lie and cheat, share and support, we trade and beg and borrow and steal. We learn to share information; we ask for help and give help when asked. We express empathy and sympathy and disgust. We learn to sense others’ state of mind and to communicate (and sometimes deceive others about) our state of mind. We act and react according to what we sense about the environment and what we learn about the environment from others. We learn to model our actions after the actions of others; from their examples we learn what to eat, how to avoid being eaten, how to protect ourselves from extremes of weather, to navigate the world, and to find and fill our role in society. We learn to capture the world in language and images, and we learn how to contemplate our place in the cosmos.

We learn to build physical tools to manipulate the external environment and to build conceptual models to explain and predict the environment (which includes our fellow humans), and these models become a very familiar internal environment. We learn to test those models and modify them based on the results. Alone, we can begin to construct our models and conduct our contemplations, but they are even better at constructing and contemplating when we collaborate; much better.

A long and diverse tradition of studying humans’ biological and social development has focused on the characteristics that differentiate Homo sapiens from other primates. Scientists have yet to elucidate all of the details, but two characteristics of human nature do appear to account for the differences: we are social creatures and we are technology-using creatures.