Sunday, October 17, 2010

Spiders and miracles

Gary Cziko's Without Miracles spends a lot of time explaining the many ways "fit" is evident in our world. What is "fit" and how do we know it when we see it? According to Cziko, the thing "must appear that it was designed for some purpose and is able to achieve this purpose by functioning in a way that takes into account important, relevant aspects of its environment. A structure or behavior is fit only insofar as it is adapted to its environment and contributes in some useful way to the organism or system that created it or of which it is a part. We recognize such fit when we observe any system composed of many interacting parts where the details of the parts' structure and arrangement suggest design to fulfill some function."

Darwin explained fit in relation to living organisms, but no comparable explanation, however, is generally accepted for all other puzzles of fit like spiders, antibodies, and airplanes. The purpose of this book is to present a rational explanation for all observed examples of fit in our world - without recourse to miracles.

A chapter that stood out to me as an educator was chapter 5 on brain evolution and development. The human brain has 11 billion specialized nerve cells, or neurons, and there are 10,000 or so synapses connecting to cortical neurons alone. That's a lot of wiring. Cziko's research, that shows that we overproduce synapses and then eliminate the ones that we don't need, gave more support to the notion that teens brains are wired differently these days.

Another interesting part of the chapter was the discussion on how the mature brain learns. I often hear people say you can't learn a foreign language as an adult, or that we continue to lose brain cells throughout our life, or that the human brain goes through a steady decline as we age. I always felt those descriptions were too simplistic. I mean, how do you account for people who keep learning throughout their lives. One possible explanation is that the brain continues to overproduce and eliminate newly formed synapses in the adult brain in response to environmental changes. Although there haven't been many studies on it, the author poses a compelling research question: how is the mature brain "able to rewire itself to learn from and adapt to changes in its environment."

Cziko's ideas are relevant to the field of education in many ways. John Dewey is cited early in the book in his critique of behavioral education theories when Dewey says that learning is a "circuit," that behavior determines stimulus just as much as stimulus determines behavior. Observations like Dewey's anticipated the formation of perceptual control theory, the view that sees behavior as controlling perception through the organism's control of its environment.

In the chapter on education, Cziko points out the fault of the instructionist view of education, which currently dominates American schools:
  1. The teacher and textbooks are unquestioned authorities
  2. It puts the blame on students for failure to learn
  3. The usual test is if the student can reproduce the transmitted information in spoken or written form.

Instead he favors the selectionist view of education and invokes people like Jean Piaget, who believed that knowledge is constructed, and Maria Montessori, who believed that natural curiosity is the prime motivator of learning. The selectionist view must consider error to be an essential part of educational growth. The teacher's primary role is to assist the student in discovering the ways in which the student's current knowledge is inadequate. "In short, students should be eager to encounter their mistakes and will, it is hoped, find themselves in an environment that encourages them to revise their thinking and actions to arrive at better solutions to their problems."

Henry Perkinson offers some five suggestions for educators that might move teachers more toward a hybrid approach. The two most relevant to me:
  • It is possible to view critical encounters with the subject matter as a selection procedure of trial-and-error elimination wherein knowledge grows
  • it is possible for teachers to reconceptualize the aim of schooling as an attempt to develop concerned critics who can and will facilitate the growth of our culture.

The most promising part of the book is the recognition that mistakes are a natural part of learning, and that in this sense we need to make more room in our curriculum for reflecting on failure.

Huntsville cemetery
at Huntsville cemetery. Photo by Joe Sloan
The part of the book that keeps gnawing at me, though, is the title. I agree with Cziko in his afterword about the "trouble with miracles." In every chapter of the book he illustrates how relying on the irrational in the past has limited our progress and has eventually given way to more productive ways of thinking about our world. But when he cites David Hume, who doesn't deny the existence of miracles, just that they can't be proven, I have to pause to consider the following: for such an intelligent species, we continue to do incredibly stupid things. So the limits of what our rational minds can explain seem to fall short.

For instance, I've spent the last few days in Eden, Utah. No kidding, my family and I have been in Eden.  So the irony of finishing a book named Without Miracles here hasn't been lost on me.  Perhaps because of the book, it seems all kinds of spiders have been displaying their variations of fit for me. My son took a photo of a spider at the Huntsville Cemetery; on the Green Pond trail by Snow Basin with my wife, I'm awed by a spider that jumped on to the path right in front of me and marvel at the last fall colors hanging on before the first snow – a yellow, brown, red, green palette.  I understand how the oaks, and maples, and aspens all have developed fit for high altitude, south-facing slopes; I have a pretty good grasp of how water and light and chlorophyll have colored this palette.  But to me, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As I stop to gape at individual leaves on my way down the trail at sunset, aware of all the rational explanations for the beauty around me, at every turn I feel like I'm surrounded by miracles.

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