Fiction and Learning


In my last blog past I blithely wrote about the human capacity to learn language, something that even our close evolutionary friends the chimps can’t do. Of course, there are many genes that contribute to human language learning and not everyone has the same versions of those genes. Probably the most famous example of a gene that is involved in human language behavior is FOXP2; when it is mutated, children can have disrupted capacity to generate speech.

In my case, I find spelling and grammar to be mysterious. When writing, I can easily leave out a word, add a superfluous word or substitute an incorrect word for the desired word. When reading, my brain easily ignores missing or duplicated words. Probably the most well studied genetic condition effecting the ability of humans to use written language is dyslexia. Research into human variation in genes that are important for written language is still very primitive, similar to where cancer research was 40 years ago. It is safe to say that humans have a wide variation in genes that are involved with supporting the use of written language. In the coming decades we will learn much more about human neurodiversity.

By the age of 18, I was seriously addicted to the written word, but I had been rejected by the priesthood of writing. I loved to read, but I dreaded the thought of trying to get a written assignment past an English instructor. Then I got lucky. I found a college English instructor who was as far “outside the box” as were my language genes, an instructor who taught consilience and failed to accept the idea of a schism between the “two cultures” of science and the humanities. All my other instructors were masters of specialization, but I was lucky enough to have one who taught the truth that real understanding of our place in the universe depends on our ability to combine apparently unrelated ideas.

A duckrabbit

Change is dangerous. In both genetic and memetic systems there must be a limited capacity for change. Change is needed, but too much change would be chaotic. The rate of change must be limited so that adaptive genes and memes are not destroyed as part of a mad rush for new genes and memes. For genes, mutations must be relatively rare while there must be a robust selection mechanism that retains existing working genes. Similarly, during the past 10,000,000 or so years humans have evolved as meme machines for which the emphasis is on propagating adaptive memes rather than the creation of new memes. Children dutifully learn their parent’s language, religion and political biases. Even scientists are indoctrinated into acceptance of scientific assumptions and only a select few are able to step outside of the box imposed by their inherited memes and create something radically new like theories of relativity, plate tectonics and evolution by natural selection.

In my last blog past I outlined a series of revolutions in learning: the invention of social learning, the evolution of spoken human language, the development of systems of written language and then I ended with some questions about the power of information technologies to change how human learning takes place. Here, I’m trying to focus on the distinction between an individual who is trying to learn what is already known and the same individual who is trying to discover something new. To me, it seems reasonable to assume that we have some neural circuits that help us see outside the box of our memes and some that tend to keep us sealed up within the confines of our existing memes.

I’m not going to argue that only some small, select group of people are genetically endowed with the required styles of brains that make it possible for them to be creative and make new discoveries. From a young age each child can either be encouraged to think differently and ask question or they can be discouraged from thinking outside the box of conventional thought. I’m fascinated by the idea that during human history there has been a wide range in the extent to which various human societies have supported the development of questioning and creative children.

The creation and destruction of fictions


All of the above is a long-winded foundation for mentioning the idea that our human capacity for inventing stories and creating fictions is important for making new discoveries about the world. However, just as importantly, people have an almost limitless capacity for believing fictions that distract us from the truth. We like to celebrate the creativity of the young Albert Einstein when he imagined the fictitious scenario of going for a ride on light beam, but we must also celebrate his ability to throw away the conventional fictions that then existed as accepted assumptions about the nature of time and space.

Similarly I am often tempted to celebrate the creative flow of ideas that I am flooded by when I explore the internet. However, I can’t hide from the fact that the internet often seems more a device for destroying memes than creating them. It is easier to pull something down than build it up, particularly when people are comfortable with an existing fiction. I grew up during the time when it was discovered that smoking increases the risk of lung cancer. Of course, there was too much $$ in selling tobacco for the scientific facts to go unchallenged by the tobacco industry. And there were millions of people addicted to nicotine who were all too eager to listen to tobacco industry propaganda. I won’t say that people believed the tobacco industry propaganda. Memes are not really about belief. In many cases people do what they do and then simply layer convenient rationalization over the top.

Here is a case study for the role of fiction in human learning: “Artificial flight and other myths“. I love analogies and this is a fictional account of an avian philosopher that provides an interesting analogy for the philosophical debates over artificial intelligence. This little story is also an intuition pump.  We do not know how difficult it will be to build machines with human-like minds. Artificial intelligence researchers have found it very challenging  to package human-like learning abilities into a computing system. AI researchers need to keep their spirits up and they can find comfort in stories such as “Artificial flight and other myths”. I’ve written my own “intuition pump” that has another perspective on the question of machine intelligence (see “Go to Hell“). In the end, I believe that most hard problems are like the story of blind men and an elephant: we are best able to learn about the elephant when we work together, not when we manufacture fictions that allow us to comfortably remain isolated in our own little world. There is a defect in our mental meme machines: the existence of one meme can exclude others, even when those others are better.



In his robot novels, Isaac Asimov imagined a future in which scientists and dress designers were linked by a global communications system, but each parson, rather than cooperating with others, pursued their individual creative endeavor. The ultimate expression of that trend in human isolation was the planet Solaria where the human colonists ultimately decided to become hermaphrodites who never had physical contact with other people. Now, I’m not saying that this will be our fate as we continue to develop technologies like the internet, but I do think there are important choices facing us in how we make use of information technologies.

Will the internet bring humanity together or  will we all self-segregate into warring internet tribes? Over here we will have websites where human-induced climate change is a fiction and over there will be the holocaust deniers and over in another corner will be the lingering “smoking won’t kill me” websites. We will all be free to find the parts of the internet that affirm exactly what we already believe. The dominate use of fiction for learning will be fiction that promotes the learning of propaganda rather than the use of fiction as a tool for shifting us out of our meme box and allowing us to move a step closer to truth. Even in creative endeavors where the goal might be something other than truth (for example, literary merit) I’m intrigued by the collaborative nature of the process that establishes criteria for success, allows for measures of success and guides the creation of new cultural works.

Zucchini Duck

How can we avoid that kind of segregated future where we each sink into the part of the internet where we feel comfortable? I think there is a solution to that internet pitfall and it has something to do with collaboration. Can we use the internet to bring together members of different tribes in learning environments where we can work towards the truth rather than towards personal profit and short-term comfort? What tools for collaboration will be developed within the internet environment and how will people make use of those tools?

Related reading: Isaac Asimov and Distributable Educational Material Markup Language. DEMML blog.

Images. Bunny Rabbit by William Warby. Zucchini Duck by Alex Gee. Duck Head by Sujit kumar.


One Response to “Fiction and Learning”

  1. Asimov and learning Says:

    This blog post is mentioned in a later post: see Asimov and Learning

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