Friday, 1 November 2013

Disagree with Cziko, Campbell on instructional learning

Gary Cziko and Donald Campbell famously attempted to explain instructional learning in terms of variation with selective retention. This was part of a grand scheme to show that all knowledge was the product of such processes. In Without Miracles, Gary Cziko recounts a string of cases where instructional learning turned out - on closer inspection to involve selective retention.

After some reflection about this, I think they are wrong about the issue. Instructional learning (e.g. rote learning) is usually best modeled by copying - not by processes necessarily involving selective retention. It's true that selective retention is common - and that if you examine processes closely enough, you can usually find some selective retention going on somewhere. However, to model instructional learning using copying is simple, obvious and correct - whereas to model it using selective retention seems like a case of special pleading.

We don't need a grand scheme which attributes all cases of adaptive fit to selective retention. Such a scheme is mistaken. Some cases of adaptive fit are the result of copying. Not necessarily copying results of previous processes involving selective retention - just plain copying.

Henry Plotkin briefly makes much the same criticism in Evolutionary Worlds without End. I think he is correct - and that Cziko and Campbell were wrong. Shoehorning instructional learning into models involving selective retention is an "unhelpful" activity that evolutionary epistemology should distance itself from. Instructional learning is mostly just copying, which is perfectly compatible with modeling individual learning within Darwinian frameworks.

Update 2015-05-25:

I've changed my mind on this a bit. See: Selection is simple, general and explains goodness of fit for the details.

It is possible to see all copying as a form of selection. Maybe this is a bit contrived. It certainly depends a lot on the details of the definition of the term "selection" that you use. However, classifying copying as a form of selection is possible - and it helps to explain how Cziko and Campbell's position can be internally consistent.

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