Learning Like Worms

Among the more productive developments in modern intellectual history is a general loosening of Homo sapiens’ claims to specialness. Let’s grant that humans are special animals. We’re still animals. Our celebrated brain doesn’t set us beyond nature; it adapts us to nature, just as a set of spots, stripes, or claws might. Our differences from other animals are a matter of degree, not kind. You could say we’ve got more processing power than other species, but a lot of the hardware is the same.

The mind is not supernatural. It’s not even the only mind.

Deflating as it can be to let go of your idea of humankind as a bunch of near-angels, humility has its own rewards. For one thing, you’re free—now that the honor of the species is no longer at stake—to admire the astonishing minds of other creatures, like worms, amoebae, or (maybe) plants. You can join neurologist Oliver Sacks, the great appreciator, in his applause.

As Sacks explains, and as Charles Darwin lovingly observed, earthworms modulate their behavior in response to stimuli. So do amoebae, it turns out. So do plants! These creatures learn. Don’t they? And yet they can’t entertain thoughts, or read, or even hear.

If we’re serious about the idea that humans aren’t super-special, then we should resist a temptation to say that there’s one sort of learning for earthworms and another sort for us. And yet we’re inclined to think of learning, in our own case, as critically dependent on thinking, hearing, and reading. So what gives?

Here’s a guess.

One thing we can do that other animals can’t is represent what we learn. We can think, write, and shout that fire burns. A tree can’t. That’s too bad for the tree, and it’s liable to mislead us. Just because we can formulate the outcomes of a learning experience as propositions, and then contemplate those propositions in thought, doesn’t mean that contemplating fire is how we learned that fire burns in the first place. We learned that fire burns by getting burned.

We can write and say what there is to learn, but that’s not the same as learning it. As we keep finding out, we’re more like worms than we thought.

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