Information Age Education
   Issue Number 173
November, 2015   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, six free books based on the newsletters are available: Validity and Credibility of Information; Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

Non-Kin Collaborations and Complex Projectiles

Robert Sylwester
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon

Scientific American recently published an intriguing article in which Curtis Marean provided an explanation for how Homo sapiens carried out its world-wide colonization and domination over approximately 60,000 years (Marean, 2015). Marean suggested that two cognitive capabilities emerged to give sapiens an evolutionary edge over other forms of humans:
  1. The discovery that linguistically-driven cooperation with unrelated others was often better than individual activity.

  2. The development and use of increasingly complex projectiles. Over thousands of years sapiens moved from throwing rocks and stabbing with spears to thrown spears, bows and arrows, guns, and rocket-propelled missiles.
These eventually led to "the most consequential migration event in the history of our planet" as Marean put it. We humans affected (and often ruined) the ecosystems of many environments in order to improve our own lot. The result is that the current planetary epoch is called Anthropocene, the Human Age. We're now seven billion with serious environmental problems and we're growing at a rate that will exacerbate the problems.

Good articles get readers to think beyond the basic message, and Marean's article certainly did that for me. I thought about educational applications that went beyond the article. I'll start with my musings and I expect that you'll continue with yours.

Non-Kin Collaborations

Inbreeding occurred in small primitive kinship groups, but most human societies no longer mate with immediate kin. Since inbreeding can have serious repercussions, it's preferable to extend one's genetics. Consider extending this biological reality into the concept of cultural inbreeding. We've become a global community through mass media, the Internet, and faster transportation. The result is that things that occur anywhere are often known almost everywhere. Such global awareness often makes sense in the contemporary world.

We thus educate (or should educate) young people within unrelated groups. It's cheaper than an apprentice approach, but it's also more socially efficient for sapiens. Since family interactions focus on bonding, young people also seek out others their age as companions and playmates. These non-kin interactions typically use play and games to develop social skills. They provide young people with a non-threatening, analogical, exploratory venue for the types of general challenges that they'll confront during their adult lives.

Play involves informal explorations with a minimal focus on defined goals and rules. Children then wonder how their skills compare with those of others, so games emerge for that task. Games are organized, rule-bound, goal oriented, usually competitive, and usually include a scoring mechanism.  A game is played by an individual or teams of individuals. We engage in physical games (such as basketball) when we're young, but we tend to watch them when we're older. Our social and intellectual skills will have developed while our physical capabilities waned. We continue to play cerebral games such as card or board games throughout life. A golf foursome is about exercise and competition but it's also about the social bonding and extension of friends.

Interaction with unrelated others can lead to disagreements that can include war. War is losing its heroic preservative perspective. During recent years, wars have become less oriented towards the colonization of the presumed inferior inhabitants of an area and more about borderless ideological disagreements. The U.S. spends more on its $610 billion annual military costs than the combined spending of the next seven countries (China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Britain, India, Germany. (See Rational negotiation is cheaper and more tuned to our presumed cognitive capabilities to expand ideas beyond our group.

Our nation's most significant contribution to the world was representative democracy. It's cooperation at a national level. We've gone from a relatively small group who developed the basic idea of representative democracy to a nation of 300 million that's trying to maintain it. That we can't seem to agree on many issues isn't a negative, but rather an example of the value that democracy should place on the beliefs of everyone, regardless of wealth or intellectual capabilities.

One wonders if the effort made to create a more perfect union could be harnessed to create a more perfect planet in which all humans, animals, and plants become a combined concern. Could we help get the world to come together to seriously reduce military spending and increase our understanding of how to enhance peaceful coexistence? Schools are the best vehicle for beginning what will probably be a long transformative process.

Earlier IAE Newsletter articles have presented many such possibilities. For example, the Kagan program and the Caine program make imaginative adaptations of the things that good teachers have long done to help groups of students work together to solve problems.

Expanding the Projectiles Analogy

Technology is additive. In search for animal food, a found stabbing stick and human creativity led to a thrown spear that led to bows and arrows that led into various kinds of guns. Neanderthals were human competitors who hadn't collaboratively begun to develop such technologies, and their narrow traditional hunting procedures eventually helped lead to their extinction.

The general concept of projectiles can also be applied to the movement of people and information. Consider the movement of people. A person is projected (moved) on a horse. With the aid of technology, we expanded from horseback riding to use of a horse and wagon. We learned to build boats to project ourselves over water surfaces. Over thousands of years, further technological advances led to the train, powered boat and ship, car and truck, airplane, and space travel that project us over land and water, in the skies, and in space.

We learned to preserve and project our thoughts through the development of reading, writing, and books. We learned to project our written and spoken messages via use of photography, telegraph, telephone, radio, television, and the Internet.

Computer technology probably doesn't represent the final development in the projection of information, but it will certainly rank high on the list as our era's contribution. What's important is that only a few innovators and their collaborative supporting engineers were critical to the development of the computer technology, but it has taken widespread cooperation to gain the widespread availability and use that has changed the world.

How do we identify and nurture the innovators and engineers who will determine how to process the kinds of movement that subsequent generations will confront? We now know from millennia of experience that non-kin creative collaborative effort works. What we don't know is which individuals within a group will develop the next innovation. It might seem foolish to develop schools that must teach throngs to locate a few creative people, but recall that a relatively few collaborative sapiens with simple projectile tools initially began the process that eventually conquered the world.

What's wonderful about Homo sapiens is that the young don't wait around for the older folks to give directions. The creativity of informal play and games gets us started on social interaction. Formal education will introduce the wonders of linguistic and mathematical communication, explain what we currently know, illustrate cultural efficiencies and deficiencies, and suggest possible imaginative extensions beyond the known. Beyond that, each generation has managed to interactively develop what it needs to survive and thrive.


I was born in 1927, the year our family got its first car after 15 years without one. We got a radio when I was six. It's been wonderful to experience what's occurred during my life. Our first great-grandchild was recently born, and I can't even imagine what his life will experience. Sapiens moving to other planets?

My advice: Read Marean's excellent "The Most Invasive Species of All" and see where it takes you in thinking about emerging educational challenges, such as to collaboratively come together, and then to disseminate useful information beyond one's collaborating group.


Marean, C. (August 2015, pps 33-39). The most invasive species of all. Scientific American. Dr. Marean is a Professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University.


Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and co-editor of the IAE Newsletter. His most recent of 10 books are A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007, Corwin Press). He also helped to write/edit six books for the IAE Newsletter. He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run. Contact information:

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