Lifelong Learners emerging and disappearing

Soon after I started to teach in high school “lifelong learning” started to become a buzzword. I was definitely excited about the idea. My own farewell from university had been somewhat hard and only motivated by the need to earn money so I could start a family. When Corona struck in 2020 it hit the majority of teachers unprepared and it probably made many teachers swear and curse. For me the abrupt change to distance learning was actually a welcome change (as I am an introvert) and I had basically been teaching for 10 years with digital tools, so there wasn’t really much I had to change about my teaching methodology. To be fair, most teachers caught up quickly, but the fact that they had not been familiar with digital teaching tools that had been around for 5–15 years leaves one to speculate that the majority of teachers aren’t great lifelong learners themselves. In fact, I used to teach e-learning classes for teachers and was often puzzled about how disinterested many teachers were.

So, some people seem to enjoy lifelong learning more than others, but what makes the difference? Geneticist David Reich cites an interesting study in Who We Are and How We Got Here

Daniel Benjamin and colleagues identified seventy-four genetic variations each of which has overwhelming evidence of being more common in people with more years of education than in people with fewer years even after controlling for such possibly confounding factors as heterogeneity in the study population. A study of more than one hundred thousand Icelanders showed that the variations also increase the age at which a woman has her first child, and that this is a more powerful effect than the one on the number of years of education. Average differences across populations in the frequencies of the mutations that affect educational attainment have not yet been identified. But a sobering finding is that older people in Iceland are systematically different from younger people in having a higher genetically predicted number of years of education. Augustine Kong, the lead author of the Icelandic study, showed that this reflects natural selection over the last century against people with more predicted education, likely because of selection for people who began having children at a younger age.

What this study basically says is people with higher lifelong learning potential in Iceland were more frequent in the older population (who needed it much less than the current young generation who live in times that are changing much faster) and it seems that natural selection works against such genetic predispositions. The explanation given certainly makes sense: people who want to have children later in life will be willing to spend more years in education and people who have children early on have a reproductive advantage. While both conditions are somewhat trivial, there is a problem here: we are talking about three different generations and the effect would have been rather small for each generation. So, there must be more to the story.

One reliable correlate of lifelong learning is most likely the Big 5 personality trait “openness to experience”. Markus Jokela () has found in a study that since the availability of the pill “Higher levels of openness to experience in both sexes and higher levels of conscientiousness in women were associated with lower fertility […]”. Not only do people lower in openness outbreed people higher in openness, but that the latter obviously voluntarily give up on having offspring. This is certainly true for many of my friends from university, about half of whom never wanted to have children.

A 2016 genome-wide association identified 74 loci associated with educational attainment. Single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) associated with educational attainment are disproportionately found in genomic regions regulating gene expression in the fetal brain. The study also found some interesting correlations with different traits, among them a positive correlation with bipolar disorder (as other neurodiverse conditions) and body type. Low BMI and above-average height (I personally have the inverse dimensions) are also correlated with EduYears (educational attainment), the familiar lanky ectomorph type.

There is also a considerable overlap of the SNPs found for EduYears with intellectual disability and the neurodiverse conditions of schizophrenia and autism (see above). So, what does this rather confusing picture reveal? In my model of evolutionary types, it would be the hunter (higher risk for autism)-gatherer (higher risk for schizophrenia) types who would have the highest EduYears.

My ideas have been criticized on the grounds that living hunter-gatherer populations have the lowest IQ of all and are generally not that open to learning new things. However, one must not forget that hunter-gatherer types mostly lived at the bottom of the social hierarchy as slaves and labourers and had therefore high selective pressures.

What’s more, foragers are the original lifelong learners compared to farmers and pastoralists, as they had the greatest changes in their environment (including migrations). The best hunters aren’t the young and fittest hunters, but typically older and more experienced hunters. Early farmers, in comparison, had already learned pretty much all important techniques by the time they were adolescents and applied them again and again. Farmer types, therefore, prefer routine and tried and true formulas over new ways of doing things. If this is reminiscent of conservatives vs progressives, it’s for a reason. Conservatives also tend to have more children than liberals.

If I am allowed to make a rough simplification and equate lifelong learners with hunter-gatherer types, it shouldn’t be surprising why they have fewer offspring: foragers typically have children every 4–5 years, whereas early farmers had children every 2–3 years. What’s more, foragers practice alloparenting whereas in farmer societies mothers bear the brunt of the parenting job. This makes forager type women much more insecure about having children and I bet most women experiencing postpartum depression are forager types.

Originally published at on May 12, 2021.



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