Although retired from teaching, Peter Gray continues as Research Professor of Psychology at Boston College. His past research encompasses neuroendocrinology, developmental psychology, anthropology, and education.  He is author of the first  introductory psychology textbook organized from an evolutionary perspective (Psychology, Worth Publishers, now in its 7th edition).  His recent research focuses on the role of play in human evolution and development.  He is author of “Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life” (Basic Books) and authors a regular blog called “Freedom to Learn”, for Psychology Today magazine.

 The evolutionary perspective has been useful in every aspect of my research and thinking in psychology and related fields.  When I began teaching the introductory psychology course at Boston College, many years ago, I was struck by the lack of intellectual coherence of the field.  There were many interesting findings and ideas—in such realms as sensory psychology, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, social psychology, and personality theory—but no coherent intellectual thread to pull them together or provide a unifying foundation for new hypotheses and theories.  Perhaps because my own background was primarily in biology, I immediately began to bring the evolutionary perspective to bear in my thinking and teaching about every aspect of psychology.  This allowed me to talk about the functions of behavior, in ways that stimulated new thought, for my students and me, that went much deeper than could be found in even the best psychology textbooks at that time.

For example, psychology textbooks would regularly discuss shame as a pathological emotion, to be overcome, never as an adaptation.   But, the evolutionary perspective tells us that the capacity for shame would not be present as a basic component of our emotional equipment if it did not serve some survival or reproductive function for us or our ancestors.  What might that function be?  I would ask that kind of question about essentially every aspect of psychology, and that led in some cases to new and fascinating ideas.  Ultimately, this experience led me to write the first introductory psychology textbook that took evolution by natural selection as its unifying theme.  Publishing it was risky for the publishers, because at that time few psychologists appreciated the evolutionary perspective, but the gamble paid off.  It soon became one of the best-selling psychology textbooks, and it continues to be popular now in its 7th edition (this newest edition is co-authored by David Bjorklund).

More recently, the evolutionary perspective has guided my research into children’s education.  It has helped me think about education in a more basic and, I believe, useful way than can be found in the standard books and courses on education typically found in schools of education.  Education, broadly conceived, is cultural transmission.  It is the process or set of processes by which each new generation of human beings acquires and builds upon the skills, knowledge, values, beliefs, and lore of the previous generation.  It is our natural capacity for education that distinguishes us most clearly from all the other animals.  We have been the cultural animal, and hence the educative animal, for hundreds of thousands of years.  In contrast, schooling, as we think of it today, been common for only about two hundred years.  So, we have to separate our concept of education from our concept of schooling.

What instinctive tendencies has natural selection built into us that have enabled us to survive for all this time as culture-dependent beings?  This is the question with which my research and theories in education begin.  The work has led me to focus on young people’s natural curiosity, playfulness, sociability, and willfulness as the true engines of education; to examine how education occurs in non-schooled societies, especially in hunter-gatherer societies; and to conduct research in radically alternative educational settings, in our society, that optimize rather than suppress curiosity, playfulness, sociability, and free will.  In my writings and talks about education I begin by presenting the idea that we are, by nature, the educative animal, and then I go on to describe the aspects of our nature that make us so and the conditions that allow those aspects of our selves to operate optimally.

Thank you, Charles Darwin.

For more on Peter:
Free to Learn book page
Freedom to Learn Blog at Psychology Today
Alliance for Self-Directed Education
TEDx talk, The Decline of Play

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Published On: March 2, 2017


  • Rory Short says:

    A refreshing take on education. I guess there was some essential dis-junction in my own conventional schooling. I spent many years afterwards turning over in my mind what I saw as the unsatisfactoriness of schooling and thinking of possible changes to it. Not that I ever did anything concrete about them not being involved in education in anyway at all until I became an academic for a few years at the end of my working life.

  • Efrain Flores says:

    Really interesting this way of seeing psychology. But I have many doubts about it. It’s like the old count of the egg and the hen, who came first? If it is the evolutionary perspective that gives meaning to all psychology or whether it is psychology that gives unifying sense to the evolutionary perspective. I think this last alternative is correct. To begin to look at the ocean of human behavior we must start by characterizing it in its essence, and this is a social essence, the evolutionary functions in humans do not function identically as in animals, social information on which humans depend It does not exist anywhere else on planet earth.

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