central idea of the philosophy of behaviorism, that behavior and
the mind have an entirely materialist basis subject to
experimental analysis, is fundamentally sound. Nevertheless, the
underlying assumptions of simplicity and equipotentiality in
learning have crumbled. In their place has emerged a picture of
the existence of many peculiar types of learning that conform to
no general law except, perhaps, evolution by natural selection.
The learning potential of each species appears to be fully
programmed by the structure of its brain, the sequence of release
of its hormones, and ultimately, its genes. Each animal species is
"prepared’ to learn certain stimuli, barred from learning
others, and neutral with respect to still others. For example,
adult herring gulls quickly learn to distinguish their newly
hatched chicks but never their own eggs, which are nevertheless
just as visually distinct.
more impressive examples have been discovered. Each year indigo
buntings migrate between their breeding grounds in eastern North
America and their wintering grounds in South America. Like many of
our other native birds they travel at night. After leaving the
nest, young buntings are prepared to learn the north star and
circum-polar constellations, which they proceed to do quickly and
automatically. They are inhibited from learning the other
some of the more rigid forms of animal instinct can be based on
idiosyncratic forms of prepared learning. But is human learning
prepared? We like to think that given enough time and will power
we can learn anything. Yet constrains exist.
O. Wilson: On human nature, Harvard University Press,
Cambridge, MA, 1978.