Op-Ed: Babies prewired to read — Evolutionary adaption at top speed?

Posted Nov 1, 2020 by Paul Wallis
The idea of adaptive evolution is pretty simple. It just got a bit more complex with the finding that newborn babies arrive fully equipped to learn to read. This is truly fascinating new science, and very important.
This image shows a cross-section of a brain organoid -- a lab-grown mini brain that can be used to s...
This image shows a cross-section of a brain organoid -- a lab-grown mini brain that can be used to study the effects of a disease
HO, Muotri Lab/AFP/File
Researchers at Ohio State University conducted studies of newborn infants to discover a pre-existing, ready-to-go area of the brain receptive to learning to read. This part of the brain is called the visual word form area (VWFA). This part of the brain is directly connected to the wider language network.
The VFWA is also right next to the critical facial recognition part of the brain. This may be significant, as facial recognition is a high-function social area of the brain, as is language.
The working theory is that recognition of words and faces have similar properties. This is a spatial resolution issue. Detailed recognition of a face or a word both require the ability to distinguish identifying elements.
Reading as an evolutionary adaptive process
Reading and written language are derived from arguably the most critical of all human adaptive development – Language. That’s more than a bit interesting because the oldest known written language dates back a bit more than 3000 years, a sneeze in time in evolutionary terms.
It’s well known that the brain adapts over time to its practical needs. The brain rewires itself and develops in a very practical, survival-based, way. Even brain damage can be bypassed by creative rewiring.
…But the finding of preloaded to read babies implies a very different ballpark. This add-on to the basic brain profile suggests a very highly adaptive evolutionary capacity.
There’s another, much less obvious, factor in play in this situation. Reading also generates visualization. You create your own images. You can visualize the characters in a book from descriptions, or your own mental preferred images, for example.
These images are similar to “hardcopy” visual imagery from the eyes. They require similar amounts of information to generate images. So the required neurology to deliver these images has to be pretty much the same.
Therefore… Has human adaption developed prewiring to learn to read as a natural evolutionary role? If so, it’s a perfectly good adaptive option. Not being able to read and get information is a real handicap in both ancient and modern societies.
It should also be noted that the brain also develops an equally practical ability – The ability to discard information. It’s well known that visual advertising, for example, is largely blocked out by the conscious mind. Maybe the vital reading/learning process, jumpstarted by this prenatal hardwiring, is the baseline system for all the skills to be developed?
Written languages have only been around for about 3400 years. If so, 3400 years is a pretty quick turnaround for evolutionary adaption of this type. Reading is the mental equivalent of an opposed thumb, in many ways. It allows handling and processing of information, indirect (non-physical- experience-based) sourcing of information, and critical thinking.
This is more than a bit of a gigantic jump from the more basic generational, purely natural selective development view of evolution. It’s an indirect type of evolution, a catchall for a quite different environment from the classical picture of physical evolution.
A few questions which should be rhetorical but can’t be:
• Does reading add such a huge range of skills-learning capacity? Yes.
• Does the ability to learn to read expand brain function capabilities? Yes.
• Is reading an all-purpose skill suitable for just about any situation or information needs? Yes.
• Is the inability to read a major social, therefore evolutionary disadvantage? Yes.
The point of this exercise in stating the obvious is to emphasize that the evolutionary development of the human brain would need to be pretty agile. To install a whole new data management system, with a neurological setup, in a few thousand years is very fast indeed. It’s also fair to call this new ability a “targeted” evolutionary adaption.
Bear in mind:
• Literacy wasn’t the top of the list of skills for nearly all of the last 3000 years in most societies. Not many people could read until relatively recently, say, 200 years ago.
• Numeracy skills, on the other hand, another form of reading, were essential for all societies to handle that other survival asset, money. Maybe it’s numeracy first, literacy second?
• The reading adaption actually seems to be extrapolated from practical skills needs dating back that far.
• The neurological adaption itself couldn’t be much more useful. It covers the entire modern must-have skill sets for everyone.
The question now is “What don’t we know about evolution?”
How does the human brain rewire itself that quickly to adopt a whole range of future skill sets which became survival essentials?
Does human evolution pick up “live” evolutionary needs through skills? It’d explain quite a lot about this remarkable wiring in infants if so. (This is similar to the general theory of getting used to an environment. The body also gets a lot of adaptive information from food, microbiota, etc. This would be roughly the same approach.)
How does this become a standard-issue human brain function for newborns?
Ever get the feeling we may be staring at something incredibly obvious?