Essays and Theories

Evolutionary Psychology And The Spellchecker:
Fear Not; We Will Survive.
A lighthearted essay on the learning process of the brain and its future.
William A. Spriggs
December, 1995

I was reading an article from a newly arrived personal computer magazine this morning and felt that I had to write about a subject in it that beckoned me. Buried in an article on new advances in computer applications was a short debate about the pros and cons of the spellcheckers that come as standard features of most word processing programs. The debate centered on whether our children, in using spellcheckers, would fail to develop the skills necessary to spell words correctly without electronic help. The piece quoted a disgruntled parent who obviously had suffered many hours of rote memorization. This mother wailed loudly that if this current spellchecker tend is continued it will render her children incapable of advancing into the new order of things. The author of the piece, in fact, stated that he had already heard a case in which children made fun of a mimeographed handout by their instructor and laughed amongst themselves that the instructor had not even used a spellchecker. He had made some minor, common mistakes.

The spellchecker argument is merely an evolution of the hand-held scientific calculator debate of ten years ago in which parents and educators cried that if the calculators were used in classes and testing, then the child would never be able to learn the process of solving math problems. Guess who won the debate? of course, the calculator. While visiting my daughter who teaches Jr. high school, my wife and I were surprised when students, where asked to perform a mathematical problem, went up to the front of the class and took calculators from a large box on her desk. My daughter told us that the current academic culture in her school feels that the students are better off learning the mechanics of the machine and not the process of the math, and that the school supplies the calculators to those who forget to bring them that day. As for the parents and educator's wails of protests about the loss of fundamental skills -- well, they are absolutely correct. The brain is similar to muscle tissue in that if you don't use it, you lose it. But I am here to comfort those parents and educators alike that the reason that this is all occurring is -- it is suppose to occur.

As technology advances at warp speeds, we poor humans must adapt or be left behind. What is occurring is merely the normal adaptation necessary in each new generation responding to a changing world with the basic skills necessary to survive. The students mentioned in the computer magazine, along with millions of other students around the country, have decided that the spellchecker invention is a pretty nifty idea!! And yours truly, who suffers from lexical agraphia ( one who has no difficulty in speaking, listening, or reading, but has problems with the writing process -- which includes spelling) -- thinks that the spellchecker is a gift from God. It has released me from a prison of frustration and endless bouts of negative self-esteem. It has allowed me to increase my writing output by at least 1000 per cent. To me, I think of it as an electronic prosthesis for my brain. As for the mechanics of the spellchecker, what is being accepted by our students across the planet, and eventually adapted to, is the new process of checking one's spelling in a faster and more accurate manner. What is basically happening is a pre-genetic adaptation without the genetics. Our species adapts by finding solutions to a negative local environment. The simple adage: "If it ain't broke don't fix it," hits us over the head with logic in regards to genetics. Adaptation/evolution will not occur if the local environment is acceptable or positive by the organism. But with our complex brains, we humans never seem to be satisfied. When we are faced with a difficult task, we begin to use our problem-solving abilities. If the situation is not resolved and we are continued to be plagued by the problem, the situation then can be considered negative. By negative, I mean that negative chemical reactions are occurring within our brains which are causing our brains to look for an end to the negative chemical balance. We are in angst because of the difficulties presented to us in our modern visual-oriented world. The situation must seem even more overwhelming to our spellchecker hating adults. Adults are confounded by the flood of new technologies and procedures that must be met in order to survive in this technological world. Have you learned to program your VCR yet? Does your child?

The reason for the matter-of-fact acceptance of the science calculator and the spellchecker by students is because the devices are more useful to today's students. The students have accepted the spellchecker because it allows the brain to eliminate unnecessary mapping areas and their physical interaction circuits in the constant flux of a changing, more difficult environment. It helps to shorten the learning curve when time is most important. The emergence of the WWW and the new information available on it creates a need in the brain to learn this new information in a more rapid pace. Because of the tremendous advantage in using the device, it was only a matter of time before the word spread by the social interaction we call gossip, that if one uses the spellchecker one finds that life is a bit easier for doing so.

As for the argument that a valuable process will be lost: Well, it is just part of our evolutionary march. I get my food at the grocery store down the street, not in the wooded area behind my house. And guess what? I would not know how to get food from the wooded area behind my house because I do not know the first thing about hunting little furry animals or spindly bugs for my food. And guess what else? I don't want to spend the time trying, either, because it would take too much time to relearn (reestablish neural links and drag up archival memories) the old processes which, in turn, would take the focus away from my current survival methods of educating myself about, among other things, the internet and the WWW. If a giant asteroid or comet would fall upon the earth and create the same negative environment that faced our dinosaur ancestors, would I starve? Perhaps, if I were weak of strength and poor of spirit. But if the fire of survival were burning bright, I would find a way. So would you. I'm not really worried, science is advancing at such a rapid rate that I know someday we will all have bio-microchip implants which will give us access to all the processes that have allowed us to evolve past the necessity for such skills. The biggest mistake the persons encoding these microchip memory enhances may make, however, is to forget to leave a trail of bread crumbs back to the reruns of the 1950's TV show Leave-it-to-Beaver.

December, 1995

Updated: April 1997


Copyright, Evolution's Voyage & William A. Spriggs, 1995 - 2011