Educating for "Sapience"

Kim Kastens
published Sep 8, 2013

I've recently been digging into the writings of George Mobus on the subject of "Sapience." Mobus begins by asking himself and his readers "If we are such a clever species, why is the world the way it is, and heading in such a bad direction?"

His answer is that most humans, even very intelligent and clever ones, have too little "sapience."

"Sapience" is Mobus' term for a human attribute that is a combination of judgement (based on life experiences), moral sense (primarily altruism, thinking about the welfare of the group as well as of yourself), taking a long view of the future (strategic perspective), and systems perspective. He thinks that sapience is present in all humans, but very unevenly distributed with a few people having a lot and most people having little.

He sees sapience as an inherited property of humans. As an inherited property, sapience must originate in some physical structure in the body, and in fact he has identified a candidate locus of sapience in a particular cryptic structure in the prefrontal cortex. Although an aptitude or propensity for sapience is inherited, in Mobus' view, the actual manifestation of sapience in an individual depends on the accumulation of life experience upon which judgment can be built. Thus sapience tends to build up across the life span, and reach its full expression in middle age or beyond. When the inherent property of sapience is thoroughly developed and manifested, we call the result "wisdom."

Mobus thinks that sapience was strongly selected for in humanity's evolutionary past, during Pleistocene hunter/gatherer times. A clan with a sapient elder would have had a survival advantage over clans with little sapience, and so some degree of sapience evolved. He thinks though, that with the arrival of agriculture and subsequent technologies and more complex societies, sapience stopped being strongly selected for, and other mental attributes (intelligence and creativity, which together he calls "cleverness") were selected for instead. Looking into the future, he foresees an evolutionary bottleneck, caused by fossil fuel depletion and climate change, during which sapience will again be strongly selected for, and out of which may emerge a more sapient species.

I find Mobus' ideas interesting and provocative, and the summary above has barely scratched the surface of his writings. I think he has missed an important angle, however. He says very little about education to bring out the existing sapience that is in the current human stock. By analogy, people differ in their inherited degree of athleticism or musicality, but we know that training in sports or music can move anyone closer to their maximum potential in those domains. Conversely, lack of opportunities for physical activity can turn any inheritance into a couch potato. Might not sapience work the same way? People may indeed differ in their inherited allotment of sapience, but might it be possible to move people towards their maximum sapience potential through education and practice?

With this idea in mind, I looked around, and I find quite a few examples of activities in our society that could be construed as attempts to educate towards one or more of the components of sapience. For example:

The turn from Earth Science education towards Earth Systems education. The purposeful effort to lead students to think in terms of systems dynamics components of flows, fluxes, inputs, outputs, reservoirs, emergent properties and so forth, is in obvious alignment with the systems perspective component of Mobus' sapience construct. Less obvious, perhaps, geoscience education's tradition of pushing students towards thinking about long spans of time supports the strategic perspective component of Mobus' sapience, which requires taking a long view of the future. Mobus' systems perspective involves using mental models to understand systems within systems, and Mobus' strategic perspective involves "running" those mental models into the future, so geoscience education's recent emphasis on developing and using models aligns with this aspect of Mobus' sapience. Traditionally, geoscience education hasn't explicitly concerned itself with judgement or moral sentiment, but some authors, instructors and curriculum developers are moving in this direction. For example, Cervato and Frodeman's essay in the Synthesis of Research on Thinking and Learning in the Geosciences explicitly makes the case that teaching young people to take a long view of time though education about geological timescales will yield better decision-making adults, thus linking the strategic perspective and judgement components of Mobus' sapience.

Experiential Education: Organizations that consider themselves to be partly or primarily about experiential education, like the Sea Education Association or Outward Bound, explicitly set out to create impactful life experiences of the sort that could, in a sapience-prone person, accumulate towards wisdom.

Traditional summer camps: Old-fashioned sleep-away summer camps put young people into an environment with some similarity to the hunter-gatherer society in which Mobus thinks that sapience was honored and selected for. Clan-like bunk groups and tribe-like color war teams set up opportunities to foster thinking about the welfare of the larger group, rather than oneself.

Religious education: Many religious traditions seek to steer members, both youth and adults, towards the moral sentiments component of Mobus' Sapience construct. The evolutionary and neurological underpinnings of moral sentiments, in Mobus' view, are altruism (willingness to die or suffer for the welfare of a con-specific, found in many animals) and empathy (feeling what another individual is feeling, manifested in the action of mirror-neurons.) Altruism and empathy are part of the education agenda of many faith traditions.

Law school: This may seem far fetched, especially following right after religious education, but here's my idea anyhow. I'm told that elite law schools apparently do not teach students the practical skills they need to practice law or the knowledge they need to pass the bar exam. During law school, they study historical legal cases. Is it possible that this method was designed (150 years ago) to educate judges rather than train lawyers? Mobus writes "The invention of rule of law has been one of mankind's greatest achievements ... The proper execution of the law, in the end, depends on the judgments of judges! This is a critical aspect of societies. Judges who have the power to condemn or free must have good judgment." Could it be that the immersion experience in pivotal cases of the past was intended to build up the experience base which could, in sapience-prone individuals, feed the development of good judgment?

The Next Generation Science Standards: The Framework for K-12 Science Education and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) place a much stronger emphasis on Sapience-related competencies than did prior generations of science standards. Developing and Using Models is one of NGSS's featured "Practices of Science and Engineering." NGSS' "Crossing-cutting Concepts" include "Systems and Systems Models," along with "Energy and matter: Flows, cycles, and conservation" and "Stability and Change." The Engineering/Technology part of the standards even comes close to talking about the moral component of engineering choices: "New technologies can have deep impacts on society and the environment, including some that were not anticipated...."

Thus we find many groups and organizations in modern society seem to be nibbling away at the edges of sapience education. No single group or organization is taking on all four components of Mobus' Sapience construct. Earth System Education may come the closest.

Almost all of the sapience-education opportunities described above are optional and self-selected either by the learner or by the parents of the learner. This includes Earth System Education in most educational settings. A major exception is the Next Generation Science Standards, which are intended as science education for all Americans, not just those who opt in.


  • Cervato, C., & Frodeman, R. (2012). The Significance of Geologic Time: Cultural, Educational, and Economic Frameworks. In K. A. Kastens & C. A. Manduca (Eds.), Earth & Mind II: A Synthesis of Research on Thinking & Learning in the Geosciences. Boulder, Co: Geological Society of America, p. 19-28.

    Many thanks to the family members, colleagues, and members of the First Religious Society in Carlisle (Unitarian-Universalist) summer discussion group who listened to my blathering about Sapience and helped me organize my thinking on this topic.

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