Evolution and Education: A hermeneutical study of the genealogy and nature of evolutionary theorising in education based on the works of Spencer, Dewey and Vygotsky

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

Abstract / Description of output

This thesis looks at the relationship between evolutionary theory and educational theory. The core objectives are, firstly, to contribute to the gap in knowledge regarding evolutionary underpinnings in influential educational theories, and, secondly, to enhance our broader understanding of the core concepts constituting different evolutionary paradigms and approaches in education. This is relevant because even though evolutionary ideas, terms, and concepts are circulating in educational discourses today, there exists little knowledge as to the nature of those arguments, thus limiting critical discussion. Through the hermeneutical analysis of the evolutionary underpinnings of the educational theories of Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Lev Vygotsky, this thesis not only provides a novel reading of these thinkers, but also sheds some light on the nature of evolutionary educational theory as an intellectual tradition with relevancy for educational theory, practice and policy today. The genealogy of evolutionary educational theorising presented in this study spanning from Spencer to Dewey and Vygotsky sheds some light on the versatile nature of the concept of adaptation in the context of educational theorising, while also underlining its potency in informing core educational concepts. While all three thinkers apply an evolutionary lens to their educational concepts and theories, they each present highly different understandings of the process and aims of education, learning, and teaching. In particular their diverging concepts of adaptation, as this research shows, inform those profound differences. Spencer’s passive and unidirectional conception of adaptation based primarily on biological inheritance engenders and understanding of education as a process of the subject adjusting to her/his environment. Dewey’s idea of adaptation as a process of simultaneous growth of individual and environment in experience, in contrast to Spencer, fosters an understanding of education as a never-ending, contingent reciprocal interaction between the learner and her/his environment. Finally, Vygotsky’s post-adaptation paradigm opens a perspective for thinking about education not in adaptive, but primarily transformative terms. In closing, the thesis critically analyses the global educational discourse surrounding the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) In the context of PISA, the notion of ‘adaptation’ is a highly frequented and yet largely undefined concept. Based on the study of Spencer, Dewey and Vygotsky, the thesis contributes to a gap in knowledge by offering a conceptual apparatus for analysing current educational discourse such as PISA, in a way that provides insight for future educational research, policy and practice.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Edinburgh
  • English, Andrea, Supervisor
  • Ravenscroft, John, Supervisor
Publication statusPublished - 2019

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • philosophy of education
  • evolutionary theory
  • Herbert Spencer
  • John Dewey
  • Lev S. Vygotsky


Dive into the research topics of 'Evolution and Education: A hermeneutical study of the genealogy and nature of evolutionary theorising in education based on the works of Spencer, Dewey and Vygotsky'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this