I was impressed by the opening section of Gopnik, Meltzoff, and Kuhl’s work The Scientist in the Crib: What Early learning Tells Us About the Mind. I enjoyed their discussion of the tools they use, though it is important to keep in mind that even newer tools allow us to test some hypotheses they could only dream about. The author’s emphasis on the unique nature, at birth, of all human beings is a welcome reprive from those who would believe we are born blank slates. Likewise, their focus on communication as opposed to speech opens the vista of possible science. I like this book.
When scientists speak of their discoveries, they are really speaking of how their tools let them see the world. Galileo’s description of the moons of Jupiter were heavily influenced by the use of a small optical telescope. He would have described those bodies differently had he had access to the Arecibo radio telescope. This does not make his findings wrong, but it emphasizes that they were incomplete.
Gopnik, Melzoff, & Kuhl’s work is similarly incomplete. Their tool is the videocassette camera All of their conjectures and statements seem to be based on this technology. Numerous videotaped experiments are described, and the authors sum of the method saying â€œWith the help of videotape, scientists have developed ingenious experimental techniques to ask babies what they know.â€ However, it is incomplete. If it is true that the â€œjob [of] developmental psychologists is to discover what programs babies runâ€ (6) is an external monitoring device appropriate for such an internal reverse engineering?
For instance, consider their statement that â€œBabies and young children think, observe, and reason. They consider evidence, draw conclusions, do experiments, solve problems, and search for the truthâ€ (13). Yet the trust tool of videotape does not let scientists see this. Videotape will show a child eye’s, or hands, or mouth. It will show all manners of expression and all expressions of mannerisms. But it will not let you know if a child is solving problems is the same mental way that we mean that phrase for adults and older children.
Fortunately, now some tools are available that would allow us to test this claim. FMRIs â€“ Functional Magnemetic Resonance Images â€“ give great temporal resolution for specific areas of the brain. To run an fMRI test of the hypothesis, determine which brain areas activate during problem solving, or experimental execution in adults and older children. Then run the same fFMRIs on infants as they perform behavior was identified through videotape. If the areas are the same, it would give support to the claim that babies are thinking as older humans do â€“ that the same words we use to describe the exploration of more mature people apply to infants. If not, then such a conclusion should be discouraged.
More broadly, I enjoyed the authors’ emphasis on interpersonal differences. They acknowledge that behavioral differences between people exist from birth (for instance, talking about autistics on page 54) and that there are genetic components to these differences. As I wrote in a paper for another class, this tracks well with our increased scientific understanding of humanity. Conditions like suicide which were once blamed on the environment (Johnson, 1965 ; Pope 1975) now are also looked at with an eye on DNA (Kolata, 1986; 1987; Lubar, 1985).
Another area I liked was the authors’ de-emphasis on speech. Gopnik et al. Remind us that â€œbefore babies can talk, they can communicateâ€ (35) and that â€œvery young children are already beginning to go beyond an ego-centric understanding of other peopleâ€ (41). While Vygotsky’s emphasis on mentoring was important, and he correctly taught that â€œto describe an isolated human mind is to miss the point. Human minds are never isolatedâ€ (Ridley, 2003, 208), his focuses on the verbal dialectic may mislead Babies as young as eighteen months will help complete strangers (Warneken & Tomasello, 2006), a behavior that is unusual among chimpanzees (Silk, 2006) but common among human beings (Alford & Hibbing, 2004, 2006; Smith 2006). Likewise, language never becomes the exclusive means of communication â€“ it is not just that babies pre-linguistic behaviors are rough tools to be discarded once words are learned. As Gopnick, Meltzoff, & Kuhl write, â€œLike grown-up flirtation, baby flirtation bypasses languages and established a more direct link between peopleâ€ (31). This implies that speech and cooperation are two species-typical traits, and not that cooperation is just an effect of the species-typical trait of language.
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