Birth is neither the first nor the last stage of life, genes influence the environment that influences development, and ancient humans clicked at each other. Not bad for the second chapter of a textbook!
For many years scientists assumed that birth was the very beginning of perceptual awareness, and that infants were blank slates. Though once this view was both theoretical supported and methodologically necessary, that is the case no longer. We now know that infants in their mothers’ bodies can physically respond to sound (Lecanuet, 1998), and that they can even remember complicated sound-patterns from the womb after they are born (DeCasper & Spence, 1986). On the day of birth they can prefer their own mother’s face (Pascalis, de Schonen, Morton, & Deruelle, 1995), correctly perceive that shape and size remain constant (Slater, Mattock, & Brown, 1990) , and perform comparative lip reading (Aldridge, Braga, Walton, & Bower, 1999) .. which of course means they could have done those things on the day before birth!
However, infants are not born fully functional. As Flavell, Miller, & Miller (2002,30) write, they â€œhave very poor motor skills. They cannot control and coordinate well the movements of their heads, trunks, and especially limbs. On the motor side, they fairly radiate behavioral incompetence.â€ Newborns’ eyesight is at best 20/200 and at worse 20/660 (Courage & Adams, 1990; Dobson & Teller, 1978) and only improves over time. It may be fair to compare newborns with slightly comatose patients, with healthy reflexes, limited cognitive capacity, little behavioral control, and only an impressionist memory of a life before.
While it is true that facts do not determine morality, facts should inform moral decision making. It seems wrong and arbitrary to deprive an infant in his mother’s womb of any rights than an infant outside the womb receives, and it seems equally arbitrary and capricious to deprive a a recovering coma-victim of any rights that a newborn enjoys. All three persons â€“ infant in the womb, infant out of the womb, and coma-survivor, probably experience similar forms of awareness. They are clearly more than appendages of their caregivers. What science cannot tell us, however, is if these individuals are as human as you and me. I will leave whether they possess â€œpersonhoodâ€ (Moshman, 2005) for a later discussion.
Another take-away from the chapter is nature via nurture, the idea that genetically-driven behavior influences development. For instance, â€œinfants, from birth, seem to have a positive hunger for visual stimulationâ€ (35, emphasis original). Thus, children are driven to have experiences that all but guarantee the development of visual processing abilities except in cases where such abilities would not be useful (if the child is blind or if the child’s family is cave-dwelling, for example). Likewise, practice helps with infants’ skills as it does for adults’: one influential theory correctly predicted thatâ€œbabies who have been crawling the longest should be most likely to show a fear response if they should happen to find themselves on the deep side of the cliffâ€ (46). Without our genes, we do not have our nature; without our nature, we cannot experience our nurture; without our nurture, we could not live our lives.
Another topic I found interesting was the discussion of infants’ ability to discriminate phenomes of human languages. The last of the sound-discriminating skills to be lost is discerning different types of clicks (52). This reminds me of the discussion on click languages presented in Wade (2006). Click languages, and the genetics of click speakers are extremely diverse, implying that they separated very long ago (Chen, et al, 2000; Knight, et al, 2003) The widespread ability to tell clicks apart combined with the ancient heritage of click languages may together imply that humans spoke in clicks before we talked in vowels and consonants.
I began this reaction paper with a litany: that the chapter shows how infants develop through birth, how genes affect environment, and how our ancestors talk. The theme for all these things is what we â€“ as individuals and as a species â€“ used to be. As science moves forward we will be able to factually describe our body’s and our species’ development. How much respect we must pay to what we were, however, is beyond the answers that science can give.
Cognitive Development, a tdaxp series
2. Infant Perception
3. Infant Cognition
4. Representation and Concepts
5. Reasoning and Problem Solving
6. Social Cognition
9. Questions and Problems