Seated in a cheerfully cramped monitoring room at the Harvard University Laboratory for Developmental Studies, Elizabeth S. Spelke, a professor of psychology and a pre-eminent researcher of the basic ingredient list from which all human knowledge is constructed, looked on expectantly as her students prepared a boisterous 8-month-old girl with dark curly hair for the onerous task of watching cartoons.
The video clips featured simple Keith Haring-type characters jumping, sliding and dancing from one group to another. The researchers’ objective, as with half a dozen similar projects under way in the lab, was to explore what infants understand about social groups and social expectations.
Yet even before the recording began, the 15-pound research subject made plain the scope of her social brain. She tracked conversations, stared at newcomers and burned off adult corneas with the brilliance of her smile. Dr. Spelke, who first came to prominence by delineating how infants learn about objects, numbers, the lay of the land, shook her head in self-mocking astonishment.
“Why did it take me 30 years to start studying this?” she said. “All this time I’ve been giving infants objects to hold, or spinning them around in a room to see how they navigate, when what they really wanted to do was engage with other people..!”
“When people ask Liz, ‘What do you do?’ she tells them, ‘I study babies,’ ” said Steven Pinker, a fellow Harvard professor and the author of “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” among other books. “That’s endearingly self-deprecating, but she sells herself short.”
What Dr. Spelke is really doing, he said, is what Descartes, Kant and Locke tried to do. “She is trying to identify the bedrock categories of human knowledge. She is asking, ‘What is number, space, agency, and how does knowledge in each category develop from its minimal state?’ ”…
But the adult mind is far too complicated, Dr. Spelke said, “too stuffed full of facts” to make sense of it. In her view, the best way to determine what, if anything, humans are born knowing, is to go straight to the source, and consult the recently born…
Babies are born Euclideans. Infants and toddlers use geometric clues to orient themselves in three-dimensional space, navigate through rooms and locate hidden treasures. Is the room square or rectangular? Did the nice cardigan lady put the Slinky in a corner whose left wall is long or short..?
Dr. Spelke is also seeking to understand how the core domains of the human mind interact to yield our uniquely restless and creative intelligence — able to master calculus, probe the cosmos and play a Bach toccata as no bonobo or New Caledonian crow can. Even though “our core systems are fundamental yet limited,” as she put it, “we manage to get beyond them.”
Dr. Spelke has proposed that human language is the secret ingredient, the cognitive catalyst that allows our numeric, architectonic and social modules to join forces, swap ideas and take us to far horizons. “What’s special about language is its productive combinatorial power,” she said. “We can use it to combine anything with anything…”
When Lawrence H. Summers, then president of Harvard, notoriously suggested in 2005 that the shortage of women in the physical sciences might be partly due to possible innate shortcomings in math, Dr. Spelke zestily entered the fray. She combed through results from her lab and elsewhere on basic number skills, seeking evidence of early differences between girls and boys. She found none.
“My position is that the null hypothesis is correct,” she said. “There is no cognitive difference and nothing to say about it.”
Which is why – in so many questions of study and analysis, the social panic that develops over advances in methodology and understanding – I try like hell to come down on the side of what has been achieved as simple scientific fact. Whether corporations abuse knowledge, whether political and military applications are developed by some greedy politicians hasn’t a damned thing to do with the science.
Knowledge is a net positive. What’s done with that knowledge is a social and political question and should be kept in that arena. Trying to shut down uses of that knowledge is as egregious, foolish and counterproductive to the advancement of our species as anything that came from the Inquisition or McCarthyism in the GOUSA.
RTFA. Lots of info, new finds and verification as well as contradiction of “common sense”. Dr. Spelke is someone I’m going to have to read in detail.