Brownian thought space

Cognitive science, mostly, but more a sometimes structured random walk about things.

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Chronically curious モ..

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Or, who has seen the wind?

Finally the special issue is out, and it looks like balance, intelligence, a broad biological perspective and just plain good reading habits lose to rhetoric, misrepresentation and... and I really do not know what.
The culprit, which I think is possibly one of the worst articles is by Spencer et al, and is the first in a special section: Is It Time to Look Beyond the Nativist–Empiricist Debate? in the August issue (Vol. 3,No. 2) of Child Development Perspectives.
The point of the paper is hard to understand, given that, I think, most nativists would have no problems with most or any of the examples they give. Why the fact that development "emerges via cascades of interactions across multiple levels of causation, from genes to environments" should pose a problem for the innateness thesis I cannot fathom. Of course, the adult biological entity is a product of genes and environments. How one can possibly have any kind of theory involving, e.g., nouns and verbs that is derived from such an understanding of development is presumably left as an exercise for the reader.
Everything, language, cognition - must be grounded in theories of development, in their view. It reminds me of the poem by Christina Rossetti:
Who has seen the wind? Neither I nor you. But when the leaves hang trembling, The wind is passing through. Who has seen the wind? Neither you nor I. But when the trees bow down their heads, The wind is passing by.
The point is, and this is probably not the best way to make the point, that "wind" is not really something you can see, just as "language" is not something you can see. You call the (generative) force that hurries leaves along "wind", just as you call the mechanism that drives words from your lips "language". Grounded, whether in the sense of Spencer et al, or grounded in the sense of embodied cognition, I find it these conflations of various interlocking questions: what is a good theory of the generative systems (the langue) that propel the various specific instances, heard and unheard (the parole)? How does this come to be? In ontogeny? In phylogeny?
It seems to me that there is one main reason for writing this paper- the various 'critics' seem to think that, if something is identified as "innate", then research stops. Perhaps so, but that depends entirely on the level at which one is researching. If I am studying comparative behavior, then I might be content to report that:
(1) Chickadees can be tamed in adulthood, while almost no other passerine can.
Does this come out of a "complex interaction of genes and environment?" Undoubtedly?! But does it make a statement like (1) something no researcher should abide by? Well, not for me.
Will the elaborate and "inconvenient" (in their case meaning [1] complex or [2] amenable to much broader range of phenotypes than those the typical environments allow) developmental research shed any immediate light on, e.g., why we can understand and explain to someone the rules of chess? Personally, I'd put that question on par with a quantum theory of tectonic plate movements.
Maybe it's a lack of exposure to Fry & Laurie at some critical stage ;)

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