October 7, 2004

Out of town

I meant to put this up earlier - I'm in Canada for a couple weeks on hiatus if anybody's looking for me. I have irregular Net access.

Posted by Scott Martens at 5:29 PM | TrackBack

October 14, 2004


This is my cousin Tonya Gabor, née Shymkiw, and her husband Leon. They got married a week ago Sunday in Winnipeg. I've been in Winnipeg for the last few weeks to see my family - with the wedding, more of the clan was there than usual.

Tonya and Leon live - or perhaps lived - in the Cayman Islands, a small Caribbean tax haven and technically UK territory which has long been something a favourite for elusive billionaires. They, alas, are not billionaires. Small Caribbean tax havens support rather large service and hospitality sectors. There is little point in savings millions in taxes through voluntary exile if you can't spend them on some warm beach where pretty girls bring you overpriced drinks. That is the area of their employment.

Hurricane Ivan apparently did a real job on the islands. Although the Cayman government denies that the damage was enormous, I am assured that the damage was, in fact, enormous. The assumption is that the goverment does not wish to cause on a run on its exceedingly profitable banking sector by disclosing the full extent of the damages. Tonya and Leon stayed through the hurricane, getting out only a few days before the wedding. They don't know - or didn't know at the time - whether or not they still have work.

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October 20, 2004

The Ur-Durkheimat

Cosma Shalizi has a piece up on Durkheim's theories about categorisation and consciousness, which, from my logs, seems to be bringing in a few hits. He is discussing a paper by one Albert J. Bergesen analysing and, apparently rejecting, Durkheim on the basis of more recent research in infant cognition.

I mostly don't disagree with Cosma on this one - especially since he points out that one shouldn't "[conflate] pre-social conceptual structure with innate conceptual structure."

All the evidence Bergesen reviews is compatible, I think, with infants simply being born with learning mechanisms which always settle on the same structure when confronted with the kind of environments human beings have always inhabited --- one where space is, to the limits of perception, Eucliean and three dimensional, where gravity has a constant direction and magnitude, etc. Conceivably, in a different environment --- say, free falll --- they would acquire different concepts, or perhaps no coherent concepts at all. (At last, a scientific point to the space station!) Anyway, I think that if you pay enough attention to either the nature of statistical learning procedures or the mechanisms of biological development you'll find the usual argument over innate cognitive structures dissolving in your mind.

Indeed, since this is more or less my position, I don't have anything to object to on that count. The degree to which novelty draws infant (and adult) attention and stimulates cognition has been pretty close to the core of non-nativist accounts of development at least since the days of Piaget. In fact, I would tend to push the argument beyond the mind and even further back than birth. Even our physical features, the ones where clear accounts of their heritability are unquestioned, are dependent on pre- and post-natal development environments. If it were possible to let embryos develop radically outside of their expected physical environment, we might not even consider those things that are clearly hereditary to be truly inate. At this point one (or at least I) would begin questioning whether inate actually means that much at all.

Which brings me to his final point, in the footnotes, and the link you clicked on if you got here from Cosma's page:

Of course, the mechanisms implementing those ordinary processes are highly non-trivial, as your friendly neighborhood linguists will tell you. In fact, they're so intricate, and so useful, that it's absurd to believe they're not biological adaptations, no matter what Uncle Noam says. As for coordinated attention, my suspicion, sparked by reading Barbara Ehrenreich, is that it owes a lot to humans being such unusually weak, flabby, small-toothed apes. One of us is "chewy, and good with ketchup", but a lot of us throwing stones at the same thing are trouble. But, again, that doesn't explain how we pull it off (as your friendly neighborhood Vygotskian linguist will tell you).

"Biological adaptation" is, of course, a loaded term in this little corner of social science discourse, but once you find yourself questioning whether something can even be inate, it's not too hard to swallow. I'd prefer one thought of language as biologically adapted more in the sense of the Baldwin effect than, say, the way we understand the opposable thumb to be a biological adaptation. But I do need to slap Cosma's hand gently for thinking that because something is intricate and useful it is a biological adaptation. The bond market is intricate too and quite useful in its own way, but could only be viewed as a biological adaption by extending the term to the point of meaninglessness.

As for Bergesen, he starts in the wrong place by quoting Meltzoff on the fall of Piagetism. Classical Piagetian theory, like classical everything, has serious shortcomings and drawbacks. However, the general assumption that infant cognitive abilities entail biologically fixed, hereditary categories was far more instrumental in the death of Piagetian thought than any actual experimental results. That assumption is vastly more difficult to sustain in the 21st century.

In the same sense, an unmodified Durkheimism is probably not an advisable set of ideas to have. Many areas of his thought have come in for serious reexamination, and obviously Bergesen would like the notion that cognition is acquired through socialisation to also be reexamined.

Since my inclination is to think of cognition as goal-oriented computation, clearly infants undertake cognition from birth or nearly from birth. I would still argue that in the studies Bergesen cites I still do not see a convincing case for pre-natal knowledge; and as Cosma points out, the line between inate and acquired is tough to find given modern knowledge of development. Bergesen's survey of the literature only cites one experiment involving just-born infants, and its one I'm unfamiliar with. Yes, even a one week old infant has seen enough of his or her mother's face to recognise it, but that does not mean they were born with that ability inately.

That leads to the other issue I see left unaddressed: What is socialisation? If it means nothing more than interacting with other people, babies start doing that as soon as some doctor pulls it out by its head and whacks it on the ass. If "pre-socialisation" is meant to mean "preceding any human contact", I don't see much of a challenge here.

Thus, I find myself more critical of Bergesen than Cosma is. Essentially, Bergesen is saying: "Here is a bibliography of people saying babies come into the world with lots of pre-existing knowledge and categorisations that they could never have learned, and here are sociologists, pretending that everything about our minds comes from society. Bad sociologists, no treat for you!" But there is a whole literature questioning those radical conclusions about infant knowledge and hereditary, biologically adapted categories. They are far from universally accepted in psychology, developmental theory, or linguistics. Bergesen is stretching some already quite stretched conclusions still further.

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