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Excerpt: 'The Philosophical Baby'

Cover of 'The Philosophical Baby'

Ultimately, the new scientific explanations of childhood are rooted in evolutionary theory. But studying children leads to a very different picture of how evolution shapes our lives than the traditional picture of "evolutionary psychology." Some psychologists and philosophers argue that most of what is significant about human nature is determined by our genes — an innate hardwired system that makes us who we are. We're endowed with a set of fixed and distinct abilities, designed to suit the needs of our prehistoric ancestors 200,000 years ago in the Pleistocene. Not surprisingly, this view discounts the importance of childhood. The picture is that a "good enough" childhood environment may be necessary to let the innate aspects of human nature unfold. But beyond that, childhood won't have much influence because most of what is important about human nature in general, and individual character in particular, is in place at birth.

But this view doesn't capture our lives as we actually live them and as they change and develop over time. We at least feel as if we actively create our lives, changing our world and our selves. This view also can't explain the radical historical changes in human life. If our nature is determined by our genes, you would think that we would be the same now as we were in the Pleistocene. The puzzling fact about human beings is that our capacity for change, both in our own lives and through history, is the most distinctive and unchanging thing about us. Is there a way of explaining this flexibility and creativity, this ability to alter our individual and collective fate, without resorting to mysticism?

The answer, unexpectedly, comes from very young children — and it leads to a very different kind of evolutionary psychology. The great evolutionary advantage of human beings is their ability to escape from the constraints of evolution. We can learn about our environment, we can imagine different environments, and we19 can turn those imagined environments into reality. And as an intensely social species, other people are the most important part of our environment. So we are particularly likely to learn about people and to use that knowledge to change the way other people behave, and the way we behave ourselves. The result is that human beings, as a central part of their evolutionary endowment, and as the deepest part of their human nature, are engaged in a constant cycle of change. We change our surroundings and our surroundings change us. We alter other people's behavior, their behavior alters ours.

We begin with the capacity to learn more effectively and more flexibly about our environment than any other species. This knowledge lets us imagine new environments, even radically new environments, and act to change the existing ones. Then we can learn about the unexpected features of the new environment that we have created, and so change that environment once again and so on. What neuroscientists call plasticity — the ability to change in the light of experience — is the key to human nature at every level from brains to minds to societies.

Learning is a key part of the process, but the human capacity for change goes beyond just learning. Learning is about the way the world changes our mind, but our minds can also change the world. Developing a new theory about the world allows us to imagine other ways the world might be. Understanding other people and ourselves lets us imagine new ways of being human. At the same time, to change our world, our selves, and our society we have to think about what we ought to be like, as well as what we actually are like. This book is about how children develop minds that change the world.

Psychologists, philosophers, neuroscientists, and computer scientists are beginning to carefully and precisely identify some of the underlying mechanisms that give us this distinctively human capacity for change — the aspects of our nature that allow nurture and culture to take place. We even are starting to develop rigorous mathematical accounts of some of those mechanisms. We'll see that this new research and thinking, much of it done just in the past few years, has given us a new understanding of how the biological computers in our skulls actually produce human freedom and flexibility.

If I look around at the ordinary things in front of me as I write this — the electric lamp, the right-angle-constructed table, the brightly glazed symmetrical ceramic cup, the glowing computer screen — almost nothing resembles anything I would have seen in the Pleistocene. All of these objects were once imaginary — they are things that human beings themselves have created. And I myself, a woman cognitive scientist writing about the philosophy of children, could not have existed in the Pleistocene either. I am also a creation of the human imagination, and so are you. The very fact of childhood — our long protected period of immaturity — plays a crucial role in this human ability to change the world and ourselves. Children aren't just defective adults, primitive grown-ups gradually attaining our perfection and complexity. Instead, children and adults are different forms of Homo sapiens. They have very different, though equally complex and powerful, minds, brains, and forms of consciousness, designed to serve different evolutionary functions. Human development is more like metamorphosis, like caterpillars becoming butterflies, than like simple growth — though it may seem that children are the vibrant, wandering butterflies who transform into caterpillars inching along the grown-up path.

Excerpted from The Philosophical Baby, by Alison Gopnik, published August 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright 2009 by Alison Gopnik. All rights reserved.

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Alison Gopnik