Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Spelke in the New Yorker

There's a great article about Elizabeth Spelke and her work ("The Baby Lab") in this week's New Yorker. Unfortunately it isn't available at the online New Yorker site, so go buy a copy of the September 4 2006 Education Issue.

I first heard of Spelke through her debate with Steven Pinker. I had no idea she was such a big deal in the world of psychology and even Pinker knows it - at least he did five years ago:
Spelke's ideas have been enormously influential among academics. "Nowadays every psychology student is taught that James and Piaget were wrong, "the cognitive scientist and evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker wrote in Time five years ago. "From their earliest months, in fact, children interpret the world as a real and predictable place... This new understanding is largely the legacy of Harvard psychologist Elixabeth Spelk." Karen Wynn, an infant-cognition researcher at Yale, told me, "Spelke has done more to shape our understanding of how the human mind initially grasps the world than anyone else." In 2000, when the Association for Psychological Science gave her its William James Fellow Award, the citation noted that Spelke had "developed techniques of studying infants' beliefs that are far more probative than might have been imagined only a short time ago," and that her work had begun "to answer the perennial philosophical questions about the origins of human knowledge about space, objects, motion, unity, persistence, identity, and number."
Although I knew about Spelke-Pinker debate I didn't know this:
Spelke had been one of Summers's fiercest critics, calling his remarks "wrong, point for point." And she lambasted him for ignoring a more obvious explanation for the disparity of achievement: "the impediments to women's progress posed by long-standing patters of prejudice, unwelcoming environments, and unequal resources."

This observation, by the article's author Margaret Talbot, is certainly accurate, but I'd say an understatement:
The field of evolutionary psychology is prone to a cheerful - sometimes gleeful - fatalism about sex differences. (Older men ditching their aging wives for nubile misstresses? Men are genetically programmed to spread their DNA! Women more inclined toward gardening than particle physics? Blame it on our hunter-gatherer ancestors!)

Later in the article, the author gets in this excellent gibe at Pinker:
Men across cultures (Pinker) noted, constituted the more risk-taking and competitive sex - though why risk-taking and competitiveness were more adaptive attributes for, say, aspiring mathemeticians than for aspiring sociologists wasn't exactly clear.

Then Talbot gives this amusing description of the Spelke-Pinker debate:
After Pinker and Spelke had given their talks, they sat at a table onstage, and listened to each other with interrupting. But when Pinker spoke, Spelke wore one of those smiles which suggest a certain effort - and when she spoke she used her large hands to make sweeping gestures, as if she were dismissing one silly notion after another. When Pinker started talking about how "the most subjective fields in academia - the social sciences, the humanities, the helping professions" had the greatest representation of women because the jibed with "what gave women satisfaction in life," Spelke looked as though she'd had enough. "I think it's a really interesting possibility that the forces that were active in our evolutionary past have led men and women to evolved somewhate differing concerns," she began. "But to jump from that possibility to the present, and draw conclusions about what people's motives will be for pursuing one or another career is way too big a stretch." The career choices people pursue now, she concluded acidly, were "radically different from anything that anybody faced back in the Pleistocene."

Pinker was suggesting that, because of both sexual selection and parental-investment issues, women are selected to be more nurturing and men more competitive. Suppose that this were true, Spelke said, in the final words of the debate. What sort of motivation made a better scientist? Was it "competitive motives like those J. D. Watson described in 'The Double Helix' to get the structure of DNA before Lunus Pauling did?* Or nurturant motives of the kind that Doug Melton" - the Harvard developmental biologist = "described recently to explain why he's going into stem-cell research: to find a cure for juvenile diabetes, which his children suffer from? I think it's anything but clear how motives from our past translate into modern contexts. We would need to do the experiment, getting rid of discrimination and social pressures, in order to find out."

But while Spelke's reputation will hopefully be enhanced by this article, it also gives Steven Pinker a way to dismiss Spelke. For although Pinker will give respectful interviews to the racists and hard-core right-wingers at Gene Expression (NOTE - the link now redirects to Khan's Discover Magazine blog, but I found the Pinker interview via the Wayback Machine. Enjoy - also if Khan has that removed, I downloaded a copy - just ask me for it) he dismissed evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould's critiques this way: "The criticisms of Stephen Jay Gould have been extensively addressed in my writings and others, and I believe they stem more from his political ideology than from the empirical literature."

You see, Gould was a leftist. Only right-wingers can hold opinions that don't pollute their empirical arguments, apparently according to Steven Pinker.

And Spelke is also left of the gang at Gene Expression. Spelke is
A committed liberal who talks indignantly about race and gender discrimination

Maybe the best part of the article though is this:
It was a civil occasion, certainly, but (the Spelke-Pinker debate) was lively enough that the Harvard Crimson couldn't quite resist calling the exchange a "showdown of the sexes."

I think Steven Pinker does deserve the fate of going down in history as a scientific Bobby Riggs.

* And of course Watson was helped immensely by the work of British researcher Rosalind Franklin who died of cancer at 37 before she could receive a Nobel Prize for her work.)