Last month I had the honour to chair Richard Dawkins when he gave a talk in Bristol about his new book, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” We exchanged respective signed copies of our books and I have been slowly working my way through his though I have to say I have not yet finished – a million writing deadlines of my own to complete.
But I did want to write a post on the opening to Chapter 2 entitled, “Dogs, Cows and Cabbages.” In it Dawkins, asks the question, “Why is it so difficult for people to accept natural selection,” and he gives the answer, that when I read it, knocked me off my seat – essentialism. If you have not read SuperSense, a large proportion of it addresses this notion that we believe the world is inhabited by essences and that this explains many supernatural beliefs and practices. So you can imagine how gratifying it was to see it pop up in Dawkins’ latest book where he calls its influence, “the dead hand of Plato.”
However, if I had researched SuperSense more thoroughly I would have discovered that essentialism is also the answer given by Ernst Mayr for why people have a problem with natural selection. Mayr points out that since the time of Plato, people have assumed that there is a true identity to reality that cannot necessarily been seen directly. It’s like there is an ideal form for all the things we detect in the world. So there is an essential dog, an essential tree and so forth. All the variation we experience in the world is interpreted as some deviation from an ideal form – a form that is essential. But such a viewpoint is inconsistent with continual change and evolution. Origins of species through natural selection does not fit with the Platonic view and this is a point that I made in the book. You don’t have to teach children this. They naturally assume that all species are essentially different from each other and that’s why they have a problem with accepting Darwin.
Of course, I go further than Dawkins and Mayr in my theory. Essentialism is not just a belief about true identity. It manifests as a supernatural force that can contaminate reality. There is essential evil, essential goodness, essential youth, and indeed I would argue that we essentialize those things we consider unique such as individuals. I argue that an individual’s essence can contaminate an inanimate object or possession – maybe even a signed book. This is one reason why some people don’t want to touch or wear the killer’s cardigan. It also explains why we find the notions of duplication, genetic modification and all manner of procedures that violate the integrity of the individual as abhorrent. We are not necessarily aware of this way of thinking and as I have been at pains to point out, it may operate intuitively, but I think that every child born is still shaking the dead hand of Plato.
Anyone with a young child in the back of the car on a long journey will be familiar with the incessant questions that they can ask. Sometimes it may just be, “Are we there yet?” but for many, a long road trip can be an ideal opportunity for intellectual torture. My youngest could grind you down into submission after a couple of minutes.. “Why are trees green and not blue? How heavy are clouds and why do they float if they weigh something?” On and on and on and on….after a while you give up the will… “BECAUSE THAT’S JUST THE WAY THEY ARE!!!!”
Don’t get me wrong. After all, I am a scientist who studies children but it is quite clear that children seemed compelled to ask questions and find solutions. Sometimes it can get exasperating. “Because that’s just the way they are” is not a satisfactory answer and if you get suckered into starting to give a causal chain of reasoning such as, “Well, trees are green because of the chlorophyll they use to convert sunlight into energy,” well you know what happens next… On and on and on and on
When we don’t give them answers, children generate their own explanations and from their perspective, everything is the way it is for some purpose. Rocks are pointy to stop animals sitting on them. Trees have leaves to provide shade. This is called teleology – giving a functional reason for things that just happen to be the way they are for non-purposeful reasons. In the natural world there are all manner of things that appear complex and designed for a purpose. But that’s not the way the natural world works. It has no purpose and that’s one reason people find it so difficult to understand evolution through natural selection. Adopting the teleological stance that things have been designed purposefully is the intuitive way to think about the world and that’s one reason why children may be so inclined to creationist stories. Most religions (I don’t know if all) have some creationist account about origins usually in the form of God.
This is the point that my colleague Deb Kelemen at Boston University has made in her research. In fact, she calls it “promiscuous teleology” to reflect the pervasive nature of this way of thinking. You might think that once children are provided with non-teleological explanations than education can eradicate these naïve notions. However, in a paper published earlier this year in the prestigious journal “Cognition” she reports how science-educated adults can revert back to giving teleological explanations when forced to answer questions under time pressure. Is this simply the easiest answer to give? It may well be but my hunch that I give in my book is that we never truly abandon childhood ways of interpreting the world and that we have to work to ignore them. And that takes effort which is why putting someone in the spotlight can get them to think like a child again.
BTW I am also blogging over at t5m. So drop over there if you have a spare moment.
With names like “Baby Einstein,” “Baby Bach,” and “Baby Newton” is it any wonder that new parents and especially new grandparents are going to be tempted to buy into this fad for “hot-housing” babies with DVDs designed to enhance brain development? Simply plonk infant down in front of TV, insert stimulating DVD and watch as brain grows. Simple.
Last year, developmental psychologist Andy Meltzoff got into trouble with the Disney Company who own the Baby Einstein range for publishing a study that showed that rather than enhancing infants’ brains, these DVD’s actually impaired language development. Disney threatened to sue the University of Washington for publishing the press release of the study though I doubt they could have found a better expert opinion than Meltzoff’s to refute his findings.
However a study by a team from Harvard Medical School, published this month in “Pediatrics,” did not find that increased TV viewing in infants under two years related to poorer cognitive development when all the socio-economic factors were considered. But there was no benefit either. Maybe they needed to be watching “Baby Einstein.”
I often get asked about the role of early environment on brain development as so many parents are concerned when they read about the effects of deprivation that come mainly from the animal research. Yes the early environment is important but the deprivation has to be pretty extreme to cause permanent problems. Moreover, giving extra stimulation is not going to create super-smart babies.
I just finished a phone interview with “Wired” magazine for my book review in the April issue. The journalist who interviewed me was a young lady with the unusual name, Zelda. She was delightful and let me ramble on for ages. I don’t know about you but I always try to picture who I am speaking to when on the phone. I find it hard without seeing the face (that’s why I love SKYPE – also its free!). Anyway to me, the name Zelda has always been magical – think Princess Zelda or the Legend of Zelda – you gamers out there will know what I am on about.
However, those of you of a certain age will also remember that other Zelda, the main villian of “Terrahawks” in what was probably one of the most grotesque and terrifying puppet portrayals of evil ever. Terrahawks is cult TV and yes, I know I sound a bit nerdy but frankly, I have been altered permanently by watching Terrahawks during my student days. I defy anyone to come up with a more traumatizing, ghoulish children’s puppet series (Bill and Ben aside). Zelda, along with her hideous sister, Cystar (a clear case of Hollywood plastic surgery gone wrong) and Zelda’s abomination son, Yung-Star truly made you want to wretch with his drooling sputum.
Bring back Terrahawks. It will scare children back into a state of trembling fear where they belong.
Which childhood characters terrified you? Muffin the Mule? Barney?
The living dead are a recurrent feature of many supernatural belief systems and can be found in just about every culture and as far back as history can be traced. For example, early Egyptian religion was characterized by obsession with the afterlife. The origins of such universal beliefs are arguably a feature of the way that young children reason about death. The concept of death is one that children struggle to understand and this may explain why various studies have shown that toddlers are inclined to afterlife beliefs. For example, my colleague Jesse Bering studied this in a 2004 study where he told kindergarten children about a mouse that had been killed and eaten by an alligator. The children agreed that the mouse was dead, but they thought the mind was still active. Such dualism of body and mind allows for the afterlife in the form of ghosts and spirits.
In contrast, zombies are the earth-bound animated bodies of the dead. In SuperSense, I discuss another universal belief in the rejuvenating powers of consuming flesh and the body of others. Not only is this evident in certain religious rituals but certain secular practices of absorbing the vitality of others is not uncommon in today’s society. Zombies apparently need to eat brains to keep, ‘staying alive.’ Such beliefs makes for great cultural horror stories, of which vampires are probably the most popular.
Of course, we scientists, could be wrong. The living dead or zombies may really exist and we need to be observant. Thankfully, there are people out there willing and prepared to defend us from zombie attacks. Last week, motorists were alerted to an outbreak of zombies on the motorway. The motorway signs warned drivers of zombies ahead thereby averting a disaster. Without the quick wits of such people we may be caught off guard by the legions of the undead.
And what about our leaders? Are they prepared to protect us from the undead? I know that everyone thinks that President Obama is much better than the last guy but at least Bush recognized the problem of zombie attacks.
A number of commentators have asked what I mean by essences and essentialism. Basically, the idea is that we naturally assume that there is a true identity of something that exists independently of its outward appearance.
For example, imagine that you had a raccoon and that you had the technology to change its appearance so that it now looked like a skunk (change the color of its skin, paint a white line down the back, add a bag of smelly stuff and so on). If I asked you whether it was a raccoon or a skunk then you would say that it is still a raccoon. You might explain that in terms of DNA and you’d be right. But before DNA was known, you would have given the same answer. Young children who do not know about DNA also say that animals are essentially the same despite outward appearances because they are basing their answer on intuitive essentialism. Susan Gelman and Frank Keil are some of the leading researchers in this area.
I have taken this idea further by arguing that essentialism could be the basis for some supernatural beliefs. The idea that someone’s essence could contaminate the physical world is a recurring theme in many of the postings that I have put up on this blog.