[The following shared post is reblogged from a post dated May 1, 2012, published by anthropologist Meredith F. Small at her Web site The Anthropology of Everyday Life. She shares with us some fascinating insights into what goes on inside babies’ minds.]
A recent profile of Harvard psychologist Elizabeth Spelke in The New York Times underscores what’s going on in baby labs these days.
Not so long ago, developmental psychologists and baby “experts” were telling the public that infants knew nothing, that they were blank slates who had to learn everything, including how to think.
But with the current wave of interest in the evolutionary basis of human nature, studies of babies have started to test what babies know when they arrive on earth.
Mostly what they know is that other humans are really interesting. They know a human face when they see one, and they would rather peoplewatch than do just about anything else.
Spelke started out asking questions about an infant’s perception of objects and spaces, but these days, she, too, is interested in an infant’s social intelligence.
The article mentions several of her experiments, but I was most struck by her “discovery” that babies pay more attention to language than looks. They don’t care about a person’s race or gender but they do care if the speaker has a familiar language and dialect.
Language, then, Spelke suggests, is the core feature that makes us who we are.
Years ago, anthropologist John Mitani of the University of Michigan showed that male chimpanzee from different communities have different dialects in their pant-hoots, and that males of a community modulate their voices to sound like each other.
This information suggests that the human fixation with how we speak is part of a collective identity and it has very deep roots.