The Baby Lab How Elizabeth Spelke peers into the infant mind

[ Sat. Apr. 8. 2006 ]

...Presented with photos on a screen, the white Israeli infants preferred looking at new faces of their own race; African babies raised in Ethiopia preferred to look at African faces. But the Ethiopian-Israeli infants, who had been exposed since birth too people of both races, showed no preference. The import of this study is ambiguous, Spelke said. The finding could mean that babies aren't born prejudiced after all—that they earn to be wary of others only if they grow up in an isolated environment. Or it would mean that babies are programmed to to use people who look more like their own parents, and this instinct can be counterbalanced through enlightened education.

If the latter interpretation proved to be the case, Spelke would be optimistic. As she recently posted on Edge [*], a Web publication that airs scientific controversies, "Humans are capable of discovering that our core intuitions about geometry once led humans to believe that the world was flat—until the science that humans perfected proved otherwise—core intuitions night lead us to believe that linguistic and racial differences mean something more fundamental than they really do.

"Nobody should ever be troubled by our research, whatever we come to find," Spelke told me. "Everybody should be troubled by the phenomena that motivate it: the pervasive tendency of people all over the world to categorize others into different social groups, despite our common and universal humanity, and to endow these groups with social and emotional significance that fuels ethnic conflict conflict and can even lead to war and genocide." This mirrors her belief that, in time, feminism will embolden more women to take up high-level careers in the physical sciences, and more of us will recognize hoe alike men's and women's minds really are. For Spelke, who has spent most of her life documenting the core knowledge that we're born with, the most important thing about it is our uniquely human abilities to rise above it.

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[* ED. NOTE: See "The Science of Gender and Science—Pinker vs. Spelke, A Debate"]

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