Anthony Grayling has one of his measured and literate reviews up at the Barnes and Noble Review, which, like it or not, is becoming the online TLS (which is also online). In it he reviews Alison Gopnik’s The Philosophical Baby,which argues that neonates to five year olds are engaged on a rational process of learning and focusing on the environment as they construct a sense of self. It looks like an interesting book, which I will soon read.
In the course of the review, Grayling says this:
A matter that Gopnik does not address is that there is a downside to the readiness with which young minds imagine and believe. Credulity of course is of great evolutionary advantage; if older people in authority say that fire hurts you, tigers eat you, and the gods are recording your every sin, the child will believe, and occasional rebellion will (at least in such cases as a finger in the candle flame) confirm, what they have been told. Astute educators have always recognized that if they can espalier the young mind it will more likely than not keep that given shape thereafter. The Jesuits’ mot was “give me the child until the age of seven and I will give you the man.
The evolutionary justification for this is, of course the following: if evolution were a designer, trying to ensure that thinking beings learned and knew what they had to to survive, a cheaper rule than putting everything into the head from the start is “learn from those around you, because they are not dead”. The term Grayling uses, which I have linked, espalier is entirely appropriate: we train young minds to catch the (environmental) “light”. This includes fire and tigers (in Africa? really?), but it also includes believers in tribal gods. So it is entirely rational to believe what you are told by non-dead elders, since if they can get to that age without losing the battle in the struggle for life, then you ought to as well, if the conditions haven’t yet been changed.
Therein lies the rub. Until fairly recently, traditions changed pretty slowly. it was a very good bet that if you emulated your parents and peers, then their “Good Tricks” for living (including living amongst other people) would work equally well for you. A heuristic that says “do what the majority do” is going to balance the costs of early adoption with those of late adoption, and ensure that your cognitive task for getting up to cultural speed is as low as it can be. So it is adaptive to believe what all around you believe, most of the time.
Along came printing and other mass communication methods. Now the environs are changing fairly rapidly, as Papuans and Amazon indians and San Bushmen all are exposed to the latest vapidity from Hollywood or Paris or Redmond. So learning what your elders know is less useful (although it is often overstated how much different it really is. I could carry on a good conversation with my parents’ generation in the 1940s, I think). The differential rate of change of traditions is now much greater than before.
So as the individual develops and learns, they will employ other heuristics nicely laid out in Gigerenzer’s and colleagues‘ work, such as “follow the best”. I think also there will be a later bias towards peer emulation, but given that we are looking now at early development, I would like to make a point about the Jesuit Rule: any general biases or dispositions acquired early will tend to be harder to modify later, for evolutionary reasons. That is, we tend to learn the most salient and important “facts” first, and build our cultural superstructure on them afterwards. This is what I argued in my “Are Creationists Rational?” paper.
Social ecology scaffolds, to use a term of Sterelny’s, later development. So what we see around us now is a tradeoff between the rates of change of cultural traditions and the need for people to rapidly and cheaply acquire basic conceptual commitments. This is why, I think, that later we find it hardest to adapt to new culture, like musical styles that just sound like noise, because we are not acculturated into the styles and traditions that make these “good” music. We can still adapt, if we make it our work to do so, as professional musicians do, but it is hard work, not easy.