Early Complexity in Human Development

Frangois Jouen and Michele Molina

Developmental sciences cannot avoid the question of the origins and nature of knowledge. Piaget clearly placed this issue at the heart of his genetic approach. Piaget (1936, 1937) strongly opposes the idea of predetermined knowledge to that of knowledge as actively constructed by the subject. Piaget clearly fixed the objectives of genetic epistemology: to account for the construction of non-preformed structures from which cognitive mechanisms would emerge. Well before the explosion of research on early skills during infancy, this constructivist line has been challenged by nativist approaches: just remember the confrontation between Piaget and Chomsky in Royaumont in 1975 on the question of language acquisition, during which Chomsky clearly confesses that his nativist conceptions are completely opposed to Piaget’s constructivism. Since 1975, the question of the origins of cognition was almost exclusively limited to a debate between nativists and empiricists. Both approaches, radically antagonistic, nevertheless agree on two points: the representative basis of knowledge and a rejection of the fundamental assumption of the constructivist position, according to which cognition is deeply rooted in sensorimotor activity. A positive consequence of the nature-nurture debate was to greatly increase the number of studies on cognitive development in infants and children. Whatever theoretical model they adopted, researches concerning younger and younger infants started with the main goal of getting closer to the early development of knowledge. In this perspective, birth was taken as the zero state of the initial development of cognition. The implicit idea was that dating a cognitive skill closer to birth could give access to what is biologically determined. The identification of early cognitive competence in the newborn infant was accompanied by animated debates about the predetermined nature of knowledge: just remember the vigorous discussions that followed the demonstration of neonatal imitation by Meltzoff and Moore (1977). The Chomskian concept of mental organs characterizes the innate cognitive framework of nativ- ism: like all physical organs, mental organs are genetically determined and are species-specific. By referring to the well-known poverty of the stimulus argument, nativists oppose the scarcity of the stimulus and of the perceptual functions that ensure its processing to the complexity of mental structures that are defined as intrinsic, idiosyncratic, rich and various. For empiricists, who are faithful to Aristotelian tradition, what is in the mind was previously in the senses.

Despite the theoretical interest arising from the opposition between nativist and dualistic approaches, it is clear that the debate is still in progress regarding the origin of knowledge in infants. Criticisms arising from renowned biologists such as Frangois Jacob, who suspected Piaget of neural Neo-Lamarckism, renew the question of the origins of knowledge by referring to theoretical models based on embryogenesis and probabilistic epigenesis. Piaget (1967) was among the first researchers who argued that the universality of a behavior does not necessarily imply genetic transmission. He rather suggested that brain structures and associated mental functions can exhibit self-stabilization as a consequence of interactions between the genetic heritage of a species and individual experience. This idea is obvious in various biological models, such as the theory of selective stabilization of synapses proposed by Changeux, Courrege and Danchin (1973), the theory of developmental psychobiological systems proposed by Gottlieb (1991), or the theory of neuronal groups stabilization proposed by Edelman (1992). Curiously, these approaches were, with rare exceptions (Hadders-Algra 2000, 2002; Jouen and Molina 2007), very seldom applied to early cognitive development, which is puzzling, since they offer a promising alternative to the debate between nativist and empiricist approaches. The main objective of this article is to examine the contribution of these recent biological approaches to the question of the origins of knowledge in infancy.

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