Biogenetic factors in mental development

Author: Raphael Gamaroff


1. Introduction

2. Choosing a point of view

3. Differences and universals

4. Origin of mental processes and their impact on education

5. Lenneberg’s biological view of language development

6. Conclusion



A conflict of views on human development seems to exist between the natural sciences (e.g. genetics, neuroscience) and the social sciences. Although there is much that is useful in Luria’s, Bhaskar’s, and Vygotsky’s emphasis on the sociohistorical dimension in mental development, there seems to be a lack of appreciation of the important role of biogenetic factors in mental development . Indeed, these mental processes – as these authors affirm – do transform and are transformed by society/history through activity, and no doubt the Marxist position that society (more aptly, the state) shapes individual and social consciousness carries a lot of truth. But a more balanced view of the research into human problems of education and development is that the historical, extrinsic, chain of events are also shaped by inborn, intrinsic capacities. I tend towards the view of Chomsky that society and the environment act as triggers, i.e. “the experience does not determine how the mind will work but it triggers it, makes it work in its own largely predetermined way” (Chomsky, 1988:172). Such a view is euphemistically unpopular, because it destroys hope – that is built on view that educational/social intervention can transform a poor learner into a good learner.

1. Introduction

“Every man [generically speaking], where he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer’s day” (Russell, 1938). The cloud of comforting convictions that encompassed Bertrand Russell – the pacifist sceptic and one of the great philosopher’s of the twentieth century – shifted across the same sky as the mystic’s cloud of unknowing that seeks penetration into the mind of God. Russell and the mystic have a mind, are both persons, and both exist, i.e. occupy a “world”. Yet both have radically different visions, interests and emotional states (Sowell. 1987). The prime function of language – as a faculty of the brainmind – is to automatically categorise these visions, interests and emotional states, and the prime motivation of the user of language is to express and then to communicate these categorisations (Ellis, 1994). These categorisations are a mysterious configuration of fragmentary abstraction, without which knowledge is not possible, and with which ignorance is probable. This configuration of abstractions is what we call a point of view.

The higher one climbs up the ladder of abstraction, i.e. the more one moves way from bread-and-butter conceptions, the greater the difference between conceptual systems. These differences may exist not only between groups or individuals sharing very different languages (linguistic codes), but, extremely importantly, also between groups or individuals sharing the same languages. Groups may be of a sociocultural nature or an interest-group, such as a profession, e.g. science.

One persuades another of one’s point of view, one negotiates one’s point of view, one creates one’s point of view, one reflects on one’s point of view, one resists another’s point of view. Everybody who listens, speaks, reads or writes, filters everything through a point of view, through a theoretical perspective. To this perspective the scientist adds a methodological orientation based on the chosen theoretical perspective .

Among scientists there are many different and theoretical perspectives and methodological orientations, which produce – as in the arts and religion – a multiplicity of expressive systems or discourses, i.e. “ideologically determined ways of talking or writing about persons, places, events or phenomena.” (Wallace, 1992:68). Each person’s discourse is the product of a variety of different beliefs and experiences, and owing to our human nature “we should not be surprised to find that each side necessarily misreads and misrepresents the other side in order to reconstitute its own position” (Blundell, Shepherd & Taylor, 1993:26). Blundell et al. are speaking in the context of cultural studies, but the implied reference is to researchers in general, who all work within a cultural framework. By culture I understand

that level at which social groups [or individuals] develop distinct patterns of life, and give expressive form to their social and material life-experience. Culture is the way, the forms, in which groups [or individuals] `handle’ the raw material of their social and material existence…Culture is the distinctive shapes in which this material and social organization expresses itself.

(Clark, Hall, Jefferson, & Roberts, 1975:10).

2. Choosing a point of view

Choosing a scientific point of view – whether in, say, physics (a “hard ” science) or in, say, sociology ( a “human” science) has probably got less to do with science than with philosophy; the philosophy of beliefs, values and social practices (i.e. a world view) rather than with philosophical theories of knowledge and existence. Whether the domain of study be art, religion, physical science, psychology, social work or linguistics, it is the “paradigm[that] determines the identification and interpretation of “empirical evidence” [or of any other kind of evidence or experience] in a given discipline (Bizzell, 1979:764; my square brackets). World views usually conflict with one another. Thus what one person may consider to be his or her world view, another may label as an ideology, where the will to dominate may be seen as the mainspring of the former’s world view:

Human beings have all sorts of beliefs [whether they be physicists, philosophers. applied linguistics; to mention only the academic domain]. The way in which they arrive at them varies from reasoned argument to blind faith. Some beliefs are based on personal experience, others on education, and others on indoctrinations. Many beliefs are no doubt innate: we are born with them as a result of evolutionary factors. Some beliefs we feel we can justify, others we hold because of “gut feelings”.

Davies (1993:19; my brackets)

The aim of cultural studies, applied psychology and education is to change people – for the better; thus the kind of theoretical perspective and methodological orientation is often chosen in terms of the changes one would like to see.

3. Differences and universals

An educational psychologist, unlike a a philosopher or a “pure” scientist, is not primarily looking for universals in human structure and development, but for differences. For the linguistic scientist Pinker, “differences between individuals are so boring” (Pinker, 1995:428; original italics), whereas Carroll’s survey of research into human cognitive abilities was written with the intention of serving as a “reference work and as a textbook in advanced courses in individual differences” (1993:vii).

An evaluation of human abilities is necessarily concerned with differences. However, it is not possible to understand differences without understanding universals, i.e. the commonalities between human beings.

An educationist is primarily concerned with differences related to learning, and the concomitant problem of failure. If there were no problems there would be no teachers, because children would not need adults to lead them to success and adulthood. Educationists, like scientists, and unlike politicians, seek enlightenment concerning their limitations. It remains a valid principle in science that one should always be aware of the limitations of one’s own paradigm. Bizzell (1979:766) points out that Kuhn is “acutely alive to the limitations imposed by a paradigm, limitations that may not only restrict free enquiry, but vitiate the social usefulness of the discipline.” In Kuhn’s words,

one of the things a scientific community acquires with a paradigm is a criterion for choosing problems that, while the paradigm is taken for granted, can be assumed to have solutions. To a great extent these are the only problems that the community will admit as scientific or encourage its members to undertake. Other problems, including many that had previously been standard are rejected as metaphysical, as the concern of another discipline, or sometimes as just too problematic to be worth the time…One of the reasons why normal science seems to progress so rapidly is that its practitioners concentrate on problems that only their own lack of ingenuity should keep them from solving.

(Kuhn, 1970:37, quoted in Bizzell, 1979:766)

Ultimately, choosing a specific conception of development or of “reality”, specifically of the individual in society, is to a large extent a philosophical exercise which is based on value judgements. “Models of psychological reality cannot be proven right or wrong, correct or incorrect, by any objective criterion.” (Hillner, 1985). Some rational decisions have to be made, but these decisions are enmeshed in “all sorts of subjective and idiosyncratic considerations” (Hillner, 1985). Thus it is questionable whether “[t]here is only one way of seeing one’s own spectacles clearly: that is to take them off” ( Campbell, 1985:19-20). It would be difficult, if not impossible, to separate the spectacles from the eye, which is why “I” see through a glass darkly. There is much subjectivity in science, of the “human” as well as of the “hard” kind. Theories are subjective expressions, where the data are often driven by the theory than the other way round. To establish anything empirically without a theory to “drive” the data seems impossible. Theory , although tempered by the data, remains underdetermined by the data.

The theory and data of the social sciences are basically concerned with the person-in-the-world. Trying to understand the nature of the relationship between the person and the world is “one of the more exasperating and contentious of all humanistic concerns, [namely] the proper nature of the relationship between the individual and society (or the state, culture, or community)” (Cuzzort and King, 1995:129). It is the person’s mental processes-in-the-world, and how they impact on education that I want to focus on.

4. Origin of mental processes and their impact on education

Luria (1976:3) emphasises the social and historical origin of mental processes: “It seems surprising that the science of psychology has avoided the idea that mental processes are social and historical in origin. And Vygotsky (1978:57) in a similar vein. “The internalisation of socially rooted and historically developed activities is the distinguishing feature of human psychology, the basis of the qualitative leap from animal to human psychology.” Bhaskar (1979:45-46) attributes an even more imperious role to society.

The model of the society/person connection I am proposing could be summarised as follows: People do not create society. For it always pre-exists them and is a necessary condition for their activity. Rather, society must be regarded as an ensemble of structures, practices and conventions which individuals reproduce and transform, but which would not exist unless they did so.

In contrast to Luria, Vygotsky and Bhaskar, Popper’s (1965) “natural science” view is that there “is no history of mankind, there is only an indefinite number of histories of all kinds of aspects of human life” i.e. a fertile plurality of self-constituted principles. I don’t agree entirely with Popper’s view, because the natural science point of view is also a theoretical construction existing within the fertile plurality of other theoretical constructions such as those of historical meanings (Rauche, 1992:470). This means that there can be no self-constituted principle, because all principles (or hypotheses) are rooted in the contingency of history. But this does not imply that society pre-exists the individual, but only that society is produced, reproduced and transformed by individuals and that individuals are, in turn, transformed by society into “social actors” (Miller, 1984:12-14).

For Luria, Vygotsky and Bhaskar, all phenomena are processes in motion and in change. Changes in society bring about changes in the individual. The development of the individual is brought about by society and culture. Human “development” for Vygotsky is mainly a social process, and human nature mainly a social construction:

Within a general process of development, two qualitatively different lines of development, differing in origin, can be distinguished: the elementary processes, which are of biological origin, on the one hand, and the higher psychological functions, of sociocultural origin, on the other. The history of child behaviour is born from the interweaving of these two lines. The history of the development of the higher psychological functions is impossible without a study of their prehistory, their biological roots, and their organic disposition.

(Vygotsky 1978:46; original emphasis and my underlining).

Vygotsky assigns the elementary psychological functions of language to the biological level, to the “roots” of behaviour, to the intrapersonal; but the higher psychological functions of language to the social level. With regard to cultural development, every psychological function appears twice:

first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological), and then inside the child (interpsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relations between human individuals…The internalisation of socially rooted and historically developed activities is the distinguishing feature of human psychology, the basis of the qualitative leap from animal to human psychology. As yet, the barest outline of this process is known.

(Vygotsky 1978:57)

Thus, Vygotsky assigns biological (intrapersonal) properties to the “roots” of the tree, and social properties to the tree (itself). Vygotsky’s metaphor could be misleading because it gives an image of biology being confined to the roots of the tree, whereas the ramifications of biology are not confined to the roots but extend up the trunk into the branches.

With regard to language, Vygotsky, 1978:28) maintains that human beings would be no different from animals without the social contact with other people. This is indeed so. But not because the social imprints itself onto a tabula rasa, but because the human brain has the innate, i.e. biological, structures to learn, whether it be a language or some other kind of tool. Exposure to and intake from society and the world trigger off the innate capacity to learn.

Although there is no doubt that a psychology that is merely based on biology is inadequate, this does not mean that tools are the only source of the abstract notions of the brainmind. Surely there is a symbiotic relationship between the development of the brainmind and mind tools such as aids to measuring, calculating and thinking and communicating. The tool of tools (and often the tool of fools) is the sign: “The use of signs leads humans to a specific structure of behaviour that breaks away from biological development and creates new forms of a culturally-based psychological process” (Vygotsky 1978:40).

It is Vygotsky’s term “breaks away” that is problematic. In order to explain the problem, it would be useful to examine the concept of maturation. According to Vygotsky, it is a fact that “maturation per se is a secondary factor in the development of the most complex, unique forms of behaviour.” Vygotsky 1978:19). However, according to Fodor (Piatelli- Palmirini, 1980:149),

The only intelligible theory of enrichment of conceptual resources is that it is a function of maturation [of the inner unlearned structures of the cognitive subject], and there simply isn’t any theory of how learning can affect concepts.

For Lenneberg (1967), Bickerton (1981), Chomsky (1988) and Pinker (1995), language and conceptual development are largely a function of maturation. It is truistically obvious that without the proper environment, maturation will be adversely affected.

The neo-Piagetians, Demetriou, Shayer and Eflides (1992:6) in their discussion of theories of cognitive development stress the importance of both the biological and the social aspect of learning, but point out, as does Fodor, our ignorance of the learning (and the teaching) process:

[W]e still do not understand very well how cognitive structures interact with each other and how their formation is affected by the structure of knowledge as it exists in our present educational and broader cultural environment…we also know that mental and school-specific knowledge structures are constrained by both internal and social constraint systems…we have already gathered firm knowledge about the developmental and cognitive preconditions under which learning may occur. However, we still need to learn a lot more about how learning situations work in the mind and/or the brain to alter its present state into a more advanced one. Thus, we are not very knowledgeable about how to engineer specific learning environments aimed at quickly and efficiently imparting specific knowledge structures useful to a particular individual of a particular age for a particular purpose.

I agree with Fodor that (biological) maturation, contrary to Vygotsky’s socialist view, plays a much greater role in cognitive development than Vygotsky asserts. Consider language in the context of growth and maturation. Lenneberg’s views (1967) on the biological basis of language is worth perusal. The following are the salient features of Lenneberg’s biological view of language development:

5. Lenneberg’s biological view of language development

Language for many seems to consist of cultural conventions, e.g. Wittgenstein’s “language games” (this is not to deny the monumental contribution of Wittgenstein). However, fruitful explanatory principles can also, and perhaps primarily be found in the biological sciences, specifically in genetics and the brain sciences (Danesi, 1994; Oller, 1981; Paradis, 1991; Perecman, 1989; Pribham, 1971; Woese, 1967:4; Young, 1978). There are radical differences between the rules of games (arbitrarily determined) and the rules of language (biologically determined). However, we can still speak of the biology of game-playing (what are the capacities that enable a human to play a game of chance, to “waste” one’s time away. An animal (humans are included under “animal) is not like a tool that can be arbitrarily assigned a particular use. The structure of the brain and the body are an interdependent unit. These structures are programmed from within, i.e. genetically (Lenneberg 1967:1-4). Thus the developmental process is physiological in nature. Modifications after birth are determined by genetic and prenatal events. The degree of plasticity (e.g. the diversity between individuals) is the product of biological conditions. And obviously the environment plays an important role. “Thus the notion `dependence on environment’ (which by implication is the same as `dependence on experience’) is not a useful criterion for the classification of behaviour” (Lenneberg 1967:12).

6. Conclusion

My point of view has been given, which hopefully was based on more than gut feelings. Vehement oppositions are to expected in academia. But

we have reason to hope that a conversation among discourses, between occupants of this position and that, offers the best hope that we shall create as a species the rich intellectual landscape that is essential if we are to understand our universe and our place in it. The multiple discourses of mankind, brought, now by history into mutual consciousness, are not a Babel but a chorus.

(Appiah, 1992:230; original italics)

The question is: Why are some individuals better choristers than babblers? Here we are touching, what I think is a neglected – because a sensitive – issue in multicultural studies, namely, the biocultural reality of intellectual variability. From the educational point of view, the problem is how to explain the large disparities in academic ability between individuals belonging not only to different cultures, but also to the same culture. Are these disparities merely environmental? Millar (1988) maintains that one can develop concepts, but cannot acquire them. This seems to mean that there are innate capacities that must have something to do with biology. How biology and environment function together is not very clear, but there is no doubt that all abilities are related to inborn biological capacities, which are different in each person. I am not suggesting a (purely) deterministic order, but merely that each individual is “set up” in different ways.

Whatever one’s point of view, all human beings are preoccupied with the ultimate question: “What is it to be human? A (social) “actor” (Miller, 1984)? Knowing how to perform our own or one another’s “tricks” (Miller, 1984; Campbell, 1985:20)? Cuzzort and King (1995) answer:

To be human is to perform, like an actor, before audiences whom we con into accepting us as being what we try to be. Our humanity is the costume we wear, the stage on which we perform, and the way we read whatever script we are handed.


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