Cognition the Case Against Core Essay

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Instead, spatial reasoning appears to be based on environmental inputs and old-fashioned cognitive development.

Why this should come as such a surprise to some researchers is uncertain. Core knowledge theorists claim that infants almost immediately express certain types of knowledge. But this suggestion assumes two things: one, that it is possible to measure infant cognition at the moment of birth; and two, that infants are incapable of learning before they are born. On the matter of the former point, it seems apparent that logistical and ethical concerns would make it exceedingly difficult, if not outright impossible, to test infant cognition immediately after birth. With regards to the second issue, we already have evidence that infants are capable of basic learning while still in the womb. Though developmentally unfinished, the basic sensory organs that the fetus develops permit it to learn information about its environment. Lecuyer (2006) reminds us that it is established that infants are capable of learning before birth, in particular of distinguishing the voice of their mothers from the voices of strangers. At the same time, the brain is developing structures and mechanisms that make the acquisition of knowledge easier and more effective. Thus, rather than assuming that we are all born with core knowledge domains built into our genes, it is much more reasonable to deduce that evolution has granted human beings -- and probably many other species -- with the capacity for rapid learning and adaptation to our environment. In fact, we could posit that without such an ability, survival rates for many species would be much lower because they would be unable to process and synthesize environmental information rapidly enough to ensure survival.

One of the most significant problems with core knowledge theories is that because of language incompetence it is impossible to judge infants by adult criteria (Haith, 1998). Attempts to draw conclusions about infant cognition in terms of core knowledge invariably lead to moments when infants are discussed in tandem with human adults and primate species -- as if human infants are a classification group unto themselves (Hofste, Feng, and Spelke, 2000; Spelke and Kinzler, 2007). It is almost as if infants are tiny geniuses in terms of spatial and quantitative reasoning, geniuses that will eventually metamorphose into less capable toddlers and adolescents before becoming re-developing those core reasoning abilities upon reaching cognitive maturation. Core knowledge theories utterly disregard the wealth of literature that already exists on the subject of cognitive development and how individuals gradually incorporate information from environmental stimuli into their total picture of the world around them (Newcombe, 2002). Instead, core knowledge argument presuppose the existence of knowledge domains that are not apparent at later stages of development, but which ultimately will re-emerge in the individual.

The issue of core knowledge is not a new one in the history of Western philosophy, psychology, or science. It harkens to the classic nature vs. nurture debate, in which psychologists have argued the importance of environmental factors vs. biological factors in the course of human development. As in most matters, the extreme positions are rarely the correct ones, and this proves to be the case with cognitive development and core knowledge. Under scrutiny, the claims made by core knowledge theorists appear to be overblown at best. At worst, they are simply incorrect analyses of the available evidence. Researchers in this line of thinking are all too eager to discard the contribution of developmental theorists who have studied cognition in favor of the dubious assumption that infants come into the world with fundamental aspects of their cognitive abilities fully formed. Instead of presuming core knowledge, it is much more reasonable -- in light of the available evidence -- to assume that environmental factors are much more important in shaping and determining cognitive development. With further research, it may become more evident that there exist core domains of knowledge that are innate; however, as it stands, this is not the case.


Dehaene, S., Izard, V., Pica, P., and Spelke, E.S. (2006). Core knowledge of geometry in an Amazonian indigene group. Science, 311, pp. 381-384.

Haith, M.M. (1998). Who put the cog in infant cognition? Infant Behavior and Development, 21(2), pp. 167-179.

Hespos, S.J. And Spelke, E.S. (2004, July 22). Conceptual precursors to language. Nature, 430, pp. 453-456.

Hofsten, C., Feng, Q., and Spelke, E.S. (2000). Object representation and predictive action in infancy. Developmental Science, 3(2), pp. 193-205.

Hood, B. (2001). What do infants know about objects? Perception, 30(1), pp. 1281-1284.

Lecuyer, R. (2006). Let us suppose the problem has been solved: an answer to Sabina Pauen. European Psychologist, 11(4), pp. 266-267.

Newcombe, N.S. (2002, September). The nativist-empiricist controversy in…[continue]

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