This is the problem: babies are bags of bits. They acquire and mislay abilities at a dizzying rate. Development is not a series of lessons learned. Some babyish ‘abilities’, such as stepping and swimming, are primitive reflexes that vanish shortly after birth, swamped beneath a welter of fumbling experiments in gross motor control. Babies actually forget how they originally recognised faces, and reacquire the skill using a different part of the brain. It’s frustrating: toddlers get up to all sorts of new tricks, but do not seem to grasp them in any obvious or convenient order. At around eight months they learn how to use thumb and forefinger to pick up an object – yet they don’t yet know how to let go.
Children’s minds are not like computers which, armed with a software upgrade or new memory chip, deliver enhanced performance across the board. They are assemblies of disparate skills and quasi-theoretical knowledge systems which rattle along, helping each other out when the need arises. Sometimes children use a theory developed in one domain, such as social reasoning, to solve problems in another, such as physical causation.
Once upon a time, thanks to Jean Piaget, the field of cognitive development had a coherent, interesting, testable, and widely accepted theory. Now, alas, we are back in the preparadigmatic boat with our colleagues in the rest of psychology, with theory fragments, almost-theories, and pseudotheories bobbing about around us.
The spirit of Jean Piaget – the Swiss psychologist who turned a father’s fascination with his offspring into a fertile natural science – hovers over this book. When Fernyhough needs to sum up an idea about development quickly and accurately, he looks to his daughter, and … simply tells us what he sees: the look of comic concentration with which Athena registers the effects of an action; the surreal cack-handedness of her first jokes.
I certainly don’t deserve the comparison with Piaget, but I did want the book to be driven by observation rather than theory or prescription.