[xmca] bio-cultural co-constructivism redux

From: Mike Cole (lchcmike@gmail.com)
Date: Sat Mar 03 2007 - 08:37:09 PST

I got feedback that the link to the review would not work for others, so
here it is inside this message.
Delte if indifferent to the issues.

More than six decades ago, developmental psychologist Arnold Gesell (1945,
p. 358) declared that "Neither physical nor cultural environment contains
any architectonic arrangements like the [biological] mechanisms of growth.
Culture accumulates; it does not grow. The glove goes on the hand; the hand
determines the glove." It is difficult to imagine a clearer statement of the
unidirectional causal relation between phylogeny and culture.

[image: Cole, Michael S-1 #2] <javascript:showCitation('Cole, Michael','Book
Reviews','PsycCRITIQUES','52, No. 9','Article 9','Initial','2')>Thirty years
later, anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1973), surveying extant knowledge of
human origins in which it appeared that manifestations of culture were
evident in the phylogenetic record for millions of years, argued for the
constitutive role of culture in the biological composition of modern humans:

Man's nervous system does not merely enable him to acquire culture, it
positively demands that he do so if it is going to function at all. Rather
than culture acting only to supplement, develop, and extend organically
based capacities logically and genetically prior to it, it would seem to be
ingredient to those capacities themselves. A cultureless human being would
probably turn out to be not an intrinsically talented, though unfulfilled
ape, but a wholly mindless and consequently unworkable monstrosity. (p. 68)

[image: Cole, Michael S-1 #3] <javascript:showCitation('Cole, Michael','Book
Reviews','PsycCRITIQUES','52, No. 9','Article 9','Initial','3')> The
book *Lifespan
Development and the Brain: The Perspective of Biocultural
Co-Constructivism*provides a plethora of data to support Geertz's
prescient manifesto. The
contributors dub this view "biocultural co-constructivism," the view, in
their words, that "all entities involved in the development of brain,
behavior, and culture are deeply interwoven and influence each other in
cumulative ways" (p. 13). A second message, which has been the major theme
of Paul Baltes's work over many decades, is that development does not stop
following puberty but continues for as many decades more that the person
continues to live.

[image: Cole, Michael S-1 #4] <javascript:showCitation('Cole, Michael','Book
Reviews','PsycCRITIQUES','52, No. 9','Article 9','Initial','4')>Several key
ideas and areas of research are brought together in this volume in support
of the editors' central theses. These include the following:

   1. The pioneering work of Hebb on the increased behavior capacities
   that are induced when laboratory rats are freed from their cages to engage
   with rich and challenging environments and Mark Rosenzweig and his
   colleagues' subsequent evidence that such environmentally induced behavioral
   capacities have their counterparts in neural growth characterized by
   increased synaptic connections and other biological indicators of enhanced
   neuronal functioning (summarized in Rosenzweig & Bennett, 1996).
   2. A variety of research on neurogenesis, including the now-familiar
   evidence that the developing brain produces an overabundance of neurons that
   are selectively pared away or consolidated depending on later experiences
   and new evidence of neurogenesis and changes in the brain's microanatomy far
   into adulthood and possibly into old age.
   3. A rapidly expanding body of research of neuronal plasticity and the
   consequent recognition of the potential multifunctionality of brain regions
   exhibited in cases, such as blindness or deafness in which brain areas
   deprived of sensory input from the evolutionarily typical sources reorganize
   to become additional resources to support and amplify remaining capacities
   (as when the visual cortex begins to respond to auditory input among the
   congenitally blind).
   4. A variety of research demonstrating that specific cultural
   practices (e.g., learning to read in school, driving a taxi for
   several years in London) are associated with measurable differences in the
   anatomical structure or functioning of specific brain regions known to be
   implicated in the associated form of activity.

[image: Cole, Michael S-1 #5] <javascript:showCitation('Cole, Michael','Book
Reviews','PsycCRITIQUES','52, No. 9','Article 9','Initial','5')> The book
provides excellent summaries of specific areas of research contributing to
the overall thesis of lifespan biocultural co-constructivism. I found that
one of the most interesting aspects of this book is the evidence that the
field still faces serious challenges in coming to grips with the problem of
specifying in appropriate detail the environmental side of the bidirectional
process and, when dealing with humans, with specifying what is meant by a
cultural influence. This difficulty shows up in different ways in different

[image: Cole, Michael S-1 #6] <javascript:showCitation('Cole, Michael','Book
Reviews','PsycCRITIQUES','52, No. 9','Article 9','Initial','6')>With respect
to research on the environmental impact on brain development in rats, for
example, Charles Nelson notes that the term *enrichment* is a relative one,
but then goes on to write that in the well-known studies of enriched (more
complex) environments, the experimental environments are enriched "relative
to the typical environments in which most rats live" (p. 72). In fact, the
enriched environments studied in the laboratory are almost certainly less
complex than the environments that a vast majority of the world's rats live
in outside of scientists' laboratories, and their behavior in such
environments is sufficiently intelligent to defy the best efforts of
exterminators from New York to Mumbai to eradicate them.

[image: Cole, Michael S-1 #7] <javascript:showCitation('Cole, Michael','Book
Reviews','PsycCRITIQUES','52, No. 9','Article 9','Initial','7')>This same
difficulty in situating environmental effects vis-à-vis behavioral (and
presumably brain) processes appears again when Nelson comments that the
enriched environments of rats are "all encompassing" whereas interventions
with human children such as Head Start are not all encompassing so that
"specific, narrow, effects, such as an increase in IQ" (p. 73) cannot be
reasonably expected—all the more so because such children spend more time at
home than at school, "and thus, the deprivation effects inherent in the home
environment may eventually overwhelm the effects of early enrichment [in
school]" (p. 73). To those engaged in the debates about heritability
of *g*and the many anthropologists who have documented the social
complexity of
the home life of children attending Head Start programs, these kinds of
judgments are likely to seem improbable. (Which in no way detracts from the
great importance of the work by Nelson and his colleagues on the effects of
being raised in a Rumanian orphanage, which promises to shed important light
on brain-experience relationships.)

[image: Cole, Michael S-1 #8] <javascript:showCitation('Cole, Michael','Book
Reviews','PsycCRITIQUES','52, No. 9','Article 9','Initial','8')>Other
chapters, each excellent in their review of their respective topics, display
similar uncertainties when it comes to explaining what is specifically
cultural about clear experience-expectant and experience-dependent effects
on brain development and just how specific such cultural effects might be.
For example, Ptito and Desgents's well-crafted review of ways in which brain
architecture changes to adapt to or compensate for disrupted sensory input
or the catastrophic condition of hemispherectomy underlines the evidence
that the spared hemisphere "plays a role in the mediation of many residual
abilities, such as motor and sensory (vision and somesthesis) behaviors" (p.
129). But extant evidence, such as Antonio Battro's (2000) study of a child
who underwent a hemispherectomy at the age of 3, indicates not only that
vision and somesthesis can be supported by the remaining hemisphere but that
such higher, clearly culturally mediated functions such as literacy,
numeracy, and all-but-normal language development can be induced in the
remaining hemisphere given a proper culturally organized regime of enriched

[image: Cole, Michael S-1 #9] <javascript:showCitation('Cole, Michael','Book
Reviews','PsycCRITIQUES','52, No. 9','Article 9','Initial','9')>The idea
that dense, culturally organized experience can produce neural
specialization is also supported by two chapters devoted to the impact of
reading, writing, and arithmetic instruction on brain processes. As
researchers in this area, following Alexander Luria, point out, literacy and
numeracy are recent developments on an evolutionary scale and require years
of systematic instruction. Current evidence seems compelling, however, that
as a result of such instruction, there is, in Polk and Hamilton's
phraseology, "the development of new functional brain areas that perform
functions acquired through experience" (p. 195). A similar conclusion is
supported by Petersson and Reis's chapter comparing responses to verbal
tasks of middle-aged women who did or did not attend school as youngsters
decades earlier.

[image: Cole, Michael S-1 #10] <javascript:showCitation('Cole,
Michael','Book Reviews','PsycCRITIQUES','52, No. 9','Article
9','Initial','10')>An important task confronting this line of research is to
determine in more detail the generality of the observed effects: Do the
effects of learning to read and write extend beyond the development of
highly specialized systems for analyzing words (or numbers?). Or, as is the
case with acquisition of expertise in use of the abacus, are the effects
highly specific to their corresponding tasks? Some degree of generality is
to be expected at the behavioral level, if only because reading, writing,
and numeracy are components of a variety of cultural practices to which they
can make important adaptive contributions (children who master calculation
on an abacus also perform better on some arithmetic problem-solving tasks
because the calculational part of the task has been automated so that they
can devote less attention to it). Something of the same effect ought to be
expected in relation to the brain consequences of literacy and numeracy, but
so far the evidence is lacking.

[image: Cole, Michael S-1 #11] <javascript:showCitation('Cole,
Michael','Book Reviews','PsycCRITIQUES','52, No. 9','Article
9','Initial','11')>In this regard I found especially interesting Vitouch's
evidence that high levels of musical training may result not only in changes
in brain architecture but also in changes with wide-ranging effects in the
domain of music. It is not only that skilled violin players show changed
architecture for brain regions subsuming the fingers of the right (not the
left) hand, but also that people who have undergone extensive musical
training may well undergo generalized changes in aesthetic experience
(associated with music, to be sure).

[image: Cole, Michael S-1 #12] <javascript:showCitation('Cole,
Michael','Book Reviews','PsycCRITIQUES','52, No. 9','Article
9','Initial','12')>These are only a few of the fascinating phenomena and
important challenges to psychological science presented in this important
book. *Lifespan Development and the Brain* should be required reading for a
broad range of psychologists well beyond the devotees of life-span
developmental psychology or the study of the causal mechanisms of
brain-behavior relationships. It is perhaps the first book of its kind to
deliver on the longstanding promise that by combining the study of phylogeny
with the careful study of the organization of people's activities in
everyday life, psychology actually overcomes the false dichotomy of nature
versus nurture in fact as well as in words.

Battro, A. M. (2000). *Half a brain is enough.* New York: Cambridge
University Press.

Geertz, C. (1973). *The interpretation of cultures.* New York: Basic Books.

Gesell, A. (1945). *The embryology of behavior.* New York: Harper & Row.

Rosenzweig, M. R., & Bennett, E. L. (1996). Psychobiology of plasticity:
Effects of training and experience on brain and behavior. *Behavioral Brain
Research*, *78*, 57-65.
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