Human Infancy
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Human Infancy

An Evolutionary Perspective

Daniel G. Freedman

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Human Infancy

An Evolutionary Perspective

Daniel G. Freedman

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Originally published in 1974, this volume is primarily devoted to what is known about human infancy from an ethological, evolutionary viewpoint. Included are discussions of pan-specific traits, presumably shared by all infants; individual genetic variations on these behaviours (as judged by twin-studies); sex differences, presumably shared by infants of all ethnic groups; and genetically based ethnic differences. However, the author favours neither biological determinism nor cultural determinism, and does not consider 'interactionism' to be a viable solution. Instead, a monistic position is taken, stressing the inseparability of the innate and the acquired, of genetics and environment, and of biology and culture.

The heredity-environment issue is tackled head-on throughout the volume. The interaction between the two (an implied dualism) is described as a statistical abstraction from measured populations, while the position here is that heredity and environment are not separable in any single organism. In the same vein, the author argues that on logical grounds everything one does, every 'cultural' act, has within it some biological component.

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A book on infancy cannot exclude reference to parents, to siblings, to culture, to nutrition, to phylogeny, and ultimately, to the entire context into which the infant is born. Thus any modern approach is necessarily a holistic one. That is, it is assumed at the outset that no simple “cause and effect” logic can adequately deal with the phenomena of infancy, and that biological reality always involves the whole organism-in-environment complex.
Since, however, we must necessarily focus on one or another phenomenon, we frequently will have to relinquish our interest in context, however temporarily. To use the figure-ground analogy, a phenomenon that is central to one discussion may be relegated to part of the background as another item becomes central. That is, there are no “primary” phenomena in biology, only temporarily salient ones. While not as neat as a linear cause and effect model, this ebb and flow is, for better or worse, a reasonable approximation of the way biological phenomena work. To quote a pioneer of the holistic approach, Kurt Goldstein (1963b):

 With our holistic approach, we are faced with a very difficult epistemological problem. For us there is no doubt that the atomistic method is the only legitimate scientific procedure for gaining facts. Knowledge of human nature has to be based on phenomena disclosed in this way. But is it possible to proceed from material gained by the use of this method to a science of the organism as a whole, to a science of the nature of man?
If the organism were a sum of parts which one could study separately, there would be no difficulty in combining the parts to form a science of the whole. But all attempts to understand the organism as a whole directly from these phenomena have met with very little success. They have not been successful, we may conclude, because the organism is not such a sum of parts.
Holism does not try to construct the architecture of the organism by a mere addition of brick to brick; rather it tries to discover the actual Gestalt of the intrinsic structure of this building, a Gestalt through which some phenomena may be intelligible as belonging to a unitary, ordered, relatively constant formation of a specific structure, and other phenomena may become intelligible as not belonging to it.
We can arrive at this only by using a special procedure of cognition—a form of creative activity by which we build a picture of the organism on the basis of the facts gained through the analytic method, in a form of ideation similar to the procedure of an artist. It is a sort of ideation, however, which springs ever again from the empirical facts, and never fails to be grounded in and substantiated by them [p. 9].
It follows from the holistic position that one eschews explanatory systems based on a division of life processes into parts, such as heredity vs. environment, or culture vs. biology. Our major theoretical point throughout is that phylogeny, our evolutionary history if one will, has fashioned a balance between organism and environment so that all the human animal does is based on a marriage of cultural practice and biological predisposition.
Even where it may appear that culture is the sole architect as in differences in the mode of transport of newborn infants, it will be shown (Chapter 5) that biological traits also play a substantial role. In other words, our position is that neither “biology” nor “environment” means anything without the other.
It should be noted that this is not an interactionist position, since interaction implies that biology and environment are separable entities which come together at an interface and affect one another. As we shall see in Chapter 4, only when used as a statistical description of populations can one speak of interaction between environment and heredity; and it is used there as a formal property of a mathematical formula and not as a description of life processes within individuals. Instead, we have here taken a monistic position (which follows directly from holism), in which biology and environment are participating in a single life-process. While it is not at once clear what advantage such a position has over interaction, it at least appears to be more logically defensible, as the next section should illustrate.
It has been said by the Zen scholar, Suzuki, that “innate vs. acquired” is a man-made problem and that man, having divided life into two parts, is now harassed with the problem of fitting them together again.
If one examines carefully the use of the innate-acquired dichotomy, it would appear that Suzuki is right. The famous phenomenon known as “imprinting” (cf. Lorenz, 1935) will provide a good illustration. Briefly, imprinting involves the tendency of newly hatched precocial birds, such as ducklings, to follow closely and to become intensely attached to the parent, or to the human caretaker in the case of experimental imprinting. While all would agree that this phenomenon is extremely important for the survival of ducklings, for in this way they achieve the constant care and guidance of the parent, is such imprinting innate (unlearned) or acquired (learned)?
If this question is pursued we soon get into a logical problem, since it appears that imprinting is an “unlearned capacity to learn.” That is, the ability to learn quickly whom to follow is considered an innate structure, whereas the learning per se is presumably without structure. Needless to say, there is no actual or logical boundary separating structure and learning in the imprinting process, for learning itself must have a material or structural basis. The dichotomy, then, is less than helpful for it is misleading.
Instead of posing a dichotomized process, it makes considerable sense, when dealing with complex behavior like imprinting, to speak of an “evolved” capacity to imprint. Evolved refers only to the fact that imprinting has a clearly perceived adaptive function, but does not suggest opposition to “acquired” as does “innate.” It simply designates probable phylogenetic origin of the entire process.
Thus, when we hereafter refer to evolved or phylogenetically adaptive behavior, we will be designating a behavioral unit that has probably been produced by the evolutionary process in much the same way that physical or biochemical characteristics of the species have been produced. We will not offer an analysis of the complex interaction of gene and environment that went into the development of the behavior in question even as we do not make such analyses in speaking of a physical characteristic, such as the pink color of the flamingo. This color is properly discussed as an adaptive characteristic of the species even though experiment has shown it is only expressed under particular nutritive conditions. In the same way, a particular behavior is properly examined from the evolutionary or ecological viewpoint as an evolved unit whether or not the particular genetic and environmental interaction necessary for its expression has been analyzed, or whether or not learning plays a role in its expression.
Learning and phylogeny must, of course, be completely interrelated in that each species learns to do a different set of tasks easily and well: Human children all can learn to speak, all chimps can learn to build tree shelters, all cats can learn to stalk, and such talents are rarely interchangeable between species. One can therefore speak of inherited thresholds or pathways of learning which were developed over the history of the species.
In very broad phyletic perspective, it may be looked at this way: As we go from simple to more complex organisms on the phylogenetic scale there is greater and greater independence from the environment and more complex homeostatic mechanisms with which to maintain this independence. From the pre-cellular co-ascervates of three billion years ago, which were completely immersed in their surroundings, to the cell with its selective membrane, through passive ocean feeders, through active ocean hunters with their bony jaws, amphibians, homeotherms, mammals, through man, there has been a steady progression in self-sufficiency. The increasing role of learning has certainly been a concomitant trend, and man’s ability to plan for the future and to take cognizance of the past in such planning, may well be viewed as the current culmination of this phyletic progression. Thus, learning itself must be considered an important product of natural selection—as a sort of mechanism of homeostasis which has served to increase fitness (Lewontin, 1951), and as having species-specific characteristics.
In general, the dichotomization of life processes into acquired and innate, environmental and biological, learned and unlearned, is misleading and produces more problems than it solves.
The Issue of Causal Mechanism in Biology
Much has been written about science as a false god, and these attacks have been largely directed at unfounded claims for causal mechanisms in biology. The fact is that only when things go wrong in biological systems can we find the cause, as, for example, in successful medical research. But attempts at causal explanation for normally organized biological systems usually end in circularity.
For example, the substance deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is said to contain the Bauplan, or genetic code, of the organism-to-be, and some have implied that when we fully understand coded DNA we will simultaneously understand the cause of life. But where does DNA itself come from? We know that for its production an enzyme, DNA polymerase, is required. But the production of this enzyme is perforce dependent on DNA, and the only way out of this circle is to hold that “natural selection” has somehow accomplished this.
Mutation of genes is similarly problematic as a causal mechanism. Mutation is frequently pointed to as the ultimate cause of biological variation, and many biologists consider mutations as random events out of which organization of genetical material has emerged. Unfortunately for this theory, random mutation is nowhere to be observed. It appears instead that genetic systems permit mutations where it may do good, and do not permit it where it may do harm. That is, there are “hot” spots and “cold” spots on chromosomes, so that genes mutate at different rates and some not at all (cf. Stern, 1960). It appears that some traits are “safely” varied and others not, and that mutation rates themselves have been subject to natural selection (Crow, 1961). Thus we have a situation in which a mechanism of natural selection was brought about by natural selection.
Yet a third example involves embryological development. C. H. Waddington, having begun his work in Spemann’s laboratories in the 1920’s, was fascinated by Spemann’s discovery of an “organizing center” into which streamed random cells and out of which emerged organized cellular patterns. But as he continued his search for a single organizing substance, Waddington found instead that even inert chemicals, such as methylene blue, could evoke a certain degree of organization. He came to the reluctant conclusion that there is a “readiness” in cells to become organized, and that activation and readiness were, so to speak, two sides of the same coin (Waddington, 1962). Again, what started as a search for a causal agency, ended in a series of circular concepts.
The behavioral sciences are not immune to this problem, and the weakest aspect of psychoanalytic theory, for example, is that it is constructed in the form of a linear model in which early events determine later character and personality (Bowlby, 1969).
The disappointment in causal, linear thinking has thus been profound, and cybernetic or feedback models may be seen as attempts to grapple with this issue. In the next section, we discuss one such model.
One of the consequences of present-day sophistication in the behavioral sciences is that we realize that there are no independent behavioral systems, and that everything is to some extent related to everything else. The very act of verbalizing this situation with regard to any bit of behavior has therefore become a serious problem. One recent attempt at its solution is systems-theory, especially as presented by Bowlby (1969).
Systems-theory is actually modified cybernetics (Wiener, 1948) and is based on the feedback model. As applied to human social behavior, the elements of the feedback schema are individuals within a relationship, as in a courting pair, a mother and baby, a nuclear family, or, for that matter, a village hierarchy. The advantage of this approach is that it calls for the simultaneous consideration of all actors. For example, in the mother-infant pair, the dyad is the unit of interest. Each is seen as a participant in a complex system of growth, with sufficient “phyletic preprogramming” to enable each to adapt to the other.
Thus while the infant is helpless, the parent is most helping, and as the infant’s capacity enlarges, the normal parent adjusts so that its growth is constantly facilitated. During the reckless courage of toddlerhood, for example, parental authority and anger act as a protective brake. Then, as the child matures, the net species-wide pattern is of a youngster who gradually achieves greater autonomy and of caretakers who reciprocally relinquish their hold. We can therefore speak of the parent-child system, and thus the term systems-theory.
The systems-theory scheme for dealing with “instinctive” behavior can be most helpful since it appears to provide a language congenial to mechanistic or inductive scientists while acknowledging the holistic nature of biological processes. In this scheme behavior in its most primitive form is based on reflexive reaction, such as the eyeblink to dust, or the hungry infant’s rooting to pressure on the cheek. In order to accomplish more complex necessities, however, such as courtship, mating, and nest-building, chains of reflexes have evolved. Building a nest for a canary, for example, has been analyzed by Hinde (1965) into distinct units of behavior, each depending on the successful expression of the foregoing unit for its own proper expression. Any break in the reflex-chain as necessitated, for example, by the absence of appropriate nest-building materials, may cause the whole chain to collapse.
However, in the nest-building of other birds a more advanced modality is exhibited, and in the raven (Thorpe, 1963) we may speak of nest-building as a set-goal. It differs from the reflex-chain in that only the goal is constant. In the absence of the preferred nesting materials, for example, nest-building is not halted, but a make-do nest is executed out of those materials that are available. As may be surmised, set-goals and not chained reflexes typify mammalian behavior. Courtship among mammals, for example, is not conducted via a series of chained innate responses in the male and a coordinated series in the female, as in stickleback fish (Baerends & Baerends, 1950). Rather, the precise interactions in courtship are not preordained and only the set-goal of attachment and mating remains invariable.
In man, variability in attainment of set-goals is furthered by his ability to engage in abstract thought. This involves the ability to plan for the future, take account of the past, and act “as if” something were true (Goldstein & Sheerer, 1941). As Cassirer (1944) has pointed out, language usage is completely intertwined with this ability. In man, then, the term plan is introduced to represent a development beyond the set-goal.
Bowlby (1969) has also introduced the phrase “environment of evolutionary adaptedness.” By this is meant the environment to which a species has become adapted over its phylogenetic history. In this way he emphasizes that evolutionary developments lie as much in the environment as they do in the organism. To use an ecological example, the grass of the African plains is as much a product of ungulate hooves, eating, and defecation as the hooves and alimentary activities are due to the available grassy plains. Each evolved in terms of the other (Bateson, 1972). And so it must be with hominid adaptations. In Chapter 2, for example, we will see that the human infant’s behavioral repertoire is as much a product of the capabilities of human parents as parental behaving is a response to human infancy.
The environment of evolutionary adaptedness, then, is the environment to which living things are especially attuned since survival in the past has required this. The usual innate-acquired dualism is avoided since in this approach “instinct” means readiness of response to the particular set of circumstances that make up the environment of “evolutionary adaptedness”: and organism and environment are here two aspects of a single schema.
While systems-theory terminology will be used only occasionally, its congeniality with our preceding discussion should be apparent; additionally, the treatment of the adult-infant dyad as a system should be noticeable throughout the book.
When we speak of an evolutionary perspective in child development, what precisely do we mean, and in what way is this an improvement over more traditional psychological approaches? The contrast in approaches has been called by Mayr (1963) the typological vs. population approach; that is, the approach that has as a basic unit the individual (typological) vs. the approach that considers the basic unit as the deme, or breeding population. The consequences of taking one position or the other are considerable, as we shall se...


  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright Page
  5. Original Copyright Page
  6. Table of Contents
  7. Acknowledgements
  16. Author Index
  17. Subject Index
Zitierstile fĂŒr Human Infancy

APA 6 Citation

Freedman, D. (2016). Human Infancy (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2016)

Chicago Citation

Freedman, Daniel. (2016) 2016. Human Infancy. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.

Harvard Citation

Freedman, D. (2016) Human Infancy. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Freedman, Daniel. Human Infancy. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.