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Konstantin Tavrov

What's the point of babies?

They can't walk or talk or feed themselves, or fend off life's constant dangers. Some day, they will become fully functioning members of the human race, but in the meantime - a long, noisy and sleep-deprived meantime - they are entirely dependent on their doting, drowsy parents for survival.

This is the conundrum at the heart of The Philosophical Baby, a bracing new assessment of infancy by developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik that should compel grownups to look upon the youngest of the young with wonder and admiration.

Because it turns out that babies and small children are far more complicated and resourceful than almost any of us would give them credit for: While we're content to treat them as ingratiatingly cute but messy non-contributors, they're actually deep thinkers who've got a full-time job running complicated experiments on the puzzles of human existence.

"Why do we have childhood, this long period of protected immaturity?" asks Prof. Gopnik, an ex-Montrealer who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley (and is older sister to New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik).

"Because it gives you a chance to do all the learning you're going to need to succeed as an adult animal," she says.

Babies, psychologists now realize, are perpetual students of the world around them who don't deserve to be played down as defective adults or irrational little fantasists.

"Small children really are bad at planning and acting and focusing their attention," Prof. Gopnik concedes, "and that's made people think, 'Oh, they just can't act logically and rationally,' which is measuring them by our grownup standards.

And yes, babies and small children look pathetic when they have to do something like tie their shoes and get to school. But when you look at other kinds of abilities like doing complex multidimensional Bayesian inference, they're really with it."

Complex multidimensional Bayesian inference? Forgive a poor grownup for not having a clue what the professor is talking about. What this means is that babies can streamline learning and understanding by working out the probability of possibilities: From an early age, they use statistical calculation to establish hypotheses that help them choose likely possibilities. This, in effect, is their working model of adult life: Instead of always starting from scratch in a new situation, they unconsciously work out cause-and-effect likelihoods based on what they've learned from past events.

How do we know babies can do this? Prof. Gopnik cites an experiment that cognitive scientiest Fei Xu conducted at the University of British Columbia Nine-month-old babies were shown boxes containing a mix of red and white ping-pong balls, where one colour or the other predominated. Then the boxes were covered, and the experimenter pulled out a series of balls that were primarily one colour or the other. When the babies saw mostly red balls coming out of a mostly white box, or vice versa, they showed surprise and looked longer at the experimenter.

"This is really interesting," Prof. Gopnik says, "because while it's something that could possibly happen, it's statistically unlikely. So babies at this young age already seem to be sensitive to the statistics of what's going on around them. Human beings have this capacity to make complicated societies with all kinds of different ways that people function. So babies have to be able to figure out how people around them work, and statistical inference is a powerful way of doing that."

Primatologists like to refer to this kind of understanding, and the calculated behaviour that flows from it, as Machiavellian intelligence: scoping people out and getting them to do what we want. In humans, Prof. Gopnik says, this can't just be built in genetically because our social structures are too complex and individuals can be highly different from one another.

"So figuring out, how does this community work, what kinds of bribes and threats do I have to use with this particular person, is a really powerful thing to be able to do."

Babies put this ability into constant practice by carefully studying their caregivers' reactions, conducting experimental sessions with dolls, action figures and imaginary friends, or engaging in play that is more about making discoveries and sorting out puzzles than about passing the time in a non-productive, childlike way - the traditional adult view.

"What we think of as play," Prof. Gopnik says, "turns out to be an experimental strategy children are using to figure out what's going on around them. So when we let children play, we're giving them the chance to learn in a way that's much more profound than having them recognize a letter on a flash card. When we adults, being goal-directed creatures, hear that babies can learn so much, we often think, 'Oh, we should teach them more.' But the result is we treat children's learning as if it were the kind of thing that's done in school, that we do as adults. And I think that's completely counterproductive."

If we truly want to understand the baby's experience of learning, she says, we should draw on parallel experiences in adulthood. "When you travel to a foreign place, you get overwhelmed with new information and you find yourself going back into that very vivid childlike consciousness. So you remember more from three days in Beijing than six months of zombie life in Toronto."

Non-human animals, of course, also have to confront a world that's constantly new and then devise a way to fit in. "But the really striking thing about human babies," Prof. Gopnik says, "is that they're figuring out all sorts of things whether they know they're going to be useful or not. Because they've got this long period of immaturity, where they don't have to mate or fight off predators, all they do is learn."

Far from being big-headed blobs, babies are more like the pure thinkers of research labs who recognize that the best discoveries in the long run start with the insights that may seem to be of no immediate practical use.

"I like to see children as the R&D department of the human species," Prof. Gopnik says, "while grownups are production and marketing. They're the ones who get to do blue-sky speculation and we take all those things they learned - that is, that we learned when we were little - and put them to use."