paul_bloom's picture
Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science, Yale University; Author, Against Empathy

Everything Is The Way It Is Because It Got That Way

This aphorism is attributed to the biologist and classicist D'Arcy Thompson, and it's an elegant summary of how Thompson sought to explain the shapes of things, from jellyfish to sand dunes to elephant tusks. I saw this quoted first in an Edge discussion by Daniel Dennett, who made the point that this insight applies to explanation more generally—all sciences are, to at least some extent, historical sciences. 

I think it's a perfect motto for my own field of developmental psychology. Every adult mind has two histories. There is evolution. Few would doubt that some of the most elegant and persuasive explanations in psychology appeal to the constructive process of natural selection. And there is development—how our minds unfold over time, the processes of maturation and learning. 

While evolutionary explanations work best for explaining what humans share, development can sometimes capture how we differ. This can be obvious: Nobody is surprised to hear that adults who are fluent in Korean have usually been exposed to Korean when they were children or that adults who practice Judaism have usually been raised as Jews. But other developmental explanations are rather interesting.

There is evidence that an adult's inability to see in stereo is due to poor vision during a critical period in childhood. Some have argued that the self-confidence of adult males is influenced by how young they were when they reached puberty (because of the boost in status caused by being bigger, even if temporarily, than their peers). It's been claimed that smarter adults are more likely to be firstborns (because later children find themselves in environments that are, on average, less intellectually sophisticated). Creative adults are more likely to be later-borns (because they were forced to find their own distinctive niches.) Romantic attachments in adults are influenced by their relationships as children with their parents. A man's pain-sensitivity later in life is influenced by whether or not he was circumcised as a baby.

With the exception of the stereo-vision example, I don't know if any of these explanations are true. But they are elegant and non-obvious, and some of them verge on beautiful.