Cognative Development: Therories of Locke and Descartes

Topics: Nature versus nurture, Psychology, Twin study Pages: 7 (2328 words) Published: January 23, 2006
When it comes to cognitive development, several theories have been put forth by many different philosophers, psychologists, and other scientists. The two most significant theories, which were first explored by the Greeks, were later debated between John Locke, and Rene Descartes. John Locke, a seventeenth-century English philosopher, argued against the belief that human beings are born with certain ideas already in their minds. He claimed that, on the contrary, the mind is a tabula rasa (in Latin, a "blank slate") until experience begins to "write" on it. He was quoted in saying: "the human mind begins as a white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas." (The Blank Slate, n.d.)

However, according to René Descartes, a seventeenth-century philosopher, physicist, physiologist, and mathematician, "a clear and distinct knowledge of the world can be constructed from resources innate to the human mind."(The Blank Slate, n.d.) In other words, an infant's mind is not simply a tablet waiting to receive a blueprint for whatever we want the child to become. Rather, the infant enters the world as a highly complex being with an agenda already mapped out by its genes.

These arguments boil down to one debate that has been going on for centuries. The most common name for this debate is "nature verses nurture." Are our destinies determined by our genetic code, or are we able to design our own outcomes? Many types of research and several studies have been done to explain both sides of this on-going conundrum.

One of the best studies on the side of Locke's "blank slate theory" is that of the study of feral children. The best-known story of feral children is that of two girls, Amala and Kamala, who were raised by a she-wolf. In 1920, Reverend J. A. L. Singh saw a mother wolf and cubs, two of which had long, matted hair and looked human. After considerable preparation and difficulties, the two human creatures were captured. They turned out to be two girls whose ages were assessed by Singh at about eight years and one and a half years respectively.

The "creatures" were taken to an orphanage in Mindapore, India, where the Reverend and his wife were stationed. Singh described them as "wolfish" in appearance and behavior. They walked on all fours and had calluses on their knees and palms from doing so. They were fond of raw meat and stole it when the occasion presented itself. They licked all liquids with their tongues and ate their food in a crouched position. Their tongues permanently hung out of their thick, red lips, and they panted as if they were dogs. They never slept after midnight and prowled and howled at night. They could move very fast, and it was difficult to overtake them. They shunned human society altogether. If approached, they made faces and sometimes bared their teeth. Their hearing was very acute and they could smell meat at a great distance. Furthermore, while they could not see well during the day, they could orientate themselves very well at night.

There are many other stories of feral children in the literature, amongst others the story of a boy who lived in Syria, who ate grass and could leap like an antelope, as well as of a girl, who lived in the forests in Indonesia for six years after she had fallen into a river. Possibly being raised by several animals, she walked like an ape, and her teeth were as sharp as a razor.

These stories do far more than just to confirm the important role of education. They actually show that a human being must be educated to be become a human being at all. (Feral Children, n.d.) If one came into this world with preconceived notions of "being human," wouldn't feral children know not to act like animals? Only with the principal of the "blank slate" along with the idea of nurturing could this type of life be possible for a human. A bear does not have to learn to be a bear; he simply is one. A duck needs no lessons in duckmanship (yes, I made that word...

References: Nature vs. Nurture. Planet Psych Retrieved December 17, 2005, from the World Wide Web:
Segal, Nancy L., Ph.D. (1999) "New Twin Studies Show..." Psychology Today
54-59 and 69-70
Douglas Keith Candland. Feral Children and Clever Animals. Retrieved December 18th, 2005 from
Unknown Author. The Blank Slate Retrieved December 18th, 2005 from
Hamer, Dean, and Peter Copland. (1998) Living with Our Genes: Why They Matter More Than You Think. New York: Doubleday
Myers, David G. (2005). Exploring Psychology (6th ed.) New York: Worth Publishers
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