How does a developmental systems approach differ from more traditional cognitive approaches to child development? What are the strengths and weaknesses of such an approach? What would be the major challenges involved in modelling culture as a dynamic, developmental system?
A typical cognitivist/nativist approach effectively holds the environment constant, and asks how our brains are innately adapted to process invariant features of that environment. In cognitive developmental psychology, this means asking at what age children's innately specified, domain-specific "programs" or "modules" start to come online and affect their behaviour. Developmental systems theorists take a more dynamic (in the mathematical sense) approach, arguing that infants (and other animals) actively shape the environment that they experience through their interactions with it, and that this provides a feedback loop to brain development, which can make the nature of what is "innately specified" look more complex than it actually is. The classic example is Gottlieb's experiments on chick embryos: chicks are not genetically pre-programmed to discriminate between the noises of chickens and other birds, but instead possess a more general disposition to follow noises that are familiar - i.e., noises that they heard while they were in the egg - including noises that they themselves made.
One of the strengths of this approach is clearly that it is, in some sense, a fuller description of reality: it is unrealistic to posit a static, unchanging environment that is unaffected by the actions of the individual and its conspecifics - especially in a species like humans whose environment is so massively determined by cultural factors. Developmental systems theory is also much more compatible with the constructivist (Piaget) and social constructivist (Vygotsky) theories of development that still hold sway in mainstream developmental and educational psychology, in which the child (or the child in interaction with society) is seen as actively constructing its own knowledge of the world, rather than simply inheriting it. There are also obvious links with sophisticated dual inheritance theories in evolutionary biology, such as niche constructionism. On the other hand, actually modelling how developmental systems work is probably going to be impossible without a lot of rather tricky mathematics; and because the systems are so complex, it is hard to generate easily testable predictions. In contrast, cognitive developmental psychology is much more productive: one can simply posit some innate program for interpreting the environment, and test whether it is present at a given age.
The challenges ... well where do I start ... actually that is one of the main problems! Given the presuppositions of evolutionary psychology, it is easy to come up with adaptive problems that our ancestors might have faced, and carve up our minds into a set of discrete modules - or at least domain-specific heuristics - accordingly. If, on the other hand, we say that culture has been around for a long time and has been developing in tandem with human biology, it becomes much harder to work out exactly what is cause and what is effect, and how to carve up both culture and psychology. One way to start - and this is completely off the cuff here - might be to look at something like Donald Brown's (1991) list of human universals, and try to work out in what ways these might have affected the cognitive environment that human children grow up in and are adapted to, as well as how the universals themselves might be adaptive for human populations.
A slightly different approach is Boyd & Richerson's "first principles" style of cultural modelling, which we'll go into in Week 3.
Gonzalo reminded us that despite some of the rhetoric of people like Lickliter, we can't entirely get away from the role of genes in development: raising a chicken, or even a bonobo, in a human-typical environment will not give it human-typical abilities! I suggested that there might be an analogy between genes as long-term stores of information and the kind of role that is played by explicit norms of behaviour and other traditional elements of culture.
If growing up in a species-typical environment is so important for "normal" development, it is important - and a bit scary! - to think about the ways in which "Western" culture may depart from this species-typical environment. For example, could the lack of freely-engaged-in social interactions with peers be behind the recent surge in disorders like Asperger's Syndrome and ADHD?
I highly recommend the Karmiloff-Smith (1992) book for anyone who is still a bit confused about domains and modules, and who (like me) would like to seek a middle way between nativism and constructivism. Her concepts of modularization (rather than innate modularity) representational redescription seem very promising in that regard. I know that her book is getting a bit old now, and has been cited very frequently, so I will try to find out in what ways her theoretical program has been advanced over the last few years.