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Starting in the 1980s, she carried out experiments on infants and young children to test their cognitive faculties. She has suggested that human beings have a large array of innate mental abilities. In recent years, she had an important role in the debate on cognitive differences between men and women. She defends the position that there is no scientific evidence of any significant disparity in the intellectual faculties of males and females.
Education and Career
Spelke did her undergraduate studies at Harvard with the child psychologist Jerome Kagan. Her thesis studied attachment and emotional reactions in babies. She realized that she needed to have an idea of what babies really understood, and so began her lifelong interest in the cognitive aspect of child psychology.
Her first academic post was at the University of Pennsylvania, where she worked for nine years. Thereafter she moved first to Cornell, and then to MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. Finally, she was offered a position at Harvard in 2001.
Spelke was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1997. She was the recipient of the 2009 Jean Nicod Prize and delivered a series of lectures in Paris hosted by the French National Centre for Scientific Research.
The kind of experiments carried out at the Laboratory of Developmental Studies try to infer the cognitive abilities of babies by using the method of preferential looking, developed by Robert Fantz. This consists of presenting babies with different images and deducing which one is more appealing to them by the length of time their attention fixes on them.
For example, researchers may repeatedly show a baby an image with a certain number of objects. Once the baby is habituated, they present a second image with more or fewer objects. If the baby looks at the new image for a longer time, the researchers may infer that the baby can distinguish different quantities.
Through an array of similar experiments, Spelke interpreted her evidence to suggest that babies have a set of highly sophisticated, innate mental skills. This provides an alternative to the hypothesis originated by William James that babies are born with no distinctive cognitive abilities but acquire them all through education and experience (see Principles of Psychology, 1890).
The debate on sex and intelligence
In 2005, Lawrence Summers, then Harvard president, speculated over the preponderance of men over women in high-end science and engineering positions. He surmised that a statistical difference in the variance of innate abilities among male and female populations (male variance tends to be higher, resulting in more extremes) could play a role. His words immediately sparked a heated debate. Spelke was among the strongest critics of Lawrence Summers and in April 2005 faced Steven Pinker in an open debate over the issue. She declared that her own experiments revealed no difference between the mental capacities of males and females.
- Spelke ES (2005). "Sex differences in intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science?: a critical review" (PDF). Am Psychol 60 (9): 950–8. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.9.950. PMID 16366817. Retrieved 2009-04-06.
- "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter S". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 7 April 2011.
- The New York Times, Jan 24, 2005 http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/24/science/24women.html?pagewanted=print&position=
- David Dobbs, Big Answers from Little People, Scientific American Mind, October 2005.
- Margaret Talbot, The baby lab, The New Yorker, Sep. 4, 2006
- Pinker vs. Spelke, The Science of Gender and Science
- Harvard faculty profile of Spelke
- Harvard lab profile of Spelke lab
- Edge.org profile of Spelke
- Video (and audio) of conversation discussing some of her research with Spelke and Joshua Knobe on Bloggingheads.tv