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Showing posts tagged cognitive science



I blogged about this video ages ago because I’m a bit of a linguistics nerd, and a fan of Steven Pinker on linguistic and cognitive science issues (let’s not get into his problematic views on evolutionary psychology and the like). He describes three “relationship types” common to people across all cultures (you can jump to 3:35 to get to the start of that part): Dominance, Communality, and Reciprocity. Mostly, he’s concerned with how we use different verbal strategies, such as politeness, to navigate between these relationship types.

A few months after posting this, I was reading David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years, and noticed that he seemed to be talking about much the same thing. In chapter 5, “A Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Economic Relations” he sketches out an anthropological framework that consists of “three main moral principles on which economic relations can be founded:” Communism, Exchange, and Hierarchy.

Communism, by which Graeber means “any human relationship that operates on the principles of ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs,’” is simply a more economic-focused way of describing what Pinker calls communality. Dominance, of course, implies the existence of its opposite, submission, which together are hierarchy. The fit between Pinker’s reciprocity and Graeber’s exchange isn’t quite as perfect, but they do seem to be talking about much the same thing.

I find Graeber’s way of describing it more useful to applying these ideas to other aspects of life, politics, economics, etc. But this video’s useful to get the basic idea for those who haven’t read his book. Mainly, I’m putting this here so I can refer back to this basic framework when discussing things where I find it relevant.





But a scientific revolution that has taken place in the last decade or so illuminates a different way to address the dysfunctions associated with childhood hardship. This science suggests that many of these problems have roots earlier than is commonly understood—especially during the first two years of life. Researchers, including those of the Bucharest project, have shown how adversity during this period affects the brain, down to the level of DNA—establishing for the first time a causal connection between trouble in very early childhood and later in life. And they have also shown a way to prevent some of these problems—if action is taken during those crucial first two years.

The first two years, however, happen to be the period of a child’s life in which we invest the least. According to research by the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, children get about half as many taxpayer resources, per person, as do the elderly. And among children, the youngest get the least. The annual federal investment in elementary school kids approaches $11,000 per child. For infants and toddlers up to age two, it is just over $4,000. When it comes to early childhood, public policy is lagging far behind science—with disastrous consequences.

Jonathan Cohn in an article on new studies of early childhood development in The New Republic. Just one of the main ways our society keeps the same hierarchy in place from one generation to the next. The damage done to neglected children in the first two years of their lives is pretty much permanent. All the way down to the level of “telomeres, which are protective caps that sit on the ends of chromosomes” which are shorter in the cells of children who are neglected or abused early in life.


Steven Pinker explains why we ask someone if they’d like to come up and see our etchings, rather than just saying “hey, wanna fuck?” even though we all know that’s the whole point.

(Although, really, etchings? Is that what people say?)