Friday, December 29, 2006

Irreducible Complexity

In Darwin’s Black Box, Michael Behe argues that the evolutionary process cannot be completely explained by the principle of natural selection, reliant as it is on the preservation of tiny, individual changes, each of which confers a survival advantage. Natural selection works well to explain the giraffe’s neck: generation after generation, the longer-necked giraffes were able to survive by eating leaves from the tops of trees while the shorter-necked giraffes perished without passing on their genes; gradually, over thousands of years, the giraffe’s neck evolved to its current prodigious length. But what about the eye? Behe describes structures like the eye as "irreducibly complex": in order for an eye to come into existence, thousands of factors must fall into place simultaneously, and none of these factors is individually advantageous.

Before you run away, I promise I’m not going to delve into the debate on evolution vs. intelligent design; but I have been reminded of Behe’s argument lately as I worry about the difficulties the Bub may encounter when it comes time for him to learn skills that are "irreducibly complex."


The Bub is not a big fan of new information. He enjoys displaying his existing store of knowledge, but he resists any parental attempt to input new ideas. "No help!" he shouted the other night, pushing hubby’s hand away furiously. Bub was in the bath, trying to fill a watering can so he could dump the water over the Pie’s head. (She takes remarkably well to this game, blinking dazedly as the cascade of water rushes over her. The enthusiastic shouts of, "The Pie is soaked!" have clearly brainwashed her into believing this to be a fun activity.) Bub pressed down the watering can, waiting for it to fill, but the water level in the tub was a bit lower than usual, so nothing happened – the opening at the top sat high and dry, a few millimetres above water level. "Side then up!" hubby coached, but Bub was having none of his help.

In situations like that, the only strategy is to sneak the knowledge into the Bub. You can’t show or tell him how to do something – even something he is trying very hard to do. But sometimes you can trick him into solving the problem himself, get him past that barrier where your help turns into his knowledge. Five minutes later, Bub was happily soaking his sister, chanting "Side then up!" as if he had discovered the principle all by himself.

Bub’s language acquisition has occurred in much the same way, one tiny breakthrough at a time. I’ve even had some success, in the last few days, showing him how to use an Aquadoodle and a Viewmaster, activities that involve at most a two-step process before the big pay-off (look, then slide; dip, then colour). The Three Little Pigs game he got for Christmas has been less of a hit: by the time we select the right key to open the little door, Bub is wholly unwilling to be shown how to insert it in the lock and turn it in the right direction.

I feel confident that I can teach Bub anything, so long as I can break it down into small steps, sneaking the knowledge into him one tiny piece at a time, tricking him into believing in his own competence. But what about larger tasks – the kind that do not yield a sense of accomplishment until several steps can be combined successfully? What about those structures of knowledge that are irreducibly complex?

18 comments:

Beck said...

Michael Behe! Now I'm all excited. Moving on....
Great post - it brought tears to my eyes.
I wrote a very, very long comment here, realized that I was going into multiple paragraphs, so I'll just write about it at my site.

Joker The Lurcher said...

we had the little pig toy for our son - he eventually got it all at once. he has always done things like this - carefully taking in skills without it being obvious, then doing whatever it is immediately with very little practice. n as a young child he would say "i can manage!" if you tried to help him, even if he obviously was finding something tough. but some skills seemed inate!

Andrea said...

OT--Michael Behe is wrong. There's plenty of evolutionary evidence for the development of eyes, which started out as patches of light-sensitive tissue, letting organisms know from which direction the light was coming. IN fact, only evolution can explain the very poor design of human eyeballs, since if you were putting one together from scratch, the order of the pupils/iris/retina would be completely different and we wouldn't have blind spots. There are even organisms around which have those vestigial eyes, little bits of light-sensitive tissue.

Not OT--nothing is irreducibly complex. Lots of things look that way, when you look at them as a single, accomplished piece--like eyeballs--but like eyeballs, they were all put together little bit by little bit, and it might take some people longer than others to put all the little bits together, but we all go through the same process in the end.

I understand your worry--I feel that way about Frances, though for different reasons. How will she ride a bicycle or drive a car, when they're all built for people much larger than she'll ever be? What about cooking, when she can't reach the counter? What about using the lightswitch? She'll be thirteen before she can reach it. And sometimes the barriers seem insurmountable. But they're not. There are millions of dwarfs in teh world doing all of these things every day and they're no big deal. I've learned to trust (most of the time) that what seems horribly complicated now, when the time comes, will be ok. Other people who have gone down that road will give us the secret map.

There are secret maps for Bub, too. And there are people out there who will help you find them.

jen said...

what a thoughtful, eloquent, and wonderful mom you are. and i love the idea of finding the hidden maps Andrea speaks of. because it's your path, yours and theirs.

Antique Mommy said...

What a precious little boy you have. I love your approach in minimizing his challenges and maximizing his potential. Separately, I find that most men need to believe all ideas are their own.

owlhaven said...

This is great that he CAN gradually work through things and figure them out. One of my adopted children took a year to settle in and get well bonded. Hugs from him feel extra precious, because of the struggle we had to get here.

Mary, mom to many

crazymumma said...

And how irreducibly complex he is in all of his beauty.

As to your question? Time, patience and reaching out for any help you may feel you need might be part of an answer.

He is blessed to have a parent such as you...

Lady M said...

Such a thoughtful post. It's wonderful that you and your husband have figured out a way to help him learn and feel accomplished with each step.

mamatulip said...

There is a reason why you are his mother. You are in each other's lives for a reason. He will teach you and you will teach him, and you will learn from one another, each in your own way.

Mad Hatter said...

I think there must be something stunningly complex about choosing to acquire knowledge without instruction. It must be fascinating watching the paths he discovers to all the multitude of truths. This for me is one of the boggling glories of any toddler. Their minds arrive at knowledge in fresh ways. It sounds as if Bub's ways of knowing are about as fresh as they come.

Mimi said...

Every kid I have ever known has amazed me with a capacity to discover what strikes me, as an adult with hindsight and foresight and the capacity to read and to intellectualize and abstract, as frighteningly complex skills by play, by chance, by rote, by luck. I think this kind of learning happens how and when it happens? And you take your chances where you can, and enjoy watching The Pie get soaked?

Jenifer G. said...

It has been a while I know! Before I forget I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and best wishes for a wonderful New Year! We celebrated not only Christmas but Papoosie Girl's b-day yesterday with a heavy heart as a beloved Uncle (my Godfather actually) passed away suddenly December 21. This was such a strange week for us we are all still trying to sort ourselves out.

While I gather my thoughts I have been getting caught up on your last posts. I don't even know what to say. Just when I think I have read the best more keeps coming.

I will keep my comments short but to say the least I learn something each and every time I read your posts. Sometimes it is a book I have not had time to read or some little truth about being a parent I am so glad you shared.

Your writing lifts my spirits, makes me smarter (!), and makes my day brighter.

Last, sounds like Bub is in very capable hands. You are both learning the magic keys that will open all the doors-for both of you.

nomotherearth said...

Did I not post a comment? Huh. I sure thought I did. Anyhow, you know that I loved your post and how much it made me stop and think (you read mine after all...). I wanted to add, though, how beautiful the pictures are. You know how to capture a moment in images as well. I am such a fan!

Girl con Queso said...

I love the Bub. I think he rocks. And I love what Mad Hatter said. The Bub finds his own way. And I think that's fantastic.

Kyla said...

Bub sure is handsome. I think that Bub will be able to learn about anything, even those things that are irredibly complex. He has such a drive to learn, it seems, that even if he does it in a completely radical way, he'll figure it out. He'll probably on his own with just a bit of scaffolding from someone who knows how to speak his language, someone like you.

Jenifer said...

Bub is too cute for words!

And I also think that dumping water over Pie's head is pretty funny :)

Sandra said...

You never cease to amaze me with your stunning intellect and exceptional parenting philosophy. I think we could all learn alot from you ... and just as much from the beautiful Bub. Great post. Happy New Year to you my friend!

Jaelithe said...

You know, some of your stories about Bub remind me so much of myself when I was a very young child. I was a smart kid, but physically a bit clumsy, and so sometimes I had a hard time picking up new skills, like, say, tying my shoes. But I sensitive, and stubborn, and independent, and proud, and I hated being shown what to do, especially if it took multiple lessons for me to figure something out. I wanted to figure everything out on my own, without help. I thought that asking my parents for help, especially with something I was having a hard time figuring out, was shamefully admitting my own failure.

What happened with me is that I DID figure most things out on my own, eventually. Including, eventually, the fact that it was much smarter and more efficient to ask someone knowledgeable for help learning how to do things than it is to always insist on doing everything oneself ;) I have faith that Bub will, too.