Directors: Antonio M. Battro and Kurt W. Fischer
Program officer: María Lourdes Majdalani
Babies, books and Bellini
Cultural evolution has vastly outpaced biological evolution. A baby born into this situation would flounder if it were not for a remarkable quality of the brain – plasticity – and a key institution – schools. The brain is fundamentally adaptive such that culture is a vital ingredient in its development. Babies are born with biological predispositions, and these basic abilities are gradually built upon through interaction with the world around them. For example, babies are born with a biological predisposition for language. As they listen to storybooks and learn about letters, they build on this knowledge with the understanding that shapes and squiggles on a page can correspond to sounds. Recently, we have created institutions – schools – explicitly designed to pass this type of cultural knowledge onto children. This is how an evolutionary capacity for language has been extended to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Le Monde, and the Internet. With globalization, we need to extend our biologically based inclination for care for those close to us to a care for all of humanity. Just as schools have played a central role in the process of extending our evolutionarily endowed language abilities, they can play an important role in nurturing this cosmopolitan ethic of care. The Ross School, an experimental school in New York with the arts at its core, is working to expand its students’ empathy and interest from their community to all corners of the world. Drawing heavily on visual and performance arts, the school teaches children to feel a kinship with people from Australia to Zimbabwe.