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Vol. I • 1978

Recent Research Related to Designed
Perceptual Capabilities
Paul D. Ackerman, Wichita State University

For the past couple of years this author has been interested in a particular line of research in Experimental Psychology. This research conducted by many different scientists has yielded findings of great interest to the creationist. The studies demonstrate a remarkable degree of innate readiness in the newborn of many different species, including man. For example, Gene Sackett (1966) experimented with infant rhesus monkeys and found evidence of an innate ability to recognize and react appropriately to at least one social situation. Specifically he found that two- to four-month-old monkeys that had been isolated from birth nevertheless showed signs of fear when exposed to pictures of an angry and threatening adult rhesus monkey. As Sackett concludes, "pictures of threat appear to release a developmentally determined. inborn fear response (Sackett, 1966).

Studies such as the above are of interest to the creationist because they point to the high degree of complexity and design in the behavior of the newborn. Since the learning factor is largely eliminated in these experiments, greater pressure is placed upon the evolutionary biologist to account for these capacities in terms of random mutation and natural selection. Although evolutionist explanations can be offered they do become quite strained. In the above example, the evolutionist must argue that given the chance development of an instinctive fear of threatening adult gestures, natural selection would tend to favor those individuals possessing the trait. It is a common feature in studies of this type that the suspected innate mechanism can be clearly seen to have survival value for the organism. Thus evolutionary explanations. though at a total loss to explain the origin of the response trait, nevertheless give a plausible account of its spread through the population via natural selection.

It was in this context that the author became particularly excited about one such experiment which seemed to point to an innate response system that would apparently have no survival value in the context of a primeval forest. The experiment in question was part of an important series of studies conducted by T. 0. R. Bower (1965).

Bower was basically interested in the question of what the world looks like to a newborn baby. Can he make sense out of it as adults do or is it in the words of William James a "buzzing confusion" that he must learn to understand by a process of trial-and-error? But how does a baby tell us what he sees? Obviously he can't speak to us. Bower devised an extremely ingenious way of interrogating infants as young as six weeks of age.

One of the few body actions that an infant can voluntarily control is head turning. He can turn his head as he chooses. Bower devised an apparatus whereby an infant could operate a switch by turning his head. Then Bower played the following game with the child. He would place a particular target object in front of the child. If the little one now turned his head to activate the switch an adult would pop-up giving him a delightful peek-a-boo. However, if anything other than the target object were displayed. no peek-a-boo could be earned. Infants as young as two weeks of age quickly learn the rules of this game, earning peek-a-boos when they are available and not bothering to activate the switch when they are not.

The fact that an infant can learn to respond to a particular target in this manner proves one important thing about them at the outset. They can perceive the target object as distinct from the other items that are placed in front of them. But given that, what will happen if the experimenter begins to change the way in which the target object is displayed? Will the infant show by his responses that he still recognizes the object as being the target? On the other hand, what if the experimenter selects an object which is not the target and presents it in such a way that it might appear similar to the target object? Will the infant be fooled and respond to it the same way as to the target or will he recognize that it is not the same?

For example, Bower taught six- to eight-week-old infants to respond to a small box placed one meter in front of the eyes. Then Bower tested each infant as follows. The same size box was placed three meters in front of the infant. Would he recognize it as the same? Conversely. a box three times the size of the target box was placed one meter from the infant's eyes. Would the infant recognize that it was not the target? The answer is that in this and a number of similar experiments, the infants demonstrated a remarkable ability to recognize the true target and respond to it rather than Bower's carefully contrived substitutes. Bower's results provide a powerful testimony for special creation and are highly recommended. Though an evolutionist himself many of Bower's stated conclusions seem more compatible with the creation model. For instance, in conclusion to one set of experiments Bower states, "This finding seems very important, since it is a blow not only against empiricism but also against the idea (common to nativists and empiricists) that perception of simple variables is in some way developmentally earlier than perception of complex variables" (Bower, 1965).
The focus of the present paper is an experiment which began by teaching seven- to eight-week-old infants to respond to a triangle which was partially concealed by an iron bar placed across it (see Fig. I). Following this training, Bower began to test the infants by exposing them to the four objects shown in Fig. 2. These objects were presented one at a time, and the question was which one, if any, would the infants respond to as they had to the target object. In reductionist terms the two lower objects are more similar to the target and, in fact, most people tend to predict that infants will respond most

strongly to the lower left object. However, Bower found that the infants responded primarily to the true triangle.

One might consider two possible interpretations of this finding. First of all it could be that the infants have an innate perception of a triangle as such. This interpretation would be in line with related research and interpretation by Sackett (1966), Fantz (1961), and Ball and Tronick (1971). However, these previous studies involving apparent innate species recognition in monkeys (Sackett, 1966) and humans (Fantz, 1961), and of impending collision in humans Ball and Tronick (1961) are still somewhat amenable to an evolutionary interpretation. For example, the mother's face and collisions with solid objects are presumably present in the historical background of all higher animals as well as man. Furthermore, a high degree of sensitivity to these aspects of life would presumably have survival value. Thus, assuming an evolutionary past, it is possible to conjecture how such innate mechanisms could become prevalent in the gene pool of the surviving population. (It should again be noted that this explanation in no way explains the origin of the innate perception mechanism, but only its increasing prevalence in the species gene pool given that some species members happen to possess the trait.)

However, the situation is very different with the triangle. There are no triangles in the presumed primeval forest. It is a mathematical concept associated with civilized man. That is why this particular finding is so intriguing from a creationist point of view. The creation model can allow the "innate triangle recognition" interpretation as consistent with its premises, but the evolutionary model simply cannot.

The evolution model must rely on a second possible interpretation. Perhaps what is occurring is simply a phenomenon of "completion." In other words, the simplest way of completing the missing parts of the object is to extend the tines in a way which in the present case happens to result in a triangle. This in fact is the interpretation which Bower gave to the triangle findings. Such an interpretation is quite compatible with the creation model and it still points to a remarkable perceptual sophistication in the newborn infant.

The question is, "Which of these two interpretations is correct?" This author believes the simpler "completion" interpretation is the correct one. To understand the reason why. it is necessary to examine the Ball and Tronick (1971) findings cited earlier. Ball and Tronick found that infants as young as two weeks would show fear and agitation when placed in front of an object moving quickly toward them on a collision path. If the object was moving on a path that would miss the infant or was moving away from him, no fear was shown. This phenomenon is called the "looming effect." What is especially intriguing is that when Ball and Tronick placed a screen between the infant and the object so that only the shadow of it could be seen, the "looming effect" worked exactly as before. That is to say a symmetrically expanding shadow produced fear and agitation whereas an asymmetrically expanding shadow or a shrinking shadow did not.

The observance of the looming effect to a mere shadow, in the absence of any depth cues, seems to indicate that the infant has an inborn conception of "looming" per se and not merely an instinctive sensitivity to actual objects about to collide with him. In the context of Bower's triangle experiment one might ask what would happen if the experiment were repeated without the standard three- dimensional depth cues. If the infant really has a built-in concept of "triangle," then the results should be the same as before. If, however. the simpler completi6n interpretation is correct, then perhaps he should fail to choose the triangle in the test situation.

Evidence for an inborn triangle concept would be, to say the least, an epistemological bombshell, something akin in this narrow area of research to finding Noah's Ark. Fortunately, Bower carried out the necessary experiment to test the hypothesis. He repeated the triangle study exactly as before only this time using photographs instead of the actual objects. In the absence of natural, three-dimensional depth cues the infants no longer "selected" the triangle but responded identically to the four test objects. On the basis of these results it would seem that the completion hypothesis is preferable. It might be explained in the following way. When depth cues are present, the infant's built-in perceptual equipment tells him that the block and triangle are separate objects. The object behind the block is not seen as a triangle per Se. However, the perceptual apparatus completes the partially hidden object in the simplest way by extending the appropriate lines thereby forming a triangle precept in this particular case. In the absence of natural three dimensional depth cues we know from other research that the infant will not respond to the block and triangle as distinct objects. However, if the infant had an innate concept of triangle then perhaps that would cause him to differentiate the block and triangle and respond preferentially to the triangle in the test situation. The fact that he does not, seems to leave the simpler completion hypothesis as the best available scientific explanation of Bower's results.

The Christian approach to scientific investigation and discovery must be very different from that of the nonbeliever. The ideal of secular. humanistic science is an attitude of noncommitment. As one writer put it, modern man must always be "poised to adjust." His only basic commitment is to noncommitment. He must tolerate everything but intolerance, The only thing he can really be certain of is uncertainty. In contrast, the Christian stance requires a faith commitment to a single though infinite absolute truth which is Christ. "In the beginning God" is one important aspect of that larger and all encompassing truth.

This, of course, makes for understandable difficulties in communication between believing and nonbelieving scientists. They say, "How can we trust your examination of scientific evidence when you are already committed as to what the answer must be?" There are several ways in which creation scientists have answered this objection. For one thing. they have tried to point out that the evolutionist is, unconsciously at least, subject to the same bias in favor of evolutionary interpretations. As a colleague once told me, "Not believing in evolution is like not believing in gravity." This answer, however, may do little to win the confidence and trust of the secular scientific community. It seems to me that the Lord would have us do what we can to build bridges of communication with our evolutionist friends "Let us reason together" (Isaiah 1:18).

In the long run there is only one way to build confidence and trust. We must above all be truthful and open and honest: "God is light, and in him is no darkness at all" (I John 1:5). "Blessed is the man in whose spirit there is no guile" (Psalm 32:2). Total and transparent honesty is the only way to tight this battle. I am convinced that if we diligently observe this crucial norm of science and commandment of God that the Lord will honor us and cause our efforts to bear "much fruit." In that vein we may well find that our greatest advances will come not as a result of the evidences in our favor but rather from our conduct on those occasions where the evidence might offer some comfort for our evolutionist opponents.

Ball, W., and Tronick, F. "Infant Responses to Impending Collision: Optical and Real." Science, 1971, Vol.171, pp. 818-820.
Bower, T.G.R. "The Visual World of Infants." Scientific American, 1965, Vol. 215, pp.80-92.
Fantz, R.L. "The Origin of Form Perception." Scientific American, 1961, Vol. 204, pp. 66-72.
Sackett, Gene P. "Monkeys Reared in Isolation with Pictures as Visual Input:
Evidence for an Innate Releasing Mechanism." Science, 966, Vol.54, pp. 1468-1473.

"Recent Research Related to Designed Perceptual Capabilities"
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