J.L.Lemke On-line Office


Heterochrony, Heterogeneity, and Development

 I want to conclude this theoretical discussion by contrasting my description of the normal course of ‘becoming the village’ with the artificial educational arrangements in modern societies that claim to facilitate this process. At the same time I will raise some troubling moral and political questions about the ideological dimensions of our supposedly scientific theories of human development, including language development and language learning. 

Schooling segregates students by age; natural communities insure interactions across all age groups. Within models of schooling, cross-age tutoring, whether traditionally between teacher and pupil or experimentally between substantially older and younger students, appears to be far more effective than either standard classroom practice or age-homogeneous peer study groups. If we broaden our definition of desirable outcomes from test-scores of limited real-world validity to face-valid indices of social maturity and competence, or to being able to interact successfully in non-school settings in the workplace or the community, then age-segregated schooling is a developmental disaster. If anything, it appears to infantilize students well into young adulthood. It functions as a form of academic foot-binding.

 The model of multi-scale, ecosocially-mediated development I have presented here is a sort of grand generalization of the social learning theories of Vygotsky, not unlike many more directly neo-Vygotskyan models (e.g Lave and Wenger 1991, Rogoff 1990, Cole 1996). But it implies a more radical social critique. If natural intellectual and social development is supported by participation in communities with all their diversity intact, particularly their age diversity, then every homogenization of schooling environments, especially age-grading, is likely to block many natural and necessary processes of developmental input.

 On its face, our society is one in which a particular culturally self-defined age group (broadly from age 30-70, more narrowly 40-60, and most dominantly 50-60) has so ordered our institutions as to enable it to allocate to itself disproportiate social resources and opportunities at the expense of all those of younger and older ages. I see this as no different from social-class inequity and exploitation, gender/sexuality domination, or the politics of racism and ethnocentrism. Women, workers, serfs, gays, and people of color have all been compared to ‘children’ in efforts to rationalize their exploitation and lack of access to institutional power. To these disempowered castes one can add ‘senior citizens’ and younger adults, not to mention the youngest age groups themselves. Developmental theory today is often used to justify the disempowerment of non-dominant age-groups just as many other once-accepted scientific doctrines have played this role in the past, justifying racism, sexism, and class oppression.

 The logic of biology and dynamical systems theory implies that it is the whole dynamical-developmental life-trajectory which is the unit of adaptive evolution, and not, most clearly, the adult phase alone (much less a narrow late-middle age-range). As a species we are equally well (or poorly) adapted to our natural and social environments at all ages from womb to tomb. Ideologically, however, it is not in the interests of the dominant age group to recognize too visibly the many ways in which younger humans are superior to mature adults, nor to recognize politically that their very different construals of reality, their beliefs, attitudes, and values, are, within the existing constraints of their environments, as equally valid as are those of other human cultures’ adults. We originally separated age groups in schools out of 18th century fears that older students would morally corrupt younger ones, but we continue today to rationalize this separation by the doctrine that there must be some ideal method of teaching that is specific to each small range of ages and radically distinct from those appropriate to other age groups. We ground this notion of linear developmental change, ideologized as progress, in a highly implausible model that maps linear notions of clock-time onto complex multi-scale developmental processes. 

Apart from political interests which may favor theories of development and forms of schooling that maxmize the disadvantages of all students and especially of those from non-dominant social groups, there is a deeper conceptual flaw in our standard view of development. It is very difficult to explain this flaw, because it is so deeply rooted in dominant notions of the reality of time. Much of our basic vocabulary and nearly all of our standard discourses reinforce the assumptions that need to be challenged on this point.

 Heterochrony and development

 The usual view of absolute time is that it consists of a unique succession of point-like instants, by analogy with the view of space as a continuum of points, itself rationalized by the mathematics of the real numbers, which in turn depends on operationally impossible infinite sequences of ratios of natural numbers, derived from language and the logic of its semantics. Physics has more or less abandoned this classical notion of time as being an obstacle to its work, and aims ultimately to derive more quantized or discrete notions of space and time from the same principles that give rise to the different observed forms of matter and their interactions on the smallest observable or inferrable scales.

 Biology and dynamical systems theory afford a different critique of classical time in the case of complex, hierarchically organized, integrated multi-scale systems. This critique replaces the notion of a single dynamical time with a hierarchy of overlapping ‘cogent moments’ or characteristic times of processes on different scales of dynamical organization of the system. A particular event on some local timescale may simultaneously also be part of many other processes on higher timescales, for which the ‘cogent moments’ or minimal functionally meaningful time-steps will normally reach different distances (larger at each higher scale) into its past and its future. The cross-scale dynamical self-organization of the system, its continued existence and viability on its largest relevant scales (and across all triples of adjacent scales, see Lemke 2000a), insures that processes and their component events become interdependent. Thus, from the viewpoint of ‘linear time’ for such systems, the dominant temporal regime is one of heterochrony: some events widely separated in linear time may be more relevant to the meaningful behavior and development of an intermediate-level unit than other events which are closer in linear time. Moreover, the dynamics of processes on significantly timescales (i.e. taking place at significantly different rates) become interdependent, and even, in semiotically mediated regimes, entangled (cf. Salthe 1993, Matsuno 1989, Lemke 2000a, in press -c; for ‘tangled hierarchies’ see Hofstadter 1979).

 Linear time is itself a specialized kind of time, specially constructed by instrumentations and technologies as a common denominator for a large set of specific kinds of processes. Every new kind of process must be calibrated into this time-system in a unique way. But linear time is not always the relevant dynamical parameter outside these time-calibration regimes. In cosmological black holes and quantum strings it becomes irrelevant; recovered only, physics hopes, when averaging over larger scales. In complex biological and ecological systems, especially ecosocial-semiotic systems, it is also no longer the most relevant view of time, or rather it remains relevant only to the extent that we suspend its universality. On each scale, for each characteristic process, there is a different clock running, a different minimal functional timestep. Indeed the level-specific processes themselves are these clocks. What matters however is not calibrating them all to a common linear time, but rather understanding how information is passed across scales in such a way that actual dynamical couplings among processes, and not an imaginary universal timeline, determines temporal ‘proximities’ (i.e. relevancies). 

This heterochrony model can be compared to the network model of social systems (Latour 1999). In the usual ‘spherical’ model, points and events nearer in space are considered more likely to interact with one another, to be more relevant to each other’s dynamics. Different spatial scales are envisioned as concentric spheres of diminishing influence around any point or event. But in a system in which there are natural channels of communication, webs or watersheds or phone systems or railroads, distant points on the same channel or line may interact more often and more intensely with a given point/event than other points/events that are much closer in ‘absolute’ (but not dynamically relevant) space. Heterochrony can also be compared to nonlinear time in the strict mathematical sense in which the repeated folding of linear time back onto itself (the Baker’s transformation) results in a topology where formerly distant points are now proximate to one another, and formerly near points are now distant (Serres & Latour 1995).

 What provides the conduits of communication, or directs the folding of heterochronous time? In ecosocial systems, I believe, it is particularly the circulation of material artifacts that function as signs (e.g. texts, but also inscribed bodies and other semiotic artifacts; Lemke in press-c MCA). These are the means by which, especially in complex societies, we integrate social processes across timescales from the interactional to the institutional, from the local to the global. A book written hundreds of years ago, kept in print and circulation by the actions of persons and the social processes of institutions functioning on and across many intermediate timescales (critics, educators, publishers, bankers, foresters, makers of presses, truck drivers, etc. etc.), thereby made more likely to fall into our hands at this moment, guided there by customary linkages among social practices and settings, now mediates our present, short-term conversation. Our conversation in turn, our buying the book, or borrowing it from a library, participates in and sustains many social-institutional processes on many intermediate timescales in its turn. Architectural plans, scale models, and paintings made decades ago for a modern cathedral, copied and transformed and in the hands of builders, alter the builders’ interactions with stone and steel now. Memories arise in generalizing behavioral patterns by which previous events long past become directly relevant and mediated to present actions now occuring. Anticipations of future events, rehearsals in imagination, sketches and notes create virtual futures that become directly relevant to present actions. Intimations and actual anticipatory behaviors, characteristic of many evolved and some artificial systems (Rosen 1985), seem from the perspective of linear time to be anti-causal connections to a not-yet-existent future, but heterochrony construes these as perfectly natural effects of participation in larger-scale organizational levels whose longer ‘present’ cogent moments extend into our ‘future’.

 What then of development? It certainly does not run by clocktime, but by its own internally generated timeclocks, many of them, on many different timescales, cycling at vastly different rates (molecular, cellular, organismic, ecological), and ‘synchronized’ not by the calibrations of some Bureau of Standards but by actual dynamical interdependences and the transfer of information, filtered and transformed, across levels of organization. Which past events are most relevant to the now of learning? Not, in general, those which most immediately precede by clock-time. What larger-scale, longer term developmental processes, such as identity development, play a role in learning now? What sign-carriers, themselves the products of larger-scale longer-time institutional or social and cultural developments, intervene in the now and entrain it as part of their own dynamics?

 If you face a 12-year old in the classroom, do you not also face elements of his behavioral repertory that were formed at age 10, or age six, and still remain active or dormant and waiting to be recalled? Do you not also face a human being who has been learning to interact with a six-year old sibling and a ten-year old friend, a 15-year old nemesis and a 30-year old parent? Do we imagine that this 12-year old does not have responsive repertories that mirror the behavioral patterns, beliefs, attitudes, and values of these different age others? And how can this person not have also formed anticipations and expectations about the behavior of others, and of himself, at still later ages? He may be twelve by the calibrations of calendars, but as a member of the community, he is dynamically heterochronous, some mix of every age he’s already been, and every age he’s learned to cope with, and many ages he’s begun to understand and imagine and model. The age we see is to a large degree the age-identity we know how to call forth, and the age-identity mix with which he responds to us and to this situation.

 If you face a second 12-year old, what are the odds of useful functional similarities in their age-repertories, and the conditions for degrees of activation of each component, given the complexity that I have just imagined? I am speaking here of very fine-grained repertories: the specific behaviors that define an identity specific to the present task and situation, and the degree to which each is manifested or called forth. Each individual presents a different age-mixing profile specific to the activity of the moment and its specific human and nonhuman co-participants (i.e. its content, and us, not just its abstract type). We know how successful our social technologies were for centuries in perpetuating the illusions of racial, gender, and ethnic stereotypes, all of which claimed real and relevant similarities of abilities and behavioral dispositions based on these merely notional and usually politically invidious categories. Why should we suppose that naturalistic claims for age-stereotypical patterns will be any less embarassments to our successors in the 21st century? Development is not paced by any unilinear clock. 

I do not want this critical challenge to age-graded schooling to be dismissed by extreme cases. I am not mainly speaking of very early development, when socialization is quite limited, when the full range of semiotic resources is not yet available, when the child has not yet experienced very much of the village. The educational significance of the challenge grows with age, denying the relevance of age-stereotyping more and more year by year. It plausibility must also be judged taking into account the real effects of present institutional practices which artifically retard the social development presumed by the model, especially age segregation in the family, playgroup, and school. We can and have made people who appeared to conform to gender, class, ethnic and ‘racial’ stereotypes, until we removed the social constraints on the development of their habitus, or looked more closely at the ways in which they also resisted our impositions, or behaved outside our surveillance.

Supplementary discussion of developmental heterochrony

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