Wednesday Geek Women: Mary Whiton Calkins and Elizabeth Spelke, psychological scientists

This is a guest post by Shauna, a psychologist, programmer, writer and blogger. This post appeared on her blog for Ada Lovelace Day 2011.

For Ada Lovelace day I thought I’d go back to my roots and write about a psychological scientist. Being as I am prone to digressions, I ended up writing about two – one historical, one current. We’ll go chronologically.

Mary Whiton Calkins was born in the 1860s in Connecticut who studied classics and philosophy at Smith College. She took a job teaching Greek at Wellesley College after graduating, where by a combination of luck and talent she caught the eye of a psychology professor. He asked her to come teach psychology, but requested she spend a year studying it first. It was in this way that Calkins started taking classes at Harvard, and with William James himself among her tutors and mentors, it’s maybe not surprising that her interest in the field grew. She spent the next two years taking classes at Harvard and doing research into dreams with collaborator Edmund Sanford. Though their research would soon be eclipsed by Sigmund Freud (who did acknowledge and cite their work), their discovery that dream content could be influenced by external stimuli is much in line with our current theories of dreams.

In 1891 she returned to Wellesley to teach, and established there an experimental psychology laboratory, the first of its kind at any women’s college and only the twelfth in the United States. Over the next ten years, she trained hundreds of women in experimental psychology, putting out articles on subjects such as child development, aesthetics, and synesthesia. Hoping to continue her studies at Harvard, she also petitioned the university to become a graduate student, but the college did not allow female graduate students at the time and she was refused. Nevertheless, she continued to take classes, and three years later an unsanctioned committee of six Harvard professors awarded her an unofficial doctorate. Despite numerous petitions over the last 100+ years, Harvard has never awarded her an official one.

Calkins’ biggest research contribution is probably her work on paired association, a memory technique that is still used today. My favorite work of hers, though, is Community of Ideas of Men and Women, an article she published in 1891 in Psychological Review in response to one Dr. Joseph Jastrow. Jastrow had looked at lists of words generated by women and men, and claimed then men showed greater variety in word choice. This, he said, was evidence for the “Variability Hypothesis” – the theory that men have a greater range of abilities than women, with more men than women falling at the high and low ends of any given spectrum. Calkins and her student Cordelia Nevins replicated Jastrow’s study but not his results, and in their paper called into question the fundamental assumptions of his research:

[Jastrow et al] by the expression “masculine and feminine mental traits,’ attempt a distinction between masculine and feminine intellect per se, and this seems to me futile and impossible, because of our entire inability to eliminate the effect of environment. Now the differences in the training and tradition of men and women begin with the earliest months of infancy and continue through life. Most of the preferences which have been substantiated by both experimenters, for instance that of women .for the surroundings of a home, are obviously cultivated interests… The question of the essential difference between masculine and feminine mind seems to me, therefore, untouched by such an investigation.

Unlike the good scientists of that era, the Variability Hypothesis is not dead and buried. You may remember back in 2005 a controversy breaking out when Harvard’s then-president Larry Summers speculated in a speech that underrepresentation of women in science in general, and in tenured positions at top-tier universities such as Harvard in particular, might be due to innate differences between men and women. Specifically, he suggested that men have greater variability in mathematical ability than woman, leaving them overrepresented at the highest echelons (as well as in the lowest mathematical gutters.)

In response to this controversy, the Harvard psychology department set out to debate that claim on its merits. Summers’ claims were defended by Steven Pinker, a well known linguist and evolutionary psychologist, who faced off against Elizabeth Spelke, a developmental psychologist whose done a great deal of research on gender differences in children. From the debate:

Let me take you on a whirlwind tour of 30 years of research in one powerpoint slide. From birth, babies perceive objects. They know where one object ends and the next one begins. They can’t see objects as well as we can, but as they grow their object perception becomes richer and more differentiated.

Babies also start with rudimentary abilities to represent that an object continues to exist when it’s out of view, and they hold onto those representations longer, and over more complicated kinds of changes, as they grow. Babies make basic inferences about object motion: inferences like, the force with which an object is hit determines the speed with which it moves. These inferences undergo regular developmental changes over the infancy period.

In each of these cases, there is systematic developmental change, and there’s variability. Because of this variability, we can compare the abilities of male infants to females. Do we see sex differences? The research gives a clear answer to this question: We don’t.

I recommend reading or watching the whole thing, and/or reading Spelke’s more formal review of the literature in American Psychologist. I particularly like Spelke’s point at the end, when she talks about the role of competition in science:

You’ve suggested, as a hypothesis, that because of sexual selection and also parental investment issues, men are selected to be more competitive, and women are selected to be more nurturant. Suppose that hypothesis is true… What makes for better motives in a scientist?

What kind of motives are more likely to lead to good science: Competitive motives, like the motive J. D. Watson described in The Double Helix, to get the structure of DNA before Linus Pauling did? Or nurturant motives of the kind that Doug Melton has described recently to explain why he’s going into stem cell research: to find a cure for juvenile diabetes, which his children suffer from? I think it’s anything but clear how motives from our past translate into modern contexts.

Calkins went on to teach psychology for forty more years and in 1918 became the first woman president of the American Psychological Association. Spelke continues her child development research as a professor of psychology at Harvard University.

Information on Mary Whiton Calkins was gathered from Feminist Voices, Webster’s Women’s Contributions page, and of course, Wikipedia.

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2 thoughts on “Wednesday Geek Women: Mary Whiton Calkins and Elizabeth Spelke, psychological scientists

  1. Esteleth

    I really enjoyed reading this! I was not familiar with either of these women and it’s great to learn more.

    One nitpick though: the woman you have pictured is Mary Wollstonecraft.

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