THE HUMAN SPARK by Jerome Kagan


The Science of Human Development
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Kagan (Emeritus, Psychology/Harvard Univ.; Psychology’s Ghosts: The Crisis in the Profession and the Way Back, 2012, etc.) takes up the cudgels against neuropsychologists and advocates of evolutionary psychology such as Steven Pinker, addressing the question, “What does it mean to be human?”

Taking issue with those who would lump human and animal social behavior together, the author distinguishes between moral behavior such as altruism and the social behavior of bees, birds, monkeys, apes and other animals. In his view, conflating them prevents us from the “understanding of the human moral sense.” Kagan also derides the idea that human behavior is guided by hidden genetic imperatives to reproduce, slyly asking how this would explain the use of contraception. The author cites the misguided notion that poor mothering is the cause of autism in order to debunk attachment theory (the notion that closeness of mother/child bonding is the crucial determinant of emotional development). He takes on the nature vs. nurture debate, pointing out that genetic proclivities are actually expressed and developed through life experience, with social class playing an important role. While agreeing that children who are born with an identifiable genetic predisposition to low reactivity makes them more likely to be risk takers, he notes that unconventional behavior can take many forms. Scientists and high school dropouts may share the same genetic disposition to unconventional behavior, but birth order is also a factor, with firstborn tending to be more rule-oriented. “Rather than assume that cultures are a defining feature of our species under the control of genes that contribute to fitness,” he writes, “it remains possible that cultures might be by-products of the genes responsible for our large frontal lobe and the resulting abilities to infer the thoughts of others, possess a moral sense, be conscious of our traits, and identify with individuals with whom distinctive features are shared.”

An intriguing overview of many of the underlying assumptions guiding modern psychology.

Pub Date: June 4th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-465-02982-2
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Basic
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2013


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