THE FIRST IDEA by Stanley I. Greenspan


How Symbols, Language, and Intelligence Evolved from Our Primate Ancestors to Modern Humans
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Two psychologists team up for a thorough, fairly readable study of cognitive development from earliest hominids to humans, placing strenuous emphasis on emotional interaction between infant and caregiver outlined in Greenspan's The Growth of the Mind (1997).

Greenspan (Psychiatry and Pediatrics/George Washington Univ.) and Shanker (Philosophy and Psychology/York Univ., Canada) stress that the human capacity to think, which they define as the ability to regulate emotions in the use of logic and reflection, stems primarily from the acquirement of mother-infant signaling transmitted through cultural care-giving practices. After setting out the crucial stages of a child's functional/emotional growth, the authors venture back into evolutionary history to debunk some determinist theories of human cognitive development that stress the innate, universal necessities of human biology (natural selection) while ignoring the essential and, in humans, relatively long period of close nurturing between caregiver and infant. Shanker offers observations of language acquisition in chimps and bonobos, gained from his work with primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh (Apes, Language, and the Human Mind, not reviewed); there is also a fascinating chapter on emotional “derailment” in autistic children. The authors revisit problem-solving and early communication in archaic Homo sapiens and early moderns, comparing their stage of cognitive development to childhood in today’s humans. With the relatively sudden ascent of the new species of humans during the Pleistocene era, technological advances took off; yet here the authors emphasize rather a “slow and almost orderly process” that involved an enrichment of emotional signaling accompanied by beneficial physical changes in the face and skull (loss of facial hair, for example, encouraged a vastly more subtle and complex repertory of expressions). Greenspan and Shanker duly note the work of numerous other authors and scientists, such as Piaget, Chomsky, and E.T. Hall. Along the way, the study grows unwieldy and repetitive as they take on shared values of societies and “global interdependency.”

Long-winded, but well-reasoned: a provocative, useful aid in understanding the ongoing debate on human development.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-7382-0680-6
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Da Capo
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2004


NonfictionTHE BONOBO AND THE ATHEIST by Frans de Waal
by Frans de Waal