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The First Idea: How Symbols, Language, And Intelligence Evolved From Our Primate Ancestors To Modern Humans

The First Idea: How Symbols, Language, And Intelligence Evolved From Our Primate Ancestors To Modern Humans

4.7 5
by Stanley I Greenspan, Stuart Shanker, Stuart G. Shanker

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In this highly original work, one of the world's most distinguished child psychiatrists together with a philosopher at the forefront of ape and child language research present a startling hypothesis-that the development of our higher-level symbolic thinking, language, and social skills cannot be explained by genes and natural selection, but depend on cultural


In this highly original work, one of the world's most distinguished child psychiatrists together with a philosopher at the forefront of ape and child language research present a startling hypothesis-that the development of our higher-level symbolic thinking, language, and social skills cannot be explained by genes and natural selection, but depend on cultural practices learned anew by each generation over millions of years, dating back to primate and prehuman cultures. Furthermore, for the first time, they present their remarkable research revealing the steps leading to symbolic thinking in the life of each new human infant and show that contrary to now-prevailing theories of Pinker, Chomsky, and others, there is no biological explanation that can account for these distinctly human abilities.Drawing from their own original work with human infants and apes, and meticulous examination of the fossil record, Greenspan and Shanker trace how each new species of nonhuman primates, prehumans, and early humans mastered and taught to their offspring in successively greater degrees the steps leading to symbolic thinking. Their revolutionary theory and compelling evidence reveal the true origins of our most advanced human qualities and set a radical new direction for evolutionary theory, psychology, and philosophy.

Editorial Reviews

Doody's Review Service
Reviewer: Patricia Brockman, MD (Ochsner Clinic Foundation)
Description: The authors propose that the origin of humans' highest mental abilities, their ability to symbolize and think, stems from our emotions. They challenge the overemphasis of genetic determinism in the nature vs. nurture controversy and show that it is the emotional signaling between infant and caretaker during nurturing interactions that evolve into creative problem solving and logical, reflective thought. The authors explain how this important element, emotion, is missing from current theories of cognitive and language development and show support for its validity from cognitive neuroscience research. The significant cultural and evolutionary implications for this theory are also an essential part of this book.
Purpose: It is written for behavioral and social scientists interested in language, cognitive development, and mental health. In addition to unifying our knowledge in several scientific and cultural areas, this theory has also shown promise in addressing the core psychological deficits in children with autism and other developmental disorders. A broader societal application is also provided where cultures have been shown to flourish and advance when children are nurtured with these co-regulated emotional interactions and regress when they are deprived of them.
Audience: This book would be of great interest to a wide range of behavioral and social scientists who study and apply learning theory in their various fields. The authors reflect varied backgrounds themselves.
Features: After a comprehensive introduction, the book is divided into four parts. In Part I, the authors identify and describe the critical learning steps, or functional/emotional developmental capabilities that build on one another and lead to symbolic thinking. In Part II, the authors show how the evolutionary line leading to human intelligence reflects a gradual progression of these increasing functional capacities for co-regulated communication. In Part III, using the functional/emotional framework of their theory, the authors revise current thinking about language, intelligence, and the development and functioning of the brain. The last chapter in this section describes their work with children with autism and other developmental challenges as supportive evidence for their theory. In Part IV, the authors assert that the same formative emotional processes that lead to symbol formation, intimacy, empathy, and reflective thinking are instrumental in a culture's shared sense of humanity and reality, which connect the individual to society and characterize the way society functions.
Assessment: This book introduces an important component to our understanding of human development that adds to our knowledge across a wide range of study, including cognitive neuroscience, psychology, psychiatry, child development and others. This theory has even broader applications in the study of nonhuman primates as well as our current and future view of the global community.
4 Stars! from Doody
Canadian Psychology August 2005
"A sweeping and engrossing text, speckled with colorful anecdotes and real life examples ... [Greenspan and Shanker] deserve applause."
Journal of Consciousness Studies April/May 2005
"Supplies strong evidence that rationality and cognition are not opposed to emotion ... Recommended for its important defense of culture and learning."
Publishers Weekly
Noam Chomsky is the best-known advocate of the view that language skills are hardwired into our brains, and Steven Pinker made this argument in The Blank Slate. Authors Greenspan, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics, and Shanker, an authority in child- and ape-language studies, completely reject this theory, claiming instead that our ability to reason is founded not on genetics but on emotional responses by infants to their environment, with emotional interactions forming the missing link in the development of symbols and language. In line with other recent research that ties cultural practices to areas of human development long held to be biologically determined, they maintain that symbolic thinking has been molded by cultural practices dating back to prehuman species. The authors trace the development of language skills and personality from birth to old age with a 16-stage hierarchy of what they call "functional emotional development capabilities" ranging from "Regulation and Interest in the Word" to "Wisdom of the Ages." In the last part of the book, they use these stages to examine major intellectual turning points and figures in history, such as the Greek philosophers, Descartes and Freud. This book should appeal most to readers working in psychology and child development, but its revolutionary ideas no doubt will lead to lively and well-publicized debates. (Sept.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Greenspan (psychiatry, George Washington Univ.; The Growth of the Mind) and Shanker (psychology, York Univ.; coauthor, Apes, Language, and the Human Mind) have written a significant book on the crucial role that emotions play in the social development of human intelligence. They reject Cartesian dualism, advocate the framework of primate evolution, and go beyond the ideas of Piaget, Chomsky, and Pinker (among others) in their claim that symbolic thinking is essentially the slow outcome of mental activity developing through six levels of emotional interactions rather than merely the sudden consequence of inherited genetic factors in the brain. The authors emphasize the dynamic relationship between caregivers and infants/toddlers in terms of emotional signaling through sounds, facial expressions, and body gestures. They even extend their theory in order to shed light on ape behavior, fossil hominids, early civilizations, the origin of language, and the emerging global society. In the ongoing nature vs. nurture debate, the authors have filled a gap in the research literature by stressing the need to take the value of emotions seriously. Recommended for all large academic and public libraries.-H. James Birx, SUNY at Geneseo Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 emotionalsignaling 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.

Product Details

Da Capo Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
6.36(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.57(d)

Meet the Author

Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D., author of the widely used and praised books The Challenging Child and (with Serena Wieder, Ph.D.) Engaging Autism , is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School and lives in Bethesda, Maryland. Stuart G. Shanker, D.Phil., is Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Psychology at York University, in Toronto. At the forefront of research into ape and child language, his acclaimed books include Apes, Language and the Human Mind (with Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Talbot Taylor) and Wittgenstein's Remarks on the Foundations of AI . Dr. Shanker's critiques of genetic determinist theories of human development have been the subject of television specials, including "The Today Show," "Discovery," and "The Pamela Wallin Show."

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The First Idea: How Symbols, Language, and Intelligence Evolved from Our Primate Ancestors to Modern Humans 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book talks about several concepts that are important to understanding basic language development issues. First, is the concept of language as symbolic and how the ability to process symbols determines our ability to interact with our world. Next is the idea that the brain's wiring helps to determine how and what we interpret from our environment; this follows Pribram's concepts in neuroscience of the holonomic brain. The most relevant information is that way he defines the development of language in stages and how the different wiring of the autistic brain creates problems for the child's ability to interact with the world. He also outlines the development of emotional /intellectual growth which he links to language development. One concept is the idea that higher order thinking can not exist without the basic framework defined in these stages. Newer research (Thurman, 2009) suggests that this later assumption may not be true.
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