The Human Spark: The Science of Human Development


As infants we are rife with potential. For a short time, we have before us a seemingly infinite number of developmental paths. Soon, however, we become limited to certain paths as we grow into unique products of our genetics and experience. But what factors account for the variation?in skills, personalities, values?that results? How do experiences shape what we bring into the world?

In The Human Spark, pioneering psychologist Jerome Kagan offers an unflinching examination of ...

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The Human Spark: The Science of Human Development

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As infants we are rife with potential. For a short time, we have before us a seemingly infinite number of developmental paths. Soon, however, we become limited to certain paths as we grow into unique products of our genetics and experience. But what factors account for the variation—in skills, personalities, values—that results? How do experiences shape what we bring into the world?

In The Human Spark, pioneering psychologist Jerome Kagan offers an unflinching examination of personal, moral, and cultural development that solidifies his place as one of the most influential psychologists of the past century. In this definitive analysis of the factors that shape the human mind, Kagan explores the tension between biology and the environment. He reviews major advances in the science of development over the past three decades and offers pointed critiques and new syntheses. In so doing, Kagan calls out the shortcomings of the modern fad for neuroscience, shows why theories of so-called attachment parenting are based on a misinterpretation of research, and questions the field’s reflexive tendency to pathologize the behavior of the young. Most importantly, he reminds us that a life, however influenced by biology and upbringing, is still a tapestry to be woven, not an outcome to be endured.

A profound exploration of what is universal and what is individual in human development, The Human Spark is the result of a scientist’s lifelong quest to discover how we become who we are. Whether the reader is a first-time parent wondering what influence she, her genes, and the wider world will have on her child; an educator seeking insight into the development of her students; or simply a curious soul seeking self-knowledge, Kagan makes an expert and companionable guide.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
As developmental psychologist Kagan (The Nature of the Child) so astutely points out, a great deal of what we “know” about human development isn’t firmly anchored in empirical science. He aims to correct that by encouraging readers to question received knowledge about “the forces that transform infants into children, children into adolescents, and adolescents into adults,” and he does so by presenting an insightful discussion of the epistemology of psychology, alongside biting critiques of the methodologies used in psychological research and the social applications of misinterpreted findings (he sees attachment parenting, for example, as woefully ill-advised). But Kagan, an emeritus professor of psychology at Harvard, does much more than merely naysay the misguided; he offers illuminating discussions of the impact of culture on childhood development, as when he analyzes the different responses of Japanese and American children when asked to describe an everyday cityscape, as well as intriguing arguments regarding emotions, mental illness, and the establishment of moral systems during adolescence. Kagan occasionally goes off topic, but this is nevertheless a fascinating summary of the current science behind human development from one of the leaders in the field. 26 b&w illus. (June 4)
From the Publisher

“In his masterful survey, Kagan filters findings in the field.... An authoritative study of the dance of genes and environment in each child as they grow in universally human, and profoundly individual, ways.”Nature

“Best known for his work exploring the persistence of inborn temperamental differences, Kagan here expands his inquiry into other areas, including the problems inherent in trying to understand something as complex as human nature by looking through as narrow a lens as neuroscience, genetics, or psychological research. The result is a wide-ranging book that...often offers astonishing details amid the research Kagan summarizes.”Boston Globe

“Kagan makes a strong case that personality is more elastic, and resilient, than we may think: Even toddlers who experience extreme abuse or deprivation can become well-adjusted adults.”Discover

“Kagan grapples manfully with the complexity of what it means to be human, and has a magnificent disregard for orthodoxy—questioning everything from attachment theory to the belief that animal emotions are comparable to our own.”New Scientist

“[T]hought-provoking.... Authoritative and surprising, Kagan guides us through the most current research in the field, tracing its shifting intellectual fashions from emphasizing ‘nurture’ to the current reliance on neuroscience and showing how these fashions play out culturally. This wise and affirming book is essential reading for anyone interested in what makes us human.”Shelf Awareness for Readers, starred review

“A vividly titled overview, by the pioneering developmental psychologist, of his current thinking about the answer to the question, ‘What does it mean to be human?’ Reading him, one resonates to the kind of teacher he must have been.”Harvard Magazine

“Entertaining and intellectually engaging.”Library Journal

“An intriguing overview of many of the underlying assumptions guiding modern psychology.”Kirkus Reviews

“An insightful discussion of the epistemology of psychology…. [Kagan] offers illuminating discussions of the impact of culture on childhood development…. [A] fascinating summary of the current science behind human development from one of the leaders in the field.”Publishers Weekly

The Human Spark is a book painted with a broad stroke to bring into relief the panorama of human development. From culture and history and biology to parental practices, social class and morality, this book reveals all the hills and valleys of the psychology of becoming human. Jerome Kagan writes with the authority that comes with six decades of experience understanding the science of human development.”—Mahzarin R. Banaji, Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics, Harvard University, and coauthor of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People

“Another Kagan masterpiece! As ever, he is helpfully provocative and challenging, but what he writes is scholarly, informed by up-to-date research, culturally sensitive, and with appropriate references to literary as well as scientific sources. The book is said to be about development but it is as much about broad concepts such as morality and emotion and especially about scientific strategies. Most of all, it is highly engaging and very readable.”—Sir Michael Rutter, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London

Library Journal
Eminent psychologist Kagan (emeritus, Harvard) states that his 1984 seminal text, The Nature of the Child, was primarily concerned with three major themes: that significant changes in behavior occurring in the first years of life are mainly due to brain development; that the emotions and behavior of infants don't predict the psychological profiles of adolescents; and that a sense of right and wrong emerges in the second year. The vast majority of developmental psychologists concur with Kagan, whose third revision of his original ideas emphasizes three broader questions: What is the expected course of development for all children? How does variation in experience affect the rates at which children develop? What factors determine behavior variability among children and adults? VERDICT For readers who enjoyed Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate or Andrew Solomon's Far from the Tree. Both entertaining and intellectually engaging.—Mary Ann Hughes, Shelton, WA
Kirkus Reviews
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465029822
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 6/4/2013
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 464,507
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Jerome Kagan is emeritus professor of psychology at Harvard University and one of the pioneers of the field of developmental psychology. The author of numerous books including The Nature of the Child and Galen’s Prophecy, he received the William James Award and the Distinguished Scientist Award from the American Psychological Association. Kagan is a member of The Institute for Medicine.
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