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The First Idea: How Symbols, Language, and Intelligence Evolved from Our Primate Ancestors to Modern Humans

4.6 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0306814495
ISBN-10: 0306814498
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Editorial Reviews

From 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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

When and how did humans acquire the faculty of symbolic thinking? In this study of the origin of human intelligence, the nature-versus-nurture conundrum is no closer to resolution. However, the nurture side of the debate does get a boost here. Greenspan and Shanker, a child psychiatrist and a philosopher, respectively, explicate their 16-level "functional/emotional" framework to support the evidence about human intelligence that they have gathered from the fields of child development, animal (especially chimpanzee) communication, paleoanthropology, sociology, and the history of philosophy. Apart from building their construct, Greenspan and Shanker challenge the nature champions, such as neuroscientists Joseph LeDoux (The Emotional Brain, 1996) and Steven Pinker (The Blank Slate, 2002). Public-library interest is apt to be spotty yet definite for this rather formidable read (main ideas are expressed in polysyllabic phrases such as "co-regulated reciprocal emotional interactions"), especially with research-oriented readers willing to discern, as the authors do, millions of years of social (rather than genetic) evolution in a toddler's amazing mental growth. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press (February 6, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306814498
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306814495
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.3 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,137,701 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Gregory Nixon on April 3, 2005
Format: Hardcover
At last, a worthy antidote to the noxious trend that explains all human consciousness and behaviour by the evolution and activities of the brain alone! Cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and neurophilosophy, while adding complexity, have embraced the assumption that basically posit life unfolding entirely as evolving, interacting genes. This book reminds us that opposition to such genetic programming need not imply mysticism, idealism, or anything "spooky". Greenspan and Shanker stand for the predominance of cultural learning passed on generation to generation, its content always changing and never complete.
A second theme of this book is that it supplies strong evidence that rationality and cognition are not opposed to emotion but are in fact the fulfillment of the emotional education hopefully received by every healthy child. To think is to emote, but it is refined emotion that functions in a controlled manner. This is an antidote to the Cartesians, Freudians, and perhaps even Piagetians who have insisted that, developmentally, the rise of reason in maturity overcomes primitive or childish emotional drives.
It should be noted that such emotional learning is assumed to have culturally evolved over millions of years, with reversals here and deadends there. Each generation passes on its cultural truths primarily through the interactions between infant and mother or other primary caregivers, but each generation also may contribute in subtle ways to this body of learning or, on occasion, subtract from it. Each child is thought to recapitulate in its developmental process in a matter of years or months the learning it took culture millions of years to learn the first time. Language is the primary example here.
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Format: Hardcover
The 'First Idea' is long and tedious. I suspect 300 of the 450 pages are unnecessary. Despite this, some of the insights are well worth the effort one must invest to push through the book. The first 100 pages have all the meat. The next 200 are optional. The last 150 are counter productive.

The book proposes a theory by which language emerges from the innate human catalog of emotional states instead of 'logic'. Rather than argue language was 'built' as a 'logical' solution to a dangerous world, they argue that language is a technique for managing or 'avoiding' catastrophic emotional reactions. According to the authors, the caregiver - infant pair who can 'dance' their way through unexpected and frightening events without panic, survive and thrive. They do this by developing a shared set of gestural/auditory icons representing past, present and future emotional states. By shifting rising catastropic emotions like fight and flight out of the 'present state' and into 'icons of the dance', the pair can modulate emotional extremes.

Think about it. Could 'emotion' be the bedrock of logic?

Thinking about this, I was immediately struck by my inability to clearly describe 'emotions'. Are there 2 emotions? 4 emotions? 8 emotions? The shortest list of 'emotions' is binary: fear and anger. A slightly longer list includes 6 emotions: happy, angry, surprise, disgust, fear, sad. Once you get in the mood, the list can get pretty long: Acceptance, Anger, Anticipation, Boredom, Disgust, Envy, Fear, Guilt, Hate, Joy, Jealousy, Love, Remorse, Sorrow, Surprise, Curiosity, Fascination, Confusion, Anxiety, Bewilderment, Frustration, Chagrin, Despair, Hope, Satisfaction, and Confidence.
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Format: Hardcover
No one knows what caused the evolutionary giant leap from the apes to humans. There have been all kinds of theories from the opposable thumb to walking upright. In this book two eminent psychologists propose a theory that symbols, particularly language tought from one generation to the next drove the development of intelligence. As such, they come down firmly on the nurture rather than nature side of the argument. From watching children, they are both specialists in child development, they persuasively argue that children are taught symbolic thinking. From here they use evidence from the fossil record and neuroscience to develop their theory. Fascinating reading.
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Format: Hardcover
How did symbols, language and information evolve from primates to modern humans? In The First Idea: How Symbols, Language, And Intelligence Evolved From Our Primate Ancestors To Modern Humans, collaborative co-authors Stanley I. Greenspan and Stuart G. Shanker move beyond the nature/nurture debate to provide a new theory of human development: that the critical step in symbol formation, language and thinking isn't genetic, but a learned capacity dependent on nurturing interactions and cultural practices passed down between generations. Evidence from their own research and collaborations with others provide the backbone of a fascinating discourse.
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Format: Hardcover
Since the research that supports the theory proposed by these authors is so thoroughly documented, it may prove too technical for the average reader. Still, the insights are stupendous and easily verifiable by anyone with good parenting skills. The fact that, when applied to people with autism, the results are outstanding and highly unusual, tends to validate their theory.

I found the book easy to skim and love the diverse perspectives of each author and contributor.

Now I wish someone would put all this together with another book, somewhat related: Nicholas Ostler's _Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World_. In this book, the author summarizes how various languages spread, supercede others, dominate, or suppress other languages, how they are learned, how creole and pidgin languages develop, the structure of various languages, etc.

Perhaps if all these authors got together with someone else, they could explain how various languages shape cognition and even, perhaps, perception, framing the world as each person sees it, and maybe how various cultures tend to see reality, based on the language in which they think.

In some languages, the verb comes first and in others, last. In some languages, adjectives come before nouns and in others, after. In some languages, nouns can be feminine, masculine, or neuter. In others, there is no neuter. All of this must shape how humans see things and think--at least as much as emotions do, if the theory these authors propose is accurate.

I heard a report on public radio about how, when people who speak Japanese view a picture of a tiger in a jungle, the parts of their brains that get stimulated are the parts that are viewing the jungle.
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