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.
The authors find little evidence that such central things like language or personal memory are innate to the human brain. The nature-nurture debate becomes appropriately complexified. The big difference here - the antidote to genetic imperialism - is that it is shown that experience more determines genetics than genetics determine experience.
Greenspan and Shanker list 16 stages of individual f/e (functional/emotional) development, plus a timeline of 12 steps for the f/e evolution of human cognition. The neologism "meme" is thankfully not used, though they see human behaviour and the quality of conscious experience arising from culturally transmitted learning. They cite Terrence Deacon approvingly, so it must be guessed that the authors accept structural brain adaptations occurring along with the slow invention of formal language structures. They don't deny the brain's influence, but it is only part of the dance duo with learning, and in this book it clearly is not leading.
However, the authors seem more comfortable in their specialties - Greenspan with studies of infant care and autism, Shanker with Wittgensteinian pretense speaking for the symbolic activities of certain bonobo. They spend less time on the slow discovery of speech, symbolism, and thought in the human species than they do on its rapid appearance in individual upbringing. They seem to accept too early and gradual an origin for formal human language, not being critical enough of nonhuman communication or of early paleoanthropological finds. As a result, all prehistoric discoveries are treated as proof of the presence of abstract ideation. It is not noted that the islands of discovery that seem to indicate a very early emergence of symbolic interaction are just that, islands. There is (as yet) no indication that such activities were carried on anywhere else in the succeeding millennia. Nor do authors deal with early humanity's immersion in the sacred; language is accepted as being invented to meet functional needs and for the pleasure of communicating.
Another hesitation is that the first two parts of the book have all the juice. Greenspan and Shanker lay out their case in the first 184 pages, leaving the rest for sometimes excruciating exegesis or jumps into global recommendations. Indeed, they emphasize so strongly "the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world" that they have added a hopeful final chapter to guide us all toward Global Interdependency through the education of emotional response in every child's first year. Alas, we have many hurdles to overcome before every child on the planet can receive the loving interactive attention that will lead it to the authors' highest stage of development in old age: "...true wisdom free from the self-centered and practical worries of earlier stages" (p. 91) and a peaceful world in general.
Optimistic? Sure, but this tome is still highly recommended for its important defense of culture and learning.
One last thing: There's 504 pages in the book, not 320 like Amazon.ca states.