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The First Idea: How Symbols, Language, and Intelligence Evolved from Our Primate Ancestors to Modern Humans Paperback – Feb 7 2006

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press (Feb. 7 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306814498
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306814495
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 3.3 x 22.9 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 821 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #45,399 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description

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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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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: Paperback
I thoroughly enjoyed the first two thirds of this book, but it falls off dramatically at the end. That said, I would say this book should be required reading for any one interested in human evolution, linguitics, cognitive science, and/or ethical theory.

While the authors attempt to disprove Chomsky's theory of Universal Grammar, they end up reinforcing it. The authors spend a great deal of time describing how they think language developed throughout human evolution from our ape ancestors to today. This is the most convincing part of the book as they draw on a vast array of data and fields of study. The book falls short from knocking down Chomsky though, as they spend so little time discussing the theoretical arguments for Universal Grammar. Instead they "fill in the gap" that Chomsky never really addressed - that is, how the language faculty actually developed in humans and how the language instinct is actuated in human infants. Remember, Chomsky and Pinker both argue that Language is an instinct. It won't develop properly or at all without the necessary input provided by caregivers and human culture as a whole. The authors explore in detail this part of the process, where the infant child learns the language usually through interaction with their mother. This process is beautifully described but does not actually challenge Universal Grammar theory.

Congradulations to Greenspan and his co-author, they have written a wonderful and interesting book.
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Format: Hardcover
"The Spell of the Sensous" by David Abram
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: HASH(0x9e3ad954) out of 5 stars 17 reviews
26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9d927ae0) out of 5 stars The antidote to rationalism & genetic determinism! April 3 2005
By Gregory Nixon - Published on Amazon.com
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.
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.
29 of 36 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9d927b34) out of 5 stars Emotion plus evolution has produced language March 4 2005
By Mark Mills - Published on Amazon.com
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. And, there are a variety of emotions which are hard to encapsulate in a single term: 'it is finished', 'I know that', 'I understand'.

If this long list were not confusing enough, there is the common distinction between 'feeling' and 'emotion'. Many use the term 'emotion' to describe 'that which is remembered about a feeling'. Others reverse this, calling 'emotion' the precursor to 'feeling'. Personally, I prefer calling 'emotion' primordial or instinctive, something that emerges from the deepest aspects of our souls. In my view, 'feelings' are the memories of 'emotion'. It is just my vocabulary, and many may use an entirely difference scheme for describing what they experience.

Thus, the assertion that 'language is rooted in emotion' is hardly helpful unless there is a detailed treatment of what the authors mean by 'emotion'. Such a discussion will not be found anywhere in the book's 450 pages.

As I understand it, the authors are arguing that language emerges from the 'dance' infant and caregiver join. The 'dance' is composed of rhythmic 'action' and 'absorb reaction' states which both infant and caregiver cooperatively alternate between. This dance is initiated by the baby when he instinctively seeks to capture the attention of the caregiver by offering a 'stimulus' (crying, smiling, etc.). If the action (a smile) captures the attention of the caregiver, a 'happy' exchange can ensue (the dance). If the baby cannot capture the attention of the caregiver, it will often increase the energy of the stimulus (smile becomes vocalization, becomes crying, etc.) until exhausted or entirely frustrated. The authors suggest this pattern is inate to all human infants (and most mammals). Further, if the infant demonstrates limited interest or capacity for this dance, there is probably going to be an IQ or psychological problem exhibited in later years.

Given this 'dance' which infant and caregiver engage in, language is seen as a refinement which allows greater control of both external 'reality' and internal emotions. Just as ballroom dancers will learn specific 'moves' and then sequences of moves, there will naturally emerge collaborative patterns which represent or symbolize emotional states. Sequences of these states can elicit predictable 'new' emotional states. Memorizing 'moves in the dance' involves defining boundaries and key signals. The process forms the foundation for memorizing words. The pattern of the dance becomes the 'sentence'.

In terms of the caretaker's interactions with babies, the dance is memorized and eventually develops the pair's ability to negotiate undesired or unexpected experiences in life without catastrophic emotion (fear, anger, despair, etc.). The catastropic emotions close out an opportunity for cooperation. The non-catastrophic emotions include joy, curiosity, acceptance, anticipation, etc. If cooperation is essential for the survival of one or both partners, the management of emotional states are all important.

All this is outlined within the first 50 pages, and it represents an interesting proposal for the evolution of human language. Unfortunately, the following 350 pages of supporting arguments are tedious. In particular, the authors repeatedly refer to a table of `functional emotional developmental levels':
1. Shared attention and regulation (from birth)
2. Engagement and relating (2 to 4 months)
3. Two way intentional emotional signaling and communication (4 to 8 months)
4. Long chains of coregulated emotional signaling, social problem solving and formation of presymbolic self
5. Creating representations, symbols or ideas (18 months on)
6. Building bridges between ideas, logical thinking (2.5 years on)
7. etc.

This developmental pattern (the Affect Diathesis Hypothesis) is then the scaffold from which `an explanation of everything' is constructed. We wander through a recap of 2 million years of human evolution, the evolution of societies, and the necessary admonitions for saving humanity from itself. None of these were particularly interesting.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9d927f6c) out of 5 stars Firmly down on the nurture side. Aug. 31 2004
By John Matlock - Published on Amazon.com
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.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9d92a348) out of 5 stars A new theory of human development Jan. 3 2005
By Midwest Book Review - Published on Amazon.com
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.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9d92a42c) out of 5 stars Seminal Book Connects Speech, Cognition, and Autism Oct. 17 2005
By Norma T. Bauer - Published on Amazon.com
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. When English speakers view the same picture, the parts of their brains that get stimulated are the the parts that are viewing the tiger. I don't know how they measured this and I don't know if language has anything to do with it, but it certainly seems to be a nurture, not nature thing.

The world is evolving and there is so much more to be understood about where we came from that may have implications about where we're going.

This book helps move us forward on that journey.

- Norma T. Bauer
[...]

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World


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