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Review of "The First Idea"

By Stanley I. Greenspan and Stuart G. Shanker
Da Capo Press, 2004
Review by Ramesh Kumar Mishra, Ph.D. on Mar 18th 2005
The First Idea

Stanley Greenspan and Stuart Shanker's book The First Idea is a grand work of extensive erudition, ambition and of experience. Both have been authors of numerous books earlier in such diverse fields as history of psychology, autism spectrum disorder and language development in primates. In this book the authors have tried to integrate all their understandings of these fields to synthesize a common theory of human development through a framework called functional/emotional development. The book almost single-mindedly focuses on one thing -- the evolution of symbolic knowledge in humans because of cultural learning rather than genetic transmission and most importantly on the role of emotions in their development.  Though after surveying important twentieth century thoughts in the fields of cognitive psychology and linguistics, one finds that such ideas are not completely new. As the influence of culture and socio-historical forces on basic human nature is less acknowledged in these days of generativism.  There have been many who were completely dissatisfied with the biological nativitist theories of Chomsky as well as the constructivist experimental approaches of Piaget.  This work has managed to distance itself from both the Chomskyan and Piagetian schools in its basic tenets. The authors of this book have been strong advocates of the third view of human development. The view that does not dehumanize the human potential rather respects it and tries to understand it from very fundamental notions like emotions and cultural practices. Extensive analysis of archeological, historical, and cultural findings and data from primate research and children with autistic spectrum disorder have been used to support this alternative explanation of growth of complex symbol use as a result of emotional exchanges.

There are fifteen chapters in the book, divided into four broad theme areas. In a rather long introduction the authors clearly outline all the theoretical frameworks and research questions and hypotheses that they are going to examine in later chapters. The authors claim such theorists as Robert Boyd, Peter Richardson, Gilbert Gottlieb and Eric Kandel as pioneers in this understanding of cultural formation of human symbolic behavior and their criticism of Chomsky and Pinker on the other hand. Part one is called "Origin and Development of Symbols" and puts the authors' perspectives on the social origins of cognition, the role of emotion, development of emotional signaling, the role of the caregiver and such related issues. The second chapter is devoted to more longitudinal studies of human emotional development and the authors put forth sixteen stages of emotional development in humans chronologically relating to biological development. It starts with the birth and with a "regulation and interest in the world" and ends with "wisdom of the ages". This developmental classification seems rather original in its approach and is based on current understandings of development of self and consciousness. There is a problem is accepting all these ideas on face value as till now not all of it is supported by experimental research and one needs to view them only as hypotheses. But by reading this book what we learn is a completely new theoretical perspective that one can observe with any young child and development of important mental functions are concerned. Much evidence the authors use comes from their observations rather than experimentations. The basic notions of emotional development and its further transformation into verbal symbolic behavior seem based of existing theories of developmental psychiatry. And one of the authors is a practicing psychiatrist. There is a tabular representation of timeline of human motional development. This timeline is based on the finding that, the higher mental capacities that we consider specific to humans like logical thinking and symbol use is actually quite old in terms of human evolutionary history. And the authors argue that, symbol formation during the course of hominoid evolution results from a series of interactive stages of affective transformation, which they term as functional/emotional developmental levels. This argument runs through almost all the chapters. This gradualist view of human development, more particularly the development of symbolic behavior, based on recent paleoanthropological data makes the author's claim rather unique and far different from the views of other schools of thoughts.

Part two is titled " A new Direction for Evolutionary Theory" and has two chapters. In these chapters the authors extensively examine findings from primate research as far as it supports their hypotheses of symbol formations and evolutions of parallels to human skills as they are observed now. These pages narrate in picturesque words one of the author's long field experience with Sue Savage-Rumbaugh's now famous Language Research Center (LRC) at Atlanta and his many first hand experiences with the primates use of symbols.   A careful review of findings in this area reveals that many of these higher primates display complex social and emotional behavior along with humanlike ability to manipulate symbols. As far as development of emotion and its relations to the primate's social behavior is concerned the author's write  " even non human primates are able to transform emotions from catastrophic level, which would be operative under conditions of threat, to more differentiated affective expressions in a variety of patterns of co-regulation that typically permit the complex social negotiation". Greenspan and Shanker then provide a comparative treatment of emotional development in several types of primates like Tamarins Marmosets and Rhesus Monkeys. Then we have tables showing comparisons of molar eruption sequences, dental development against cognitive development and ontogenetic characters for cognitive development in monkeys, great apes and humans. These evidences show evolutionary similarities and differences among these species and what we can learn now about human behavior.  There is discussion on the species-specific care giving behavior among primates that is an observable species-specific capability. Now these evidences have been referred less by scientists and collogues in related fields when they talk about human symbol use as an exclusive field. The modern generative theory of Chomsky and his many amazed followers in cognitive psychology and elsewhere don?t even bother to think that there is any biological capacity in chimps that can make them use language as we do.

            When did our early ancestors start to think logically and developed complex collaborative skills? Answer to this question is from the fossil records and quite convincing as the authors tell.  The development of pattern recognition skills (one of the central themes of AI research) in early hominoids can be traced to the fourth stage of functional /emotional development as proposed in the book. But the authors note that because of a largely mechanist psychological explanation of emergence of such skills we know less about the role of emotions. To support this point we have descriptions of Kanji's (the Bonobo at LRC) use of lexigram, Origin of tool use among the H.habilies and development of care giving practices among primates. Really fossil records tell a lot about what we are today. Chapter six develops the fifth stage of the framework of functional/emotional development and focuses on the development of meaningful speech in humans, again with support from primate data and fossil record. Again these developments were for emotional reasons as we are told. The theory that the gradual descent of the larynx helped humans to articulate speech sounds is explained.  The subject matter of chapter six is the sixth stage of functional/emotional development that deals with emergence of larger thinking categories in language an also the understanding of the symbolic sense of "self' and "other". The cave paintings of Altamira, discovery of ironstones at the African cave of Makapansgat and the Venus of Willendorf all indicate the gradual development of causal thinking in our ancestors. Then the authors return to the use of logical thinking in great apes; for example, the paintings made by the Gorillas Koko and Michel. Part three deals with explanation of functional/emotional framework as it explains the development of language and intelligence. Again the old debate of continuity Vs discontinuity theories of language development is taken up. Here the approach is totally anti Chomskyan. The authors take support from the research of Jerome Brunner and provide reasoning against the generativists' views of language development. Here the arguments are more towards the cultural formations of language and against a genetic or biological one. Speech, according to Greenspan and Shanker rather has a functional/emotional origin and comes as an expression of nurturance. Chapter nine discusses the role of emotion in language development and a wholesome criticism of Chomsky's generative grammar again follows. The authors take an orientation towards the cognitive theories of language acquisition and more openly the interactionist views of Brunner to support the argument that affective emotional gesturing is the root of language development.

After language it is intelligence. And from a functional/emotional perspective it is "the progressive transformations of our emotions from global reaction to sensations to high-level reflective thinking." Piaget's impersonal and analytic models of intelligence completely overlook the emotional aspects of it. There are multiple forms of intelligence as Gardner has shown us. But what about a model of intelligence that has roots with emotions and is gradualist in nature that can be applied across species? Greenspan and Shanker have the answer in understanding affective emotions in making one intelligent. After language and intelligence it is the evidence from cognitive neurosciences.  And brain imaging that shows a role of emotion in the conscious organization and activity of the various parts of the cortical systems in our mental functions. The authors integrate these experimental findings in their stags of functional/emotional framework and claim it as a missing link in the theories of Piaget.  Chapter twelve is on the autism spectrum disorders where we see the developmental derailment of functional /emotional factors. Current brain imaging in people with autism shows a biological defect but the real problem lies in integrating emotion. This chapter also gives an alternate therapy model that integrates these emotional factors with traditional speech language therapy.

Part four is called "The development of Social Groups" and is more philosophical in tone and analyses the usefulness of functional/emotional framework while answering some of the important psychological problems that we currently face in a highly complex and global world.   The development of group behavior and their importance in current times require a new psychological to analyze. And here we know again of the emotional factors that bind group together and allows social cohesion. Then there is a lengthy and speculative analysis of a new doctrine of global living.

This is large book with a very broad canvas. One must be ready to exercise the mind a bit to completely comprehend the theories and ideas that are proposed here. And though this idea of everything having an emotional root is not out rightly radical but certainly fresh and new. This book gives an alternative lens to look at human existence in all its forms. This book is also an excellent research resource also with its coverage of all recent developments in several fields.  And this book attempts to humanize contemporary psychology. Most importantly this work indicated the weakening of the strictly biological view of twentieth century psychology, linguistics and philosophy.


© 2005 Ramesh Kumar Mishra


Ramesh Kumar Mishra , Ph.D., Lecturer in Linguistics, Dept. of Speech Pathology, All India Institute of Speech and Hearing, Mysore, Karnataka, India

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