THE FIRST IDEA; How Symbols, Language & Intelligence Evolved from our Primate Ancestors to Modern Humans, by Stanley I. Greenspan. M.D. & Stuart G. Shanker, D.Phil


Improving Child-Rearing: Great Ideas – But No Policy!

Review by Steve Minett, PhD
This (as they say in literary circles) is a book of two halves: the first half promotes the thesis that what makes us human is not pre- programmed information embedded in our genes, but the quality of the attachment relationship between caregiver and infant. Where this is good enough, it enables us to avoid what they call ‘catastrophic’ emotions, which would lead to immediate action, often of a violent nature. This gap between emotional reaction and action, this period of affect regulation, is (the authors claim) the origin of symbols. Symbols are generated by ‘prolonged chains of emotional signalling’ (not necessarily linguistic) between caregiver and infant. The invention of symbols enabled human language and many forms of human intelligence to develop.
To continue the literary theme, I found myself frequently punching the air in agreement with this thesis, which has the potency to crack the hegemony of the vulgar forms of genetic determinism, so often found these days in the mass media. This jubilation was, admittedly, tempered by the authors’ (to me, curious) lack of reference to a number of scientific developments which (in my view) would strongly support their thesis: in the 450+ pages of their text, I could find no reference to; a) Epigenetics, b) affect researchers, such as Jaak Panksepp and c) developmental psychologists, such as Daniel Siegel. A possible explanation for this could be the authors’ commitment to cultural-religious conservatism, as in this quote: “At their personal core, children will require a very strong grounding in their immediate cultural and/or religious values. This core will need to be strong enough to sustain and support cultural and/or religious values …” (p.454)
The disappointing second ‘half’ of the book consists of the authors’ efforts at so-called ‘policy’ recommendations. Towards the end of the book they simply list a variety of highly desirable circumstances in regard to child-rearing; children and families should not be subject to stress, parents should have the time and space to engaged in ‘prolonged chains of emotional signalling’ with their children, relations between caregiver and infant should be nurtured and protected by the wider society, etc … You don’t have to be a radical social critic to recognised that these ideal goals are very rarely, if ever achieved in modern Western societies. What is profoundly disappointing is that the authors appear to believe that the act of listing desirable outcomes contributes in some way to their achievement. It’s the equivalent of a deeply indebted person announcing that from now on they’re going to earn £300,000 a year – but having no idea where this income is going to come from.

2009, Da Capo Press, ISBN: 0738206806

Key Words; Child-Rearing, Psychology, Evolution, Epigenetics, Consciousness, Panksepp, Siegel,

About Dr Steve Minett PhD; Teacher of Consciousness Theories, Author of books such as Gazing at the Stars, a visionary novel about a transformative social innovation in family life and child rearing.