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

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The First Idea: How symbols, language and intelligence evolved from our primate ancestors to modern humans By Stanley I. Greenspan, MD, and Stuart G. Shanker, DPhil Cambridge, Mass., Da Capo Press, 2004, 504 pp. ISBN: 0306814498 Price: $29

Greenspan and Shanker address the monumental question of the origin of the first idea: how symbols, language and intelligence evolved from our primate ancestors. They synthesize a common theory of human development through a framework called functional/emotional development. They explain the evolution of symbolic knowledge in humans as a result of cultural learning with a crucial role assigned to emotions rather than genetic transmission. The authors of this book distance themselves from the modern generative theory of Chomsky and Piaget's theory of cognitive development. Greenspan and Shanker have their own view of human development, a view that is based on fundamental notions like emotions and cultural practices. They believe that along with increased emotional communication there is an increase in symbolic thinking. The "engine of evolution," they advocate, is not found in the Darwinian principles of transmission of genetic information and survival of the fittest, but lies instead in culturally transmitted caregiving practices. They postulate that in order to develop symbols we must transform our basic emotions into a series of succeedingly more complex emotional signals. This begins in early life during an unusually long practice period and leads to evolvement of symbols, language and a variety of complex emotional and social skills. …