The Human Spark: The Science of Human Development (Book Review)

Author: Jerome Kagan
Publisher: Basic Books, 2013. 333 pages. ISBN: 978-0-465-02982-2
Reviewed by: J. Scott Lewis, PhD, Penn State Harrisburg

In this book, pioneer of developmental psychology Jerome Kagan updates his previous book The Nature of the Child. Kagan focuses on three questions of import in which new evidence brings up to date old ideas. What is the expected developmental course for cognition, emotional development, physical development and moral development in children? How does variation in experience affect the rates at which these traits develop? And, finally, what are the factors that influence variation in experience?

Of course, these are not new questions. They have been asked before in a variety of contexts, including through epigenetic and sociological frameworks. Kagan's contribution to the questions, however, deviates somewhat from the more mainstream approaches to the problem. Kagan questions many of the conventions currently in vogue in developmental psychology. For example, he questions the notion that past behavior in one setting is a good predictor of future behavior in a different setting.

Kagan sees such conceptions as part of a larger problem in developmental psychology; this problem is the lack of triangulation of evidence. Kagan sees this as providing a grossly incomplete picture of human behavior. He uses these weaknesses to offer a critique of some of the most popular theories in developmental psychology. Most notably, he takes aim at attachment theory, which he criticizes as an egregious misinterpretation of research.

Essentially, Kagan relies on sociology to make his case. Sociologists have long argued that culture shapes the lives of individuals within their experiential and historic context. C. Wright Mills made this same argument in 1959, and most sociologists accept it as axiomatic. Kagan discusses how culture shapes the choice that individuals make to influence their development. Offering a thorough review of the literature, the author makes the case not only for socialization, but also for epigenetics. He presents a wealth of evidence on the ways in which environment and experience influence the expression of genes.

A positive aspect of Spark is that Kagan takes a strongly interdisciplinary approach to his topic. The book provides an excellent overview of literature in a variety of areas of developmental psychology.

However, the book is so laden with information and thick with studies that it is often dry and sometimes a little hard to follow. The careful reader will, however, find it a rich source of information and a valuable compendium of information. The comprehensive coverage that it provides makes it an ideal companion to a textbook for those seeking a deeper understanding of many of the issues at the forefront of developmental psychology.

Reviewer Notes

J. Scott Lewis, PhD, is assistant professor of sociology and the program coordinator for Penn State Harrisburg's Bachelor of Social Science in Secondary Education Social Studies program. His interdisciplinary research interests include evolution and human behavior, the philosophy of social science, and pedagogy. He is the author of Learn Sociology.

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