The First Idea: How Symbols, Language, and Intelligence Evolved From Our Primate Ancestors to Modern Humans (Book Review)

Author:  Greenspan, Stanley and Stuart Shanker
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Reviewed By: Lawrence Hedges, PhD. ABPP, Vol. XXVII, 1 (Winter 2007), pp. 52-53

This is a major breakthrough book that integrates large sets of diverse studies that have preoccupied developmental psychoanalytic thinking for the past three decades. Addressing the age-old question of how the capacity to create an idea first came about, Greenspan and Shanker advance a new evolutionary hypothesis based on observations of human babies and nonhuman primates as well as fresh evidence from neuroscience, linguistics, anthropology, and paleontology. The importance of the book, however, is not simply that it brings together a rich array of findings from diverse fields. But rather that the authors place emotions and emotional signaling at center stage in the development of thought—in contrast to the general philosophical tendency to view the passions as enemies of thought.

Greenspan and Shanker maintain that the complex human capacity for symbolic thought is not hardwired, but must be learned through human interactions. Six initial levels of emotional interacting and signaling are put forward as the foundation for 16 lifespan stages of thinking and learning. The authors’ views challenge the prevailing theory that the evolution of thought has proceeded predominantly through changes in genetic processes of natural selection, genetic mutation, and random genetic drift. They demonstrate that the origins of symbolic thinking and speaking depend on social transmission of cultural practices learned anew by each generation. In this way of approaching the origins of thought, basic biological processes are seen as necessary but not sufficient conditions for individuals to construct symbols and to engage in thought. The sufficient condition for the development of thought involves a series of interactive learning steps. And in humans, even the tools of learning must be interactively relearned each generation.

Central to Greenspan and Shanker’s thesis is that “our highest level mental capacities, such as reflective thinking, only develop fully when infants and children are engaged in certain types of nurturing learning interactions” (p. 7) and that children deprived of such interactions exhibit a variety of problems in their social, language and thinking capacities. The authors see as incorrect the view held by many leading neuroscientists such as LeDoux that emotions are states of mind somewhat separate from and competing with logical thinking. Contrary to the ideas of Chomsky and Pinker on the origins of language, the authors hold that language and cognition are embedded in the emotional processes that give rise to symbols. They show that while Piaget and his followers conducted pioneering studies on how a child acts on his world in order to learn to think, they were unable to formulate the mechanism through which symbol formation and thinking actually occurs.

As a further critique, the authors add that since the days of Hobbes, social organization and political discourse has been widely viewed as a function of language that is basically genetically mediated. In contrast, Greenspan and Shanker maintain, “the growth of complex cultures and societies and human survival itself depends on the capacities for intimacy, empathy, reflective thinking, and a shared sense of humanity and reality” (p. 9). These capacities that allow human beings to work together cooperatively in larger and larger groups with a high degree of mutual empathy and trust are the same human emotional capacities that are required for the development of symbols, language, and thought. “The affective processes that orchestrate individual intelligence connect the individual to the social group and characterize the way in which the group functions” (Ibid.).

While the stages of emotional and intellectual growth delineated by Greenspan and Shanker parallel in many ways developmental schemas put forward by other developmental specialists, the critical accent of their 16 lifespan stages of Functional Emotional Developmental Capabilities describes and defines emotions not simply as various affective states but rather as:

“the child’s overall emotional abilities, such as her ability to engage with others and exchange emotional signals so that she can understand others and communicate her own needs, her ability to elaborate emotions in play and with words and pictures, and her level of empathy . . .. These overall emotional abilities are “functional” in that they enable the child to interact with and comprehend her world . . .. They are fundamental emotional organizations that guide every aspect of day-to-day functioning, unite the different processing abilities, and . . . orchestrate the different parts of the mind” (p. 53).

Tempting as it may be to discuss or even to list Greenspan and Shanker’s 16 lifespan stages of functional/emotional development, space permits only the briefest mention of the 6 initial stages because they are so crucial to the development of basic psychological and social skills:

Stage 1—Regulation and Interest in the World: Shared attention and regulation from birth on
Stage 2—Engaging and Relating: Growing feelings of intimacy from 2 to 4 months on
Stage 3—Intentionality: Two-way intentional, emotional signaling and communication from 4 to 8 months and on
Stage 4—Problem Solving, Mood Regulation, and a Sense of Self: Long chains of co-regulated emotional signaling, social problem solving, and the formation of a presymbolic from 9 to 18 months and on
Stage 5—Creating Symbols and Using Words and Ideas: Experiences, including feelings, intentions, wishes, action patterns, etc., are put into words, pretend play, drawings, or other symbolic forms from 18 months on
Stage 6—Emotional Thinking, Logic, and a Sense of “Reality”: Building bridges between ideas: logical thinking from 2 ½ years on

For personal reasons, this reviewer was particularly interested in Stage 16—Wisdom of the Ages: “The ability for true reflective thinking of an unparalleled scope or a retreat and narrowing of similar proportions. There is the possibility of true wisdom free from the self-centered and practical worries of earlier stages. It also, however, can lead to retreat into one’s changing physical states, a narrowing of interests, and concrete thinking” (p. 91). This summary definition of Stage 16 typifies the ways Greenspan and Shanker (in chapter two and throughout the book) attempt to conceptualize the overall conflicting functional emotional issues that characterize each of the 16 lifespan stages.

The book is replete with clinical observations from Greenspan’s many years of experience as a child psychiatrist working with autistic spectrum children who have, for whatever reasons, experienced a deprivation of functional emotional learning experiences. Also of particular interest is the detailed attention the book gives to the many fascinating emerging studies of pre-human primates and nonhuman primates—an expertise that philosopher-psychologist Shanker brings to the collaboration. He notes:

“Just as the discoveries of the wheel and fire set in motion enormous technological advances, the learned ability to signal with emotions and progress through various stages of emotional transformation enabled the development of symbols, language, and thinking, including reflective reasoning and self-awareness” (p. 10).

The authors are concerned that emotional processes embedded in group behavior for millions of years may be in jeopardy in the twenty-first century, because the critical transformations in the mind and brain that support reflective thinking depend on the way humans interact emotionally with and learn from each other. The authors see these learned patterns as highly vulnerable and express concerns that misunderstandings regarding what is essential about human beings may increase that vulnerability in the modern age.

Lawrence E. Hedges

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