The First Idea, by Stanley I. Greenspan and Stuart G. Shanker, has the subtitle “How Symbols, Language, And Intelligence Evolved From Our Primate Ancestors To Modern Humans,” and that’s pretty much what it’s about. I opened it at the bookstore with a sinking feeling of “here we go again,” but was surprised to find that their ideas seemed pretty sensible. As I said in my MetaFilter post, “I don’t think we’ll ever know where language came from, but this sounds like a more fruitful line of thinking than Chomsky’s deus ex machina ‘language gene’ mutation.” Certainly the sections on child development will be of interest to anyone who has a child (or, er, a stepgrandson). The Christian Science Monitor review gives an idea of the authors’ approach, with a handy summary (“The Ascent of Human Thinking”) at the end.


  1. I’m intrigued by the authors’ derivation of abstract systems from play, although as summarized their division between “natural selection” and “culture” sounds direly unambiguous. Most social evolution theory reads like nonsense to me, but I certainly wouldn’t deny that the species is wired to produce culture of *some* sort.
    The mention of “waiting for juice” makes me wonder — do they mention one of my favorite pieces of research on patience?
    “Children who saw images of the rewards they were waiting for (shown life-size on slides) delayed twice as long as those who viewed slides of comparable control objects that were not the rewards for which they were waiting, or who saw blank slides.”

  2. Well, that wasn’t very bright of me.
    Abstract systems link.
    Patience link.
    I apologize for the extra clutter.

  3. Hm, the usual black box in the middle:
    5. Archaic humans acquire symbolic and linguistic abilities through complex interactions involving presymbolic communication (600,000 – 100,000 years ago).
    Yes. “And then something happened…”

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