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Jerome Kagan is a name that pops up regularly in developmental and introductory psychology texts. His work is also known well outside the professional community; his writings have garnered plenty of public attention in the form of his very accessible books, including The Nature of the Child and The Second Year: The Emergence of Self-Awareness.
His recent book, An Argument for Mind, illustrates his earlier works by way of his own professional development and philosophy.
Kagan was one of the earliest proponents of the power of biological influences on child development. In the 1960s, psychology was still generally dominated by the position (championed by John Watson and carried on by Skinner and other behaviorists) that the early environment was determinative of personality, and that individual potential is bounded largely by those factors common to the species. Kagan decided, after careful observation and testing of children both in the U.S. and in Guatemala, that the developmental sequence is indeed programmed but that the details are strongly subject to early family life and the culture and history of the child's family. Further support for Kagan's findings was provided by hundreds of studies by his own students and many other researchers.
In addition to personality, Kagan's work found that other features of our mental lives, including the understanding and manipulation of symbols, our moral perceptions, our capacity to know and come to terms with the minds of others, and our self-awareness, are formed during and rooted in our first two or three years. Beyond this -- in spite of this -- his work also showed the resilience of children, who are often able to recover despite early set-backs and psychologically impoverished experiences. Thus, while accepting that inherited tendencies and early childhood lay the foundation for it, he disputed the belief that the adult personality is determined solely (or even predominantly) by our childhood experiences.
Kagan started An Argument for Mind as a professional memoir, but the personal insights and philosophical positions are the source of the book's power. For example, he argues that our cognitive and emotional responses to our lives are not the result of isolated neurological components (the physical brain), but rather a much richer and more complex interaction of our genetics, culture, and personal histories. Because of this richness and unpredictability, we have agency and free will. No matter how sophisticated our brain-mapping and brain-monitoring technology becomes, we will never be able to connect brain functioning to a person's real inner life and experience.
One of the socio-philosophic issues with which Kagan grapples is cultural evolution and its effects on individuals and families. For example, the American culture has gravitated toward the primacy of free-enterprise economics and individuality over a shared community vision, but this is not the case in many other cultures. In the individual psyche, the current culture in the U.S. tends to pull for guilt, rather than shame or anger, about our personal failings and limitations, while in some cultures shame is a more common reaction. In yet other cultures, anger may be a more acceptable reaction, however, and in Kagan's view "shame and guilt are more corrosive of vitality than anger" (p. 114). (Readers may sense a note of disdain in Kagan's assessment of the West's celebration of individuality, economics, materialism, and unrestrained sexuality.)
Interestingly, Kagan feels that people in all cultures strive for what is seen as moral or virtuous in those cultures. Just as biologists believe that nothing about biology makes sense except in the framework of evolutionary theory, Kagan argues that nothing about humanity makes sense except in the light of morality. "Nothing about human thought, feeling, and behavior can be understood without acknowledging that humans evaluate events, others, and themselves on a good-bad continuum and try to acquire the personal features they judge as praiseworthy" (p. 126). Because of the centrality of this issue for the book, Kagan provides a very persuasive summary of the process by which we acquire our moral sense.
While Kagan's views on development are broadly accepted now, they are not unchallenged. As the reader discovers from the book's retellings of Kagan's professional interactions over the years, he has never been one to shy away from a debate. One of the most public of these was with another science writer, Judith Rich Harris. While both agree on the importance of inherited factors in child development, Kagan feels Harris gives too much emphasis to the role of peers and too little to the influence of early parenting. The email-based debate between the two is still available here.
One disagreement that surfaces between Kagan and evolutionary psychology is around the issue of inclusive fitness, which suggests we tend to behave so as to maximize the benefit to persons or groups that are genetically related. That is, evolutionary psychology (EP) argues that we tend to behave so as to enhance the likelihood that our genes (or those of relatives) are replicated into future generations. Kagan points out that "Evolutionary biologists remain frustrated by their inability to construct a compelling explanation of why so many adults cooperate with strangers and are loyal and kind toward many who are not kin" (p. 158).
(EP proponents might respond by pointing out that since we evolved to live in small, cooperative groups, we naturally extend inclusive fitness behaviors to incorporate individuals with whom we feel connected, even if these are transitory and non-genetic relationships, and especially if the altruistic behavior is low cost and offers potential reciprocity to self or kin.)
The seventh chapter, "Celebrating Mind," most directly addresses what the book's title suggests. It is here that Kagan counters science's reductionist "dream of explaining the 'large' behavioral phenomena from the activity of groups of 'tiny' neurons" (p. 211). He argues for clarity in discussing the domains of brain and mind, even to the need for separate vocabularies. He expresses concern that the public doesn't fully understand the limitations of the empirical methodology of science, and concludes that "A more accurate understanding of the relation between brain and mind will require acceptance of the principle that the relation is always dependent on the context in which someone is acting" (pp. 242-243). Scientists need to address both the reductionist and non-reductionist domains, which Kagan believes can be reconciled sometime in the future.
Kagan explains that he does not relish the position of critic, and toward the end of the book he discusses the past century's most positive findings and directions in psychology. He appears hopeful for progress in developmental psychology and, by extension, for improving the lives of children and even improving relationships among cultures.
For those interested in the history of and debate about psychological ideas, this book is well worth the read.
© 2007 Keith Harris
Keith Harris, Ph.D., is Chief of Research for the Department of Behavioral Health in San Bernardino County, California. His current interests include the empirical basis for mental health research, behavioral genetics, and the shaping of human nature by evolutionary forces.