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The Evolution of ChildhoodReview - The Evolution of Childhood
Relationships, Emotion, Mind
by Melvin Konner
Belknap Press, 2010
Review by Natalie A. Emmons
Jan 25th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 4)

This text is a testament to Konner's ability to synthesize a wealth of information into an accessible and well constructed format. The book entitled, The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind, is truly comprehensive in regard to detailing the evolution and development of human cognition and behavior. From the start, Konner takes a strong evolutionary biology/psychology stance as demonstrated when he says, "The history of the technical concept of 'mind' is largely over and cognitive psychology can progress only by becoming neuropsychology" (p. 16). Even though he makes this bold claim, Konner uses evidence from biology and culture to describe the development of the brain and mind. His objective is to integrate the biological stance within a cultural context, which yields a position he calls "behavioral biology of psychosocial development" (p. 5). He accomplishes his goal through pure dedication to the subject matter.

Excluding the introduction, the book is divided into five major sections: 1) Evolution: The Phylogenetic Origins of Childhood; 2) Maturation: Anatomical Bases of Psychosocial Growth; 3) Socialization: The Evolving Social Context of Ontogeny; 4) Enculturation: The Transmission and Evolution of Culture; and 5) Conclusion. The prologue and introduction serve to acquaint the reader with the structure of the book and several of the evolutionary-based theories that appear throughout the manuscript. In the first section, Konner lays the foundation for understanding human evolution. He elaborates on all the major paradigms currently influencing evolutionary theory, discusses evidence related to brain and hominid evolution, and makes the transition to neurological models of psychosocial function. He then proceeds to section two, wherein he carefully outlines the neurological and cultural factors contributing to a number of human behaviors (e.g., sociality, attachment, language, gender differences). As the book title suggests, much of the research reviewed concentrates on ontogenetic processes. Section three follows another transition whereby social factors come to the forefront of the discussion. Konner presents findings detailing how learning and experience within a social setting contribute to certain patterns in human cognition, behavior, and perhaps most importantly, human relationships. The effects of maternal and parental care are explored in addition to other social learning processes. In section four, Konner takes on the debated topic of cultural evolution. The chapters in this section not only highlight theories pertaining to cultural evolution as a whole, but also expand on cultures within certain contexts, such as the culture of middle childhood and the culture of subsistence. The conclusion to the book offers Konner's approach to a unified theory of human behavior. He briefly outlines the four major sections of the book (evolution, maturation, socialization, and enculturation/cultural change) and claims that each of these life processes exhibit four components of an algorithm: 1) variation, 2) self-organization, 3) challenge, and 4) selection. These four factors help account for individual changes within an environment, or as he puts it, "epigenetics in the broad sense" (p. 740).          

Konner's monumental achievement in producing what I consider to be a proper handbook on childhood evolution is not to be underestimated. While reading the text, I was often amazed at how much information was being presented, yet Konner's tone and approach to the material yielded a manuscript that was readable and entertaining. His take-home message, that "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution" (p. 741) is supported by a myriad of research findings. His sensible consideration of cross-cultural findings from an array of cultural groups sets this text apart from similar contributions. As a student of cognition and culture, I would recommend this book to individuals interested in human biology, evolution, culture, or development. It should be noted that the book is dense and could prove a challenge to those unfamiliar with academic writing. Nonetheless, this book would be especially enlightening to individuals pursuing academic studies or research in any of the above named subject areas or persons simply looking to learn more about their own species.    

 

© 2011 Natalie A. Emmons

 

Natalie A. Emmons, PhD Candidate, Institute of Cognition and Culture, Queen's University, Belfast


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