Reviews for Human Spark : The Science of Human Development

Booklist Reviews 2013 May #1
*Starred Review* Kagan has heard neuroscientists boasting that the biochemistry of genes and synapses will soon explain all human emotions and behavior. He does not believe them. Here he advances a sophisticated perspective on the human condition, situating the latest findings of neuroscience within a much broader matrix of psychological, social, and cultural considerations. When explaining the emergence of human morality, for instance, Kagan acknowledges a biological-genetic priming for empathy, but he insists that the forms that empathy takes depend on the psychological development of the individual and on the cultural context in society. Readers further discern the limits of biological science as they see how the same biochemical--oxytocin--can foster openness to new ideas in some, while intensifying suspicion in others. An analyst's eye for complexity also informs Kagan's treatment of social class as a determinant of beliefs and conduct: upper-class children in Madagascar look remarkably unlike upper-class children in the U.S., yet share their cognitive profile. A capacity for dealing with complicated issues serves Kagan and his readers well when he confronts the twin epidemics of mental illness and moral confusion afflicting the twenty-first-century world. A rare inquiry allowing general readers to see how cutting-edge research clarifies ordinary human hopes--and fears. Copyright 2012 Booklist Reviews.

Choice Reviews 2013 November
Kagan (Harvard Univ.), one of the premier developmental psychologists living today, offers a well-crafted reference that charts the life-span progression of the individual from the fetal stage to adolescence and then adulthood. He thoroughly explores every facet of human development, both intrinsic and environmental. In addition, Kagan parses many popular assumptions and theories underlying human development, such as concepts generated by attachment studies by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, held by parents and mainstream psychologists, and often highlights logical flaws in such presumptions. Like a highly erudite professor, Kagan marshals facts that reinforce his argument that it is unwise to make predictions about adult behaviors based on the prevailing patterns generated during infancy because of the influence of numerous factors that are operating simultaneously during the maturing years. The narrative reads seamlessly and is highly thoughtful. This reference is highly recommended for readers at all levels with an abiding interest in the dynamics of human development. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readership levels. General Readers; Lower-division Undergraduates; Upper-division Undergraduates; Graduate Students; Researchers/Faculty; Professionals/Practitioners. D. J. Winchester Yeshiva University Copyright 2013 American Library Association.

Kirkus Reviews 2013 April #2
Kagan (Emeritus, Psychology/Harvard Univ.; Psychology's Ghosts: The Crisis in the Profession and the Way Back, 2012, etc.) takes up the cudgels against neuropsychologists and advocates of evolutionary psychology such as Steven Pinker, addressing the question, "What does it mean to be human?" Taking issue with those who would lump human and animal social behavior together, the author distinguishes between moral behavior such as altruism and the social behavior of bees, birds, monkeys, apes and other animals. In his view, conflating them prevents us from the "understanding of the human moral sense." Kagan also derides the idea that human behavior is guided by hidden genetic imperatives to reproduce, slyly asking how this would explain the use of contraception. The author cites the misguided notion that poor mothering is the cause of autism in order to debunk attachment theory (the notion that closeness of mother/child bonding is the crucial determinant of emotional development). He takes on the nature vs. nurture debate, pointing out that genetic proclivities are actually expressed and developed through life experience, with social class playing an important role. While agreeing that children who are born with an identifiable genetic predisposition to low reactivity makes them more likely to be risk takers, he notes that unconventional behavior can take many forms. Scientists and high school dropouts may share the same genetic disposition to unconventional behavior, but birth order is also a factor, with firstborn tending to be more rule-oriented. "Rather than assume that cultures are a defining feature of our species under the control of genes that contribute to fitness," he writes, "it remains possible that cultures might be by-products of the genes responsible for our large frontal lobe and the resulting abilities to infer the thoughts of others, possess a moral sense, be conscious of our traits, and identify with individuals with whom distinctive features are shared." An intriguing overview of many of the underlying assumptions guiding modern psychology. Copyright Kirkus 2013 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2013 May #1

Eminent psychologist Kagan (emeritus, Harvard) states that his 1984 seminal text, The Nature of the Child, was primarily concerned with three major themes: that significant changes in behavior occurring in the first years of life are mainly due to brain development; that the emotions and behavior of infants don't predict the psychological profiles of adolescents; and that a sense of right and wrong emerges in the second year. The vast majority of developmental psychologists concur with Kagan, whose third revision of his original ideas emphasizes three broader questions: What is the expected course of development for all children? How does variation in experience affect the rates at which children develop? What factors determine behavior variability among children and adults? VERDICT For readers who enjoyed Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate or Andrew Solomon's Far from the Tree. Both entertaining and intellectually engaging.--Mary Ann Hughes, Shelton, WA

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2013 March #4

As developmental psychologist Kagan (The Nature of the Child) so astutely points out, a great deal of what we "know" about human development isn't firmly anchored in empirical science. He aims to correct that by encouraging readers to question received knowledge about "the forces that transform infants into children, children into adolescents, and adolescents into adults," and he does so by presenting an insightful discussion of the epistemology of psychology, alongside biting critiques of the methodologies used in psychological research and the social applications of misinterpreted findings (he sees attachment parenting, for example, as woefully ill-advised). But Kagan, an emeritus professor of psychology at Harvard, does much more than merely naysay the misguided; he offers illuminating discussions of the impact of culture on childhood development, as when he analyzes the different responses of Japanese and American children when asked to describe an everyday cityscape, as well as intriguing arguments regarding emotions, mental illness, and the establishment of moral systems during adolescence. Kagan occasionally goes off topic, but this is nevertheless a fascinating summary of the current science behind human development from one of the leaders in the field. 26 b&w illus. (June 4)

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