Biosocial Perspectives on Children

Schmitt, Lincoln H

Biosocial Perspectives on Children, edited by Catherine Panter-Brick. Biosocial Society Symposium Series 10. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 160 pp. $54.95 (hardback), $19.95 (paperback).

Good things often come in little packages. This is a book of 4 state-of-theart reviews encompassing childhood as a biological phenomenon and as a sociocultural phenomenon, childhood biological variation and health, and childhood psychological development. There are 2 other chapters that discuss and synthesize the 4 reviews, and these add considerably to the book’s value for undergraduate and postgraduate students, at whom it is aimed. The emphasis is very much on both evolutionary and anthropological perspectives.

The first review chapter, by Barry Bogin, considers the “evolutionary and biological aspects of childhood.” This is a synthesis of Bogin’s ideas that childhood is a feature unique to Homo, arising because of the fitness benefits it bestows upon the mother as well as the child. First, Bogin argues that childhood is not a consequence of heterochrony but rather arose de novo. At least in 1 respect he must be correct, because if childhood is absent from other species except our recent extinct ancestors, it must be new, but in other respects it must be due to changes in developmental timings, as evidenced by data presented later in the chapter that show delays in tooth eruptions and sexual maturity milestones. Indeed, presenting the explanations as a dichotomy seems simplistic, although it does serve the purpose of stimulating discussion. To some extent the problem is due to differences in perspective that depend on the level of focus (genes, individuals, societies) and the difficulties generated by attaching names for convenience to sections of a continuous process (e.g., mitosis and meiosis).

Bogin next reviews the patterns of physical and behavioral changes associated with human development, placed in a generalized mammalian context. “Childhood is defined as the period following weaning, when the youngster still depends on older people for feeding and protection.” For heuristic purposes this definition would be better if it included the endpoint of the period. This section also has a graph of stature/weight growth that shows no evidence of an asymptotic trend at age 20! These minor criticisms aside, the latter part of Bogin’s chapter is an excellent account of how and why childhood may have arisen. The cerebral Rubicon is used to justify the necessity of significant postnatal growth once brain size exceeds about 850 cm 3. This is followed by a description of the benefits of childhood: learning, socialization, and behavioral plasticity for the child and greater reproduction for the mother because of early resumption of ovulation. The cost is a requirement for caretakers-older pre-adults and old adults. This hypothesis also impacts directly on the evolution of menopause, which is almost certainly an intricate part of the adaptive complex.

Allison James examines the variations in childhood in space and time from a social perspective. First, she debunks the myth that there is a universal childhood, elegantly showing the enormous extent of intercultural diversity, as envisaged by adults, and extending from the view that childhood is little different from adulthood to the view that denies children their humanity. However, the real strength of this chapter is James’s consideration of studies that examine childhood from the child’s point of view-making their “voices audible”-an example of where Western attitudes, which paint the child as a dependent incompetent, have hindered the development of our understanding. She shows that children play an active role in constructing their own childhoods, which should be pluralized, not just because of cross-cultural diversity but also because of the intra-individual socially dependent childhoods that are ecologically sensitive, such as differences between school and home. One outcome of all this diversity is the appreciation that global declarations of children’s rights can have serious and deleterious implications for child wellbeing.

The next chapter, by Catherine Panter-Brick, reviews the contribution of biological anthropology to our understanding of child health. We are inclined to think that children are sensitive to poor environments, but not all cross-cultural studies support this. The biomedical approach has been to assess health through demographic and anthropometric features, notably morbidity, mortality, and growth, but also through the relationship between these features and parental child-care and socioeconomic factors. Panter-Brick eloquently points out the difficulties inherent in the overreliance in growth studies on anthropometry, which ignores the determinants of growth and so urges parallel investigations of lifestyle factors. With this in mind, PanterBrick then reviews 3 areas in which the emphasis is on the processes that generate ill-health. She considers first infection and malnutrition and then physical activity, where she explains the advantages of and the methodological difficulties in analysis of heart rate data. Finally, she turns her attention to stress hormones as indicators of well-being, something “less easy to measure and conceptualize than frank ill-health, but which offers exciting perspectives for future research.” This section largely considers Flinn’s studies in the Caribbean that have shown relationships between family household composition, cortisol excretion rates, and illness.

Robert LeVine’s chapter is an environmental view of the psychology and anthropology of childhood. He begins with a historical overview of the development of the field, making particular note of its dependence on childhood development in Western countries and the consequent severe limitations resulting from the lack of cross-cultural studies. I found it somewhat inconsistent that from the outset LeVine states that the chapter will focus on the nature-nurture problem, but yet there is no substantive analysis of possible genetic influence. He seems to dismiss the influence of genes on normal developmental variation, yet acknowledges “that genetic and environmental factors should be seen as interacting and collaborating in the individual development of humans rather than as opposed sets of potentially dominating explanatory factors.” The problem is partly related to the confusion between explanations for within-group versus between-group variation-an age-old misunderstanding that has no right to have a continuing existence. Crosscultural studies do increase the size of the canvas on which we view geneenvironment interrelationships, and in that limited sense LeVine fulfills his task of focusing on the nature-nurture problem, because the chapter is essentially devoted to describing intercultural differences in child behavior development. LeVine espouses his theory that parental and societal goals are the primary determinant of child social developmental variation. These goals lead to cross-cultural differences in the resources mobilized by parents and society and parental responses to infants, leading to marked differences in aspects of child behavior such as the form of infant attachment.

Finally, Martin Richards acts as a discussant of the 4 reviews. This chapter is as valuable for heuristic purposes as the reviews themselves; this is also true of the introductory chapter by the book’s editor. Richards uses the analogy of passengers sitting in different seats on the same train journey to understand how different disciplines view the same problem; this creates inherent difficulties for synthesizing views. Although I take exception to some of the detail (e.g., cultural evolution described as Lamarckian; natural selection occurring at the level of groups and species), I agree with the broad thrust of Richards’s argument. He challenges the usefulness of dichotomies such as biological/social and nature/nurture and says we need to take a systems view of development to proceed further. To take a slightly cynical view, I wish him good luck in this endeavor to decry dichotomizing. We shouldn’t forget the strong tendency of humans to think in this way!

Richards also criticizes the tendency for DNA to be “seen as the beginning and end of all processes in the living world” and that there are genes for things. What he is really doing is criticizing the shorthand language that geneticists use, something common throughout academia. Unfortunately, many geneticists take their own simplified phrases literally, forgetting that there are implied bits that need to be filled in for complete meaning. It is times like this that the last section of Harris’s (1980) book needs another reading. Despite the level of methodological sophistication in partitioning phenotypic variance .. when the most advanced aspect of a discipline is measuring heritability, the long journey of discovery of cause and effect has taken only its first few steps. There are several other aspects of Richards’s chapter that are particular useful for promoting discussion, including the difficulties in separating the biological and social aspects of childhood.

The reviews in Biosocial Perspectives on Childhood are somewhat idiosyncratic, and I must admit to a preconception that is a little skeptical of the value of edited volumes designed for students. Fortunately, this book makes me reassess these prejudices, and I for one will be using it in my teaching. It is an excellent resource for students and researchers in the biosocial sciences, both directly and also indirectly through the citations contained within it. Childhood and children are good frameworks within which we can debate a range of biosocial issues, such as the nature-nurture problem (and the problem of the nature-nurture problem). While I am reluctant to let my culture-specific attitude to children creep into this review, I can’t help but recommend a copy of this little gem for the library of all those working in the biosocial sciences.

Literature Cited

Harris, H. 1980. The Principles of Human Biochemical Genetics, 3d revised edition. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Elsevier/North-Holland, 435-440.’


Department of Anatomy and Human Biology

University of Western Australia

Nedlands, Perth, WA 6907


Copyright Wayne State University Press Dec 1999

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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