How to Build A Human
Your book guide to understanding human development
Most social scientists focus on studying particular traits or phenomena, but don’t necessarily ask how such traits develop, since they aren’t developmental psychologists. But I quickly realized in graduate school that you cannot truly understand a trait you’re studying until you understand how it develops.
I became first interested in romantic attachment in graduate school, and quickly dove into a rabbit hole of debate about how adult attachments develop across the lifespan. At a similar time in grad school, I discovered behavior genetics which is quite informative for understanding development as well. I then began teaching introduction to lifespan development in 2019. It was from these experiences that I realized development isn’t just a sub field of psychology, but a necessity for understanding all of psychology.
This month’s curated book list focuses on providing you with eight excellent books on human development organized around biology, parenting, and special topics. If you’re not already excited about human development, I hope you soon will be. Happy reading!
Best of Biology
Coming from an evolutionary background, I am naturally pulled toward biological perspectives on development. Much human development research is on infants and children after they’re born, but so many fascinating things happen during gestation, too, which each of these books hit on.
The Dance of Life: The New Science of How a Single Cell Becomes a Human Being by Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz and Roger Highfield showcases some truly remarkable work being done in the field of embryology. Zernicka-Goetz is studying the earliest stages of cellular development, literally breaking boundaries of studying cellular development in lab-grown embryos.
Innate: How the Wiring of Our Brain Shapes Who We Are by Kevin J. Mitchell is probably one of my most recommended books I’ve read, and I’ve even used it in a recent course I thought. Mitchell explains brain development from a genetic perspective, not missing a detail. This book opened my eyes to the perspective of neurodevelopmental disorders and well (intellectual disability, autism, and schizophrenia) in a way that I hadn’t previously known. You can read my longer review of Innate here.
T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us by Carole Hooven is an accessible and detailed account of how testosterone impacts sexual development in utero and through puberty. Humans are sexually reproducing species, and a major driver of sex-differences between men and women is testosterone, which not only shapes our visible sexual development, but also our behavior. You can read my longer review of T here.
Best of Parenting
Parenting is a tricky topic developmentally. There is the asinine debate about whether parents ‘matter’ for child development (of course they do), but a more intelligent question is how they matter for child development. Both of these books initially appear wildly contradictory in perspective, but actually are quite complementary.
The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children by Alison Gopnik is my favorite developmental psychologist, seamlessly integrating evolutionary and experimental psychology in her work. The Gardner and the Carpenter (another book I recently used in a course I taught) provides a beautiful perspective on how parents matter: they are responsible for providing an experientially rich and trusting environment to foster healthy development. A must read.
The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years by Emily Oster is part how-to-guide, part literature review on major parenting topics in modern America. The third book in her incredibly popular Parent Data book series, Oster gives a pragmatic overview of major parenting concerns from sleep to nutrition to choosing schools. You can read my longer review of The Family Firm here.
Best of Development Special Topics
This next set of books are a compilation of books on specific topics that don’t totally fit neatly into a category, but are informative and interesting from a development perspective.
The Slow Moon Climbs: The Science, History, and Meaning of Menopause by Susan Mattern was a bookstore discovery, and I still do not think this book has received the credit it deserves. Mattern gives the best written overview of the competing theories of menopause I’ve read, and then provides an excellent cross-cultural perspective on this major female developmental stage. Truly a gem of a book. You can listen to her discussion with Xavier Bonilla on the Converging Dialogues podcast for more!
Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition by Patricia S. Churchland was a surprising read for me in that I wasn’t expecting such an explicit developmental framing when I first picked up this book. Since I’ve now learned, and think is still broadly underappreciated, babies are insanely smart. Tiny human brains are the most advanced learning machine on earth, and Conscience is a great spotlight on that fact with a special focus on morality.
No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality by Judith Rich Harris was an important book for me intellectually. I read it during my first semester in graduate school and it set me on the path of studying both development and behavior genetics. This book came out 20 years ago, which is important context for reading, but is truly a classic. Her peer socialization theory was radical in the field of developmental psychology. And while not every claim holds up, it’s a must read for developmentalists.
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This is a great list. I've read some, I own some, and I will get the others. One question though. Your last line on Harris' book says "And while not every claim holds up, it’s a must read for developmentalists." could you point me in the direction of works that show where she erred ?