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HOME > ON THE BOOKSHELF > July-August 1998 > Bookshelf Detail


Body-Language Buffet

Rowland Miller

Nonverbal Communication: Where Nature Meets Culture. Ullica Segerstr?le and Peter Molnár, eds. 314 pp. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997. $29.95.

Everyone will find something of interest in this eclectic volume of psychophysiology, economics, ethology and history, all of it documenting the close ties between nature and culture in human affairs. The book emerged from a 1992 conference at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Bielefeld, Germany. The conference organizers—also this collection's editors—enticed a diverse group of 20 international scholars to share their views. Indeed, the volume's geographic reach may have helped produce its defining characteristic, an intellectual miscellany that can be its most intriguing yet most frustrating feature.

Segerstr?le and Molnár unabashedly acknowledge their intent to persuade readers that, rather than being opposing influences, biological and social determinants of behavior often shape one another. Human beings are among the many animals, for instance, that are born with certain hard-wired capacities for intelligible displays that signal their emotions. However, one's upbringing encourages voluntary control of such responses, as culture dictates which displays are acceptable in which situations. Adult behavior emerges from the combined, interactive influences of nature and culture, with the distinctions between them sometimes fuzzy.

The authors cover such universals in nonverbal human behavior as facial expressions and social grooming; cultural pressure on the evolution of nonverbal behavior; and nonverbal behavior as both embodiment and cause of cultural patterns. On one hand, the book's breadth is exciting, its reach invigorating. Most of the authors describe their own research—from high-tech measurement of muscular tension in the face to patient, painstaking observation of primitive cultures. Others offer informed speculation on such things as our ancestors' decision to descend from trees and on the modern-day difficulty of distinguishing good people from bad.

Although the book is an intellectual smorgasbord, as with any good buffet, not all of the dishes will be to everyone's liking. Only a reader with the broadest intellectual sympathies is likely to find commentaries on bird calls, 10th century monastic sign language, smiling in infants, culture or the lack thereof in capuchin monkeys and autonomic reactions to angry faces to be equally compelling. And only the least parochial scientist is likely to find the analytic methods represented here to be equally persuasive. In my view, the book admirably establishes nonverbal behavior as a focal point of the dynamic interplay of biological and social origins of behavior. Although its eclecticism is attractive, its diversity reduces its cohesion and coherence. Many readers may wish for larger portions of their favorite dish.—Rowland S. Miller, Psychology, Sam Houston State University


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