Subscribe
Subscribe
MY AMERICAN SCIENTIST
LOG IN! REGISTER!
SEARCH
 
Logo IMG

BOOK REVIEW

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


comments powered by Disqus
 

Connect With Us:

Facebook Icon Sm Twitter Icon Google+ Icon Pinterest Icon RSS Feed

Sigma Xi/Amazon Smile (SciNight)


Latest Multimedia

Alvin Sub

Happy Birthday to Alvin! August 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of Alvin, the submersible that has been so influential in ocean research, including the discovery of hydrothermal vents. In 2014, a retrofitted Alvin also took its first test cruise.

Heather Olins, a doctoral candidate at Harvard, studies microbial ecology at deep sea hydrothermal vents with the help of Alvin, and shares her personal tribute to the submersible on these landmark occasions.

To view all multimedia content, click "Latest Multimedia"!


Subscribe to Free eNewsletters!

  • Sigma Xi SmartBrief:

    A free daily summary of the latest news in scientific research. Each story is summarized concisely and linked directly to the original source for further reading.

  • American Scientist Update

  • An early peek at each new issue, with descriptions of feature articles, columns, Science Observers and more. Every other issue contains links to everything in the latest issue's table of contents.

  • Scientists' Nightstand

  • News of book reviews published in American Scientist and around the web, as well as other noteworthy happenings in the world of science books.

    To sign up for automatic emails of the American Scientist Update and Scientists' Nightstand issues, create an online profile, then sign up in the My AmSci area.


EMAIL TO A FRIEND :

Of Possible Interest

Book Review: Don't Try This at Home

Book Review: Stocking Nature’s Arsenal

Book Review: Have You Seen This Species?

Subscribe to American Scientist