The Marvellous Learning Animal: What Makes Human Nature Unique by Arthur W.Straats (book review).

I have to confess that when I started reading Arthur W. Straats’ book, ‘The Marvellous Learning Animal: What Makes Human Nature Unique’, that I wasn’t reading it somewhat unhinged from reading another book at the same time. Nope! Straats’ does have a sense of humour and the good sense not to use footnotes which ultimately made this a good book to get into as he examines the unique nature of Man from all sorts of perspective. Whether it is because of the developed dexterity of his arms and especially his hands or the ability of abstract thought, Man has stood out from the rest of the animal kingdom and showed an incredible dexterity with his brain for learning new habits and passing this knowledge to others. He also has the kind of body that can take advantage of his environment unlike the equally intelligent dolphin who can only swim, eat fish and chat a lot. Unlike other primates, he can also travel further and adapt to new environments which explains his dominance on planet Earth in the past two millennia.


When it comes to bringing up children, Straats clearly shows he’s on home turf where he happily explains how to associate words with their emotional content to children learning how to talk. He also stresses the value of both parents spending time with their young off-spring, especially when eating, so it strengthens human contact and speeds up thing like learning how to walk and even playing games.

This also helps when developing natural talents, although his examples of tennis player Jimmy Connors and golfer Tiger Woods practicing in their infancy forgets the fact that the more hours spent developing any talent the more likely it will become refined. I would have thought that as it takes some 10,000 hours to be really proficient at any subject, the early you start the better.

I also didn’t realise that Straats was the man responsible for using the ‘time-out’ technique as a means of punishment for children. As he points out, he didn’t take the term from American football but from an experimental animal-enforcement procedure which it shared some features. Isolating a child from what initiated the bad behaviour is really the equivalent of the British attitude of being sent to your room but, as he points out in his example, when out at a restaurant, taking your off-spring outside would have the same effect. The whole point is ensuring the best behaviour from children rather than turn them into spoilt brats. Looking objectively, I can’t help but wonder if it’s also because children can’t be reasoned with at their own level.

Some of the things about children learning certain behaviour habits depends largely on having patient parents who will follow his protocols or even nastier ones who can see the possibilities to abuse his techniques. Saying that, I do agree that giving sufficient attention to your off-spring in their formative years will do more good than harm if you want to turn them into articulate intelligence kids, providing that you’re that way yourself.

I love his demonstration of emotional words on page 187 but English has always had expressive words. Look at the words ‘hate’ and ‘love’. You loathe one and adore the other. If anything, the emotional resonance comes from the words pronunciation. Even my use of ‘loathe’ and ‘adore’ has the same effect. It would have been interesting to see if there is anything comparable in other languages to at least establish it could be considered as common to all or selective terrestrial languages though.

I’m less sure about early training for physical abilities. A lot of that depends on body type. Not all of us are going to have long fingers and dexterity to become a concert pianist or any musical instrument well or good at athletes. How do you help geeks like us who are a puzzle to their parents, mostly because, correct me if I’m wrong, rarely come from geeky parents? Surely the template is somewhat broken where we are concerned or parents trying to make us conform to something we aren’t which has always affected people like us.

Although it would be possible to come away from this book thinking that Straats has a certain smugness as to how clever the human animal is, this is not actually the case. If anything, you should come away from it thinking how lucky you are to be you. I do think he should have tackled more in terms of bad conditioning or how people can use it against other people, there is a lot here that you can learn from as well. If you’ve ever thought that you’ve reached the pinnacle of what you can do, Straats will give you sufficient optimism to carry on and learn some more.

GF Willmetts

May 2013

(pub: Prometheus Books. 402 page indexed small hardback. Price: $27.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-61614-597-2)

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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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