Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Tomasello, Michael. A Natural History of Human Thinking

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Tomasello, Michael. A Natural History of Human Thinking

Article excerpt

TOMASELLO, Michael. A Natural History of Human Thinking. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014. xi + 178 pp. Cloth $35.00--For the last decade and a half, Michael Tomasello has been developing an account of the critical cognitive differences between humans and our great ape relatives and of how those differences have evolved. He has developed his views through his ongoing experimental and observational programs in comparative and developmental psychology, and his rich flow of experimental and theoretical papers have been punctuated by three synthesizing monographs: The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (1999), Why We Cooperate (2009), and most recently, A Natural History of Human Thinking.

There is a consistent theme through his work: the human mind is adapted for, and has coevolved with, an increasingly complex human social life, supported by increasingly rich social learning. Moreover, Tomasello thinks the crucial cognitive challenges are ones imposed by cooperation, rather than by Machiavellian competition. Of course, his views have developed and changed over time. In the early phases of his work, Tomasello focused on the cognitive prerequisites of rich, accurate, intergenerational social learning; more recently, he has focused on the cognitive demands of collective action. As he now sees our history, at some stage, perhaps some millions of years after the hominins diverged from the great ape stock, ecological change drove a transition from foragers as technically ingenious, social, but competitive individuals to collaborative foragers, and the challenges and opportunities of collaboration drove hominin minds and social lives further and further away from great ape norms. In elaborating upon this idea, A Natural History of Human Thinking defends a double pulse model of this trajectory: an initial shift from individual to joint intentionality (perhaps complete at the evolution of Homo Heidelbergensis, roughly half a million years ago), and then a further evolutionary shift from joint to collective intentionality, as social life became organized around larger and self-aware groups. Contemporary humans do not just live in groups; we identify as members of a particular group, and often carry a "badge" of that membership, contrasting it with others. This book, then, can be seen as an essay in evolutionary action theory, as it traces an incremental trajectory from individual to joint to collective agency, identifying at each stage the distinctive cognitive and social capacities newly in play.

As Tomasello sees it, hominin life became fundamentally different from great ape social life, because an ecological trigger forced a change from individual to collaborative foraging (especially cooperative hunting), and hominin foragers became interdependent. Their interests were aligned; their social peers were resources more than they were threats and competitors. This selected for joint intentionality. First, intentional agents had joint goals, engaging in projects that were collective, not merely individual projects more efficiently carried out in the company of others. Second, they had "common ground," a shared knowledge of circumstances, capacities, and intentions which were known to be shared. Third, they had a common focus of attention at and over time--Tomasello suggests that this was particularly important, for while the focus of attention was shared, individual perspectives on that common focus varied, and coordinated action (for example, in ambush hunting) required cooperating agents to be sensitive to the differences as well as to the common focus. …

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