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Home » Uncategorized » 20190602 Tomasello, Michel – Becoming Human

20190602 Tomasello, Michel – Becoming Human


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The main idea here is to review experimental data comparing human and great ape development and use it to support author’s believe that human specificity comes from qualitatively different process of development collective intentionality, which provides for human ability to create cultures and societies based on hyper cooperative processes.



Chapter 1. In Search of Human Uniqueness Chapter

It starts with Darwin and author discusses seemingly puzzling circumstance that unlike any other animals, humans created their own environment that includes technology, culture and religion. Author suggests that solution for this puzzle is unusually high level of cooperation achieved by humans. Author discusses ideas of Vygotsky about species-unique forms of sociocultural activity and links it to evolutionary developed biological specificity of human species. Then he defines his team’s specific proposal that this specificity was defined by common intentionality, which emerges during human development at about age of 3 years. At the end he defines his aim as to provide a “complete and coherent account of the process of becoming human”.

  1. Evolutionary Foundations

Human Evolution

It starts with human evolutionary history and then proceeds to compare it to the great apes. Author defines difference in such way:” What they do not possess is humanlike skills of shared intentionality, such as the ability to participate in the thinking of others through joint attention, conventional communication, and pedagogy. Chimpanzees and bonobos—and thus the LCA (common ancestor)—are and were very clever, but mainly or only as individuals.

Then author moves to define shared intentionality and look at its development all the way until present when it becomes Culture and Collective Intentionality. Here is graphic representation if these ides:

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Explanation in Developmental Psychology

Here author discusses 4 different types of learning and how humans are different:

“Typology of four types of learning and experience that play key roles—at different ages in diverse domains—in human cognitive and social ontogeny: (1) individual learning, (2) observational learning (imitation and so forth), (3) pedagogical or instructed learning, and (4) social co-construction (prototypically in peer collaboration).

Here author provides development diagram for complex movements:

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Here is how author describes this process overall:First, from around nine months of age, infants engage with others in acts of joint attention, which creates the possibility of conceptualizing entities and situations simultaneously from differing perspectives; then, later, they can even view things from an “objective” perspective. From early on as well, infants communicate with others referentially, inviting them to jointly attend to something, and this requires recursive inferences about mental states embedded in mental states; later they communicate with shared linguistic conventions. Again, from early on infants imitatively learn things through others’ perspectives, and later they come to understand pedagogy as an attempt by a representative of the cultural group to convey objective cultural knowledge. Finally, by the time they reach school age, children are capable of using all these skills of social cognition, referential communication, and cultural learning to engage intersubjectively with a peer in the kind of cooperative thinking and reasoning that are the source of all kinds of novel cultural achievements.

Chapter 3. Social Cognition

Author describes the mature human thinking as based on several dualities such as objective vs. subjective, true vs. false, and so on. Then author describes in details research that analyses how it happens step by step:

From Apes: Imagining What Others Perceive; Joint Attention; The Coordination of Perspectives; Becoming “Objective”.

At the end of chapter he also provides the graphic representation of this processes:

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Chapter 5. Cultural Learning From Apes: Social Learning

Imitation and Conformity

Here author moves into the area that even further away from animals – cultural transmission of knowledge and skills. The humans so far are only one known species that formally teach young generation not just by example, but using language and other methods such as books, pictures, graphs, and so on. The topics are: Instructed Learning; Becoming Knowledgeable.

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Chapter 9. Social Norms

This is an interesting discussion about normalization of human behavior when groups developed norms of behavior that they formalize and then pass from generation to generation. It is again feature highly developed in humans and mainly absent in apes:

From Apes: Group Life; Social Norms; Justice; Becoming Group-Minded.

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Chapter 10. Moral Identity

This is another purely human feature that pretty much define humans as extremely group-oriented creatures. Author discusses the meaning of moral identity and how it is developed in humans via process of socialization. It is greatly different from apes that form partnerships, but in very primitive forms and usually directed on achieving not more than some local dominance. Obviously in humans it means a lot more because it places individuals “I” within group “WE” supporting both compliance with norms and their enforcement against non-compliant individuals.

From Apes: Social Evaluation; Self-Presentation and Self-Conscious Emotions; Moral Justification and Identity; Becoming Responsible.

Here author provides not only graphic representation of development, but also Venn diagram for moral decision making unique to the humans:

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Chapter 11. A Neo-Vygotskian Theory

Here author reaffirms his conclusion that specifics of human ontogenetic process come down to hyper cooperative way of life, which is main difference between humans and great apes.

Global Theories of Human Ontogeny Shared Intentionality Theory

Here author reviews the following theories:

  • Individualistic – human child as individual scientist developing theory of the world
  • Sociocultural – human child as newly developed part of socio-cultural network being socialized via language and interactions with older members of the culture.
  • Shared Intentionality – human child develops based on two sets of specifically human capacities:

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Chapter 12 The Power of Shared Agency

Here author looks at evolutionary meaning of human species development as unique form based on hyper cooperation and collective intentionality. He refers to work of Maynard Smith and Szathmary that identified common characteristics of eight major transitions in complexity of living things with each transition characterized by two fundamental processes. Here is author’s characterization of these processes and their relevance to humans:

(1) a new form of cooperation with almost total interdependence among individuals (be they cells or organisms) that creates a new functional entity, and

(2) a concomitant new form of communication to support this cooperation.

In this very broad scheme, we may say that shared intentionality represents the ability of human individuals to come together interdependently to act as single agent—either jointly between individuals or collectively among the members of a group—maintaining their individuality throughout, and coordinating the process with new forms of cooperative communication, thereby creating a fundamentally new form of sociality.



It all looks very convincing to me, which somewhat impacted my attitude to duality of humans with their separation / interaction of individual and group evolutionary fitness. I guess I was too much concentrated on individuality as reaction to surrounding pressures throughout to put group first in everything and everywhere. I think that development process based on collective intentionality adequately represents reality and should be taken into account. I guess it moves me to move focus a bit away from individual / group to individual / hierarchy-of-groups, meaning that key better functioning humanity is in forming such hierarchy in minds of all individuals that would give higher priority to more inclusive group over less inclusive competing groups. For example putting humanity overall over religious groups, consequently denying religious supremacy claims and compelling tolerance of other religious groups, if necessary by force. Similarly it could be applied to nation as higher level of hierarchy group over various ideological groups, similarly compelling tolerance between various ideologies. In short whatever internal hierarchy of group exists in the mind of individual, the overriding priority should be tolerance of other hierarchies of groups.



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