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General News    H4'ed 3/23/21

A Book Review of Michael Tomasello's: Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

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A Book Review of "Becoming Human: A theory of Ontogeny," by Michael Tomasello

In this award-winning book, Professor Michael Tomasello and his colleagues, follow in the footsteps of Charles Darwin and Lev Vygotsky. While drawing heavily on thirty years of comparative human-ape research, he explains the subtleties of why, when, and how we differ psychologically from our last closest ancestor (LCA) on the evolutionary chart, the chimpanzee and bonobo.

The split actually occurred about 600 million years ago, undoubtedly due to adaptive pressures giving selective survival advantages to apes that learned new more complex forms of cooperation (rather than better fighting and warring skills as is often assumed).

The claim here is that these cooperative abilities emerged first in human evolution between collaborative partners in acts of "joint intentionality," and then later, among individuals as members of tribes, bands, troops or proto-cultural groups in acts of "collective intentionality."

It is at precisely the time this spit-off occurred, that nature began selecting for apes who could coordinate their cooperation in the moment, and diachronically, and then, could transmit what they learned to later times.

So far, none of our LCA brethren can meet this last requirement of being able to transmit their cooperative ideas and habits down to later times and generations.

What we see in the instance of human apes is uniquely missing amongst our LCA cousins: We see human cooperation involving shared-intentions growing more complex over time and then being transmitted later through culture to other humans.

In our great ape brethren, shared-intentions still have not been witnessed, or believed to have arisen beyond a rudimentary level, and even then, never becoming coordinated enough to produce ape-wide benefits.

Thus, to the extent culture can be said to exist amongst non-human apes, the researchers here found it to be little more than a competitive response to instinctual-driven needs, needs that never quite rise above the competitive level to the level of being intentionally-shared for cooperative purposes across apes, or, across time.

Now, going on six hundred million years since we split away from our LCA, shared-intentional coordination, and the conscious training of other humans on how to do it, has become a human signature and our most important survival-extending habit and norm.

How and why this happened, is what this book attempts to answer.

The authors posit two reasons: We learned intentionality by using the shared agent "we" to coordinate our behaviors.

At first, this agent operated face-to-face or dyadically. But then it was expanded to operate collectively and came to make up the fundamental building block of what we now recognize as human psychology and human culture.

This in turn has led to cultural learning through internalized norms, conformity, mimicry, training, mentorships, apprenticeships, collaborative inventions and institutions such as schools.

However, so far, even though researchers have recorded many instances of mimicry and individual cooperation in other non-human great apes, and even some proto-cultural like activities, we have seen scant evidence of wide-spread intentional understanding or learning among, or across them.

Thus, the narrative that unfolds here, is a research report on carefully carried-out research that gives us a fuller picture of the development of human psychology and human culture as it began responding to specific adaptive challenges 600 million years ago.

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Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)
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