Three Questions for Michael Tomasello
Michael Tomasello is Co-Director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and Co-Director of the Wolfgang Köhler Primate Research Center. He has conducted and inspired research on a wide range of questions of critical relevance and foundational importance to the cognition and culture area. His 1999 book, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (Harvard University Press), won the 2001 APA William James Book Award and has been translated into a dozen languages. (A Brasilia bookshop sold its very last copy of Origens Culturais Da Aquisição Do Conhecimento a few days ago. I was there – Em). Tomasello's awards and distinctions include a Guggenheim Fellowship (1997), a Hegel Prize (2009), and, most recently, the 2010 Dr A H Heineken Prize for Cognitive Science. For a list of selected recent publications, see here. For his thoughts on past, present, and present, see below. All comments welcome!
1. In 1992, you brought us your first book, First Verbs: A Case Study of Early Grammatical Development (CUP). Your most recent book, Why We Cooperate (MIT, 2009) takes us well beyond the realms of cognitive linguistics, focusing on another old – and very hot – chestnut in the human behavioural sciences. What are some of the key intellectual landmarks that have marked your route between the two?
I cut my teeth on Piaget, but I was always dissatisfied with his treatment of the developmental period between infancy (sensory-motor period) and school-age (concrete operations). He mostly just said what those children didn’t do, and waved his hand a little bit in the direction of the “symbolic function”. So I thought language was perhaps the best thing to study to understand this period.
In the late 80s I started looking a fair amount at chimpanzees, again focusing mainly on their (gestural) communication. Two things fairly quickly became apparent: (1) the preschool period I was interested in was exactly the one where children took off past apes cognitively, and (2) language was not the key, but merely a result – maybe the capstone – of other more fundamental differences.
I also at that time began reading Vygotsky (the first English translation of Mind and Society was 1978) and Bruner, and I had the not-very-novel idea that the difference between two-year-olds and chimpanzees was not so much in the way they related to the world individually, but rather in the way children related to the world through others. In our 1993 paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences on Cultural Learning we combined this Vygotskian insight with the newly emerging research on theory of mind – positing that children’s cultural learning depends on their social-cognitive abilities to take the perspective of others, understand the beliefs of others, etc. That turned out to be a very fruitful combination that many others have picked up on.
So our first comparative studies were on cultural learning, especially imitation, and we found fairly stark differences between chimpanzees and young children – where the kind of imitation children engaged in could be plausibly related to their special abilities in reading the intentions of others (including imitating arbitrary conventions, such as linguistic conventions, which are, in a sense, wholly intentional phenomena). But chimpanzees do socially learn from others (and understand others as goal-directed agents) to some extent, and so this turned out to be mostly a matter of degree. But other aspects of cultural transmission like teaching and conformity to norms seemed to not be part of chimpanzee life at all. And these have less to do with cultural learning per se than with cooperation, as adults normatively expect children to behave in certain ways.
So in the last 5 years or so we’ve really been focused on cooperation, both in the sense of collaboration and in the sense of altruism – and including both cognitive and motivational aspects. We have borrowed heavily from the philosophers of action who talk about shared intentionality, and this theoretical perspective actually hooked up quite well with some of the earlier things I did on the role of joint attention in early language acquisition. Indeed, in my 2008 book on Origins of Human Communication, I tried to explain the origins of human linguistic communication in terms of underlying processes of cooperation and shared intentionality. The basic insight was that it cannot be a coincidence that humans are especially cooperative in their social lives, as compared with other primates, and also that the pragmatic structure of their linguistic communication, as first unveiled by Grice, is fundamentally cooperative in nature.
So, we are now focused pretty tightly on the evolution of human cooperation, and also its ontogeny, of course, in all of its many aspects.
2. Much research in your lab explores the requisite skills and motivations underlying the capacities for uniquely human culture. Comparative research with apes and young children has shed light on what is unique to, and common across, human cognition and culture. Can this work also help explain patterns of cultural variability?
Only in a very general way. I am a psychologist down deep, and what I really want to know is how human beings function in general. For me, the significance of cultural variability is that it provides rich and valuable evidence for how humans as a species function. And so the only way our research can help anthropologists explain cultural diversity is by identifying universal cognitive and motivational processes (e.g., by comparing humans to other apes) that make humans’ cultural way of life possible. So things like imitation and teaching, collaboration with joint goals and joint attention, social norms and institutions, represent, in our view, humans’ species-unique and species-universal skills and motivations for shared intentionality. But these only explain how humans could in principle create and maintain a particular set of cultural practices; they have nothing substantive to say about the origins of the particular practices created by particular social groups.
3. One commentator has described you as “a pioneer, bravely entering territory where others have feared to tread” (Fn: Carol Dweck in Why We Cooperate). In your view, what is the next big frontier – theoretical, methodological, logistical, or even political – to be faced in revealing what makes us uniquely human?
I have no idea. I have never been able to plan research directions more than about a year in advance. If I knew now what the next great direction would/should be, then I would drop what I am doing now and do that. My answer is that the next great direction is the one I’m doing now – almost by definition. So: cooperation, cooperation, cooperation.