February 8, 2014


What sets humanity apart (Stephen Cave, Financial Times)

Those seeking the most cutting-edge account might therefore turn directly to Tomasello's own new book, A Natural History of Human Thinking.

Tomasello has spent a lifetime conducting similar tests on both great apes such as chimpanzees and on humans of different ages, in order to pin down exactly where our capacities differ. In this difficult but rewarding book, he attempts to place these results into a grand theory of how and why these differences evolved.

All of our enhanced faculties, he argues, are about one thing: co-operation. Our great ape cousins are very social - a trait associated with cognitive complexity - but they are mostly competitive within those social groups. At some point in our evolutionary history, he conjectures, early humans were forced to overcome this competitiveness and work together for common goals such as hunting large prey. Such co-operation then drove the development of all those faculties listed by Suddendorf, from understanding others to language, culture and morality. These abilities further support each other, which is why the twig of humanity now stands out so far.

Tomasello makes a good case for our being hardwired to work together: in one study he cites, an adult and a human infant were engaged in a joint effort to get a toy. When the adult suddenly stopped, the child tried various means to re-engage him; whereas chimps just tried to manage the task on their own. In another study, pairs of three-year-old children had to collaborate for a reward; when the reward unexpectedly became available to one child halfway through, he or she nonetheless ignored it and persisted until both were rewarded - needless to say, chimpanzees did not.

Tomasello's account of how co-operation drove the development of our distinctive intellect is controversial - Bekoff too would point to the growing body of evidence on how other species co-operate. It is also highly speculative: a trait such as co-operation leaves few traces in the fossil record. But it is speculation by a thinker at the top of his field, based on the latest research, and as such is likely to be the definitive statement of human uniqueness for some time to come.

His account also makes me feel better about not having invented the iPad or landed on the moon: it suggests that these are indeed triumphs of the human spirit, but not because they sprang from the minds of lone superhumans. Rather, it is because they are products of the distinctively human practice of putting heads together. 

Posted by at February 8, 2014 7:11 AM

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