Michael Tomasello’s Theory: What Makes Us Humans?

Compared to other animals, humans have built societies that are highly developed in terms of culture and technology. Historically, this has been attributed to a hierarchical superiority of humans on a supposedly scalable scale. For example, theories that the human brain is bigger or simply superior are still in vogue today.

Michael Tomasello’s research and theory have been the most relevant recent contributions from comparative psychology to a classic question: what makes us humans? In other words, what makes us different from other animals?

Michael Tomasello’s theory

Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, is a psychologist who studies social cognition – the way people process social information, social learning, and communication.

Tomasello, the perspective lies in constructivism, argues that humans differ from other species by our ability to collaborate on activities when we share goals. Tomasello calls this “shared intentionality”.

    Comparative studies with children and chimpanzees

    In recent years, Tomasello has focused on communication and shared intentionality. for that compared the cognitive processes of children and chimpanzeesAs they are the closest animal to humans.

    In his experiments, Tomasello analyzed, among other things, how children and chimpanzees share the rewards after making a collaborative effort. To do this, he compared the results obtained during collaborative tasks carried out by couples of children or chimpanzees.

    Although the chimpanzees studied were able to work as a team, after obtaining the award, the food in this case the more dominant of the two remained the award in its entirety. This tendency towards individualism makes it difficult for non-human primates to maintain cooperative relationships on a sustained basis over time.

    However the children distributed the reward more or less fairly after collaborating to get it. Even though they used to argue or try to keep all the food, there was some sort of bargaining that usually ended with each of the kids keeping half the price.

    In another of the experiments, one of the couple won the prize before the other. In the case of children, the first to receive the award continued to collaborate with the other until he also received his own. In contrast, the chimpanzee that received the food in the first place did not care about its mate.

      Differences between human and chimpanzee societies

      Tomasello declares from his experiences and observations that the companies formed by great apes are much more individualistic than those of humans. He attributes this to the greater ability of people, even if they are very young, to collaborate and attribute intentions to others.

      This ability to “Read thoughts” or imagine the emotions and thoughts of others and understanding that they may be different from theirs is known as “theory of mind”. Great apes and other animals, such as crows or parrots, are also believed to possess this ability, but it is much less developed than in humans.

      Tomasello states that great apes often use theory of mind to compete, for example to obtain sexual partners. They may also engage in altruistic or prosocial behaviors to help other people, but they usually only do so if there is no competition for resources and minimal effort involved.

      According to Tomasello, groups of chimpanzees depend heavily on domination and individual activity; for example, the food collection or the care of young people is carried out by one person.

      In contrast, in humans, social relationships and hierarchies are not only determined by selfishness and domination, but collaboration is more important. Tomasello argues that non-cooperative people (parasites or “stowaways”) tend to be left out in cooperative activities.

      The development of culture and morality

      Another key difference between us and the rest of the primates is that humans create social norms and institutions. According to Tomasello, these are a consequence of our ability to exchange information with the other members of our group and to transmit the culture from generation to generation, which allows us to gradually make our societies more complex.

      The degree of collaboration and interdependence also increases as societies develop. Human groups tend to grow: in a few thousand years, a tiny period of time in the context of evolution, we have grown from small tribes of hunters and gatherers in the world. This progress would have been unthinkable without the development of language and the cumulative progress of culture and technology.

      According to Tomasello, children are instinctively cooperative but as they age and are influenced by the culture around them, they learn to discriminate against those with whom they collaborate, mainly by not being exploited by “free riders”.

      Human children internalize the norms built by their society to the point of taking responsibility for making others respect them, even if the opposite does not harm anyone. Tomasello argues that human culture encourages the fact that we do things “the right way”, that is, as most members of the group to which we belong do, and that those who do not respect social norms have a bad reputation and are viewed with suspicion.

        Human intelligence and animal intelligence

        Historically, it has been considered that human intelligence is quantitatively superior to animals because our brains are more developed. However, according to studies by Tomasello children surpass chimpanzees in social intelligence but they have a level of physical intelligence, for example spatial or bodily, equivalent to that of these.

        Tomasello and other authors have proven that great apes have cognitive abilities that until recently we would have attributed exclusively to humans. Among other things, they know that objects continue to exist even if they disappear from their sight (permanence of the Piaget object) and can mentally differentiate quantities.

        Small chimpanzees are also adept at communicative gestures, but their variety and complexity are rare. Another monkey, gorilla Koko was trained in the use of sign language by Francine Patterson. Koko even came up with complex concepts by combining several words. There are also examples that non-human animals can pass the culture on from generation to generation: for example, in a group of chimpanzees in Côte d’Ivoire, young people are learning to use stones as hammers to crack nuts.

        Cooperation makes us human

        According to constructivist Tomasello, people learn the language through cumulative cultural transmission, which has made our verbal communication very complex. outraged our body is perfectly adapted to language, From founding organs to specific areas of the brain. Just as marine animals have adapted to an aquatic context, we have adapted to a social context.

        We humans need culture to thrive. Without social interaction or language, not only would we not reach our full potential as a species, but our abilities. cognitive and social would be very similar to those of other primates. Wild children, like Victor de l’Aveyron, are an example: without contact with other people humans lose what makes us special.

          Bibliographical references:

          • Herrmann, E .; Appel, J .; Hernández-Lloreda, MV; Hare, B. and Tomasello, M. (2007). “Humans have developed specialized social cognition skills: the cultural intelligence hypothesis.” Science, 317 (5843): 1360–1366.
          • Tomasello, M .; Fuster, M .; Appel, J .; Behne, T. and Moll, H. (2005). “Understanding and Sharing Intentions: The Origins of Cultural Cognition”. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28: 675-735.
          • Warneken, F .; Hare, B .; Melis, AP; Hanus, D. and Tomasello, M. (2007). “Spontaneous altruism for chimpanzees and young children”. PLoS Biology, 5: 1414-1420.

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