Review: Tomasello, A natural history of human thinking

Tomasello, Michael. 2014. A natural history of human thinking.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 194 pp.

Reviewed by Heather Buza (Wayne State University)

Is there a cognitive evolutionary relationship between great apes and humans? In his valuable book, A Natural History of Human Thinking, Michael Tomasello discuses current research on great ape as well human adult, toddler, and infant cognition. He provides evidence that great apes and humans share many cognitive features due to descent from a recent common ancestor, then discusses exactly what differentiates human cognition from great ape cognition. He neatly disposes with the idea that language is thought, and attempts to explain why humans think in a more cooperative and coordinated fashion. When did human cognition become substantially different from great ape cognition? What might have caused this shift in cognition? Tomasello theorizes about these questions and offers a plausible two-step shift in human cognition that he terms the shared intentionality hypothesis. From his hypothesis, Tomasello discusses how human cognition, communication and culture emerged.

Tomasello’s book covers a lot of evolutionary ground, tracing human evolution from the emergence of the genus Homo around 2 million years ago when Tomasello believes shared intentionality first emerged. Tomasello uses the term objective-reflective-normative thinking to describe the components of the shared intentionality hypothesis, which consists of three key components: our ability to represent things cognitively, to infer possible outcomes, and to monitor our own behavior in relation to the larger group norms. Thus, human cognition is unique because we are capable of evaluating situations with multiple variables, including various social perspectives, while also accounting for our own behavior and considering how it will fit into the larger behavioral norms of a group.

The first part of the two-step shift in human cognition involves the emergence of socially shared joint goals or joint intentionality. Tomasello offers the example of hunter-gatherers who begin to cooperate in order to acquire enough food for survival. Following joint intentionality, Tomasello describes collective intentionality. This second step occurs later, after the hunter-gatherers have had time to develop some cultural conventions and norms. Ultimately, this second cognitive shift resulted in modern humans’ existence in a matrix of culture and language.

Tomasello acknowledges some gaps in his theory and welcomes input. He is clear, though, that humans are not hardwired to think in a culturally cooperative, group-oriented perspective. Rather, humans are capable, and modern humans may certainly be more prone to thinking in this way, as they are constantly bombarded by culture and language. However, Tomasello reminds the reader that evolution cannot see cognition; rather, it can only see behaviors that affect survival. Cognition and decision-making abilities do not preserve well. Tomasello concludes with two questions, which require further thought. What does the individual bring to the table? While individuals participate in joint attention and joint goals, investigating what the individuals brings to the ‘joint’ portion of the communicative act is an important aspect. Also, humans’ overwhelming tendency to objectify entities should be further investigated.

Tomasello brings important new information together in his book. He highlights important contributions to the field and rightfully acknowledges the limitations of our knowledge. While on the whole approachable, could be improved with less complicated jargon at a few junctures. But importantly, Tomasello does not oversell his theory or make claims that reasonable people cannot accept. A Natural History of Human Thinking is an excellent contribution to the field of cognitive science.

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2 Comments

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