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Michael Tomasello
The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition

"[Language] did not descend on earth from outer space like some stray asteroid nor, despite the views of some contemporary scholars such as Chomsky (1980), did it arise as some bizarre genetic mutation unrelated to other aspects of human cognition and social life." (p. 94)
In a rather dense and repetitive manner, Tomasello presents his theory of human cognition. While I think Tomasello is probably right (in part at least) and some items were of interest, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition was difficult to completely get through despite it brief length of under 220 pages. He goes over his theory of intentionality and conspecifics (a word I had never heard before this book but which appears on just about every page at least once) perhaps a dozen times too many to make the book any sort of page turner.

Early in the book Tomasello contrasts humans and other primates. He points out how other primates can "develop some aspects of human social cognition and cultural learning" by being raised in human cultures, but they are unable to create a similar culture on their own amongst their own. Unlike most of the books written by primatologists, Tomasello focuses on the differences (perhaps to too much of an extreme) between humans and other primates to make his case. Getting back to primates and culture, though, the description of the "ratchet effect" beginning on page 37 is very engaging. Simply stated, the ratchet effect is cumulative natural selection acting on culture rather than a genotype/phenotype. As ideas, traditions, skills, and other such cultural artifacts are passed down from generation to generation they tend to have novel enhancements made to them. In effect, each generation "ratchets up" specific items from the "prior" culture.

Much of Tomasello's theory is a refutation of the ideas of Chomsky and Pinker. Tomasello rarely comes out and says so much, but Pinker and Chomsky are occasionally referenced as those taking opposing views. Instead of a module in the human brain mutating in the relatively recent past to allow for language and a universal grammar as Pinker would have it, Tomasello has "human beings biologically inherit[ing] a special ability to identify with conspecifics." (p. 77) Being biologically prepared to have the potential capacity to learn something is a very different thing than possessing an innate universal grammar. Through this instinctual identification ability humans are capable of joint attention and perspective taking--things Tomasello thinks other primates are not capable of. Children with autism are the "control group" who aren't born with or don't develop such an instinct.

Tomasello covers much of the language learning area--paying particular attention to how and when children learn various linguistic methods. His focus and theory rest on the social dimensions of language acquisition (as the title suggests). A person born on a deserted island and left there to live alone would, of course, not learn, or have use of, any language at all. The more "joint attentional engagement" a child receives after about 9 months of age, the faster their comprehension and production of language becomes.

Although never mentioned explicitly, Tomasello's ideas, studies, and those he refers to provide evidence of humans--especially young humans--as "meme machines." As he states on page 160

Young children's very strong tendency to imitate what others are doing thus shows up again and again in their early cognitive development, leading to the conclusion that the early childhood period is largely concerned with children's entry into the world of culture through their mastery of the artifacts and conventions that predate their arrival on the scene--which they may then adapt for creative uses as their mastery progresses.
This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Those that are good copiers at an early age (i.e., through their early and basic, innate instincts) would have had a much better chance of survival thousands of years ago when our ancestors lived in a wild and dangerous environment. Additionally, they would have fit in better with the primitive society of the time--allowing themselves the protection of the group as they grew older and additional chances to reproduce. The problem for us now may be that we get so stuck in our follow the leader and follow others rut that we don't mentally mature enough, or fast enough, as we grow older. Hence, instead of examining the probable results of our actions and the flaws in the traditions of our inheritance, we continue to go down the road we are used to and the one everyone else is headed down instead of rising above our instinct of copying without thinking.

Although few parents outside the world of professional linguistics, child development, cognitive sciences, or psychology will probably be interested enough in the topic to read a book written in this style, there are some important lessons for parents. A child who is merely given things to regurgitate or who is not dynamically interacted with on a regular basis will not be nearly as healthy from a mental perspective. In an extreme case of a solitary child on a desert island Tomasello's hypothesis is that

this child at some later stage would engage in very little causal thinking, very little mathematical thinking, very little reasoning about other people's mental states, and very little moral reasoning. That is because all of these types of thinking and reasoning come about either mainly in or only in the child's dialogical discourse interactions with other persons. (p. 190)
Those who aren't very interested in the subject or who have a hard time dealing with extended discourses on linguistics and language (like me) will probably be satisfied with a review or two of the basic concepts Tomasello covers. People in the above mentioned professions, on the other hand, will not want to miss The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition.
"...we found that it is very difficult to get children younger than three to three and a half years to use these novel verbs in any ways other than the ways they have heard them being used...

...although later children will be more creative in their language use, early on they learn to talk about the relational or event structure of the scenes of their life in exactly the same way they hear adults talking about them, using exactly the same words and linguistic constructions. This is cultural learning, that is to say, imitative learning, pure and simple." (p. 144-5)

From the publisher:
Ambitious and elegant, this book builds a bridge between evolutionary theory and cultural psychology. Michael Tomasello is one of the very few people to have done systematic research on the cognitive capacities of both nonhuman primates and human children. The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition identifies what the differences are, and suggests where they might have come from.

Tomasello argues that the roots of the human capacity for symbol-based culture, and the kind of psychological development that takes place within it, are based in a cluster of uniquely human cognitive capacities that emerge early in human ontogeny. These include capacities for sharing attention with other persons; for understanding that others have intentions of their own; and for imitating, not just what someone else does, but what someone else has intended to do. In his discussions of language, symbolic representation, and cognitive development, Tomasello describes with authority and ingenuity the "ratchet effect" of these capacities working over evolutionary and historical time to create the kind of cultural artifacts and settings within which each new generation of children develops. He also proposes a novel hypothesis, based on processes of social cognition and cultural evolution, about what makes the cognitive representations of humans different from those of other primates.

Lucid, erudite, and passionate, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition will be essential reading for developmental psychology, animal behavior, and cultural psychology.

Michael Tomasello is Codirector of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. He is the author of First Verbs and the coauthor of Primate Cognition.

"A much needed book that covers a broad territory with both clarity and authority. Having spent much of his career comparing human and nonhuman primate cognition, Michael Tomasello makes the case for a social developmental foundation of the unique capacities of the human primate--language, complex cognition, and culture. His ontogenetic 'ratchet hypothesis' is both simple and provocative. It will be welcomed--and argued about--by a wide audience."
--Katherine Nelson, Distinguished Professor of Developmental Psychology, City University of New York.

"Tomasello is one of the very few scholars who works at the intersection of the phylogenetic, cultural-historical, and ontogenetic contributions to development. His studies linking non-human primate development to the development of human infants are exciting and compelling. He has done the study of human development a great service with the publication of this book."
--Michael Cole, Professor of Communication and Psychology and Director of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition, University of California at San Diego

"A powerful and coherent synthesis, and the best formulation of cultural psychology we've yet had."
--Jerome Bruner, New York University

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