Tag Archives: Linguistics

BECOMING HUMAN: A THEORY OF ONTOGENY – Michael Tomasello (2019)

Becoming Human TomaselloI’m always eager for the year-end list of David Auerbach at Waggish. The man is a voracious reader in all kinds of domains. 2019’s list was dauntingly long, but I found a few titles right up my ally, one being Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny by Michael Tomasello, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke. Tomasello is one of the few scientists bridging developmental research on both primates and children, and a leading figure in a branch of evolutionary psychology that was new to me: human ontogeny.

The book focuses on the question what makes humans unique. It does this by focusing on how children become adult humans, and as such part of human culture – how the development of human abilities in children differ from the development of these abilities in great apes.

Tomasello’s scope is large. He ties the development of human cognition and human sociality together, resulting in synthesizing insights about social norms & moral identity. This in not only a comparative psychology book, but an important work on ethics too. Truly a tour de force, and the first theory I’ve come across that convincingly brings cognition, evolution and ethics together – not in a normative way, but by describing the pathways of how these things arise, starting with newborn babies.

Tomasello builds on the seminal insight of Lev Vygotsky, who in the beginning of the 20th century was one of the first to articulate the fact that children need a social context to develop fully. A child that would be put onto a desert island without any social interaction would not become ‘human’ as we generally define it.

To further sketch the content, let me first quote the blurb from the publisher – Harvard.

Tomasello assembles nearly three decades of experimental work with chimpanzees, bonobos, and human children to propose a new framework for psychological growth between birth and seven years of age. He identifies eight pathways that starkly differentiate humans from their closest primate relatives: social cognition, communication, cultural learning, cooperative thinking, collaboration, prosociality, social norms, and moral identity. In each of these, great apes possess rudimentary abilities. But then, Tomasello argues, the maturation of humans’ evolved capacities for shared intentionality transform these abilities—through the new forms of sociocultural interaction they enable—into uniquely human cognition and sociality. The first step occurs around nine months, with the emergence of joint intentionality, exercised mostly with caregiving adults. The second step occurs around three years, with the emergence of collective intentionality involving both authoritative adults, who convey cultural knowledge, and coequal peers, who elicit collaboration and communication. Finally, by age six or seven, children become responsible for self-regulating their beliefs and actions so that they comport with cultural norms.

At first, I was a bit suspicious of Tomasello’s claims: I have read quite a lot of Frans de Waal and the likes, and my intellectual stance the last decade or so had been to not overestimate human uniqueness – not in language skills, not in cognition, etc. I considered differences between humans and other animals basically a matter of degree.

To a certain extent this obviously still holds, but one of the merits of Tomasello is that he uses large sets of experimental data that clearly show there are two things that are unique in humans: “shared intentionality” and “collective intentionality”. Basically, the fact that we humans do things together, know that we do things together and have elaborate insights in other humans’ mental states that influence our own mental states. So it’s not only cooperation itself that is important, but the fact that it is a form of recursive cooperation.

Language obviously is important for all of this, and so this is not only an ethics book, but one that should interest linguists too. The same goes for the cultural transmission of knowledge: instructed learning basically doesn’t exist in the rest of the animal kingdom, so yes, pedagogy too. Continue reading

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LANGUAGE UNLIMITED (2019) – PICASSO (2018) – HANFF (1970)

Short write-ups of three very different books: a new linguistics book intended for a general audience, a splendid book on Picasso’s drawings & an epistolary classic of some sorts…

There’s even one I can recommend 100%!

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WHAT KIND OF CREATURES ARE WE? – Noam Chomsky (2016)

What kind of creatures are weI’m always puzzled when I read statements like Howard Gardner’s “Noam Chomsky is arguably the most influential thinker of our time”, or the Observer’s “[Chomsky is t]he world’s greatest public intellectual”. He may indeed be the “most prominent critic of imperialism”, as the Guardian put it. But if you look at the real world effect Chomsky has, his influence seems meager and pathetic: the Western world is still heavily involved in warfare in the Middle East, and the inequality gap has been widening since the 1980s, and still very much is – both within the Western world, as globally.

Chomsky’s powerful critique of the current crises our world faces is even published by a mainstream company as Penguin Books (like the excellent 2013 Power Systems, or 2011’s Making The Future), yet not a lot seems to change for the better.

There’s a very big rift between what some intellectuals and activists think and read, and their ability to influence policy. The existence of a ‘real’ democracy worthy of that name is an illusion, as The New York Times recently reported – a fact that Chomsky also points out in What Kind of Creatures Are We?, using different data from a different study. Nicholas Kristof wrote the following on January 22nd, 2016:

Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University found that in policy-making, views of ordinary citizens essentially don’t matter. They examined 1,779 policy issues and found that attitudes of wealthy people and of business groups mattered a great deal to the final outcome — but that preferences of average citizens were almost irrelevant.  (www.nytimes.com/2016/01/21/…)

But I digress…


What Kind of Creatures Are We? is marketed by Columbia University Press as a kind of summary of Chomsky’s work, spanning over half a century. Chomsky first gained worldwide respect as a linguist, publishing groundbreaking work on the innateness of language and universal grammar, but has been a scholar and a vocal critic of imperialism and capitalism from the onset too. I know of no other thinker with such a broad and erudite knowledge.

This book is divided in 4 parts: What is language?, What can we understand?, What is the common good? and The mysteries of nature: How deeply hidden? It has 127 pages of actual text, and – indicative of Chomsky’s wide-ranging research – 15 pages of reference notes, plus an index of 20 pages. Although the third part deals with politics – there is little new to be found here for the reader familiar with the political Chomsky, with a slight emphasis on John Dewey this time – the book is mainly an epistemological work, tracing its origins to the advent of modern science. Newton, Hume and Locke are featured a lot. Really, a lot. There are 39 references to Newton in the index. That’s roughly one mention on every third page.

I found the first 3 parts very interesting, and at times even thought-provoking. I don’t claim to have understood everything, let alone to be able to formulate critique on what Chomsky wrote. It is not light, easy reading, although I must say most is indeed written in “clear, precise and nontechnical language”, as promised on the dust jacket. The latter half of part 4 was a bit too much for me, as I had reached my saturation point, and things became a bit too dense.  Continue reading