Tag Archives: Michael Tomasello


The Evolution of Agency Michael TomaselloI thought developmental and comparative psychology professor Michael Tomasello’s 2019 book Becoming Human: A Theory of Human Ontogeny was brilliant and rigorously argued. Imagine my surprise to find the first three chapters of this short work (164 pages) practically insulting because of sloppy writing and terminological vagueness.

As a result, I decided to call it a day – even though, admittedly, the remaining chapters (about the agency of apes and humans) might play more into Tomasello’s strengths as a researcher. I guess it’s my loss – 32.48 euros to be precise – but I cannot but operate using inference if I read scientific books: if your base is brittle, I’m not going to risk dwelling in a superstructure that seems solid. It’s a form a prejudice, yes, but my time is limited, and there’s way too much else to read & learn.

Even if I didn’t read it completely, I do have a few thoughts and criticisms to offer, and I hope this review will offer some food for thought.

For starters, let me quote the blurb from MIT Press, so that you know what the book is about:

Nature cannot build organisms biologically prepared for every contingency they might possibly encounter. Instead, Nature builds some organisms to function as feedback control systems that pursue goals, make informed behavioral decisions about how best to pursue those goals in the current situation, and then monitor behavioral execution for effectiveness. Nature builds psychological agents. In a bold new theoretical proposal, Michael Tomasello advances a typology of the main forms of psychological agency that emerged on the evolutionary pathway to human beings.

Tomasello outlines four main types of psychological agency and describes them in evolutionary order of emergence. First was the goal-directed agency of ancient vertebrates, then came the intentional agency of ancient mammals, followed by the rational agency of ancient great apes, ending finally in the socially normative agency of ancient humans. Each new form of psychological organization represented increased complexity in the planning, decision-making, and executive control of behavior. Each also led to new types of experience of the environment and, in some cases, of the organism’s own psychological functioning, leading ultimately to humans’ experience of an objective and normative world that governs all of their thoughts and actions. Together, these proposals constitute a new theoretical framework that both broadens and deepens current approaches in evolutionary psychology.

Before I’ll discuss the book itself, it is of note that the blurb makes a curious distinction in the very first lines. Aren’t these organisms that have “feedback control systems” biological? Aren’t these systems itself biological? Didn’t these systems evolve biologically? I can’t fully put my finger on it, but I have the feeling this is the crux of the matter at hand, and the conceptual quagmire on which Tomasello builds his theory, the ontological reason for his vagueness and his at times muddled thinking. I’m sure the last sections of the book on human social normative psychology won’t suffer as much from this problem as his first chapters – if they even suffer from it at all – but if you present your book as an evolutionary account, you better start it right.

Anyhow, the remainder of this text consists of a few thoughts and examples that are in no way an attempt at a full critique or discussion of the parts of the book I did read.

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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