I 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.