In this original and provocative account of the evolutionary origins of human communication, Michael Tomasello connects the fundamentally cooperative structure of human communication (initially discovered by Paul Grice) to the especially ...
As the cognitive revolution was slow to come to the study of animal behavior, the vast majority of what we know about primate cognition has been discovered in the last 30 years. Building on the recognition that the physical and social worlds of humans and their living primate relatives pose many of the same evolutionary challenges, programs of research have established that the most basic cognitive skills and mental representations that humans use to navigate those worlds are already possessed by (...) other primates. There may be differences between humans and other primates, however, in more complex cognitive skills, such as reasoning about relations, causality, time, and other minds. Of special importance, the human primate seems to possess a species-unique set of adaptations for “cultural intelligence,” which are broad reaching in their effects on human cognition. (shrink)
We propose that the crucial difference between human cognition and that of other species is the ability to participate with others in collaborative activities with shared goals and intentions: shared intentionality. Participation in such activities requires not only especially powerful forms of intention reading and cultural learning, but also a unique motivation to share psychological states with others and unique forms of cognitive representation for doing so. The result of participating in these activities is species-unique forms of cultural cognition and (...) evolution, enabling everything from the creation and use of linguistic symbols to the construction of social norms and individual beliefs to the establishment of social institutions. In support of this proposal we argue and present evidence that great apes understand the basics of intentional action, but they still do not participate in activities involving joint intentions and attention. Human children's skills of shared intentionality develop gradually during the first 14 months of life as two ontogenetic pathways intertwine: the general ape line of understanding others as animate, goal-directed, and intentional agents; and a species-unique motivation to share emotions, experience, and activities with other persons. The developmental outcome is children's ability to construct dialogic cognitive representations, which enable them to participate in earnest in the collectivity that is human cognition. Key Words: collaboration; cooperation; cultural learning; culture; evolutionary psychology; intentions; shared intentionality; social cognition; social learning; theory of mind; joint attention. (shrink)
Young children interpret some acts performed by adults as normatively governed, that is, as capable of being performed either rightly or wrongly. In previous experiments, children have made this interpretation when adults introduced them to novel acts with normative language (e.g. ‘this is the way it goes’), along with pedagogical cues signaling culturally important information, and with social-pragmatic marking that this action is a token of a familiar type. In the current experiment, we exposed children to novel actions with no (...) normative language, and we systematically varied pedagogical and social-pragmatic cues in an attempt to identify which of them, if either, would lead children to normative interpretations. We found that young 3-year-old children inferred normativity without any normative language and without any pedagogical cues. The only cue they used was adult socialpragmatic marking of the action as familiar, as if it were a token of a well-known type (as opposed to performing it, as if inventing it on the spot). These results suggest that – in the absence of explicit normative language – young children interpret adult actions as normatively governed based mainly on the intentionality (perhaps signaling conventionality) with which they are performed. (shrink)
Orang-utans played a communication game in two studies testing their ability to produce and comprehend requestive pointing. While the ‘communicator’ could see but not obtain hidden food, the ‘donor’ could release the food to the communicator, but could not see its location for herself. They could coordinate successfully if the communicator pointed to the food, and if the donor comprehended his communicative goal and responded pro-socially. In Study 1, one orang-utan pointed regularly and accurately for peers. However, they responded only (...) rarely. In Study 2, a human experimenter played the communicator’s role in three conditions, testing the apes’ comprehension of points of different heights and different degrees of ostension. There was no effect of condition. However, across conditions one donor performed well individually, and as a group orang-utans’ comprehension performance tended towards significance. We explain this on the grounds that comprehension required inferences that they found difficult – but not impossible. The finding has valuable implications for our thinking about the development of pointing in phylogeny. (shrink)
In this enlightening exploration of our nearest primate relatives, Michael Tomasello and Josep Call address the current state of our knowledge about the cognitive skills of non-human primates and integrate empirical findings from the beginning of the century to the present.
Human social life is structured by social norms creating both obligations and entitlements. Recent research has found that young children enforce simple obligations against norm violators by protesting. It is not known, however, whether they understand entitlements in the sense that they will actively object to a second party attempting to interfere in something that a third party is entitled to do — what we call counter-protest. In two studies, we found that 3-year-old children understand when a person is entitled (...) to do something, and so they actively defend this person’s entitlement against unjustified interference from second parties. In some cases, they even enforce second-order entitlements, for example, in the case of ownership where an owner is entitled to entitle others to use the owner’s property. (shrink)
To explain the evolutionary emergence of uniquely human skills and motivations for cooperation, Tomasello et al. (2012, in Current Anthropology 53(6):673–92) proposed the interdependence hypothesis. The key adaptive context in this account was the obligate collaborative foraging of early human adults. Hawkes (2014, in Human Nature 25(1):28–48), following Hrdy (Mothers and Others, Harvard University Press, 2009), provided an alternative account for the emergence of uniquely human cooperative skills in which the key was early human infants’ attempts to solicit care and (...) attention from adults in a cooperative breeding context. Here we attempt to reconcile these two accounts. Our composite account accepts Hrdy’s and Hawkes’s contention that the extremely early emergence of human infants’ cooperative skills suggests an important role for cooperative breeding as adaptive context, perhaps in early Homo. But our account also insists that human cooperation goes well beyond these nascent skills to include such things as the communicative and cultural conventions, norms, and institutions created by later Homo and early modern humans to deal with adult problems of social coordination. As part of this account we hypothesize how each of the main stages of human ontogeny (infancy, childhood, adolescence) was transformed during evolution both by infants’ cooperative skills “migrating up” in age and by adults’ cooperative skills “migrating down” in age. (shrink)
The idea of a biologically evolved, universal grammar with linguistic content is a myth, perpetuated by three spurious explanatory strategies of generative linguists. To make progress in understanding human linguistic competence, cognitive scientists must abandon the idea of an innate universal grammar and instead try to build theories that explain both linguistic universals and diversity and how they emerge.
Social norms have played a key role in the evolution of human cooperation, serving to stabilize prosocial and egalitarian behavior despite the self-serving motives of individuals. Young children’s behavior mostly conforms to social norms, as they follow adult behavioral directives and instructions. But it turns out that even preschool children also actively enforce social norms on others, often using generic normative language to do so. This behavior is not easily explained by individualistic motives; it is more likely a result of (...) children’s growing identification with their cultural group, which leads to prosocial motives for preserving its ways of doing things. (shrink)
Children often refer to things ambiguously but learn not to from responding to clarification requests. We review and explore this learning process here. In Study 1, eighty-four 2- and 4-year-olds were tested for their ability to request stickers from either (a) a small array with one dissimilar distracter or (b) a large array containing similar distracters. When children made ambiguous requests, they received either general feedback or specific questions about which of two options they wanted. With training, children learned to (...) produce more complex object descriptions and did so faster in the specific feedback condition. They also tended to provide more information when requesting stickers from large arrays. In Study 2, we varied only distracter similarity during training and then varied array size in a generalization test. Children found it harder to learn in this case. In the generalization test, 4-year-olds were more likely to provide information (a) when it was needed because distracters were similar to the target and (b) when the array size was greater (regardless of need for information). We discuss how clear cues to potential ambiguity are needed for children to learn to tailor their referring expression to context and how several cues of heuristic value (e.g., more distracters > say more) can promote the efficiency of communication while language is developing. Finally, we consider whether it would be worthwhile drawing on the human learning process when developing algorithms for the production of referring expressions. (shrink)
My approach to reference focuses on naturally occuring processes of communication, and in particular on children's earliest referential activities. I begin by describing three different kinds of child gesture — ritualizations, deictics, and symbolic gestures — and then proceed to examine young children's early word learning. The account focuses on the joint attentional situations in which young children learn their earliest gestures and linguistic symbols and on the social-cognitive and cultural learning processes involved in the different cases.
The communicative interactions of very young children almost always involve language (based on conventions), gesture (based on bodily deixis or iconicity) and directed gaze. In this study, ninety-six children (3;0 years) were asked to determine the location of a hidden toy by understanding a communicative act that contained none of these familiar means. A light-and-sound mechanism placed behind the hiding place and illuminated by a centrally placed switch was used to indicate the location of the toy. After a communicative training (...) session, an experimenter pressed the switch either deliberately or accidentally, and with or without ostension (in the form of eye contact and child-directed speech). In no condition did she orient towards the hiding place. When the switch was pressed intentionally, children used the light-and-sound cue to find the toy - and tended to do so even in the absence of ostensive eye contact. When the experimenter pressed the switch accidentally, children searched randomly - demonstrating that they were tracking her communicative intent, and not merely choosing on the basis of salience. The absence of an effect of ostension contradicts research that ostension helps children to interpret the communicative intentions underlying unfamiliar signs. We explain this by concluding that while it may play a role in establishing a communicative interaction, it is not necessary for sustaining one; and that even with a highly novel communicative act - involving none of the means of communication on which children typically rely - three-year-olds can comprehend the communicative intentions behind an intentionally produced act. (shrink)
Many studies show a developmental advantage for transitive sentences with familiar verbs over those with novel verbs. It might be that once familiar verbs become entrenched in particular constructions, they would be more difficult to understand (than would novel verbs) in non-prototypical constructions. We provide support for this hypothesis investigating German children using a forced-choice pointing paradigm with reversed agent-patient roles. We tested active transitive verbs in study 1. The 2-year olds were better with familiar than novel verbs, while the (...) 2½-year olds pointed correctly for both. In study 2, we tested passives: 2½-year olds were significantly below chance for familiar verbs and at chance for novel verbs, supporting the hypothesis that the entrenchment of the familiar verbs in the active transitive voice was interfering with interpreting them in the passive voice construction. The 3½-year olds were also at chance for novel verbs but above chance with familiar verbs. We interpret this as reflecting a lessening of the verb-in-construction entrenchment as the child develops knowledge that particular verbs can occur in a range of constructions. The 4½-year olds were above chance for both familiar and novel verbs. We discuss our findings in terms of the relative entrenchment of lexical and syntactic information and to interference between them. (shrink)