Michael Tomasello:

Home | The whole bibliography | My book on Consciousness

(Copyright © 2000 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

German anthropologist Michael Tomasello believes that humans are genetically equipped with the "ability to identify with conspecifics." This attitude is particularly visible in children, who spend most of their time imitating others. Natural selection rewarded the best "copycats". This ability is crucial to the development of social skills such as language: Children learn a language because their brains are predisposed to "identify with conspecifics" and because they are exposed to such conspecifics (they socialize with speaking humans). But this skill is shared by other primates, who nonetheless never achieve the sophistication of human society: they only learn by imitation, without any clue of why others do what they do. They are are mere copycats.

The key factor in the development of human civilizations is instead "intentionality" (a misused term, that means something else in Philosophy), or, better, the understanding of others as goal-directed agents. Tomasello thinks that recognizing the intentions of others is crucial to "learn" from previous generations. Humans don't just imitate other humans: humans also understand why other humans did what they did. Tomasello thinks that this is the secret of rapid learning and of transmission of learned knowledge from one generation to the next one.
Basically, at some point human civilization became a "collective", not only individual, process.

Over evolutionary and historical time, the "ratchet effect" due to this attitude to imitation generates the civilizations we are familiar with, civilizations that other primates cannot even dream of. Evolutionarily speaking, the progress made by the human species is impressive. Tomasello believes that the secret to such speedy evolution lies in the intentionality and conspecifics of human beings.