The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

The Ratchet Effect

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). However, this skill is shared by other primates, who nonetheless never attain the sophistication of human civilizations: they only learn by imitation, without having any clue as to why others do what they do. They are are mere copycats.

The key factor (which Tomasello thinks emerges in the ninth month of life) in the development of human civilizations  is the understanding of others as goal-directed agents. Tomasello thinks that recognizing the intentions of others is crucial to "learn" from previous generations. Humans do not 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.

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 unique human attitude towards conspecifics.


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