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Michael Tomasello is a cognitive and developmental psychologist who has worked extensively with chimpanzees, as well as human infants and children. A central problem on which he has worked for a number of years is the exact nature of the difference between apes and humans in the structure of cognition. For many years the general opinion among evolutionary psychologists was that the observed differences are quantitative but not qualitative. That is, chimpanzees think pretty much the same way we do, but just at a lower level of cognitive capacity. In recent years, many cognitive psychologists have rejected this notion in favor of the idea that there are qualitative epistemological capacities possessed by humans that are missing in chimpanzees and other non-human primates. Perhaps the most well known is the notion that human have a "theory of mind" (Premack & Woodruff, 1978) in the sense that they attribute mental states to conspecifics of the same sort that they experience (Cheney & Seyfarth 1990, 1992).
Tomasello has been a major contributor to this line of research. His study of how chimpanzees and human teach and learn led him to a model in which, for humans, there is a "shared intentionality" consisting of a tripartite cognition of the form teacher/-learner/object of knowledge, whereas for chimpanzees, there are only a set of dualities, skilled individual-object, unskilled individual-object, skilled individual-unskilled individual. Naturally, without the tripartite episteme, true leaning by imitation cannot occur, and indeed, that is a major conclusion in the literature. See, for instance, Michael Tomasello, Susan Savage-Rumbaugh, and A. C. Kruger (1993) Imitative learning of actions on objects by children, chimpanzees, and enculturated chimpanzees. Child Development 64:1688-1705.
More recently Tomasello has researched the cognitive prerequisites of high-level cooperation. The move was natural for Tomasello, since the transfer of culture across generations through teaching and learning is a major form of human cooperation with only the faintest counterpart in other species. Tomasello argues that there are two major forms of human culture, cumulative technology, which consist of knowledge of how the world works (science), and social norms (convention and morality). He argues that altruism in children is manifested most strongly in relation to social norms, and consist of an eagerness to help and to share, to obey conventional and moral precepts, and to punish, or at least disapprove of, children who do not exhibit the appropriate degree of prosociality. "As they grow," he asserts, "human children are equipped to participate in the cooperative groupthink through a special kind of cultural intelligence, comprising species-unique social-cognitive skills and motivations for collaboration, communication, social learning, and other forms of shared intentionality." (p. xvi) Tomasello's evidence for this position is extensive and detailed, but only briefly summarized in this small book, with extensive references to the primary literature for the ambitious (or professional) reader.
In addition to the obvious importance of this argument for cognitive psychology, it is of central importance to economics, game theory, Bayesian decision theory, and all other disciplines that use the rational actor model to explain human behavior. The theoretical justification of the rational actor model lies in the so-called Savage axioms, as presented in Leonard Savage's famous Foundations of Statistics (1954). These axioms picture an isolated individual facing a choice under uncertainty, where the probability of different outcomes are given by the individuals "subjective prior." Interestingly, these axioms can be given an evolutionary justification, assuming that individual preferences and behavior evolved in an "environment of evolutionary adaptation," so that individuals tend to choose in a manner that maximizes biological fitness. Since biological fitness is a scalar (expected number of offspring reaching reproductive maturity), preferences must be transitive and individuals should update their probability assessments rationally in the face of new information.
However, humans did not evolve as individuals in social isolation, but rather in highly complex and integrated social groups. Therefore the rational actor model, which we can expect to hold for virtually all organisms that make choices in an uncertain environment [nota bene: many people erroneously assume that by using the word "rational," the model can only apply to highly intelligent and sophisticated agents; this is simply not the case], is certainly not a sufficient tool for understanding human behavior, assuming Tomasello's argument is correct. This certainly does not mean that we should reject the rational actor model---it has been and continues to be extremely successful in explaining human choice. Rather, it means that we will have to add to the model complexities that reflect the additional epistemic power of human, which have evolved according the powerful dynamic of gene-culture coevolution.
In Chapter 2, Tomasello moves from characterizing the mind-sets of infants and children to analyzing the role of altruism and mutualism in explaining human cooperation. I believe Tomasello's argument here is both wrong and incoherent, but I first will first outline it as cogently as possible. "I do not believe altruism is the process primarily responsible for human cooperation... altruism is only a bit player. The star is mutualism, in which we all benefit from our cooperation but only if we work together..." (p. 52) Tomasello notes that altruism is need to present free-riding in cooperative endeavors, but he asserts, "in the most concrete cases---where you and I must work together to move a heavy log, for instance---free-riding is not really possible because each of our efforts is required for success, and shirking is immediately apparent." (p. 53) [I can't avoid noting that social cooperation among large numbers of individuals is not the same as two people moving a log.]
"We know from the work of Brian Skyrms," Tomasello continues, "that in building human-style collaboration... we do not face a prisoner's dilemma... Rather, our scenario is a stag hunt in which everyone prefers to collaborate because of the rewards doing so brings each of us and our compatriots." Tomasello then reduces the problem of cooperation first to the "social-cognitive skills and motivations for coordinating and communicating with others in complex ways involving joint goals and coordinated division of labor among the various roles---what I will call skills and motivations for shared intentionality." (P. 54-55); second, humans had to become "more tolerant and trusting of one another than are modern apes"; and third, "humans had to develop some group-level, institutional practices involving public social norms and the assignment of deontic status [i.e., having moral force] to institutional roles."
Tomasello suggests that both the tolerant and trusting predisposition of humans and their capacity to cooperate through institutions with deontic status are based on "a uniquely human sense of "we," a sense of shared intentionality." (p. 57) Here Tomasello joins a considerable list of thinkers who stress the notion of collective or shared intentionality in explaining human cooperation, a list including John Searle, Margaret Gordon, Michael Bratman, Robert Sugden, and Michael Bacharach. "In mutualistic collaborative activities," says Tomasello, "we both know together that we both depend on one another for reaching our joint goal. This basically transforms the individual normative of rational action... into a kind of social normativity of joint rational action.... The force of cooperative norms thus comes from our mutually recognized interdependence and our natural reaction to the failures of both ourselves and others." (p. 90)
What is wrong with this argument? Let us start with the notion of "shared intentionality." I have read the literature on this subject have been less then overwhelmed with the cogency of the arguments by philosophers and economists for the existence of this phenomenon. For instance, it is argued that players on a sports team have a "collective intentionality" to coordinate their activities so as to win the game. Generally, however, the owners and the fans want to "win the game," whereas for each player, winning is part of a larger goal of maintaining and improve his reputation, and of avoiding personal injury. It is not clear that there is any "collective" intentionality left when these individual motivations are properly accounted for.
However, I think Tomasello makes a strong case for the existence of shared intentionality in humans in his analysis of imitation and learning in chimpanzees vs. humans (The Origins of Human Communication, 2008). When I help my brother chop down a tree for firewood, each of us adjusts naturally to the exigencies of the moment and the movements of the other in a manner that only makes sense in terms of our possessing a joint intentionality to accomplish the task. My own preferred defense of the notion is that without shared intentionality, it is impossible for rational agents to comprehend the notion of "playing a game" by inventing a set of rules and assuming that it is common knowledge among the players that they are indeed engaged in a joint enterprise of "playing the game." Another way of saying this is that the concept of "common knowledge of the rules of game" can only be justified, as far as I can see, by appeal to a sense of shared intentionality---a sense that is almost certainly lacking in even the most advanced non-human primates.
Tomasello's mistake is moving too swiftly from a notion of shared intentionality as an epistemic concept to shared intentionality as a motivational concept. The fact that the members of a group involved in a collective task cognize their task through shared intentionality does not mean that they are individually motivated to carry out their assigned tasks. Tomasello attributes the "tolerance and trust" that are required for cooperation, and the "assignment of deontic status to institutional roles" to the shared intentionality of the participants. But, this is surely an error. It is precisely the other-regarding predilection of participants, their altruistic joint commitment to a collective task and their individual embracing of a morality that counsels private sacrifice for the social good (the "deontic status of institutional roles") that accounts for cooperation. These altruistic preferences may presuppose shared intentionality, but are not explained by shared intentionality.
Tomasello's assertion that mutualism explains human cooperation is thus untenable. Of course, Tomasello shares this view with most neoclassical economists, as well as with such notable social philosophers as Ken Binmore and Brian Skyrms, but they are all wrong. I do not want to repeat my criticisms of Binmore and Skyrms here (the interested reader can see my other Amazon reviews as well as papers on my web site). Rather, I will quote extensively from Joan Silk's reply to Tomasello in this volume. While these remarks take up a scant eleven pages, they are to my mind devastating. "Tomasello argues that the benefits gained from participating in mutualistic endeavors," says Silk, "favored the evolution of the distinctive human capacities he has identified. In this account, altruism plays a minor role. I am not convinced by this argument, and here I will try to explain why." (p. 113)
"The stag hunt," she continues, "is an extremely special case... the interests of the two hunters are perfectly aligned... If many situations in nature conformed to the simple payoff scenario of the stag hunt, then cooperation would be ubiquitous... But circumstances encountered in nature are often not so clear cut. Cheating is a potential problem whenever the interests of the two parties are not aligned perfectly, and such misalignments are common." She concludes that "there are actually very few examples of conspecific mutualism." (p. 116)
Silk moreover notes that if mutualism explained human cooperation, there would be no need for the sort of empathy, spontaneous sharing, and altruistic cooperation and punishment that humans routinely exhibit. "Mutualism does not necessarily make you nice," she notes. "We don't get from mutualism to Nelson Mandela, but rather from mutualism to Niccolo Machiavelli." (p. 119). Amen.
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Tomasello has come to my attention from two sub areas of interest. The first was Axel Honneth's poorly developed book on reification. According to Honneth, Tomasello has empirically demonstrated that infants have an ontogenetic faculty of deep empathy and recognition of fellow human beings. But most of us know that adults don't have much empathy for other people, and have a hard time 'recognizing' the other (think the entire Republican party). For Honneth this is the new starting point to develop a theory of reification.
I also watch a lot of NOVA specials, and frequently the Max Planck institute for social research is featured with some amazing experiment regarding chimpanzees and/or toddlers. This is the institute that Tomasello works for.
Having been piqued by his research I picked up Why We Cooperate which, in only 100 pages, sets out to develop an interesting thesis. He begins with the question: was Hobbes or Rousseau right? Are we born nasty, and brutish, and hardly concerned with others, or are we born angelic and since fallen from grace due to the evolution of civilization? Tomasello is not as radical as Rousseau, he won't damn all of civilization, but he's convinced that we are born mostly altruistic, cooperative, and empathetic (i.e., he sides with Rousseau). He highlights about a dozen studies that reveal just how compassionate and innately concerned children are. He doesn't speculate much on why humans lose their ability to be altruistic, but he does show nearly conclusively that altruism is innate, and not learned. If anything is learned over time, it's how NOT to be altruistic. Society deprives us of our angelic nature. There is one study that really highlights this. If very young children see someone carrying a stack of books and bumping into a door, they know to walk over and open the door for the person (you can youtube these studies). It doesn't matter if the child is alone in the room, or if the parent is there prodding them along, the child always opens the door (meaning this isn't parent directed altruism). But, if the child is given a reward for opening the door, they are less likely to open it a second time, and a third time, and so on. The more rewards they get for doing a good deed, the less inclined they are to do the deed again. The speculation is that the act has initial intrinsic value, but once the intrinsic value is substituted for some material value, the act loses its worth. This is exactly the OPPOSITE view of man that most people, especially economist and politicians, hold. They all believe people need material and monetary motivation to keep doing good things. What is actually happening is that people are constantly being 'rewarded' for acts they would have done anyway, and are now losing the inclination to do them for the right reasons. If you reflect on this point for all of ten seconds, it quickly becomes apparent just how rotten capitalism is.
In order to quell doubts that Tomasello isn't painting a romantic picture of human-beings, he conducts the exact same studies on chimpanzees. Although they're not completely unconcerned, their ability to share, and conduct altruistic acts, is far less prominent than humans. This leads him to believe that there is some evolutionary advantage to our innate altruism. Although, I don't think the chimpanzee studies much matter one way or the other regarding human altruism (and some of Tomsello's critics contend this point frequently, i.e., these ape studies are superfluous and not as informative as he thinks).
Toward the end of the book things become too speculative for my taste. Evolutionary Psychology often seems like a complete pseudo-science once it starts abstracting back before civilization. Comparing humans to chimpanzees, Tomasselo tries to give an evolutionary account for our unique set of altruistic traits. None of these speculations are wholly empirical, and always abstractly hypothetical. I don't think it much matters why we evolved these traits; the real important question is why are we no longer exercising them, and what's the cause?