Michael Tomasello on How Humans Are Unique

Michael Tomasello, a well known comparative psychologist, has a column in today’s New York Times where he writes on, “How Are Humans Unique?” In the piece, Tomasello argues that our cultural, linguistic, economic and tool-use have all come about because of our tendency for “collective cognition.”

His argument stems from two of his recent papers, the first, “Comparing Social Skills of Children and Apes,’ was authored along with Frans B. M. De Waal, Christophe Boesch, Victoria Horner, Andrew Whiten, Esther Herrmann, Josep Call, María Victoria Hernández-Lloreda, Brian Hare. Many of the same authors also joined Tomasello on the other paper, “Humans Have Evolved Specialized Skills of Social Cognition: The Cultural Intelligence Hypothesis,” which I covered on Primatology.net in September 2007.

The latter paper compared the congitive and problem solving skills of two & half-year-old human children to those of chimps and orangutans ranging from 3 to 21 years old. The results showed that both are comparable in numerical and spatial skills. When comparing social skills, the human kids excelled over the chimps. An example, the toddlers learned how to open a container by imitating what they saw, where as the chimps did not mimic… Thus, the kids made connections like, “stick helps open box.” The chimps relied on trick of trial and error. The authors summarized that imitation is a fast way acquire a lot of knowledge and may have paved the way for our departure from these primate cousins – and ultimately allowed us to develop the complex social culture we have today.

The more recent paper, also involved comparing the social and cognitive abilities of children and chimps. Tomasello and his team concluded that humans recognize and commit to group tasks. Chimps, on the other hand, do not have such expectation of others. If and when the chimps did communicate, they did it to get others to do what they want. I’ll confirm that from my own experience with working with apes, gorillas, that they communicated to me almost exclusively to get what they want. In their experiment, communication amongst children was to share information.

Tomasello argues that only humans pretend. According to him humans imagine, and this ability has allowed us to build institutions. These adaptations, Tomasello writes, set us apart from apes, thereby allowing us to build modern civilization.

I believe I have seen and experienced non-human imagination in gorillas and also chimps. I, by no means have the accolades that Tomasello has, nor the experiences he has in analyzing psychological research but I think it is really hard to definitively say that only humans can imagine and pretend. To do that we’d really have to get ino their minds. I just don’t understand how we can know if non-human primates do or do not imagine.

If you’re interested in this topic, we have in the past, had some short discussions on what traits have made humans unique, such as this one summarizing Marc Hauser’s postulates. I also think you’ll enjoy this 60 second audio summarizing the discussion, made by Christie Nicholson, of Scientific American — which she draws a tangent to social networking sites, something I commented about last September.

5 thoughts on “Michael Tomasello on How Humans Are Unique

  1. Do we really have to get into their minds? It seems to me that in order to show the ability to imagine or pretend, we need only show that they created something new without going through the trial-and-error process. By imagining it and then acting on it. Admittedly, this will be difficult to prove or disprove since it is possible to succeed in a trial-and-error proccess on the first trial. But you guys are all geniuses at designing these things and I’m sure one or more of you will figure it out.

  2. Oldfart, that’s the thing — there have been examples that great apes can create things based off of imagination.

    Take for example ape paintings, it may seem like a joke, but it really isn’t. There are documented cases that apes can and do paint. While they were taught to do so by humans, they did understand the concept, imagined things and painted them.

    Also great apes have been documented to problem solve, like fashioning spears to hunt. That takes some level of imagination to plan out and make a tool.

    Would you call these examples as proof that great apes can imagine and pretend?


  3. What about bonobos? We know they are psychologically and socially very diferent from chimpanzees.

    Also I’m sure I have seen chimps imitate and learn through imitation at TV (documentaries). Chimps are also known to be able to work in teams, at least for hunting and war. Maybe they are not as smart as us but still…

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