Book Review: Language Evolved in Two StagesA review of TomaselloMichael, A Natural History of Human Thinking. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 2014, 192 pp., US$35.00, ISBN #978-0-674-72477-8 (Hardcover)
Michael Tomasello is co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and his work-combining studies on large apes and children-is unparalleled in the field. The theoretically-motivated and brilliant combination of infant research, studies on child language, and chimpanzee cognition is a unique mixture of the heritage of James Baldwin (1894) and Vygotsky (Luria and Vygotsky, 1992; Vygotsky, 1987) in contemporary psychology. His previous synthesis, the
... w classic work (5,000 citations) of Tomasello (1999), argued that it was not culture that would have created human learning, but that the evolution-based mechanisms of cultural learning created culture itself (Tomasello, 2003) . This was supplemented with the message of his other successful book, which argued for human uniqueness in general and comprehensive cooperation, including information-oriented cooperation, helping conspecifics by sharing with them knowledge about the world (Tomasello, 2009). The new book is a synthesis of the decade-long experimental work of the Tomasello labs with an eye to the theoretical discussions on the origins of the social mind. A comprehensive three-level vision is portrayed. The starting point is a characterization of the cognitive and social achievements of great apes. The novelty of the new theory is thatcompared to his earlier cultural learning theory-Tomasello now postulates two dramatic changes. These changes focus on both the social level and the societal level of cooperation, if I may borrow a term from social science theory not actually used by Tomasello himself. The first change is social cooperation, based on joint intentionality with occasional partners. The second change is the creation of collective intentionality with the advent of rule systems of group life. As for communication, the first step is characterized by a rich gesture and miming system and bodily communication, whereas the second is characterized by the emergence of conventionalized language. The entire book, as well as these new conceptions, has a strong reliance on understanding the way of life of great apes and our ancestors in order to explain cognitive changes. Food-seeking strategies become the motivating forces for underlying changes from mere competition towards cooperation.