Becoming Human | Michael Tomasello

Summary of: Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny
By: Michael Tomasello


Embark on a fascinating journey exploring the evolution of human beings as distinct from other species through ‘Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny’ by Michael Tomasello. This book navigates the unique aspects of human culture, communication, and social structures that differentiate us from our primate relatives, the great apes. Witness a comprehensive analysis of human intellectual aptitudes and how they have evolved to facilitate our social experiences. Tomasello delves into the concept of a shared community, the development of gestural communication, and the rise of cumulative cultural evolution before examining the formation of group identity and the foundation of moral principles that underpin human society.

The Emergence of Human Culture

The reason why humanity is unique lies in the rise of culture as a new evolutionary process that has enabled the creation of distinct artifacts, institutions, and symbols. Unlike any other animal, humans developed the intellect and social skills that allowed them to establish standards and orchestrate their lives in relation to one another. The critical question is how we developed these abilities that paved the way for modern civilization. Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection cannot fully explain the emergence of human culture.

The Role of Cooperation in Human Culture

Humans evolved unique skills that enabled cooperation individually and in larger groups, providing the foundation of culture. This cooperation is structured by the distinction between subjective and objective, which emerges from the recognition that an individual’s point of view may not correspond to the objective world. People must be part of a shared community or culture to realize this. Human intellectual activities exist within their ability to distinguish subjectivity from objectivity and evolve in a way that supports their activities within the social sphere.

The Power of Sharing Awareness

Humans distinguish themselves from other primates by using vocalizations to direct each other’s attention to the external world, leading to a common consciousness and forms of cooperation. Children point at things to send attention in that direction, which is an example of gestural communication that eventually became standardized communication. This communication is a significant human characteristic, as near-human relatives lack a shared conventional language, shared intentions and common consciousness.

How communal knowledge sets humans apart

Humans harness collective knowledge and transmit it across generations through cultural evolution and learning.

Humans have a unique way of learning and transmitting knowledge that sets them apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Cumulative cultural evolution, which involves embracing and adding to useful creations, harnesses people’s collective intelligence and skills for the benefit of the group. This is possible because humans have the ability to teach and transmit skills from generation to generation through social learning and cultural transmission. Although these processes are ubiquitous in the animal kingdom, they are particularly special in humans.

Cultural evolution and learning also play a vital role in establishing group identity, creating a sense of belonging, and building trust between members of a community. Unlike great apes, human culture extends beyond knowledge acquisition and includes various practices and rituals that allow members to bond with each other. This process starts at an early age and continues throughout one’s life.

The Power of Collaboration

Collaboration fosters creativity and reasoning by allowing individuals to share their beliefs and perspectives. From childhood, people solve challenging problems and make collective decisions by discussing and accommodating their beliefs to one another. This process of reason-giving helps people connect beliefs, create coherence and encourages them to think rationally, ultimately making them active members of the community. As much of the creative work is done collaboratively, individuals put their heads together to solve novel problems, making collaboration a vital tool for fostering creativity.

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