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Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

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A radical reconsideration of how we develop the qualities that make us human, based on decades of cutting-edge experimental work by the former director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Virtually all theories of how humans have become such a distinctive species focus on evolution. Here, Michael Tomasello proposes a complementary theory of human uniqueness, focused on development. Building on the seminal ideas of Vygotsky, his data-driven model explains how those things that make us most human are constructed during the first years of a child’s life.

Tomasello assembles nearly three decades of experimental work with chimpanzees, bonobos, and human children to propose a new framework for psychological growth between birth and seven years of age. He identifies eight pathways that starkly differentiate humans from their closest primate relatives: social cognition, communication, cultural learning, cooperative thinking, collaboration, prosociality, social norms, and moral identity. In each of these, great apes possess rudimentary abilities. But then, Tomasello argues, the maturation of humans’ evolved capacities for shared intentionality transform these abilities—through the new forms of sociocultural interaction they enable—into uniquely human cognition and sociality. The first step occurs around nine months, with the emergence of joint intentionality, exercised mostly with caregiving adults. The second step occurs around three years, with the emergence of collective intentionality involving both authoritative adults, who convey cultural knowledge, and coequal peers, who elicit collaboration and communication. Finally, by age six or seven, children become responsible for self-regulating their beliefs and actions so that they comport with cultural norms.

Becoming Human places human sociocultural activity within the framework of modern evolutionary theory, and shows how biology creates the conditions under which culture does its work.

Author: Tomasello Michael
Pages: 392
ISBN: 9780674248281
Cover: Paperback
Edition Number: 1
Release Year: 2021
  • Preface
  • I. Background
    • 1. In Search of Human Uniqueness
    • 2. Evolutionary Foundations
      • Human Evolution
      • Human Ontogeny
      • Explanation in Developmental Psychology
  • II. The Ontogeny of Uniquely Human Cognition
    • 3. Social Cognition
      • From Apes: Imagining What Others Perceive
      • Joint Attention
      • The Coordination of Perspectives
      • Becoming “Objective”
    • 4. Communication
      • From Apes: Intentional Communication
      • Cooperative Communication
      • Conventional Communication
      • Becoming Symbolic
    • 5. Cultural Learning
      • From Apes: Social Learning
      • Imitation and Conformity
      • Instructed Learning
      • Becoming Knowledgeable
    • 6. Cooperative Thinking
      • From Apes: Individual Thinking
      • Collaborative Reasoning
      • Coordinated Decision-Making
      • Becoming Reasonable
  • III. The Ontogeny of Uniquely Human Sociality
    • 7. Collaboration
      • From Apes: Acting in Parallel with Others
      • Dual-Level Collaboration
      • Joint Commitment
      • Becoming Second-Personal
    • 8. Prosociality
      • From Apes: Basic Sympathy
      • Smithian Helping and Sharing
      • Fairness
      • Becoming Cooperative
    • 9. Social Norms
      • From Apes: Group Life
      • Social Norms
      • Justice
      • Becoming Group-Minded
    • 10. Moral Identity
      • From Apes: Social Evaluation
      • Self-Presentation and Self-Conscious Emotions
      • Moral Justification and Identity
      • Becoming Responsible
  • IV. Conclusion
    • 11. A Neo-Vygotskian Theory
      • Global Theories of Human Ontogeny
      • Shared Intentionality Theory
      • Problems and Prospects
    • 12. The Power of Shared Agency
  • References
  • Index

Michael Tomasello is Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University. From 1998 to 2018 he was Co-Director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and in 2017 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His scientific work has been recognized by institutions around the world, including the Guggenheim Foundation, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Netherlands, and the German National Academy of Sciences.

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