How Are Humans Unique?

Saturday, May 24th, 2008

Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, explains how humans are unique:

[The human 2-year-olds] performed about the same as the apes on the tests that measured how well they understood the physical world of space, quantities and causality. The children performed better only on tests that measured social skills: social learning, communicating and reading the intentions of others.

But such social gifts make all the difference. Imagine a child born alone on a desert island and somehow magically kept alive. What would this child’s cognitive skills look like as an adult — with no one to teach her, no one to imitate, no pre-existing tools, no spoken or written language? She would certainly possess basic skills for dealing with the physical world, but they would not be particularly impressive. She would not invent for herself English, or Arabic numerals, or metal knives, or money. These are the products of collective cognition; they were created by human beings, in effect, putting their heads together.

When you look at apes and children in situations requiring them to put their heads together, a subtle but significant difference emerges. We have observed that children, but not chimpanzees, expect and even demand that others who have committed themselves to a joint activity stay involved and not shirk their duties. When children want to opt out of an activity, they recognize the existence of an obligation to help the group — they know that they must, in their own way, “take leave” to make amends. Humans structure their collaborative actions with joint goals and shared commitments.

Another subtle but crucial difference can be seen in communication. The great apes — chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans — communicate almost exclusively for the purpose of getting others to do what they want. Human infants, in addition, gesture and talk in order to share information with others — they want to be helpful. They also share their emotions and attitudes freely — as when an infant points to a passing bird for its mother and squeals with glee. This unprompted sharing of information and attitudes can be seen as a forerunner of adult gossip, which ensures that members of a group can pool their knowledge and know who is or is not behaving cooperatively. The free sharing of information also creates the possibility of pedagogy — in which adults impart information by telling and showing, and children trust and use this information with confidence. Our nearest primate relatives do not teach and learn in this manner.

Finally, human infants, but not chimpanzees, put their heads together in pretense. This seemingly useless play activity is in fact a first baby step toward the creation of distinctively human social institutions. In social institutions, participants typically endow someone or something with special powers and obligations; they create roles like president or teacher or wife. Presidents and teachers and wives operate with special powers and obligations because, and only because, we all believe and act as if they fill these roles and have these powers. Two young children pretending together that a stick is a horse have thus taken their first step on the road not just to Oz but also toward inhabiting human institutional reality.

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