'A Natural History of Human Thinking' Considers the Mechanisms that Facilitated Our Evolution

by Daniel Rasmus

8 May 2014

Michael Tomasello offers many stimulating anthropological perspectives that he wrings out of current research to create a dense account of the current thinking on thinking.
cover art

A Natural History of Human Thinking

Michael Tomasello

(Harvard University Press)
US: Feb 2014

Above: Human head made of gears image from Shutterstock.com.

When I first requested Michael Tomasello’s A Natural History of Human Thinking, I imagined a book that would engage my imagination with insight and witty prose.  What Tomasello offers, despite the trade pricing, is an academic treatise—not a popular read. Tomasello does not write with the poetry of Diane Ackerman in A Natural History of the Senses, nor with the irascible humor of Stephen Jay Gould in Bully for Brontosaurus. Tomasello presents his arguments in dense, academic language that requires a mental trowel to navigate.

At its core, A Natural History of Human Thinking sets forward the premise that the human primate evolved in a way that began to understand itself, and eventually, to understand that a single human couldn’t manage alone, and that only through cooperation, first in small groups, and ultimately through civilization and culture, would humankind survive. Tomasello calls this “shared intentionality”, a hypothesis he spends the book outlining and expanding upon. Individual intentionality leads to joint intentionality and then to collective intentionality.

Of course, this early understanding wasn’t a conscious choice, but an aberration of genetics that created an opportunity for the species to differentiate itself, to find its niche. Those who could deal with the complexity of communication and cooperative living huddled together toward competitive advantage. As we find with technology today, such as in the “arms race” against e-mail spam, if you will, complexity breeds complexity. In the case of early humans, the complexity of social settings forced the mind to become more complex.

I found the section on human decision making titled ‘Shared Decision Making and the Giving of Reasons’ the most intriguing. It begins with a discussion of reason making and the art of argument in tracking animals. One can easily imagine how much of what we do day-to-day derives from these simple situations, not unlike arguing which way to track an antelope.  Personal knowledge and belief lead to different perspectives than can only be communicated through a complexity of language or gesture (I wonder, though, given Tomasellos myopia on primates, how he would think about the complex communication behaviors of bees returning to the hive to share a discovery of nectar). At the end of the section Tomasello states:

The norms of human reasoning are thus at least implicitly agreed upon in the community, and individuals provide reasons and justifications of ways of convincing “any rational person.”

Taking this into the realm of Michael Shermer’s work (The Believing Brain) on bias would be interesting, as determining what is best” and the mental model of the “any person” may inevitability lead to the creation of the seemingly arbitrary rights and wrongs that exist among diverse communities. The kind of generalizations that Tomasello hints at amount to bias within communities that could easily lead to polarization and conflict, such as that seen in decision making based on ideology vs. that based on skepticism and pragmatism.

My final thoughts go to knowledge management and artificial intelligence, two areas where I have conducted considerable research of my own.  Tomasello’s research into children and great apes and his speculations about early hominids leaves little room for the deconstructive ideas of artificial intelligence. Although complexity may have been the evolutionary forcing function, how the brain specifically organized itself, how it constructed its circuits to become self-reflective, is beyond the purview of anthropologic inquiry.

The problem with much academic research is that researchers are forced by the nature of grants and programs to focus on very narrow niches. They are forced to evolve, so to speak, to fit a unique need determined by other academicians. Marvin Minsky, for example, posited a “society of mind” that painted human thinking as the emergent behavior of agents. This is a plausible way of reasoning about the mechanisms of thought, even if Tomasello’s hypothesis proves correct.

Unfortunately, from either perspective we end up with only part of the story. Human thinking is not simply the forces that put it into play, but also the mechanisms that facilitated its evolution.

I add this idea to the two big open questions Tomasello himself posits in the “Conclusion”; namely, how to reconcile shared intentionality and individual thought, and why modern humans can ascribe bigger ideas to things like money and rank, that are clearly not attributes of the thing itself. (The later question, I may note, is one that artificial intelligence tends not to question, but which it spends large amounts of time coding for.)

As noted above, if you are looking for an entertaining journey through the science of the mind, A Natural History of Human Thinking is not that book. If you are looking for a well-researched exploration of human thinking, Tomasello offers many stimulating anthropological perspectives that he wrings out of current research to create a dense account of the current thinking on thinking. The author, however, fails to reach far enough into analogous research and ideas from other disciplines to offer a holistic account.

A Natural History of Human Thinking


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