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

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.

A Natural History of Human Thinking

Publisher: Harvard University Press
Length: 192 pages
Author: Michael Tomasello
Price: $31.50
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-02

Above: Human head made of gears image from

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.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.