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Origins of Human Communication Hardcover – September 30, 2008

ISBN-13: 978-0262201773 ISBN-10: 0262201771

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press (September 30, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262201771
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262201773
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.9 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,086,566 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"Underscoring the uniqueness of humans is all too easy. The challenge is to explain it in a naturalistic perspective. Michael Tomasello meets the challenge with his unique suite of competencies in animal and human psychology, and his ability to think and write with clarity and insight about complex issues. There is much to learn and much to think and also to argue about in this important book."
Dan Sperber, Institut Jean Nicod

About the Author

Michael Tomasello is Codirector of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig. He is the author of The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition and Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition.

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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
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Just the anecdotes of research alone make the book fascinating.
Jake Keenan
Tomasello explains (as natural scientist ) how communication functions in everday practical behavior within groups of humans as well as great apes.
Dr. Guenther Witzany
This is one of the few books I've read that changed the way I think.
John L. Kubie

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

34 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Herbert Gintis on May 24, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Michael Tomasello is perhaps the consummate product of contemporary sociobiology. A tenet of sociobiology is that we can understand the behavior of a species by comparing and contrasting with closely related species, and with species that have found similar means for solving their social problems. Tomasello offers us deep insights into human communication and learning by comparing and contrasting our behavior with that of our nearest evolutionary relatives, the great apes.

Tomasello is not only a creative and incisive scientist, but also a learned intellectual, who is at ease bringing philosophical issues to bear on complex questions in behavioral science. In this book, we not only find out about human communication, but also are rewarded with an appreciation of the philosophy of the great Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein is a difficult philosopher because he writes in quasi-aphorisms and follows something like the Socratic Method in asking questions rather than answering them. A good example is the quotation from the Philosophical Investigations with which Tomasello's book starts: "Point to a piece of paper. And now point to its shape---now to its color---now to its number... How did you do it?" Wittgenstein's point is that gestures as a form of communication are primary and part of our essence as humans. They are not translations of verbal linguistic structures into visual form. As Wittgenstein says in his unpublished notes (The Big Typescript, 2005[1933]), "What we call meaning must be connected with the primitive language of gestures."

Tomasello takes Wittgenstein literally: we share with chimpanzees and other apes the capacity to communicate by gesture, so it is likely that this was a capacity possessed by our most recent common ancestor.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Jake Keenan on June 1, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a really good book. It is the best among the current evolution of language books. And it is an easy reading excursion into the attentional and gestural dynamics of great apes and children. Although intended for an academic audience, it still retains the feel of its origins in a series of lectures. For those who don't know Michael Tomasello, he is a quasi institution in his own right now in his academic niche at the cognitive, cultural, and linguistic intersection of the developmental abilities of apes and children. From his position at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, his publishing and research outputs are prodigious. In comparison to his earlier books this one is cleaner and covers more ground. Like other authors writing on the origin of language, the key issue is the origin and effects of cooperation. His new twist is to relax the altruistic nub of cooperation into observed cases of collaboration where participants happen to be focused on the same goal at the same time. In some ways the book restates classic Tomasello arguments, but they appeared clearer, more succinct, and better researched. The arguments on common ground backed up by the work of Herbert Clark (Using Language) made the analysis of cooperative situations make much more sense. His long chapter on syntax in an evolutionary context was a treat and well argued. Language change, common conceptual ground as a wider form of joint attention, and the the possible requirements for a shift to helpful expectations in forming the Gricean communicative intention were welcome new emphases.

The evolution and origins of language appears to be one of those flash fires in the intellectual landscape in this decade.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By John L. Kubie on November 29, 2009
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This is one of the few books I've read that changed the way I think. The notions of "cooperative attention", "common ground" and "shared intent" are profound and leave me thinking and wondering. Let's see if I can describe one, common ground. As I see it, in a conversation participants share a framework, a "common ground". For example, the common ground may be the task "preparation for dinner". This framework permits many shortcuts. For example, common ground makes pointing an effective and informative means of communication. In the context of preparation for dinner, pointing to the salt may mean "please bring that to me so I can cook". Tomasselo argues that the 3 essential features derive from human social groups being inherently cooperative. An example would be a hunting party, where a single plan could be established and differential roles assigned. Tomasselo argues that ape societies are not cooperative, and disputes claims of cooperation from primate behavior research.

One of my interests is "Theory of Mind". Tomasselo argues (counter to his thinking 15 years ago) that apes do have a theory of mind. This means, roughly, that apes recognize that conspecifics (or humans) see the world differently than they do and are separate agents with separate goals and desires. The notion of "shared intent" rests on theory of mind. Tomasselo contends that apes do not have shared intent, due to the lack of natural cooperation in their social structure. Our presumed ancestors possessed both theory of mind and shared intent, necessary precursors for language development.

One of the most surprising Tomasselo ideas is that human language developed not from primate vocalization but from primate gesture and pantomime.
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