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The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition

9 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674005822
ISBN-10: 0674005821
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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Homo sapiens has existed as a separate species for only a very short period of time on the evolutionary scale (six million years at most), and we share 99 percent of our DNA with our closest primate relatives. How then can humans be as different from other primates as we obviously are? Developmental psychologist Tomasello thinks that all of the many unique characteristics of humans are elaborations of one trait that arises in human infants at about nine months of age: the ability to understand other people as intentional agents. (He dismisses a bit too cavalierly the anecdotal evidence of recent animal behaviorists who would describe a good deal of animal behavior as intentional in this sense.) Language, elaborate cultures, and other hallmarks of humanity are all natural outgrowths of this single trait. The author is clearly highly credentialed, his thesis is certainly plausible, and the language is not jargony. However, his topic is really very limited; the bulk of the book focuses on the narrow issue of "shared attention." Only graduate students and developmental psychologists will want to know this much about the subject. Recommended for academic collections.
-Mary Ann Hughes, Neill P.L., Pullman, WA
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Students of primate behavior are one of several groups who should read this important book. It spells out forcefully what appears to make human development so distinctive, and does so from the perspective of an expert in language acquisition who has also devoted much time to comparative work with apes. It is strong medicine for anybody in danger of romanticizing the similarity of ape to child. Developmental psychologists will find here a well-articulated account of the ontogeny of cultural learning, which challenges alternative accounts from the vantage point of extensive research. (Andrew Whiten Nature)

In The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition...[Tomasello] argues that what makes human beings unique is that they are so good at learning from one another and that they create new, original things with what they learn. (Helen Epstein Lingua Franca)

A much needed book that covers a broad territory with both clarity and authority. Having spent much of his career comparing human and nonhuman primate cognition, Michael Tomasello makes the case for a social developmental foundation of the unique capacities of the human primate--language, complex cognition, and culture. His ontogenetic 'ratchet hypothesis' is both simple and provocative. It will be welcomed--and argued about--by a wide audience. (Katherine Nelson, Distinguished Professor of Developmental Psychology, City University of New York)

Tomasello is one of the very few scholars who works at the intersection of the phylogenetic, cultural-historical, and ontogenetic contributions to development. His studies linking non-human primate development to the development of human infants are exciting and compelling. He has done the study of human development a great service with the publication of this book. (Michael Cole, Professor of Communication and Psychology and Director of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition, University of California at San Diego)

A powerful and coherent synthesis, and the best formulation of cultural psychology we've yet had. (Jerome Bruner, New York University)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (March 2, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674005821
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674005822
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #822,276 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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30 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Stanley R. Palombo on September 24, 2002
Format: Paperback
This is the best account of cognitive development in human beings I've read, and as a psychoanalyst I've read quite a few. Tomasello focuses on the essential difference between human children and our closest relatives among the great apes. This is the ability to imagine that another creature has a mind with intentions and with plans to fulfill those intentions. From this capability follows the human infant's unique capacity to track the behavior of adults and to reconstruct their thoughts and intentions from their observed actions. Apes can make accurate predictions by watching what other apes do. They can emulate those actions in a general way, but they cannot imagine what the other ape is trying to do, or that there might in fact be other ways of doing whatever that is. As Tomasello shows, without a model of the other creature's intentions,it is impossible to appreciate and imitate the fine details of his actions. It is also impossible to build a cumulative model that relates one set of actions with another to form a larger scheme of mental activity.
Tomasello shows how the entire structure of shared ideas and artifacts that we call culture rests on this uniquely human cogitive achievement. His descriptions of the steps and stages in the evolving interaction between the child and its caretakers make this progressive development crystal clear. His account of languge acquisition is unusually good. He shows, for example, that words do not simply label objects but identify them through the particular aspects they display in a variety of meaningful contexts. Language introduces perspective, allowing the infant to see the world without the exclusive bias of his own immediate needs.
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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful By B. M. Still on June 10, 2001
Format: Paperback
Tomasello's work convincingly elucidates the roles of attention and intention discovery amongst infants in the acquisition of language. He enables us to dispense with ideas of linguistic modules, of "innateness" with respect to human speech acquisition. The key, in his thesis, is the human awareness of intention, and it's the emergence of this in infants at around 9 months which provides the basis for language comprehension (ultimately). A very enjoyable and persuasive text - strongly recommended to anyone interested in the origins of human language (on a species and individual basis).
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Ambulocetus on February 10, 2005
Format: Paperback
This book is marvellous, and is now being used in more recent work on the evolutionary origins of language and social institutions. Tomasello has done an enormous amount of empirical research to support his points, and also has a good theory background (Vygotsky's ideas on the social nature of learning, for example). More recent work in this field often either uses Tomasello's work or parallels his ideas--see for example Terrence W. Deacon's book The Symbolic Species or Greenspan and Shanker's book The First Idea. Tomasello's book does an excellent job of debunking older ideas that the human mind MUST be hardwired for language and other aspects of culture (e.g., Stephen Mithen's ideas of cognitive modules in the phylogenesis of religion). A splendid book, and not difficult at all to read.
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With all the interest in neuroscience these days, one could easily forget how much the social sciences grasp about the fundamental workings of things like, in this case, linguistic development. The origins of Human Cognition for Tomasello really means (and he acknowledges this) the origins of the fully linguistically developed individual. This is in large part a book about language development of the individual from its beginnings with joint attention in the nine month old to the 5-7 year old's internalization of the voice of society (social norms and expectation, ability to self-manage, self-control, inhibit unacceptable behavior, etc.) - call it the superego or whatever you want, Tomasello doesn't get into the various psychological-baggage-loaded interpretations of it, he just describes the linguistic preconditions and mechanisms that enable it. The entire second half of the book is entirely about linguistic development, and often redundant. But the explanation of the co-development of language and cognition from it's beginnings through the transition to understanding and internalizing that others are individuals like yourself but with alternative interpretations and intentions, and the detailed explanation of how this occurs based on the latest research (which takes up about the first half of the book) is excellently and very persuasively done. Very readable and, though written in 1999, very much in agreement with what neuroscience is discovering about linguistic and cognitive development. My one complaint is that Tomasello writes in a very argumentative fashion, constantly noting how recent findings support his views and disprove those of, for example, Chomsky, Damasio and Pinker. This would have a place in an academic article but is just a distraction here and makes it seem like he has a bit of a chip on his shoulder. He does, however, often relate how his views agree with those of the later Wittgenstein, which is illuminating.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Book Babe on August 2, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Tomasello's positing of a "ratchet effect" in human cultural learning is an elegant and convincing explanation of the speed with which the human ape outdistanced competitors in such a short period of time. A very exciting and enlightening book.
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