Customer Reviews: The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition
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on September 24, 2002
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.
Tomasello's writing doesn't waste any words, but maintains a tone of empathy and understanding that makes the book a pleasure to read. I think it will prove invaluable to any educator or clinician concerned with understanding the receptivity to learning of either children or adults.
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on June 22, 2015
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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on June 10, 2001
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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on February 10, 2005
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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on August 2, 2010
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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on August 4, 2014
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on August 17, 2006
Essential reading for all fans of the human brain, especially for those who think it's sufficient to read Steven Pinker on the subject.
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on February 22, 2008
Excellent book for anyone with a interest in the mechanisms behind why we think and act the way we do. Also provides insights into developmental issues that still resonates with the current research in the field.
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on September 27, 2005
I read this book as a course requirement for a Developmental Psychology class while at university. I was heavily critical of it, and as a result got off to a bad start with the professor.

Tomasello's inability to write engaging and manageable prose is his first problem (his over use of the word "conspecific" was such that I wanted to slit my own wrists everytime I read it). The second more important is that this book fails to answer the most fundamental of the questions which it addresses. That question being, what is the spark? The catalyst? Or as he refer's to it "the magic bullet". Simply, what was it that promted social learning in primitive ancestral human societies, and peer groups? In the beginning chapters, he writes as though this book is the definitive answer and then forgets about it past chapter 1. If you'll forgive the pun, he dodges the bullet completely and leaves us exactly where we started.

Those being the two major issues I had with the book are reason enough to recommend that you not read it, unless otherwise forced to by professors who thinks the sun shine's out of Tomasello's hind end. The other problems include narrow views of certain questions, and failing to address alternative answers.

Trust me, there are much better Evolutionary Psychology books available. This one needs to be placed in the 'Useless' section right along with "Dianetics".
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