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Why We Cooperate (Boston Review Books) Hardcover – August 28, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Tomasello, codirector of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, shares his theories on how human cooperation evolved and suggests it is a defining characteristic of our species. To test the innate quality of cooperation in human interactions, Tomasello studies the cooperative behavior of preverbal children, generally 12 months to 24 months in age, and compares their behavior to that of apes in similarly structured experiments. The results are remarkable, demonstrating that even preverbal children have a natural predilection to cooperate and help others. Chimpanzees, on the other hand, especially where food is concerned, tend to act in ways that increase their own individual gain. Tomasello's writing is followed by contributions from four other leading scientists—John B. Silk, Carol Dweck, Brian Skyrns and Elizabeth Spelke—whose comments are illuminating, and while they do not fully agree with Tomasello, they all agree that [h]is cutting edge theory and research has altered the face of developmental psychology by merging cognitive and social development, historically quite separate fields. The book (which originated as a lecture series at Stanford) is generally dryly scientific, but the fascinating approach to the question of what makes us human renders this a singularly worthwhile read. (Oct.)
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"The work of Tomasello and his colleagues provides the best and most exciting point of entry into a literature that will certainly shape philosophical debates for the years to come." -- Mattia Gallotti, Cambridge University Press

"... the fascinating approach to the question of what makes us human renders this a singularly worthwhile read." -- Publishers Weekly


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Product Details

  • Series: Boston Review Books
  • Hardcover: 232 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press; First Edition, 1st Printing edition (August 28, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262013592
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262013598
  • Product Dimensions: 4.5 x 0.6 x 7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #740,659 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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43 of 46 people found the following review helpful By Herbert Gintis on December 12, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Michael Tomasello is a cognitive and developmental psychologist who has worked extensively with chimpanzees, as well as human infants and children. A central problem on which he has worked for a number of years is the exact nature of the difference between apes and humans in the structure of cognition. For many years the general opinion among evolutionary psychologists was that the observed differences are quantitative but not qualitative. That is, chimpanzees think pretty much the same way we do, but just at a lower level of cognitive capacity. In recent years, many cognitive psychologists have rejected this notion in favor of the idea that there are qualitative epistemological capacities possessed by humans that are missing in chimpanzees and other non-human primates. Perhaps the most well known is the notion that human have a "theory of mind" (Premack & Woodruff, 1978) in the sense that they attribute mental states to conspecifics of the same sort that they experience (Cheney & Seyfarth 1990, 1992).

Tomasello has been a major contributor to this line of research. His study of how chimpanzees and human teach and learn led him to a model in which, for humans, there is a "shared intentionality" consisting of a tripartite cognition of the form teacher/-learner/object of knowledge, whereas for chimpanzees, there are only a set of dualities, skilled individual-object, unskilled individual-object, skilled individual-unskilled individual. Naturally, without the tripartite episteme, true leaning by imitation cannot occur, and indeed, that is a major conclusion in the literature. See, for instance, Michael Tomasello, Susan Savage-Rumbaugh, and A. C. Kruger (1993) Imitative learning of actions on objects by children, chimpanzees, and enculturated chimpanzees. Child Development 64:1688-1705.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on February 6, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Michael Tomasello's little book, Why We Cooperate is an interesting interdisciplinary approach towards understanding how humans come to cooperate in societies. I highly suggest accompanying this book with Philosopher John Searle's newest book, Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. Searle and Tomasello frequently cite each other's work; combining the two men's work together really creates a more powerful and complete argument.

As to the book, the first half is a short essay by Tomasello while the second half consists of critiques by Joan B. Silk (How Humans Evolved (Fifth Edition)), Carol S. Dweck (Mindset: The New Psychology of Success), Brian Skyrms (Evolution of the Social Contract) and Elizabeth S. Spelke. I thought all the contributions were good, but I was most drawn to Tomasello's compelling observation that, "The remarkable human capacity for cooperation therefore seems to have evolved mainly for interactions within the local group. Such group-mindedness in cooperation is, perhaps ironically, a major cause of strife and suffering in the world today. The solution - more easily described than attained - is to find new ways to define the group.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Joel on December 26, 2009
Format: Hardcover
A concise, thoughtful book that summarizes Tomasello's research on human cooperation. The book follows Tomasello's beliefs on both what is unique about human cooperation and also how it evolved. Four contributors then respond both positively and negatively to the work.

In all, a delightful read. Definitely recommended for someone with an interest in evolutionary psychology, developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, evolutionary anthropology, or related fields. Not particularly technical, so accessible to a lay reader, but some knowledge in the field would be helpful in getting more out of it.
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By CB on February 10, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Tomasello has come to my attention from two sub areas of interest. The first was Axel Honneth's poorly developed book on reification. According to Honneth, Tomasello has empirically demonstrated that infants have an ontogenetic faculty of deep empathy and recognition of fellow human beings. But most of us know that adults don't have much empathy for other people, and have a hard time 'recognizing' the other (think the entire Republican party). For Honneth this is the new starting point to develop a theory of reification.

I also watch a lot of NOVA specials, and frequently the Max Planck institute for social research is featured with some amazing experiment regarding chimpanzees and/or toddlers. This is the institute that Tomasello works for.

Having been piqued by his research I picked up Why We Cooperate which, in only 100 pages, sets out to develop an interesting thesis. He begins with the question: was Hobbes or Rousseau right? Are we born nasty, and brutish, and hardly concerned with others, or are we born angelic and since fallen from grace due to the evolution of civilization? Tomasello is not as radical as Rousseau, he won't damn all of civilization, but he's convinced that we are born mostly altruistic, cooperative, and empathetic (i.e., he sides with Rousseau). He highlights about a dozen studies that reveal just how compassionate and innately concerned children are. He doesn't speculate much on why humans lose their ability to be altruistic, but he does show nearly conclusively that altruism is innate, and not learned. If anything is learned over time, it's how NOT to be altruistic. Society deprives us of our angelic nature. There is one study that really highlights this.
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