Michael Tomasello

The Cultural Origins of HUMAN COGNITION
Harvard Univ. Press 2000

pg 201


Keywords: - Human cognition - primate cognition - Human beings share the majority of their cognitive skills and knowledge with other primates - including both the sensory-motor world of objects in their spatial, temporal, categorical, and quantitative relations and the social world of behaving conspecifics in their vertical (dominance) and horizontal (affiliative) relationships - powerful cognitive adaptation : ability and tendency of individuals to identify with conspecifics in ways that enable them to understand those conspecifics as intentional agents like the self, possessing their own intentions and attention, and eventually to understand them as mental agents like the self, possessing their own desires and beliefs - ratchet effect - cognitive modules - uniquely human form of social cognition - I thus do not see the point of trying to modularize human cognition, and the many different proposals for what the human module menu looks like attest to the practical difficulties of doing this as well




CULTURAL COGNITION



We may say that thinking is essentially the activity of operating with signs.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

We have no power of thinking without signs.

Charles Sanders Peirce

Thought is not merely expressed in words; it comes info existence through them.

Lev Vygotsky





Human cognition is a specific, in the literal meaning of the word, form of primate cognition. Human beings share the majority of their cognitive skills and knowledge with other primates - including both the sensory-motor world of objects in their spatial, temporal, categorical, and quantitative relations and the social world of behaving conspecifics in their vertical (dominance) and horizontal (affiliative) relationships. And all primate species use their skills and knowledge to formulate creative and insightful strategies when problems arise in either the physical or the social domain. Naturally, however, any one species of primate may have additional cognitive skills on top of those shared with other members of the order, and humans are no exception.

In the current hypothesis human beings do indeed possess a species-unique cognitive adaptation, and it is in many ways an especially powerful cognitive adaptation because it changes in fundamental ways the process of cognitive evolution.

This adaptation arose at some particular point in human evolution, perhaps fairly recently, presumably because of some genetic and natural selection events. This adaptation consists in the ability and tendency of individuals to identify with conspecifics in ways that enable them to understand those conspecifics as intentional agents like the self, possessing their own intentions and attention, and eventually to understand them as mental agents like the self, possessing their own desires and beliefs.

This new mode of understanding other persons radically changed the nature of all types of social interactions, including social learning, so that a unique form of cultural evolution began to take place over historical time, as multiple generations of developing children learned various things from their forebears and then modified them in a way that led to an accumulation of these modifications - most typically as embodied in some material or symbolic artifact. The "ratchet effect" thus produced radically changed the nature of the ontogenetic niche in which human children develop so that, in effect, modern children encounter and interact with their physical and social worlds almost totally through the mediating lenses of preexisting cultural artifacts, which embody something of the inventors' and users' intentional relations to the world when using them. Developing children are thus growing up in the midst of the very best tools and symbols their forebears have invented for negotiating the rigors of their physical and social worlds. Moreover, as children internalize these tools and symbols - as they learn to use them through basic processes of cultural learning - they create in the process some powerful new forms of cognitive representation based in the intentional and mental perspectives of other persons.

And so, from a meta-theoretical perspective, my claim is that we cannot fully understand human cognition-at least not its uniquely human aspects-without considering in detail its unfolding in three distinct time frames:

in phylogenetic time, as the human primate evolved its unique ways of understanding conspecifics; in historical time, as this distinctive form of social understanding led to distinctive forms of cultural inheritance involving material and symbolic artifacts that accumulate modifications over time; and
in ontogenetic time, as human children absorb all that their cultures have to offer, developing unique modes of perspectivally based cognitive representation in the process.

To conclude, I will offer a few more thoughts on the processes involved in each of these time frames, along with a few brief reflections on some of the major theoretical paradigms that offer competing accounts of these processes.

Phylogeny

A dominant paradigm in the modern study of human behavior and cognition posits that human beings possess a number of different and distinct innate cognitive modules. This approach had its origins in the pronouncements of philosophers such as Chomsky (1980) and Fodor (1983), but has since made its way into a number of empirical paradigms, among them neonativism in developmental psychology and sociobiology and evolutionary psychology in evolutionary anthropology (e.g., Spelke and Newport, 1997; Tooby and Cosmides, 1989; Pinker, 1997). The major problem for modularity theories has always been: What are the modules and how might we go about identifying them? In the absence of any commonly recognized methodology, the majority of theorists simply focus on those they consider to be the clearest cases, although even these differ considerably in different accounts.

Among the most commonly hypothesized modules are (a) knowledge of objects, (b) knowledge of other persons, (c) knowledge of number, (d) knowledge of language, and (e) knowledge of biology. Even within domains, however, there are controversies about whether there exist constitutive minimodules. For example, Baron-Cohen (1995) posits that the early knowledge of other persons is actually constituted by four very specific minimodules, and many Chomskian linguists believe that the language faculty also comprises a number of distinct linguistic mini-modules. Searching for answers in the brain, as suggested by some modularists, is far from straightforward, as localization of function in the brain may result from many different developmental processes not involving genetic specification of epistemological content; for example, a particular part of the brain might process particularly complex information and the first emerging developmental function that needs such computing power might simply localize there (Bates, in press; Elman et al., 1997).

The second major problem for modularity theorists, as outlined in Chapter 1, is the problem of time. For human cognitive functions shared with other mammals and primates, there has been plenty of time for biological evolution to have worked its wonders. But for uniquely human cognitive functions, there has been insufficient time for the evolution of a whole host of these-only 6 million years at most, but much more likely only onequarter of a million years. A much more plausible view is thus one that focuses on processes that work much more quickly—in historical and ontogenetic time, for example—and searches for the ways in which these processes actually go about creating and maintaining uniquely human cognitive functions.

There are certainly human cognitive functions for which historical and ontogenetic processes play only a minor role, for example, basic processes of perceptual categorization. But such things as linguistic symbols and social institutions are socially constituted and so could not conceivably have emerged full blown all at once in human evolution; social-interactive processes must have played some role in their creation and maintenance. In general, the basic problem with genetically based modularity approaches—especially when they address uniquely human and socially constituted artifacts and social practices—is that they attempt to skip from the first page of the story, genetics, to the last page of the story, current human cognition, without going through any of the intervening pages. These theorists are thus in many cases leaving out of account formative elements in both historical and ontogenetic time that intervene between the human genotype and phenotype.

My attempt is to find a single biological adaptation with leverage, and thus I have alighted upon the hypothesis that human beings evolved a new way of identifying with and understanding conspecifics as intentional beings. We do not know the ecological pressures that might have favored such an adaptation, and we can hypothesize any number of adaptive advantages it might have conferred. My own view is that any one of many adaptive scenarios might have led to the same evolutionary outcome for human social cognition, because if an individual understands conspecifics as intentional beings for whatever reason—whether for purposes of cooperation or competition or social learning or whatever—this understanding will not then evaporate when that individual interacts with conspecifics in other circumstances. In other words, such things as communication, cooperation, and social learning are not different modules or domains of knowledge, but rather are different domains of activity, each of which would be equally profoundly transformed by a new way of understanding conspecifics, that is, a new form of social cognition. The point is that the new form of social cognition would have profound effects whenever individuals interacted with one another—during historical time, transforming things social into things cultural, and during ontogenetic time, transforming skills of primate cognition and cognitive representation into uniquely human skills of cultural learning and perspectival cognitive representation.

It is important to emphasize that this uniquely human form of social cognition does not just concern the understanding of others as animate sources of motion and power, as hypothesized by Piaget (1954) and Premack (1990), which is a type of understanding seemingly possessed by all primates. Rather, this new form of social cognition concerns the understanding that others make choices in their perception and action and that these choices are guided by a mental representation of some desired outcome, that is, a goal. This is much more than an understanding of simple animacy. On the other hand, many other theorists have implied that what distinguishes human cognition from that of other animals is a "theory of mind," which is appropriate if that term is used generically to mean social cognition in general. But if the term is meant to focus narrowly on the understanding of false beliefs, it should be noted that this is something human children do not do until they are four years of age, but human cognition begins to differ in important ways from nonhuman primate cognition at around one to two years of age with joint attention, language acquisition, and other forms of cultural learning. Thus, as I have said before, the understanding of false beliefs is simply icing on the human social-cognitive cake, which is composed most fundamentally of the understanding of intentionality.

I must also say at this point that anthropomorphizing or romanticizing the cognitive abilities of other animal species will not help us to answer these difficult questions. By this I do not mean to imply that researchers should only look for differences between human and nonhuman primate cognition. On the contrary, if we are going to identify what is uniquely human, as well as what is uniquely chimpanzee or uniquely capuchin, it is crucial that scientists look for both similarities and differences. But the many popular accounts based on anecdotal observations of animal behavior, along with a healthy dose of the human penchant for seeing other beings as identical to themselves, are not, in my opinion, helpful to the enterprise. It is indeed ironic that the very ability whose virtues I have been extolling - the ability to see others as intentional beings like the self - can for some intellectual purposes be a tendency that is more harmful than helpful. I also do not think that searching for modules by itself is the answer. It is true that some of the more evolutionarily urgent problems like incest avoidance (leading to a very specific and inflexible mechanism that may be the same in many animal species) and the need to be assured that one's genes are passed on (leading to various forms of sexual jealousy that seem especially pronounced in humans because of the way the mating system works) may be good candidates for adaptive specializations unrelated to other adaptive specializations (Buss, 1994). But truly cognitive adaptations, almost by definition, are more flexible than this.

Although they may have arisen to solve one specific adaptive problem, they are quite often used for a wide array of related problems (e.g., cognitive maps that help in finding food, water, home bases, mates, offspring, predators, and so forth). I thus do not see the point of trying to modularize human cognition, and the many different proposals for what the human module menu looks like attest to the practical difficulties of doing this as well.


 

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