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For dyadic collaboration, simple gestures and pointing will do, but when collaboration involves many individuals, some of whom are strangers, a broader set of communication tools is needed, and language fills this need. Despite the elegance of this evolutionary story, its accuracy is doubtful. Both scavenging and hunting in the woodlands and forests of the Pleistocene involved most of the able-bodied men in a band acting collectively by spreading out over a large area in search of prey.

When one member of the band located a prey object, the others would be called to chase away predators with stones and spears. They would then carry the prey, which could be quite large, back to the home base, where the meat could be cooked and shared. The notion that very small groups of hunters could form coalitions and hunt apart from other small groups of hunters is certainly possible, but it has no support in the paleoanthropological data.

Also, contemporary hunter—gatherer groups, of which there are more than around the world, almost always hunt collectively and have sophisticated social norms for the egalitarian sharing of the meat from large animals. If these observations are accurate, it is most likely that an early hominin species developed a crude but effective collectively intentional society with norms, conventions, and sophisticated communication forms that gave this species an evolutionary advantage over the many hominin species of the time that were competing for control of the hunter—gather niche in woodland and forest.

Tomasello hypothesizes that the transition from joint intentionality to collective intentionality had to wait until there were high levels of human population and interband competition. However, hunter—gather societies with collective hunting appear in the fossil record long before human population growth took off in the modern era, and interband warfare was probably never unimportant in our hominin ancestors Bowles and Gintis Similarly, the notion that human language is a modern adaptation to high population density and warfare is not plausible.

Human language originated in all likelihood more than , years ago Dediu and Levinson , although it may have taken its modern form much later, between , and 50, years ago Lieberman and McCarthy However, human population growth began only 10, years ago.

Michael Tomasello

An important casualty of these facts is Tomasello's assertion that early hominin collaboration can be insightfully modeled as a stag hunt game. The essence of the stag hunt game is that each agent has an incentive to collaborate, provided all the others do. For a typical group of hunters, which may have included 8 to 16 individuals, each individual has an incentive to shirk.

Therefore, the proper game describing collaborative hunting is much more likely to be a public goods game than a stag hunt game. In fact, we know that contemporary humans have genetic predispositions that allow them to develop social institutions that foster cooperation in such public goods games Fehr and Gintis , Bowles and Gintis Tomasello refers to Skyrms for support in claiming that the stag hunt is the proper tool for analyzing human cooperation.

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In the latter case, if the task requires two people to complete a job successfully, one can generally shirk to some extent, with the hope that the other will pick up the slack. This violates the conditions of the stag hunt game. Once we add several players and variable effort to the mix, the stag hunt game falls apart. Moreover, this reliance on the stag hunt game has led Tomasello astray in assessing the importance of altruism, which is replaced by mutualism in the stag hunt game, in fostering human cooperation.

This belief is a nonstarter. For one thing, joint intentionality includes a joint commitment to the group of collaborators, and commitment means precisely each member honoring the group's goals even when his best self-regarding interest would be to abandon the collaboration—or at least reduce his contribution to the group effort—in order to attain other personal goals.


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For another, the idea that most human cooperation is either joint or collective intentionality is simply not the case. Altruism-based helping and punishing occur in many crucial situations in which there is no collaboration at all. If a stranger gives me directions, or if passengers on an air flight are considerate to one another, these forms of prosociality are altruistic in the most rigorous sense. But no collaboration is involved.

Moreover, human morality includes such character virtues as honesty and courage, for which people sacrifice personal gain to honor even when they have no feelings for those who benefit from their virtue and when they cannot gain materially from their rectitude. This is altruism without collaboration.

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We are the product of a complex, multifaceted evolutionary dynamic, and the deeper we probe into our origins as a species, the more wondrous facets we unearth. Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University's objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide.

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In elaborating upon this idea, A Natural History of Human Thinking defends a double pulse model of this trajectory: an initial shift from individual to joint intentionality perhaps complete at the evolution of Homo Heidelbergensis, roughly half a million years ago , and then a further evolutionary shift from joint to collective intentionality, as social life became organized around larger and self-aware groups. Contemporary humans do not just live in groups; we identify as members of a particular group, and often carry a "badge" of that membership, contrasting it with others.

A Natural History of Human Thinking

This book, then, can be seen as an essay in evolutionary action theory, as it traces an incremental trajectory from individual to joint to collective agency, identifying at each stage the distinctive cognitive and social capacities newly in play. As Tomasello sees it, hominin life became fundamentally different from great ape social life, because an ecological trigger forced a change from individual to collaborative foraging especially cooperative hunting , and hominin foragers became interdependent.


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Their interests were aligned; their social peers were resources more than they were threats and competitors. This selected for joint intentionality. First, intentional agents had joint goals, engaging in projects that were collective, not merely individual projects more efficiently carried out in the company of others. Second, they had "common ground," a shared knowledge of circumstances, capacities, and intentions which were known to be shared.

Third, they had a common focus of attention at and over time--Tomasello suggests that this was particularly important, for while the focus of attention was shared, individual perspectives on that common focus varied, and coordinated action for example, in ambush hunting required cooperating agents to be sensitive to the differences as well as to the common focus. An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page.

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