What were its antecedents? What specific adaptations to the primate brain made such a radical innovation possible? What fundamental changes enabled the hominid brain to acquire a vocabulary of , words, produce unlimited numbers of novel utterances, and register millions of verbal memories?
The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition.
Tomasello's answer is a subtle one. He acknowledges that we need a cognitive theory of cultural origins, which is a common, indeed obvious conclusion. But he also realizes that we need a cultural theory of cognitive origins, which is a less common, and much less obvious position. The title of his book draws our attention to the cultural origins of cognition, not vice-versa. He is telling us that it is not enough simply to proclaim that language is the building-block of human culture, assuming that language capacity somehow evolved in its own right, ahead of culture, and then triggered a cultural revolution.
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Our best evidence contradicts this idea. The human brain does not seem to have an identifiable "language module. The blueprint of the human brain resembles the primate brain in virtually every important aspect but size. Moreover, language acquisition depends closely on certain aspects of social development. It does not self-install in a brain that is socially disconnected in infancy.
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Rather, its growth is tied closely to the development of social cognition. Recent developmental research has made this point in a particularly elegant manner. Because of their inability to enter the intersubjective world of culture, children who are deficient in this respect, such as autistic children, show deficits in language acquisition that are proportional to their social disconnection.
This has evolutionary implications, because it suggests that the basics of social cognition must have evolved before language capacity. Language could not have evolved ahead of culture. Rather, certain aspects of social cognition must have come first.
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- The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition.
Social cognition is logically prior because it provides the communicative "platform" for language. Tomasello has tried to specify these aspects of social cognition in some detail.
In his view, the critical capacities hang on the evolution of an improved ability to "take perspectives" on the mental states of others. This is sometimes called "mind-reading" ability, or having a "theory of mind. Once we had the ability to share attention and have a theory of mind, the rudiments of cultural transmission would presumably have been in place.
This theory has much in common with the work of other developmental theorists in this field, notably Katherine Nelson, who has written extensively on the evolutionary implications of developmental research. The uniqueness of Tomasello's contribution lies in his thorough and up-to-date review of recent research on intentionality and cognitive collaboration and his detailed theory of the mechanisms that interlink a child's mind with culture.
In my opinion, his analysis adds substantially to this field. Tomasello is a staunch continuity theorist; that is, he rejects evolutionary miracles and looks for a smooth blending from ape to human characteristics. He finds the roots of essential human social skills such as joint attention in existing primate attentional skills such as gaze following.
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Similarly, he sees the origins of cultural learning by imitation in the emulative skills of chimpanzees and the origins of pedagogy in the capacity of primates to profit from social facilitation. His gradualist approach is also applied elsewhere: the primate talent for object manipulation evolved gradually into human tool making, and primate social signals combined with improved mind-reading skills and became symbolic. Thus, the leap to language no longer appears to involve a qualitative break-through, or saltation, and its evolution becomes much less mysterious than it appeared in the context of neo-Chomskyan theory, which suggested that human language was completely different from its primate antecedents.
Tomasello has made a convincing case for the generative role of social cognition in language evolution. But I think he has left some important things out of his evolutionary hypothesis. I do not dispute the critical importance of social understanding. But we cannot ignore the motor aspect of communication and representation. Improved social under standing could not have led to language in itself. Without a major modification of their motor capacities, primates would have been good social observers who were still unable to formulate complex expressions.
The primate brain also had to evolve the high-level motor control processes that support imitation, phonation, and complex hierarchies of language-related skills. Tomasello has shown that human expression has deep roots in social cognition and that the signature trademarks of the human mind, language and symbolic thought, could not have evolved without a special talent for social cognition.
In doing this, he has given us a unique perspective on joint attention, imitation, collaboration, and mind reading. His message is that we will never understand how the brain generates language until we understand the neural basis of social understanding. I couldn't agree more. But I would add a caveat: don't underestimate the motor side of the equation.
The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition
This having been said, Tomasello's short, readable, and highly accessible volume is essential reading for clinicians and neuroscientists interested in human evolution, social cognition, language, or disorders of communication. You may be trying to access this site from a secured browser on the server. Please enable scripts and reload this page. Wolters Kluwer Health may email you for journal alerts and information, but is committed to maintaining your privacy and will not share your personal information without your express consent.
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