Saturday, November 8, 2014

Wisdom Of The Week

He found a major difference between the two species. By the time a baby begins to point, at about nine months of age, she has already made several sophisticated cognitive leaps. When she points at a puppy and looks at you, she knows that her perspective may be different from yours (you haven’t noticed the pup), and she wants to share her information—doggie!—with you.

“We naturally inform people of things that are interesting or useful to them,” Tomasello says. “That’s unusual. Other animals don’t do that.” Pointing is an attempt to change your mental state. It is also a request for a joint experience: She wants you to look at the dog with her.

Chimps, by contrast, do not point things out to each other. Captive chimps will point for humans, but it’s to make a demand rather than to share information: I want that! Open the door! They do not understand informational human pointing, because they do not expect anyone to share information with them. In one of Tomasello’s experiments, food is hidden in one of two buckets. Even if the experimenter points to where it is, the chimp still chooses randomly. “It’s absolutely surprising,” Tomasello says. “They just don’t seem to get it.”

In parallel experiments, children as young as 12 months have no trouble understanding an adult pointing a finger at a hidden reward. To understand pointing, Tomasello posits, you must form a “we intention,” a shared goal that both of you will pay attention to the same thing. Chimps don’t point because they don’t think in terms of “we.” They think in terms of “me.” “Cooperatively informing them of the location of food does not compute,” he says. The chimpanzee world is egocentric: Every chimp for himself.


Basically, we domesticated ourselves. When collaborating to find food became essential because of changes in the climate or changes in the competition, we became less aggressive and more willing to share. Aggressive individuals, unwilling to cooperate, would starve and die out. Now that our temperaments allowed us to put our minds together, we were able to develop communal inventions like language and culture, and sustain these innovations by teaching and imitating one another. The ability to crystallize knowledge in inventions and traditions, Tomasello says, is what turned the ordinary primate mind into an extraordinary human one.


Ultimately, Tomasello’s research on human nature arrives at a paradox: our minds are the product of competitive intelligence and cooperative wisdom, our behavior a blend of brotherly love and hostility toward out-groups. Confronted by this paradox, the ugly side—the fact that humans compete, fight, and kill each other in wars—dismays most people, Tomasello says. And he agrees that our tendency to distrust outsiders—lending itself to prejudice, violence, and hate—should not be discounted or underestimated. But he says he is optimistic. In the end, what stands out more is our exceptional capacity for generosity and mutual trust, those moments in which we act like no species that has ever come before us.

Cooperation Is What Makes Us Human

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