Michael Tomasello

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Michael Tomasello (born January 18, 1950) is an American developmental and comparative psychologist; as well a linguist. He is co-director of Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, and co-director of the Wolfgang Kohler Primate Research CenterGermany, honorary professor at University of Leipzig's and at Manchester University's Department of Psychology, and professor of psychology at Duke University.

Earning many prizes and awards from the end of the 1990s onward, he is considered one of today's most authoritative developmental and comparative psychologists, he is "one of the few scientists worldwide who is acknowledged as an expert in multiple disciplines".[1] His "pioneering research on the origins of social cognition has led to revolutionary insights in both developmental psychology and primate cognition."[2]

Early life and education[edit]

Tomasello was born in Bartow, Florida, he received his bachelor's degree 1972 from Duke University and his doctorate in Experimental Psychology 1980 from University of Georgia.[3]


He was a professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, US, during the 1980s and 1990s.[3] Subsequently, he moved to Germany to work at the Max Planck Institute.[3]

He has worked to identify the unique cognitive and cultural processes that distinguish humans from their nearest primate relatives, the other great apes. He studies the social cognition of great apes at the Wolfgang Köhler Primate Research Center in Leipzig. In his developmental research he has focused on how human children become cooperating members of cultural groups, focusing in recent years on uniquely human skills and motivations for shared intentionality: joint intentions, joint attention, collaboration, prosocial motives, and social norms.

Tomasello also works on child language acquisition as a crucially important aspect of the enculturation process. He is a critic of Noam Chomsky's universal grammar, rejecting the idea of an innate universal grammar[4] and instead proposing a functional theory of language development (sometimes called the social-pragmatic or usage-based approach to language acquisition) in which children learn linguistic structures through intention-reading and pattern-finding in their discourse interactions with others.

Uniqueness of human social cognition[edit]

Tomasello and his research team at the Max Planck Institute created a set of experimental devices to test toddler's (from 6 months to 24 months) and ape's spatial, instrumental and social cognition. The outcome of these tests is that social cognition is what truly sets human apart [5]. More specifically, Tomasello argues that apes lack the human ability to understand and share the intentions of others (collective intentionality), the capacity to imitate others extensively, to teach one another, to communicate in order to inform or share feelings and evaluations. Other human's unique skills include : the perspectival view (the same thing can be viewed simultaneously from many angles); the prescriptive feeling; the sense of mutual commitment and interdependence; the dual structure of shared goal and attention coupled with different individual roles and perspectives; the recursive mind reading (knowing what others know we know they know, and so forth); the cooperative communication (communication to achieve common goals, to help cooperator play its role).

Tomasello takes these skills to be the roots of human cultural ground (the roots of conventions, of group identity, of institutions), a hypothesis he worked out by borrowing concepts from philosophers like Paul Grice, John Searle, Margaret Gilbert, Michael Bratman, and from anthropologist Dan Sperber.

For Tomasello, human's unique social cognitive abilities resulted from a phylogenetic evolution where collaboration became necessary for survival, first on an individual, face-to-face scale for food gathering, then on a collective scale for group defense ; phylogenetic evolution that would have imply cultural (rather than biological) group selection [6]. Humans' unique cognitive skills develop during the individual's lifetime by scaffolding on the communicative conventions and institutions forming the socio-cultural environment, and by forming feedback loops that enrich and deepen both cultural ground and individual's prior skills. "[B]asic skills evolve phylogenetically, enabling the creation of cultural products historically, which then provide developing children with the biological and cultural tools they need to develop ontogenetically"[7].


Selected works[edit]

  • Tomasello, M. & Call, J. (1997). Primate Cognition. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-510624-4
  • Tomasello, M. (1999). The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-00582-1 (Winner of the William James Book Award of the APA, 2001)
  • Tomasello, M. (2003). Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition, Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-01764-1 (Winner of the Cognitive Development Society Book Award, 2005)
  • Tomasello, M. (2008). Origins of Human Communication, MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-20177-3 (Winner of the Eleanor Maccoby Book Award of the APA, 2009)
  • Tomasello, M. (2009). Why We Cooperate, MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-01359-8
  • Tomasello, M. (2014). A Natural History of Human Thinking, Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674724778
  • Tomasello, M. (2016). A Natural History of Human Morality, Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674088641

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Heineken Prize for Cognitive Science". knaw.nl. The Netherlands: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. 2010. 
  2. ^ "2015 Distinguished Scientific Contribution Awards". apa.org. American Psychological Association. 
  3. ^ a b c Biographical information from his official webpage at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
  4. ^ a b 2011 Wiley Prize in Psychology at Wiley.com
  5. ^ "Michael Tomasello, 2009, "The Gap is Social" in P.Kappeler & J. B. Silk, Mind the Gap: Tracing the Origins of Human Universals).
  6. ^ Michael Tomasello, 2016, A Natural History of Human Morality , Harvard University Press, p.10,11,20
  7. ^ Michael Tomasello, 2010, Origins of Human Communication , MIT Press, p.345
  8. ^ "Klaus Jacobs Preis". Süddeutsche Zeitung. 2 December 2011. p. 18. 
  9. ^ Prizewinners at the German Helmuth Plessner Society (HPG)

External links[edit]