Review of A Natural History of Human Thinking by Michael Tomasello

For anyone interested in the origins of human culture, A Natural History of Human Thinking is a must read. This short, clear and easy-to-read book (around 150 pages) traces the development of language, symbolic thinking and culture and their origins in social cooperation as an evolutionary advantage for humans.

Michael Tomasello argues that human’s cognitive uniqueness stems from the benefits of social interaction, information sharing and cooperation among groups. Once we learned to ‘put our heads together’ to more effectively pursue our many shared goals, we created a different path than other animal species, slowly developed over a number of steps in the development of our individual brains and collective cultures.

Tomasello believes that human thinking evolved in three key steps. The first was individual intentionality in a competitive environment where the brain used causal inference and basic mental representations to master the environment.

In a second step, we moved to joint intentionality as cooperative communication developed along with recursive thinking. In order to collaborate, he says that two humans need to share goals and jointly attend to achieving those goals, requiring a perspective and understanding beyond ourselves to others.

The third and final step was the development of collective intentionality, with a group-minded culture and the development of language, reflection and reasoning.

Our use of iconic gestures and ‘pantomiming’ were important to following this path (read more on this here). Tomasello argues that these skills are linked to the importance of spatial cognition and its role in learning about the environment in early childhood development. Spatial cognition is the reason that metaphors are so fundamental to human thinking.

We conceptualise abstract ideas using metaphors, many of which relate to the physical environment and our interactions with it. We fall in love, are on the way, are out of our minds, or “on the road to nowhere” (in the words of the Talking Heads). Sensory metaphors also speak to the importance of the physical world. People are sweet, we feel touched, and some shirts are loud. Gerald Zaltman’s seven deep metaphors are very much focused on this aspect of thinking with balance, journey, container and connection directly speaking to spatial cognition.

Human thinking is fundamentally about helping us adapt to the environment. Imitation and cooperation help us better adapt by collaborating with others. Sharing knowledge across groups gave us the ultimate evolutionary advantage of culture. This is what makes humans special.


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