Origins of Human Communication

by Michael Tomasello

This is most definitely not a book for the nonspecialist. It’s really more like a gigantic academic paper setting out an entire theory of how human language developed. Its basic message can be readily stated in a single phrase: shared intentionality. This is the cognitive skill required to appreciate that another person wants you to share some information. In other words, when I point at something, you use your cognitive skills to realize that 

1. I want you to know something because I am socially cooperative.
2. I know that you’ll be interested in knowing it.
3. I know that you’ll recognize my pointing gesture as an indication of this.
4. You should look in the direction I’m pointing to see what’s interesting.

This first point is important: humans are the most cooperative creatures on the planet. Only humans go out of their way to assist each other. Only humans share resources. Only humans have the notion of a “social contract” which posits a reciprocal obligation to share and to assist.

This just triggered a realization of a completely different nature, so this paragraph is digressive. In American politics, liberals are more eager to share the common weal than conservatives. This suggests that liberals are further along the path that, in earlier times, separated humans from other great apes. The conservative who is insulted by the insinuation that conservatives are more neanderthal than liberals could respond by arguing that there is such a thing as balance in sharing, and liberals take it that balance too far. Still, there’s no question that a little sharing took us a long ways; the simple-minded extrapolation to more sharing seems reasonable until such times as we have evidence to the contrary. And so far, no such evidence has appeared.

Back to the book: I don’t have much else to say it. At 350 pages, it was a tough slog; the author was primarily interested in proving his thesis to other academics. In terms of actual ideas, it could have been reduced to less than 50 pages.