Perhaps the most remarkable approach towards explaining the unique cognitive capabilities of humans

The latest issue of the German edition of the Scientific American “Spektrum der Wissenschaft” published an article from last September (Scientific American Volume 311, Issue 3) about “What makes Humans Different Than Any Other Species”. The article describes the research programme of Michael Tomasello who does empirical research in primates and infants and calls it perhaps the most remarkable approach towards explaining the unique cognitive capabilities of humans. Tomasello, an American psychologist, is since 1998 Director at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. (After the image of man propagated by the Nazi regime it is the policy of the Institute founded in 1997 not to elect Germans for leading positions, the article says.)

(photo: Jacobs Foundation)

The idea is that it is co-operativity that makes the difference. Evolutionary pressure unfolded a ratchet effect that yielded ever higher complex co-operation. Thus children show a higher degree of social intelligence than adult chimpanzees or orang-utans. (See here.)

Interestingly, that position is not foiled by primatologist Frans de Waal. Though stressing the evolutionary basis of co-operativity in primates (and mammals) he sides Tomasello’s position in that only humans are able to build groups that can accomplish seemingly impossibles. However, he contends that the unique feature of humans who are ready to co-operate with anonymous fellows can be explained by the application of properties to a bigger frame so as to make the properties gain an additional function.

That’s a good idea. Given the increase of confrontations and intransigence at all levels of the social build-up today, within societies but also between societies, we would need to be enabled to apply our evolutionary advantage up to the level of humanity’s world society. So that’s an important subject to deal with at our Summit.

We will tackle the theme of co-operation in the discussion of conviviality as a philosophical and sociological solution to the problems that have arisen. Marc Humbert and Frank Adloff will present that topic. Manuel Bohn, belonging to Tomasello’s group, will give us new insights in ontogenetic capabilities of humans. And Günther Witzany will prove that co-operation started already long before mammals. Their speeches are scheduled for Thursday, 4th of June, in the morning.

Also the article written by de Waal can be found in German in the same issue of Spektrum der Wissenschaft. (See here.)


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2 comments on “Perhaps the most remarkable approach towards explaining the unique cognitive capabilities of humans
  1. Marcus Abundis says:

    An English language PDF of the full Sept. 2014 Scientific American article can be found here (not behind a paywall):

    A related 4:30 minute video is also posted at:

  2. Joseph Brenner says:

    This perspective is excellent and necessary. The existence of shared intentionality can be further grounded in physics and an extension of a contradictorial logic to the interactive processes I will discuss at the Summit.