Looking at Michael Tomasello’s Book (1999) “The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition” (Part 1 of 12)

0001 In 1999 AD, Michael Tomasello, then co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, publishes the work before me (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts).

To me, this work marks the start of the author’s twenty year journey, culminating in a theory of human ontogeny, published in 2019.  The word, “ontogeny”, refers to human development and associates to the human phenotype.

0002 What interests me in Tomasello’s journey?

As noted in Comments on Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight’s Book (2017) Adam and the Genome (available at smashwords and other e-book venues), “phenotype” and “adaptation” are not the same.  Instead, these labels apply to distinct actualities that coalesce into a single actuality.  One may call that single actuality, an individual, a species or a genus.  One may also call that single actuality, “a mystery”.

I am interested in the natural history side of the mystery of human evolution.  However, the genetic (or ontogenetic) side cannot be ignored.  Plus, natural history cannot be reduced to genetics, or visa versa

0003 Chapter one of Tomasello’s book is titled, “A Puzzle and a Hypothesis”.

Of course, a puzzle is not a mystery.  A puzzle can be resolved.  A mystery cannot.

The puzzle starts with genetics.  Geneticists have examined the DNA of chimpanzees, bonobos and humans and predict that the last common ancestor lives 6 or 7 Myr (six or seven million years ago).

In contrast, physical anthropologists (natural historians) propose the fossil record noted in the following figure.  With terminological sleight of hand, they refer to human ancestors as “hominins”, even though the old term for any bipedal primate (ape or human) is “hominid”. 

0004 Hmmm. Does the puzzle concern time?

According to genetics, the last common ancestor (LCA) between chimpanzees and humans lives 7 Myr (millions of years ago).  But, little significant shows up in the fossil record until 4 Myr.  Our lineage obviously evolves feet first.  As it turns out, starting around 5 Myr, the extent of tropical vegetation in Africa decreases due to desiccation.  Bipedality is an adaptation to mixed forest and savannah.

0005 The fossil record provides other clues, especially stone tools.

The first stone tools are Oldowan.  Oldowan stones tools are constructed on site.  They are used to scrape meat off of bone and to crack long bones (that are full of fatty marrow).

Acheulean stone tools appear later in the archeological record.  Acheulean stone tools are made beforehand and carried with some intention in mind.  They have the appearance of a giant tooth.  Notably, Acheulean stone tool technology remains unchanged for over a million years.  Innovations in stone-tools follow the domestication of fire.

0006 Surely, these two tables are puzzling.  In the first, the fossil record pertains to changes in hominin phenotypes.  In the second, the fossil record pertains to hominin adaptations, but these adaptations are not phenotypic. They are artifacts.  Are these adaptive artifacts cultural?  Are they behavioral?  I wonder, “Do the words, ‘culture’ and ‘behavior’, capture the matter and the form of these artifacts?”  It is as if an adaptation recognizes matter and generates form.

0007 What is the nature of the adaptation that maintains (and occasionally changes) artifacts, as if these artifacts are phenotypes?

Tomasello suggests that an adaptation is a novel form of social cognition.  Our lineage adapts to a new way of thinking about one another, eventually allowing sociogenesis, new styles of learning and cultural evolution.

0008 Tomasello proposes that there is one adaptation that potentiates subsequent adaptations.

Razie Mah proposes that there is one ultimate niche for our lineage.  The hypothesis is presented in the e-book, The Human Niche (available at smashwords and other e-book venues).

0009 Do Tomasello (in 1999) and Mah (in 2018) propose that our lineage is defined by the same adaptation… er… niche?

What is the difference between an adaptation and a niche?

To these questions, I next attend.


Looking at Michael Tomasello’s Book (1999) “The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition” (Part 2 of 12)

0010 What is an adaptation?  What is a phenotype?

What is an adaptation?  What is a niche?

Whenever there are two actualities, their corresponding nested forms may sensibly relate to one another in a two-level interscope or they may intersect.

The adaptation and the phenotype form an intersection.  The structure is developed in Comments on Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight’s Book (2017) Adam and the Genome (available at smashwords and other e-book venues).

The adaptation and the niche belong to the situation level of a two-level interscope.  This interscope is developed in the e-work mentioned above.

0011 The two-level interscope for natural history looks like this.

On the situation level, the normal context of natural selection3b brings the actuality of an adaptation2b into relation with a niche1b.  “Niche1b” is a label for “the potential1b of an actuality independent of the adapting species2a“.

An inquirer does not need to know the normal context3a or the foundational potential1a of the actuality independent of the adapting species2a.  One need only posit its2a presence.

0012 Of course, Tomasello does not know this picture of natural history.  He also does not know that genetics expresses the same relational structure.  A phenotype2b emerges from (and situates) its genotype1b in the normal context of body development3b (ontogenetics3b).  The genotype1b expresses the potential1b of DNA2a.

Then what happens?

The adaptation2b and the phenotype2b intersect and constitute a single, contradiction-filled actuality called “an individual”, “a species” or “a genus”.

0013 What does this have to do with Tomasello’s proposal that one adaptation potentiates subsequent adaptations?

Well, since adaptation and phenotype intersect, and since Tomasello cannot disentangle the two, his argument sort of confounds phylogeny (changes in adaptations in a lineage over evolutionary time) and ontogeny (the phenotypic expressions of those adaptations).

Such is the nature of the disciplines of natural history and genetics.  They appear to be separate.  But they study the same thing.

0014 So, what is Tomasello’s hypothesis?

In terms of phylogenetics (natural history and adaptations), hominins evolve the ability to “identify” with conspecifics, allowing collaborative activities, as well as a theory of mind.

In terms of ontogenetics (genetics and phenotypes), children innately anticipate that they will grow up amidst individuals who are habituated in “identifying” with conspecifics.  “Culture” is another word for that habituation.

0015 Tomasello uses the label, “sociogenesis”, to capture the essence of the business of identifying with conspecifics.

In terms of natural history, sociogenesis1b is the human niche1b.

In terms of genetics, sociogenesis is what the phenotype2b anticipates when it2b engages the world.

Humans are sociogenetic animals.

0016 So, how does this fit into the two-level Darwinian paradigm?

Here is my guess.


Looking at Michael Tomasello’s Book (1999) “The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition” (Part 3 of 12)

0017 The previous diagram poses a difficulty.

What is the actuality that potentiates sociogenesis2a, other than a society generating environment2a?

Does this sound like a tautology?

A tautology is an argument that concludes with its founding assertion.

This banana must taste good because all bananas taste good.

0018 Ah, does this mean that Tomasello cannot articulate the actuality independent of the adapting species2a because he has already placed a curtain over it that says, “Here is a society generating environment1b.”?

For most species2bthe actuality2a underlying the niche1b is a material or instrumental condition2a that is readily observed and measured by biologists.  For the hominins, the content-level actuality2a is not so obvious.  Indeed, it is so hidden that evolutionary theorists presume that sociogenetic potential1b already exists because the last common ancestor (LCA), like the contemporary chimpanzee and bonobo, lives in small bands.  The capacity for culture1b is already present.

0019 By 2016, Tomasello figures out one apparent cause for increasing sociogenetic potential.  Hominins need to work together to obtain food.  This is a very good idea.  It also appears in Razie Mah’s e-article Comments on Clive Gamble, John Gowlett and Robin Dunbar’s Book (2014) Thinking Big (available at smashwords and other e-book venues).  Australopithecines start to work in teams in order to gather more food than each would acquire foraging alone.  In short, working in a team guarantees survival in a way that working alone does not.

This proximate cause does not satisfy the issue at hand.  Is there one foundational niche for hominins, such as the sea for dolphins, the air for bats and the web for the spider?  Is there an actuality independent of the hominins2a that contains the potential to generate society1b?

0020 Razie Mah proposes an answer to this question in the masterwork The Human Niche (available at smashwords and other e-book venues).  Triadic relations constitute the actuality independent of the hominin species2a.  Triadic relations for humans is like the sea is to the dolphin, the air is to the bat and the web is to the spider.  The only difference is that the sea, the air and the web are obvious material and instrumental conditions.  The scientist can observe and measure them.  In contrast, triadic relations are neither material nor instrumental.  They are immaterial beings that entangle material and instrumental causalities.  They cannot be directly observed by scientists, although their entanglements can be measured.

If a scientist cannot directly observe or measure a triadic relation, then do triadic relations really exist?

That is a funny question.

0021 Triadic relations2a are so real that they potentiate sociogenesis1b in hominin evolution.  Triadic relations2a make adaptive social relations2b possible1b.  Plus, triadic relations2a are in play in every proximate niche1b.  Triadic relations2asupport an ultimate niche1b.   Proximate niches support divergent evolution.  Ultimate niches support convergent evolution.  Hominin evolution is at once divergent and convergent.

If I may be so bold as to present the resulting figure as the Tomasello-Mah synthesis for the natural history of hominins.


Looking at Michael Tomasello’s Book (1999) “The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition” (Part 4 of 12)

0022 How does the realness of triadic relations2a potentiate the genesis of culture1b?

In chapter two, Tomasello discusses the biological and cultural inheritance of the last common ancestor between the chimpanzee and human.

Theoretically, the last common ancestor (LCA) is similar to the chimpanzee and the bonobo.  The DNA begins to diverge around 7Myr.  Australopithecus (so-called “southern apes”) are fully bipedal by, say, 3.5Myr.  Bipedalism evolves in response to tropical forests giving way to mixed forest and savannah during the Pliocene.

In so far as the LCA has “culture”, the culture consists of youngsters learning content and situations through exposure, learning on their own and mimicking others.  Examples include macaque potato washing, chimpanzee tool use, chimpanzee gesture signaling, and the ability of chimpanzees to learn human-designed symbols.

0023 Tomasello and colleagues argue (earlier, in 1993) that cumulative cultural evolution depends on imitation and innovation.  Apes do both.  Humans do both.  So, there may only be a quantitative difference between the LCA and our own species.  Or, that difference may be more than quantitative, since anatomically modern humans innately express tendencies to imitate and innovate.

0024 So what is being imitated and innovated in humans, that might be qualitatively different than in chimpanzees?

Could it have something to do with triadic relations?

In the following discussion. I rely on two short works by Razie Mah, A Primer on the Category-Based Nested Form and A Primer on Sensible and Social Construction (available at smashwords and other e-book venues).

0025 I start with imitation.

Why would a youngster chimpanzee imitate another’s actions?

The action of another chimpanzee is an actuality.  To the extent that the youngster engages with that actuality, the youngster senses that the actuality2 has a normal context3 (say, foraging for food) and a potential1 (say, getting termites from a log).  

0026 During the Latin Age, schoolmen propose that, for this extension, the normal context is ‘what is happening’3a and its corresponding potential is the possibility of ‘something’ happening1a.  

They call the actuality, “species impressa“, (say it like you are speaking Italian).  “Species” means “a kind of”.  “Impressa” means sensation, impression, qualia or feeling.

Can I say that the adult (fashioning a twig to fish for termites) and the youngster (who is watching and will soon imitate), are fashioning the same content-level nested form?

0027 The next step, according to the scholastics, is a category-based nested form that sensibly situates the content-level nested form.  When humans are sensible, then a situation-level category-based nested form virtually emerges from (and situates) a content-level nested form.  I call this interscope, “sensible construction”.

The youngster chimpanzee gets a perception (a species expressa2b) from its impressions (its species impressa2a) of what the other chimpanzee is doing2a.  The older chimpanzee is fishing for termites using a twig.

0028 Then, the youngster imitates.


Looking at Michael Tomasello’s Book (1999) “The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition” (Part 5 of 12)

0029 What is happening3a?  What does it mean to me3b?

These questions define sensible thought.

One can say that the mental operations signified by the scholastic interscope for the way humans sensibly think must be typical of the species, that is, phenotypic.  One can also say that this sensible construction is cultural, since the actions of the adult cultivates the mind of the youngster.

0030 I can ask, “How many types of these habitual events are there?”

Well, as many as there are ways to eat.

For tropical forest, individual foraging does the trick.

For mixed forest and savannah, the southern apes must have had a few more challenges.  Locations with lots of foodchange with the seasons and with the weather.  Plus, each plentiful location has more food than any one can eat on the spot.  So, the hominins rely on one another to remember all these details of location and season and other pertinent information.  They do so by forming teams.  One lucky team (of 15 cooperators) can gather enough food for an entire band (of 50 members).

0031 If a particular sensible construction (coupling a food event2a with a perception2b) occurs often enough, then could it support sociogenesis, in the style of seasonal (and occasionally permanent) teams?

The answer is obviously, “Yes.”

0032 But, how are teams (15) different than friends (5) and the band (50)?

Tomasello hones in on the idea of joint attention.  The process starts with natural clues that a certain food is available to a team, which is already prepared for obtaining and processing that food, when it is available.  This serves as a preamble to what happens next.

0033 Clearly, triadic relations, such as the category-based nested form and sign-processing are in play.  Each member of a team has similar impressions2a.  A team3b spontaneously assembles.  If the use of twigs by chimpanzees to fish for termites is cultural, then assembled teams are cultural units.  Each team-member remembers this or that.  Each offers a style of operation for others to imitate.  Plus, the assembled team engages in what Tomasello calls, “joint attention”.

Sensible construction serves as the amble, or “walk” in Old English.  Remember that southern apes are bipedal.

0034 Once the team is engaged, the preamble changes slightly.

The amble changes accordingly.

0035  The circuit of preamble and amble continues until the job is complete.

Chapter three, titled “Joint Attention and Cultural Learning”, paints a picture similar to these diagrams, but without the triadic relations.

0036 Plus, Tomasello dwells on the behavior of newborns and infants, noting how their attention fixes on objects (species impressa2a) as well as other persons and self (team3b).

Indeed, if any infant could talk, he or she would say that the most important team in the world is mom and me. 


Looking at Michael Tomasello’s Book (1999) “The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition” (Part 6 of 12)

0037 At around the age of nine months, sensible construction comes to life.

On the content level, the normal context of what is happening3a brings the actuality of ongoing events with others2a into relation with the potential of ‘something happening’1a.

On the situation level, the normal context of what it means to me3b brings the actuality of the object of attention2b into relation with the potential of ‘social referencing’1b.

Tomasello provides details.  For example, three types of joint attention emerge in sequence.  First, check the attention of others.  Next, follow the attention of others.  Then, direct the attention of others.

0038 Tomasello aims for a theoretical account that addresses two questions.

First, why do all joint attentional skills manifest in a particular pattern?

Second, why do they manifest starting at nine months of age?

0039 Tomasello proposes that infants start to engage in joint attention when they begin to “understand” others as intentional agents like the self.

Is understanding (that is, comprehension) necessary?

Or does competence in the above sensible construction suffice?

Infants pay attention to the actions of others2a and situate the implied social reference1b with an object of joint attention2b.

Does this classify as sociogenesis?

Yes, it does.

0040 Plus, the above sensible construction does not depend on an explicit abstraction of the self as a participant.

Instead, the sensible construction generates the self as a participant3b within joint action2b

0041 The sensible construction pictured above is experienced holistically.

Social and cognitive scientists can only observe and measure facets of this whole relation.  So, they build models that explicitly abstract one of the elements.  This foregrounds the abstracted element and backgrounds the others.  For example, experiments may be designed to foreground the self3b, with the result that objects of joint attention2b may be classified as “like me” and “not like me”.

Are social and cognitive scientists observing what their models are asking them to look for?

Uh oh.  Is this another tautology (point 0017)?

I wonder whether Tomasello’s research program may be an exercise in social construction, because social constructions often have a tautological character, where the perspective level refers back to the content level, and the situation level takes on a vague or an unsettled tone.

0042 I can say that models of newborns and infant psychology support a hypothesis that human ontogeny (body and behavioral development) is phenotypic.  Phenotypes and adaptations not the same.  But, they constitute one entity.  Adaptation and phenotype coincide in that entity.  But, they are not the same

So, a question arises about the potential that an adaptation exploits or avoids.  That niche is the potential of something independent of the adapting species.

For human ontogeny2b, not as a phenotype, but as its corresponding adaptation2bthe niche1b, must be… hmmm… the potential of culture, where culture is something independent of the adapting species2a.

0043 To me, this recalls the awkwardness of points 0014 through 0019.

Here is a diagram of the resulting Darwinian paradigm.

0044 Tomasello (and other cognitive psychologists) construct Darwinian paradigms that locate culture2a as the actuality independent of the adapting species2a in order to identify phenotypic traits as adaptations2b.  The adapting species are children3b, which the above paradigm labels as “individuals within culture”3b.

The normal context of natural selection of individuals within culture3b brings the actuality of phenotypical patterns of human development2b into relation with the potential1b of an actuality independent of the adapting species2a.

What is that independent actuality2a?



Looking at Michael Tomasello’s Book (1999) “The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition” (Part 7 of 12)

0045 What is the question that I am addressing (see point 0041)?

Can Tomasello’s research program be diagrammed as a social construction?

A social construction is a type of three-level interscope, where the perspective and content levels stand out and the situation level is muddled.

0046 I suppose that I have identified two Darwinian paradigms that I can cut and paste into a three level interscope.

The first paradigm treats phenotypes2b as adaptations2b.

The second is the Tomasello-Mah synthesis.

0047 I ask the question, “Does culture (on the content level of the psychological paradigm) situate the cognitive ability to identify with conspecifics (that is, joint attention, on the situation level of the Tomasello-Mah synthesis)?”

In the following figure, I hybridize the above paradigms.  I move the situation-level of the Tomasello-Mah synthesis into the content-level of a vision in cognitive psychology.  Situation-level natural selection3b becomes content-level natural selection3a.  I also replace “cognitive ability to identify with conspecifics2a” with the term, “joint attention2a“.

0048 Notably, the actuality2a underlying the adaptation of joint attention2b in the Tomasello-Mah synthesis disappears.

If Tomasello’s research program is a house, built with the tools of cognitive psychology, then the actuality of triadic relations dwells in the basement, out of sight and out of mind.


Looking at Michael Tomasello’s Book (1999) “The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition” (Part 8 of 12)

0049 Perhaps, a little fig leaf of a normal context can cover thirdness for the situation level.  In the following figure, I replace the empty situation-level normal context with the term, “cultural selection3b“.

Here is a picture of Tomasello’s research program.

0050 Tomasello’s vision is coherent and intellectually satisfying.  Each element in the social construction (three-level interscope) is filled in.  Plus, each normal context is nominally Darwinian, that is, based on selection upon variation.  Also, each actuality2 connects to instrumental (as well as final) causality1.

0051 This three-level interscope does not fully manifest in the book before me.  However, the title of the work before meintimates the above constellation.

Culture occupies the situation level (and originally, occupies the slot for the actuality independent of the adapting species,where the adapting species is the individual in community).

Human cognition is defined by psychological models of observations and measurements of behaviors in human newborns, infants, toddlers and so on (that is, human ontogeny).

0052 The problem?

The phylogenetic (content) level of Tomasello’s vision conceals the hypothesis that sociogenesis1a is the potential of triadic relations, as shown in the following figure.

0053 The implications?

I see four.

First, this concealment accounts for the tautological foundation of Tomasello’s natural history for hominins (points 0014 to 0016), where the potential of joint attention1b cannot be readily distinguished from sociogenesis1a.

Second, this concealment stands at the start of Tomasello’s journey, commencing with the book before me, published in 1999, and arriving at a destination in his book on human ontogeny, published in 2019.  Even though Tomasello is familiar with Peirce, he does not imagine that a Peircean framework is foundational to his enterprise.  Instead, he offers  scientific formulations.


0054 Third continues the second.

Mah proposes that the Peircean motif of the category-based nested form may serve as a framework capable of describing scientific research into human cognition and evolution.  The category-based nested form allows one to distinguish between “behavioral competence” and “understanding”.  These terms are difficult to parse, even though the distinction is important to inquiry into human understanding.

Indeed, Tomasello’s science-based arguments direct the reader’s imagination away from Peircean semiotics and towards specialized scientific languages, unsuitable for describing the thing itself.  The actualities labeled “joint attention2a“, “culture2b” and “human ontogeny2c” are models based on observations and measurements of phenomena.  They are not descriptions of the thing itself.

Fourth, the above figures allow the reader to appreciate the relational being conceived in the work before me.  Chapter three is titled, “Joint Attention and Cultural Learning”.  Chapter four is titled, “Linguistic Communication and Symbolic Representation”.  These titles suggest that hominin culture2b is instrumentally caused by the adaptation of joint attention2a and that joint attention2a emerges from (and situates) sociogenesis1a.


Looking at Michael Tomasello’s Book (1999) “The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition” (Part 9 of 12)

0055 Here is a list of the chapters of the book before me.

0056 Once again, here is the three-level interscope of Tomasello’s vision.

0057 Do these figures correspond?

Well, if they do correspond, then Tomasello envisions a grand schema, weaving together hominin evolution and modern linguistics into one explanatory canvas.  Human ontogeny2c describes the phenotypic expression of human cognition.   Culture2b describes traditions concerned with inspiring, interpellating and guiding human ontogenetic development2c.  Joint attention2a is the foundational adaptation, emerging from (and situating) the niche of sociogenesis1a, making human cultural traditions2b possible.

0058 To me, the first three chapters concern the first two levels of Tomasello’s vision.  The remaining four chaptersdiscuss the second two levels.


0059 In chapter four, Tomasello proposes that the social-cognitive basis of language acquisition is modeled by scientific inquiry into joint attention2a.  Communicative intentions are key.  Imitative role-reversal, along with intersubjectivity, is at play.  Joint-attention2a starts without language, at the age of one year.  Language acquisition starts soon afterwards.


Looking at Michael Tomasello’s Book (1999) “The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition” (Part 10 of 12)

0060 So how do newborns and infants cogitate?

Well, they pay attention to events that are going around them.

Prior points 0026 and 0027 apply.  The newborn is trying to be sensible.  The newborn begins to fill in elements of an innate relational structure that is not articulated by modern scientists, but by medieval scholastics.  At the end of the Latin Age, the Baroque scholastic, John Poinsot (1589-1644 AD), formulates the proposition that a sign is a triadic relation.  Charles Peirce (1839-1914), two centuries later, makes the same discovery and invents postmodern semiotics.

0061 Of course, neither newborns or Tomasello know this, they only know the events before them.  For newborns, events include mom and dad and other siblings and the stuff of everyday life.  For Tomasello, the events include scientific inquiries into the behaviors of the great apes and the cognitive abilities of newborns and infants.

0062 Here is a picture of the scholastic two-level interscope for sensible thought.  The newborn has impressions, sensations and feelings due to an event.  The scholastics call these qualia, “species impressa2a“.  This is the only element that is filled in at first.  The other elements come into play because this relational structure is phenotypic.

0063 This relation does not require language.  It is a precursor to language.

Also, the ongoing event2a is not the event itself.  Rather, the ongoing event2a consists of impressions of what is going on at the moment2a.

By the time the tyke is nine months old, slots are filling in quite nicely.

Here is a picture.

0064 With chapter four in mind, I add another layer, where the object of joint attention2b has the potential to be represented symbolically1c (in speech-alone talk) or iconically and indexally1c (in hand and hand-speech talk).  The resulting actuality2c is linguistic communication2c (or “language2c“) in the normal context of making sense.

This added layer follows the theme of Tomasello’s argument.

0065 At the same time, the above three-level interscope correlates to a similar diagram developed while reading articles about Latin Age scholastics.  Consider two blogs appearing on Razie Mah’s website, Looking at John Deely’s Book (2010) “Semiotic Animal” (appearing in November 2023) and Looking at Daniel Dennett’s Book (2017) “From Bacteria, To Bach, And Back” (appearing in December 2023).

The scholastic picture of the way humans think is diagrammed below.

0066 To me, Tomasello wrestles with the same issues addressed by John Deely and Daniel Dennett.   Our lineage adapts into the potential1b of immaterial actualities independent of the adapting species2a.  The human niche1b is the potential of triadic relations2a.