While some scientists, like Frans de Waal, try to show that man is not so unique in the animal world as we think, others, like Michael Tomasello, just try to show that we are distinct. An approach like the one by De Waal teaches us to be modest and that we are not the kind of superior beings we always supposed to be. From Tomasello’s approach we could get the idea that we are the masters of the animal world and that we can do with other animals what we like. However, that’s absolutely not what Tomasello wants to suggest. His motive is to explain what makes us different from other animals – and especially from our nearest relatives the great apes – without connecting this with any other pretention than an improved understanding of ourselves.
What makes man unique in the living world is, so Tomasello, that unlike any other creature on earth man has the capacity of shared intention, joint commitment, collective intention, or how you want to call it. Tomasello didn’t invent these concepts himself but borrowed them from others like Michael E. Bratman and Margaret Gilbert. Since I have written about shared intention etc. before in my blogs, I’ll not say more about it here.
But there is more that makes “us” different. Here are some features of man and human society that you don’t find elsewhere in the animal world, although most of these features are based on the capacity of shared intention, indeed. They are a bit arbitrary chosen, in the sense that other points could be added, although those mentioned belong to the core of what makes man different from other animals.
In my blog last week we have seen that altruism is fundamental in man. Here is
yet another example: You are standing somewhere and looking around. Then, a
passer-by asks you: “Sir, can I help you?”
- Social institutions, namely, as Tomasello defines them, “sets of behavioral practices governed by various kinds of mutually recognized norms and rules.” (p. xi) A case in point is marriage. In all cultures you find the practice of marriage as a kind of stable relationship between man and woman plus sanctions if the norms and rules that define marriage are broken.
- Organisations: planned coordinated human interactions in order to attain one or more goals. Here I want to mention especially schools or other teaching for others than your kin in general. Tomasello: “Teaching is a form of altruism … in which individuals donate information to others for their use. … [T]here are no systematic, replicated reports of active instruction in nonhuman primates” (not to speak in other animals – HbdW). (p. xiv)
- Cumulative culture. It happens that nonhuman animals have learned habits that occur only in some groups of these same animals and not in others, so that we can call them “culture”. However, only man also makes improvements of what once has been learned and practiced. The result is that human culture evolves. Many once simple human instruments and practices develop and become more complicated in the course of time. No such a thing is known in the animal world. (pp. x-xi)
- Imitation. Man tends “to imitate others in the group simply in order to be like them, that is, to conform…” (pp. xiv-xv) It can even happen that people who break norms of conformity are sanctioned. Fashion is an example.
Note that these points are not mutually exclusive but overlap for a part (schooling and altruism, for instance). Anyway, such special kinds of cooperation, namely cooperation based on shared intention, have brought us a lot. I think that most people will agree. Nevertheless, this cooperation is not only positive. For the foregoing gives us the impression that we are cooperative angels, always trying to make the best for us all. However, as also Tomasello makes clear, we aren’t. To quote him again” [H]umans …also [do] all kinds of heinous deeds. But such deeds are not usually done to those inside ‘the group.’ Indeed, recent evolutionary models have demonstrated what politicians have long known: the best way to motivate people to collaborate and to think like a group is to identify an enemy and charge that ‘they’ threaten ‘us’. The remarkable human capacity for cooperation therefore seems to have evolved mainly for interactions within the local group. Such group-mindedness in cooperation is, perhaps ironically, a major cause of strife and suffering in the world today.” (pp. 99-100) So, the cooperation that made human beings so successful seems to be founded on a non-cooperative attitude and practice towards all who do not belong to their own group. Therefore, cooperation rests on a paradox. In order to overcome this paradox and in order to make the world a more peaceful and yet better place to live in, a better place for all and not only for some men, we must promote that our group comes to include the whole world, humanity in its entirety. Or, as Tomasello says it: “The solution … is to find new ways to define the group.” (p. 100)
SourceMichael Tomasello, Why we cooperate. Cambridge, Mass., etc.: The MIT Press, 2009.