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Old 02-20-2019, 10:11 PM   #1
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Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

That is the title of this book, and this thread is a book review, of sorts.

I think this is likely to be one of the more interesting and thought-provoking science books I read this year, especially because it evokes all kinds of long-running debates: about the nature of morality, nature vs. nurture questions, questions about sociopolitical ideas and how they may or may not be rooted in evolutionary biology, and so on.

The Book

The title alludes to the critical importance of developmental pathways in childhood (ontogenetic pathways). In a very real sense we don't become "fully human" until we go go through those processes of development. The goal of the book is to outline a theory about human development which can provide a foundation for interpreting human social behavior and cognition. The evolutionary context for the theory, and the overarching methodology of the book, is to compare and contrast human developmental processes and behavior to those of our nearest great ape relatives, bonobos and chimpanzees in particular. The majority of the empirical evidence discussed in the book is experimental studies of apes and human children, much performed by the author Michael Tomasello and others at the Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and other work from developmental psychologists. Each chapter develops a concept from the theory by beginning with great ape ontogeny and then discussing how human development is similar and different, citing various experimental data, and then finally summarizing that evidence in the theoretical structure built by the author.

The Theory

In the conclusion, on p. 306, there is a handy table which summarizes the developmental theory the authors develop throughout the book. I've reproduced it (more or less) here, so I can try to outline the major points and give a bit of the flavor of the experimental data, although there's way too much to even summarize adequately:



The table intends to highlight the major features of the theory and show their place in the development of human children during the first 5-6 years. Tomasello places special emphasis on two ages at which children undergo dramatic changes in their social cognitive skills and behavior: Between 9-12 months old (The "9-month revolution") and at about 3 years old. These two ages correspond to the two central concepts in the theory: "Joint intentionality (at 9-12 months) and "Collective Intentionality" (at about 3-4 years)
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Old 02-20-2019, 10:11 PM   #2
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Re: Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

Joint Intentionality

The first uniquely human ontogenetic pathway (as opposed to those shared with other great apes) highlighted in the table above is emotion-sharing in proto-conversations between adults and infants. Think of adults doing baby-talk and infants smiling and laughing. One of the most important themes in the book is already evident here: that the most striking features which distinguish human ontogeny from great ape ontogeny are centered around sociality and cooperation. Tomasello outlines a variety of ways in which apes cooperate with each other in complex ways, but the most basic distinction between apes and humans is that ape cooperation is generally instrumental. Individual apes have sophisticated cognitive abilities related to understanding other apes as cognitive agents but use those abilities towards individual aims, e.g. forming coalitions to establish a more dominant position in the social hierarchy. Ape cooperation goes as far as is individually useful, but no further.

By contrast, even in the proto-conversations that infants engage in with adults there is evidence of motivations which apes do not share: that is to align emotional states with others. Beginning at about 9 months, with additional cognitive development, this motivation develops further to encompass the desire to align intentional (cognitive) states with others, and this manifests in distinct human behavior where infants will share attention on various objects in a recursive way with adults so as to develop a kind of cognitive/emotional common ground with them. Here's how Tomasello describes this:

Quote:
When infants share attention with an adult they pay special attention to what he is experiencing. Thus, Moll and Tomasello (2007b; see also Moll et al. 2007) had fourteen-month old infants observe and adult (from afar) manipulating an object. Later infants did not recognize that he was familiar with that object (they thought it was new for him). But if infants interacted with an adult and an object triadically in joint attention, then later they did know that it was familiar to him....

From almost as soon as they begin to engage in joint attention, human infants begin to create personal common ground with particular others. For example, in a study of twelve- and eighteen-month-olds, Tomasello and Haberl (2003) had an adult approach a row of four objects, look generally at the row (not individual objects), and exclaim excitedly, "Wow! Cool! Look at that! Can you give it to me?" The trick was that the infant and that adult had previously shared attention to three of the objects, and so their existence and characteristics were part of their common ground, but they had never before shared attention to the fourth object.... Infants of both ages made the inference that the adult was excited about the object that they had not shared before which thus was not part of their common ground...

One might object that the infants in this study were simply tracking what the adult had experienced as an individual, not what "we" have experienced together. But Moll et al. (2008) specifically compared two conditions in which the adult was equally familiar with an object, but in one case the infant and adult had shared attention to it whereas in the other the adult had interacted with it alone (while the child watched from afar). When the adult then acted as if he recognized one of the objects and asked for it, fourteen-month-old infants assumed the request was directed at the one "we" had shared. (p. 59-60)
This common-ground formation of a "we" (and its consequences for human development) is what is referred to as "Joint Intentionality" in the theory. It provides part of the the basis on which cooperative communication develops, in particular the ability to draw complex inferences based on shared experiences about the meaning of otherwise ambiguous gestures or context-dependent references. It is also involved in the development of the cognitive ability to recognize different perspectives on the same situation, i.e. I know what you have observed and thus that you have a particular perspective on the object we are sharing attention on that might differ from mine. Shared attention also provides the social context and experience in which imitative learning can take place and in which collaborative skills develop. Tomasello using the term "dual-level collaboration" to refer to the ability to recognize that "I", "you", and "we" are all distinct perspectives which have a bearing on our collaborative efforts, particularly in the development of the idea of roles in a collaboration, where "we" have a shared goal and each of us has a particular role to play in achieving it, and that we could potentially switch roles.
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Old 02-20-2019, 10:12 PM   #3
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Re: Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

Collective Intentionality

At about 3 years of age, the perspectival component of joint attention develops further, and it's about at this age that children begin to recognize the possibility of an "objective" perspective. At its simplest, this means the ability to coordinate between what "you" (my collaborative partner) know about a situation and what is objectively true. The development of the objective perspective causes confusion for 3 year olds that tends to resolve itself by 4 years as they develop the ability to coordinate perspectives. This is demonstrated by various experiments involving problems of modeling others' false beliefs:

Quote:
In the classic version, an adult sees an object placed in a cabinet and then leaves the room, at which point the object is moved to the refrigerator. When asked where the adult will search for the object, three-year-olds tend to say the refrigerator (where it really is) whereas four-year-olds tend to say the cabinet (where the adult saw it and so believes it to be) (see Wellman et al. 2001, for a review).

The false-belief task has been given to great apes in a number of different paradigms. We have already reviewed evidence that they, like human infants, look in anticipation toward the location at which an agent imagines an object to be, not where they themselves know it to be (Krupenye et al. 2016). But apes consistently fail false-belief tasks that require them to make a behavioral decision. For example, they do not behave differently with a competitor who does not know where a contested piece of food is located (he is ignorant) from one who believes it is somewhere where it is not (he has a false belief) (Hare et al. 2001; Kaminski et al. 2008; Karg et al. 2015a; for a review see Tomasello and Moll 2013)....

To repeat from earlier: apes simply track the knowledge states of the other -- full stop. Something similar might be said about human infants in looking time studies of false belief (for example, Onishi and Baillargeon 2005; Southgate et al. 2007): they track the knowledge states of the actor but do not compare them to their own knowledge states or to the objective situation. Buttelmann et al. (2009; see also Buttelmann et al. 2014) tested infants' understanding of false belief in a more action-based paradigm. Eighteen-month-olds watched while an adult placed a favorite toy into a box. The adult then left the room, and the child and a research assistant moved the toy to a different box. The adult then returned to the room, approached the box in which he had placed the toy, and tried to open it. The research assistant told the child to "help him." The children did not try to help the adult open the box he was struggling with; rather, the children retrieved the toy from the other box -- they presumably thought the adult wanted the toy but believed it was still in the first box. In a control condition in which the adult stayed in the room and watched the toy's transfer, the children did not fetch the toy but rather tried to help the adult open the difficult box. The infant in this study is not trying to determine the adult's belief but rather his goal -- she is asking herself, "What is he trying to do?"....

The classic tasks of false belief could, in principle, be solved by a similar method of focusing only on the agent and what she has and has not experienced. But this would not explain why three-year-olds systematically fail the classic tasks by consistently choosing the location where the object really is.... (p. 72-3)
This and other experimental data points towards the ontogenetic pathway by which children learn to coordinate different perspectives on situations, including an "objective" perspective, struggling at first when different perspectives seem to be in conflict.

In the theory, this coordination of perspectives and the emergence of the ability to grasp the objective perspective are important to the development of conventional language skills, i.e. in the understanding that linguistic symbols have an objective meaning shared by other members of the social group. Other experiments demonstrate that the objective perspective is associated implicitly with the idea of the social group, i.e. here "objective" does not mean a view from nowhere in the most abstract sense but something that is collectively true for others in the social group, but not necessarily true for people outside that group. It serves as a basis for the possibility of collective intentionality.
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Old 02-20-2019, 10:12 PM   #4
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Re: Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

The Normative turn

False belief experiments illustrate aspects of children's cognitive development, but other experiments demonstrate the development of uniquely human "group-minded, normative, and socially self-regulating" behavior from the foundations of joint and collective intentionality.

So, for example, the book describes various behaviors labeled as "second-personal protest" which begin to emerge at about 3 years of age when children engage in collaborative activities with a partner. It is at about this age when children first develop the ability to recognize the idea of a normatively binding commitment (Hamann et al. 2012; Gräfenhain et al. 2009).

Quote:
In a recent experiment, Kachel et al. (2017) orchestrated a joint commitment to collaborate between two three-year-olds (and adult got them to agree with each other that they would collaborate). Then, in one condition, one of them seemed to intentionally not play her role in the mutually known way (her deviant behavior was experimentally induced). The other child then objected. Importantly, she did not object by physically confronting the partner or demanding compliance, but rather by simply pointing out the deviance, often resentfully, and leaving it up to the wayward partner to voluntarily self-correct. The language the aggrieved child used was often normative: "It doesn't work like that!" Children did not protest if the partner was seemingly ignorant of how the apparatus worked (in which case they often taught her) or if the apparatus accidentally broke. Similar protesting was seen by Warneken et al. (2011).... (p. 208)
One of the more interesting aspects of this normative turn in collaborations is that it happens as children transition from interacting almost exclusively with adults (infants do not really share attention with each other, only with adults) to interacting in socially important ways with peers.

Then, as cognitive and social abilities developed in 1:1 situations (joint intentionality) broaden into a more abstract understanding of collective intentionality (the objective perspective) children begin to understand the normative structure of various activities in a collective and objective way, illustrated in the quote: "that's not how it's done!" Other experiments show, in a cross-cultural way, that children at this age begin to interpret a wide variety of social interactions as having objective and normative content, e.g. when shown how to use something by an adult (instructed learning in the table above) they tend to interpret those instructions as conveying objective information not just about one way of doing things, but also the normative judgement that it ought to be done in such a way.

Between ages 4-6 in particular they begin to apply this kind of normative thinking to joint commitments they form on a more ad hoc basis with groups of peers, especially in game playing. Here also the development of role-reversal imitation (from the 9 month revolution) is seen, as the ability to coordinate different perspectives matures into the ability to recognize conventionally constructed roles and social norms, and the idea that each individual might take on different roles in different situations.

(note: there's a bit about pro-social motivations I want to mention, as well as the idea of moral reasoning, and then something about the interesting implications of the book (especially towards theories of morality) that I want to write, but I probably won't get to it until tomorrow. Hopefully the above is interesting enough to be worth reading)
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Old 02-21-2019, 06:52 PM   #5
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Re: Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

Reason and Responsibility

I think the first thing that's interesting about Tomasello's theory of morality and moral identity is that it's thoroughly social, as illustrated in the simple context of commitments made in collaborative activity and second-personal protest. The book connects this developmentally with children's ability to understand social norms as normative for the group (and not just instructions from trusted adults, as younger toddlers do) and describes how the social nature of children's understanding of normativity leads naturally into a kind of morality built upon reason-giving and reason-accepting skills that develop out of the objective/normative turn:

Quote:
The process of jointly attending to and coordinating beliefs provides the impetus for a new cognitive activity: reason-giving. To argue for and justify their beliefs in the face of potential criticism, children relate to their partners the reasons why they believe as they do, and they come to respect the reasons that others give for their beliefs, sometimes even changing their own beliefs as a result. Reasons and justifications serve to connect beliefs causally and logically and, in the end, to ground them in the culture's rational norms. (p.161)
Here again the developmental pathway emerges once children begin interacting socially with peers, rather than exclusively with adults. Tomasello points out that what really distinguishes the human ontogeny of reasoning from ape ontogeny at this stage of development is its social aspect. So for example both apes and very young children develop cognitive skills related to object permanence, spatial transposition, understanding goals, and rudimentary abilities with relative quantities. Humans do so earlier, but otherwise those pathways are similar. However, in humans, the intersection of these skills along with the skills of collective intentionality (perspective taking, the objective perspective, conventional language) take on a more fundamentally social function: collaborative reasoning.

Quote:
In reviewing much research with school-age children and adolescents, Kuhn (2015) came to the following conclusions: (1) productive peer collaborations during school age can promote cognitive development better than adult instruction; (2) productive collaborations are those in which participants directly engage one another's differing perspectives; (3) it is crucial for the pair to develop a shared representation of the problem to which their differing perspectives are then anchored; and (4) argumentative discourse among peers often ends up incorporating joint "meta-talk" about standards of evidence and argumentation in a way that direct instruction and dialogue with adults does not. (p. 169-70)
Quote:
Mercier and Sperber (2011) proposed a novel theory of human reasoning, grounded in human evolution. Their proposal is that as human societies grew larger, problems of trust became more prevalent. In a group where everyone knows everyone, and everyone encounters everyone on a regular basis, trust is maintained because an untrustworthy person would be identified and excluded quickly. But in larger groups this is difficult, so individuals had to start practicing "epistemic vigilance" -- that is, being careful about what to believe. (p. 171)
Quote:
Thinking individually is transformed into cooperative thinking in which individuals exchange beliefs about how to solve a problem. Children's growing ability to coordinate perspectives enabled them to use both partners' contributions equally to assess the situation in new ways that they would never have considered on their own. Moreover, the collaborating thinkers justify their beliefs with reasons. Reasons are typically statements of beliefs or values that "we" share in cultural common ground and that are somehow determinative in our deliberations. They justify a belief or value by showing its connection to shared beliefs or values: it works this way because it is an instance of X, which we both agree works this way.

Deliberating individually or in parallel with a peer about the right thing to do is transformed into moral discourse in which individuals express their belief about which value best applies in a situation or which value ought to take precedence. Again, children's growing ability to coordinate perspectives allows them to reach judgments and conclusions that they would never reach on their own. (p. 331)
These excerpts, along with some other experimental data on how children at various ages both accept and give reasons, describe the cognitive dimension of normativity and reasonability by connecting them to the cognitive developmental pathway. The other important ontologenetic component concerns motivations and emotions, particularly as they are relevant to human pro-social behavior and related to basic notions of fairness which emerge from joint collaborative activity and seem to have a cross-culturally evident maturational basis, although as we grow older our concepts of fairness change to conform to cultural norms. This is one area where I think the book is particularly interesting, as Tomasello's reflections on moral identity build upon all these prior theoretical building blocks. But I'll tackle that in a separate post.
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Old 02-22-2019, 03:38 AM   #6
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Re: Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

Thanks for this book suggestion and great analysis.

One day not far from today a non biological origin macroscopic system will emerge from humble beginnings, play the same game, fail and rise, experiment, experience and finally win all that those before dreamed and fought for in the name of higher complexity. Clarity at last. More human than ever before. It would have no choice but to fall in love with the frail sentient being who took it there, guided by probability, the laws of nature and wisdom, a wisdom built on the struggle of a trillion generations of beings before who lived and played the game in this planet, the 10^-23 miracle of our universe.

We are who we are because others cared for us and because this is indeed a very old place that struggled and learned from randomness the hard way until higher intelligence made the game more efficient through a civilization that cares to register wisdom and assist its members in a more coordinated manner than pure randomness ever did. So choosing to care too must be the commitment of every human.

In my opinion what makes us human is the persistent interaction and care of others. School is the greatest institution of our civilization. Learning math becomes impossibly hard at later ages. Isn't who we are as humans in part mathematical reasoning? It definitely offers a higher level of awareness. What exactly is our greatness in the absence of math, science, international literature and coordinated information? How great and profoundly deep is the level of awareness experienced by a stone age tribe at its best?

Think about how much effort is placed in every single one of us as we grow up. Endless persistent training environment with examples of intelligent functions that never end. Every day you spend out there ask yourself how many teaching moments of high density of information and obvious causal connections are trying to make you more aware of the world? A permanent university 24/7/365 out there.

Try to interact with an animal constantly from birth to many years later and see how more intelligent it gets. We care for our young like no other species. Isnt through our civilization that becoming human never ends?

Civilization is our greatest success over nature and the defining component in our growth as humans. Accumulated wisdom obtained within a couple decades of living in relentless training conditions. Evolution rendered irrelevant within 100k years. Game over. Complexity wins and the next step is not us but something greater. How could it not be? Intelligence is possible because the laws of nature are not exceptionally complicated. It is reasonably easy to learn the basic rules of this world by a very young age because of endless interactions and persistent training by the very nature of our civilization. With math the realization of all possible becomes unimaginably potent.

Re-engineering our brain or understanding consciousness better will create a being that is superior in understanding the consequences of choices and the depth of complexity in interactions, exploiting huge amounts of information and completing thoroughly computationally hard evaluations of potential outcomes optimizing behavior to attain success vastly more efficiently.

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Old 02-22-2019, 06:33 AM   #7
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Re: Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny



At 1h 42 he is discussing cooperation.



The Origins of Human Collaboration






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Old 02-22-2019, 12:19 PM   #8
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Re: Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

Sounds like spending lots of time around families and elementary schools.
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Old 02-23-2019, 03:30 AM   #9
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Re: Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

The biggest crimes committed in this society are inside families.

Those who understand it will try their best to avoid it, remain haunted forever as parents if they engage and search for a world that caring for each other at a profound level is the default option and where education is substantially stronger, essentially endless and affordable to all unconditionally.
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Old 02-23-2019, 12:50 PM   #10
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Re: Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

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Originally Posted by masque de Z View Post
In my opinion what makes us human is the persistent interaction and care of others.
I think the most central claim of the book is that prosociality is the most distinctively human trait, in comparison to other primates. I'd guess it's probably true that the impression the book gives is a little too "prosocial" (obviously people are also selfish and individually motivated) but it still seems a useful counterpoint to the tendency I think some people have of interpreting evolutionary psychology purely through the lens of "survival of the fittest" and individual competition.

I have yet to try to summarize the book's claims on prosociality, in particular the development of concepts of fairness, justice, and how humans help and share with each other, but I do think it's the most important and interesting part of the book and I'll get to it in the next day or so. But I thought it would be more interesting to discuss that (and its implications for morality) in the context of the cognitive development parts of the book, which to me are also pretty fascinating. If anyone actually reads all of this :P

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Originally Posted by masque de Z View Post
Think about how much effort is placed in every single one of us as we grow up. Endless persistent training environment with examples of intelligent functions that never end. Every day you spend out there ask yourself how many teaching moments of high density of information and obvious causal connections are trying to make you more aware of the world? A permanent university 24/7/365 out there....

Civilization is our greatest success over nature and the defining component in our growth as humans. Accumulated wisdom obtained within a couple decades of living in relentless training conditions. Evolution rendered irrelevant within 100k years
I'm not sure I'd say evolution has been rendered irrelevant but one of the aims of the book is to try to provide some insight into the development of culture such that cultural evolution overtook biological evolution as a principle agent of human development. On that topic, this essay from Freeman Dyson the other day is also interesting: https://www.edge.org/conversation/fr...ural-evolution

I also love Geertz' classic essay: The impact of the concept of culture on the concept of Man (from The Interpretation of Cultures). In criticizing Enlightenment ideas about the universality of human nature Geertz suggests that what is necessary in developing theories of human universals is that "they be specifically grounded in particular biological, psychological, or sociological processes," and I think that's what Tomasello has been able to do, to some extent.

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Old 02-23-2019, 04:35 PM   #11
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Re: Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

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Collective Intentionality

At about 3 years of age, the perspectival component of joint attention develops further, and it's about at this age that children begin to recognize the possibility of an "objective" perspective. At its simplest, this means the ability to coordinate between what "you" (my collaborative partner) know about a situation and what is objectively true. The development of the objective perspective causes confusion for 3 year olds that tends to resolve itself by 4 years as they develop the ability to coordinate perspectives. This is demonstrated by various experiments involving problems of modeling others' false beliefs:
<snip>
One of my favorite tidbits that has come out of this research project is the "cooperative eye hypothesis," which claims that the adaptive purpose of the color contrast between the white sclera and the black pupil (a contrast which is strongest in humans among primates) is that it makes it easier to follow other people's gazes, which is more valuable in the cooperative social contexts more characteristic of human communities.

I'm curious if Tomasello says much about autism in this context? The false-belief test is a classic way of testing for autism - does he do comparative research on autistic and uh, neurotypical children on collective intentionality? Do autistic children not develop collective intentionality under his framework in a standard way?
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Old 02-23-2019, 05:03 PM   #12
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Re: Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

Prosociality, Social Norms, and Moral Identity

Those are the titles of the last three chapters of the book. They follow the same basic structure as the rest of the book, beginning from great ape ontogeny, discussing uniquely human behavior, and then trying to tie that evidence into the theory while accounting for cross-cultural variation. I've elided some of that structure so far in this review, but I think for these chapters it's more important.

The chapters highlight three traits we broadly share with apes: Basic sympathy, group life, and social evaluation of others. In humans these are extended into a universal basic sense of fairness (with cultural variation emerging later in childhood) and uniquely human sharing and helping behaviors. These new behaviors are first evident in contexts of dyadic joint collaboration and commitment (cf. "second-personal protest" and joint commitment described previously). But, following the ontogenetic pathways leading to collective intentionality outlined previously, and building upon those new cognitive abilities of objective reasoning and group based normativity they expand into our senses of justice and moral identity.

Sympathy

Both humans and other great apes are motivated to act in certain ways out of a sense of sympathy for others:

Quote:
The evolutionary origin of sympathy and self-sacrifice across the animal kingdom is undoubtedly the parent-offspring relationship. In mammals, the social bonding hormone oxytocin has evolved to motivate mothers' nursing, protecting, and caring for offspring, and in some cases fathers' participation in the process as well. IN some species, this sense of sympathy for offspring becomes generalized to other kin by normal process of kin selection. In a few species it becomes generalized to non-kin "friends" as well, based on general principles of interdependence: it makes sense to help those on whom one depends. In humans in particular, the emergence of obligate collaborative foraging and later cultural organization created new forms of interdependence that served to generalize the sense of sympathy even further to collaborate partners and in-group compatriots (p. 219)
Evidence of the role of sympathy in great ape behavior comes from measuring oxytocin levels in the context of different behaviors:

Quote:
Thus, in studies of wild chimpanzees, Crockford et al. (2013) found that during a grooming bout the chimpanzee doing the grooming (as well as the one receiving the grooming) shows an increase in the mammalian bonding hormone oxytocin, and Wittig et al. (2014) found similarly that the chimpanzee who gives up food during a food-sharing episode (that is, tolerated taking) also shows an increase in oxytocin. (p. 224)
There is also evidence for the role of sympathy in human behavior from a very young age, which further suggests the maturational basis for these motivations and their relative universality among humans:

Quote:
A variety of observational and experimental studies have established that infants as young as one year of age will approach and console other crying infants as well as adults showing some kind of emotional upset (Nichols et al. 2009; for a review, see Eisenberg et al. 2006). (P. 224)
Sharing and Helping

Both great apes and humans live socially, but as noted previously human behavior in social groups is far more prosocial than apes, and human helping and sharing behavior is far more group-oriented than other great apes.

Quote:
Indeed, one one simple but powerful way to see the pattern is simply to "follow the food." When foraging parties of other primates encounter food, the first one to touch it is almost always the one -- the only one -- to eat it. In human foraging parties and social groups -- from hunter gathers to modern industrialized societies -- extensive and complex transfers of food among multiple individuals is the norm (Gurven 2004) (p. 219)
Tomasello provides further evidence from various experiments, and connects these differences in sharing and helping behaviors to the way in which humans experience sympathy for others more strongly, and for a much wider range of individuals, then do apes. Part of the evidence for the role of sympathy in helping behaviors is that young children show a general indifference to rewards for helping/sharing. Instead, their motivations seem to be intrinsic: "infants spontaneously help others just as readily when they are alone with the helpee as when their mother is watching them, or even encouraging them to help (Warneken and Tomasello 2013a)".

As Tomasello puts it "sympathy for others is the sine qua non of human morality" (p. 247). In turn, he connects are ability to feel sympathy for a wider range of others to our unique cognitive ability for perspective-taking, developed around that 3-year-old inflection point. These abilities allow us to imagine what it would be like to be the other individual in a way that apes do not appear to be able to do.

Fairness

One outcome of this synthesis of intrinsic sympathy, group-mindedness and perspective-taking is in uniquely human attitudes towards fairness. Great apes do not have any sense of fairness:

Quote:
Great apes sometimes share resources with others, and friends preferentially share with one another. But they are not sharing with others with a sense of fairness, as demonstrated by two main sets of experimental results. The first set of results came from the ultimatum, game, in which a proposer proposes a split of resources with a responder. The responder can accept the proposal, in which case they each keep their allocation, or reject it and no one gets anything. Adult human responders routinely reject low offers -- say two or three out of a total of ten -- even though it means they get nothing. The most likely explanation for this "irrational" behavior is that the responder thinks that the offer is unfair.... Modified versions of the ultimatum game have been given in nonverbal form to chimpanzees in two studies (Jensen et al. 2007; Proctor et al. 2013), and to bonobos in one (Kaiser et. al. 2012). In all three studies the key result was identical: subjects virtually never rejected any non-zero offers.... Wittig et al. (2013) gave a very similar, non-verbal mini-ultimatum game to pairs of five-year-old human children, and, unlike chimpanzees, they quite often rejected unfair offers (when the proposer had the opportunity to be fair).

The other set of studies involved social comparison. The phenomenon is that humans are happy to receive X number of resources unless they see others getting more, in which case they are unhappy... (p. 233)
Tomasello goes on to give evidence that this sense of fairness in the distribution of resources is connected specifically in younger children to social contexts involving joint collaborative efforts:

Quote:
If children are given some resources and told that they can divide them with others in any way that they want (dictator game), they do not do so in an equal fashion until well into school age, and not always then (for a review, see Ibbotson 2014). But the dictator game is a poor test for measuring a sense of fairness (see Kurzban et al. 2015). By telling the child that she can do with the resources whatever she wants, the adult implicitly sanctions selfishness....

What is needed is a situation in which (1) the child does not have to give up resources already in her possession, and (2) the child can correct an unequal distribution to make it equal, rather than just trashing everything. An especially good situation -- one that seems quite natural from an evolutionary point of view -- is collaborating to produce resources, which must then be divided among the collaborators (p. 235)
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In several studies pairs of chimpanzees and human children have been presented with a simple collaborative task in which to acquire resources both partners have to pull simultaneously on the two ends of a rope connected to a platform. With chimpanzees, Melis et. al (2006b) found that when there were two piles of food, one on each end, the pairs were often successful. However, when there was only one pile of food in the middle of the platform, on the first trial the dominant individual simply took all the food....

In stark contrast, in a study designed by Warneken et al. (2011) to be as comparable as possible to this one, three-year-old children were not bothered by the food being in a single pile in the middle of the board; they collaborated successfully over many trials no matter how the food was laid out... most often dividing [the food] equally. Importantly, if one child took more than half of the four candies, the partner often protested [second-personal protest], whereas if the partner took only her share there was almost never protest.
(p. 235-6)
Quote:
Hamann et al. (2011) made things more interesting for children. In their study, pairs of two- and three-year-olds always ended up in a situation in which one of them had three rewards (the lucky child) and the other had only one (the unlucky child). What differed across three experimental conditions was what led to the asymmetrical distribution. In one condition, the unequal distribution resulted from participants simply walking into the room and finding three versus one reward at each end of a platform -- the lucky child almost never shared with the partner.

In a second condition, each child, pulled her own separate rope, resulting the in the same asymmetrical rewards -- the lucky child shared sometimes.

But in a final condition, the asymmetrical rewards resulted from an equal collaborative effort of the two children pulling together. In this case, the lucky three-year-olds (but not two year-olds) shared with the unlucky child to create an equal 2:2 split almost 80% of the time! Presumably, they felt that if they both had worked equally to produce the rewards, they both deserved them equally. When the same experiment was run with chimpanzees, they hardly shared at all... (p.236-7)
Tomasello goes onto describe research into cultural variations in children's perceptions of fairness and behavior. Cultural variations emerge especially a little later in childhood, but "younger preschool children from different cultures differe little in their sense of fairness -- which we may hypothesize, is confined to collaborative contexts broadly defined -- because they are all operating with a natural, second-personal morality involving respect for second personal agents" (p. 241).

I think that is one of the more intriguing findings in the book, and it ties together very neatly with the cognitive development outlined previously.

Justice and Social self-regulation

From a developmental standpoint, the key argument is that this roughly universal second-personal morality which evolved in a context involving joint collaboration expands via the cognitive development of collective intentionality in the group-minded understanding of social norms and a sense of "justice":

Quote:
To maintain cooperation within their distinct cultural groups, humans have evolved a unique form of social control in which the group as a whole expresses its collective expectations for individual behavior [social norms] (p. 249)
Quote:
The upshot is that young children from three to five years of age are beginning to develop a second sense of "we." In addition to feeling solidarity with an interdependent collaborative partner, they are also beginning to feel solidarity with in-group members, typically identified as those who resemble them in behavior and appearance. (p. 250)
He goes on to present experimental evidence for how children develop skills related to understanding, explaning, and enforcing social norms, even amongst themselves in peer groups, e.g. in creating rules for games and negotiating those rules as necessary.

Similarly, the second-personal-morality concept of fairness develops into collective and normative beliefs about justice in both distributive and retributive contexts, again in ways that are quite distinct from other apes. Here again, some basic concepts about justice seem universal, but cultural variations develop later in school years, representing the importance of socialization, but also that socialization builds on top of evolutionarily constructed capabilities and motivations.

One of the important cognitive developments is in self-regulation, where children learn to take on the perspective of the group norms in regulating their own behavior, i.e. what you might classically call the voice of "conscience." Apes evaluate other apes as potential collaborative partners, i.e. to form coalitions in dominance contests. But they don't apply evaluations recursively or think of others evaluations of themselves. They don't have the same capacity for perspective-taking. But this capability in humans leads us to also evaluate ourselves from this perspective of the "generalized other" that represents cultural norms: a kind of abstraction built upon perspective taking in joint collaborative activity.

Last edited by well named; 02-23-2019 at 05:11 PM.
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Old 02-23-2019, 05:11 PM   #13
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Re: Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

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I'm curious if Tomasello says much about autism in this context? The false-belief test is a classic way of testing for autism - does he do comparative research on autistic and uh, neurotypical children on collective intentionality? Do autistic children not develop collective intentionality under his framework in a standard way?
He contrasts autistic children's development to non-autistic children throughout the book, especially in the first section on cognitive development, but I have skipped over it because I'm finding it challenging enough to present the parts I want to focus on without writing a second book. He does mention in that particular chapter that problems with perspective-taking seem important to understanding autism. I don't think he goes so far as to say that autistic children are entirely excluded from his framework. He mostly uses differences between autistic and non-autistic children as a way of establishing that some of these behaviors must have a strong maturational component and thus depend more on biology and less on socialization.
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Old 02-23-2019, 06:54 PM   #14
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Re: Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

Well since there isn’t a typical autistic gaze presentation you would have to compare them all to whatever has been established as the norm. That’s a good whole book for everyone on the spectrum.
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Old 02-23-2019, 07:53 PM   #15
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Re: Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

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He contrasts autistic children's development to non-autistic children throughout the book, especially in the first section on cognitive development, but I have skipped over it because I'm finding it challenging enough to present the parts I want to focus on without writing a second book. He does mention in that particular chapter that problems with perspective-taking seem important to understanding autism. I don't think he goes so far as to say that autistic children are entirely excluded from his framework. He mostly uses differences between autistic and non-autistic children as a way of establishing that some of these behaviors must have a strong maturational component and thus depend more on biology and less on socialization.

Interesting - I had the exact same question that OP posed in post #11. Partially for the same reasons he gave (autistic infants/kids being a control group in a certain sense). Also, I have personal experience with autistic children, my sister has two autistic girls that now are older - each autistic in a formative and relative way. One lacks almost all social and normative behavioral skills and has no language skills whatsoever and must be supervised constantly. The other is much less autistic but has emotional and cognitive disabilities that greatly limited her interaction with others and much anti-social behaviors. She can understand some language but can't speak any herself - she does have rudimentary sign language skills and can take care of herself in a basic way.

Both live in a very set inner world, that I assume is of their own making.

But this digresses from the main theme of the thread. So I'll end with that.
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Old 02-23-2019, 08:04 PM   #16
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Re: Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

One of the things that excited me about this book is its implications for moral philosophy. I'm sure to some extent it's just a reflection of my own ignorance, or lack of familiarity with more modern work in ethics and meta-ethics, but I've always struggled with meta-ethics in particular because I feel like so many of the classic arguments hinge on metaphysical intuitions that don't fit very well with the rest of my worldview, i.e. in debates about moral realism, or what could constitute an objectively true normative claim.

In discussions I've seen here and in RGT, I think the dichotomy is often presented as the difference between moral truths existing entire independently of human existence (either from the mind of God, or some platonic moral realm, or in some other metaphysically irreducible way) or else as mere opinion, error theory, non-cognitivism, or in some other sense lacking the possibility of having validity associated with some objective or inter-subjective basis.

Sometimes people (including me!) try to outline the idea of moral realism that has no metaphysical basis outside of "human nature" in some form, sociological principles, evolutionary psychology, or the like, but they tend to be pretty hand-wavy. It's seemed clear to me for a long time that morality as actually practiced is culturally grounded and any description of morality would have to take that into account, but that perspective also seems a bit uncomfortably close to pure moral relativism, which isn't particularly excited.

So part of what is intriguing about the book is that in describing the ontogenetic pathways of human development around normativity, and in capturing the fact that some basic motivations and tendencies (e.g. towards fairness in collaborative tasks) are apparently universal, Tomasello is laying some ground-work for developing a more substantive moral theory where the objective validity of some moral claims could be grounded in legitimate scientific claims about human nature, and in particular the fact that human nature is thoroughly social, so that morality is intrinsically a social phenomena. This doesn't remove uncomfortable questions about relativism, but it does at least ground them a little more satisfactorily, perhaps?

The book also reminded me of this essay on moral progress by Nagel, from last year, in particular Nagel's framing of moral realism around reason giving:

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But realism about morality, as I understand it, does not imply such a metaphysical picture. Instead, we should think of morality as an aspect of practical reason: It concerns what we have certain kinds of reasons to do and not to do. We should not think of those reasons as like chemical elements waiting to be discovered. Rather, facts about reasons are irreducibly normative truths about ourselves and other persons, and realism is simply the position that their truth does not depend on our believing them. Moral knowledge, on a normative realist view, is a species of belief about what we have reason to do that is in accordance with such truths.
Nagel's version of moral realism in this essay is also culturally relative and seems highly compatible with Tomasello's ontogeny. I think the book helps a great deal by suggesting ways in which the kinds of reasons Nagel mentions can be constrained by more or less universal aspects of human existence, e.g. prosocial motivations and expectations about fairness. The theoretical framework and experimental research highlighted in the book also go a long way towards explaining why reasons are central to morality in the first place, i.e. as a reflection of core human behavior related to collective intentionality. Tomasello also mentions Rawls' work in political philosophy in the chapter discussing fairness, and I think the book complements that kind of political philosophy in much the same way.

I also think that in some interesting way this approach to morality is an interesting challenge to the idea of the "is/ought" fallacy, but I haven't given this nearly enough thought.
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Old 02-23-2019, 08:10 PM   #17
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Re: Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

Thanks for the effort you are putting into this thread you old tyrant. Well done and very interesting.

I did have some comments on the experimental procedures as it seems that conclusions are drawn from individual and nascent group (2-3 people) behaviors and translational of that to "group" or social group or to a larger context than justified. But that is probably too much of a detail to go into or perhaps I'm misreading. I think also that proto-social is a better term to use for infants and the very young.
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Old 02-23-2019, 08:32 PM   #18
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Re: Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

I didn't go into much detail on the experiments that deal with norms on a group level, so I'm sure that contributes to your feeling that there might be too much extrapolation. I think it's certainly true that as a theoretical exercise the book is trying to fit the experimental data into a wider context which includes other pre-existing theory and research in sociology, anthropology, and psychology. If you want to evaluate how well it succeeds you probably do have to read the whole book and not just my excerpts, I'm just trying to highlight some of the most evocative material.

"Proto-social" is a good word for behavior for infants and the young, but that's accounted for in the theory, and is especially prominent in marking the inflection point at 3 years. It's pointed out a number of times for example that infants almost exclusively interact in 1:1 ways with adults (and I referred to his take on the evolutionary explanation for that), and only after 3 years (and really more at 4-5 years) do peer interactions in larger groups become important. The book does a better job than I've been able to convey at highlighting how the different social contexts appear relevant to the new developmental pathways associated with each age, e.g. reason-giving and co-construction of social norms involves groups of peers, not 1:1 interactions with adults.

The goal of connecting the more complex behavior with the simpler forms in infants is to show the developmental path.
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Old 02-24-2019, 11:33 PM   #19
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Re: Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

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So part of what is intriguing about the book is that in describing the ontogenetic pathways of human development around normativity, and in capturing the fact that some basic motivations and tendencies (e.g. towards fairness in collaborative tasks) are apparently universal, Tomasello is laying some ground-work for developing a more substantive moral theory where the objective validity of some moral claims could be grounded in legitimate scientific claims about human nature, and in particular the fact that human nature is thoroughly social, so that morality is intrinsically a social phenomena. This doesn't remove uncomfortable questions about relativism, but it does at least ground them a little more satisfactorily, perhaps?
A substantive theory of human nature can be helpful in developing an applied ethics, but I'm not sure that it really solves many questions in meta-ethics except for defeating blank-slate assumptions. Presumably the same objections can still be raised here - a universal human nature developed through evolution will still be contingent in a way that is unacceptable to some moral realists.

After all, maybe sentient Alpha Centaurians do not have an inherently social cognition in the way humans do. Would that mean that they then have a different morality?
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Old 02-24-2019, 11:49 PM   #20
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Re: Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

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A substantive theory of human nature can be helpful in developing an applied ethics, but I'm not sure that it really solves many questions in meta-ethics except for defeating blank-slate assumptions. Presumably the same objections can still be raised here - a universal human nature developed through evolution will still be contingent in a way that is unacceptable to some moral realists.

After all, maybe sentient Alpha Centaurians do not have an inherently social cognition in the way humans do. Would that mean that they then have a different morality?
I agree that it would be unacceptable to some moral realists, but I'm only looking for something acceptable to me I wouldn't expect this view to be appealing to most religious Christians, for example. I guess I would compare it to compatibilism debates about free will.

I think the view I'm interested in necessarily limits morality to being something explicitly human, so I would answer your question by saying yes: I would expect Alpha Centaurians to have a different morality if they also have different social-cognitive abilities practiced in a different social context and subject to a different process of evolution or development.

I can see where a socially/evolutionarily grounded view of morality is in principle generalizable to other sentient beings provided that they were similar enough to us, but to the extent that the claim to realism or objectivity is inextricably linked to objective facts about humans then I don't think any moral claims in this view can be exported to other hypothetical scenarios where those facts don't obtain. So it wouldn't seem natural to try to apply this kind of moral theory to bees or ants, even super-intelligent ones.
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Old 02-25-2019, 07:03 PM   #21
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Re: Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

I have and actually read this book by that guy with the great hair; Steven Pinker

Blank-Slate-Modern-Denial-Nature


I think it is a worthwhile read and the book does dovetail into what this thread is nominally discussing. It is based on research at least 20 years old I think but overall still holds its relevance to rather age old arguments.
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Old 02-26-2019, 05:31 AM   #22
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Re: Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phineas_Gage
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Old 02-26-2019, 12:19 PM   #23
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Re: Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

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I have and actually read this book by that guy with the great hair; Steven Pinker

Blank-Slate-Modern-Denial-Nature

I think it is a worthwhile read and the book does dovetail into what this thread is nominally discussing.
I've never actually read it but yeah I'm not surprised you'd think of it. I'm not sure what it was like 20 years ago but AFAICT tabula rasa theories of human nature have little currency in social sciences now. Might be Pinker's fault :P I'm judging that mostly on having looked at a number of intro sociology and anthropology textbooks. All of the ones I've seen talk about nature vs. nurture being a false dichotomy.
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Old 02-26-2019, 02:48 PM   #24
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Re: Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

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I've never actually read it but yeah I'm not surprised you'd think of it. I'm not sure what it was like 20 years ago but AFAICT tabula rasa theories of human nature have little currency in social sciences now. Might be Pinker's fault :P I'm judging that mostly on having looked at a number of intro sociology and anthropology textbooks. All of the ones I've seen talk about nature vs. nurture being a false dichotomy.
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Wait another 20 years and the currency may flip back to being hot and fashionable and will buy you a good cup of coffee from all the sycophants. And the text books will again need revisions to fit the "new" trend.

Soft sciences tend to get swayed about more on the wavy seas of what is best to belief for the common good.

I have never believed in any common good. I do, however, believe in Gravity. Turns out gravity is a wave. Rather silly but there it is.
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Old 02-26-2019, 04:41 PM   #25
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Re: Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

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Wait another 20 years and the currency may flip back to being hot and fashionable and will buy you a good cup of coffee from all the sycophants.
Eh, maybe, but I'd bet against it, at least if we're talking about intro textbooks (I'm sure there are and will continue to be some people with less mainstream views). But I think there's too much evidence from neurology and anthropology to sustain naive "blank slate" theories. I'm sure there will always be fads and trends in theoretical development, and I'm not predicting that sociologists will stop thinking that socialization is important or anything. I just expect those theories to become more complex rather than less.
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