Origins of Human Communication

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MIT Press, Aug 13, 2010 - Social Science - 408 pages
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A leading expert on evolution and communication presents an empirically based theory of the evolutionary origins of human communication that challenges the dominant Chomskian view.

Human communication is grounded in fundamentally cooperative, even shared, intentions. In this original and provocative account of the evolutionary origins of human communication, Michael Tomasello connects the fundamentally cooperative structure of human communication (initially discovered by Paul Grice) to the especially cooperative structure of human (as opposed to other primate) social interaction. Tomasello argues that human cooperative communication rests on a psychological infrastructure of shared intentionality (joint attention, common ground), evolved originally for collaboration and culture more generally. The basic motives of the infrastructure are helping and sharing: humans communicate to request help, inform others of things helpfully, and share attitudes as a way of bonding within the cultural group. These cooperative motives each created different functional pressures for conventionalizing grammatical constructions. Requesting help in the immediate you-and-me and here-and-now, for example, required very little grammar, but informing and sharing required increasingly complex grammatical devices. Drawing on empirical research into gestural and vocal communication by great apes and human infants (much of it conducted by his own research team), Tomasello argues further that humans' cooperative communication emerged first in the natural gestures of pointing and pantomiming. Conventional communication, first gestural and then vocal, evolved only after humans already possessed these natural gestures and their shared intentionality infrastructure along with skills of cultural learning for creating and passing along jointly understood communicative conventions. Challenging the Chomskian view that linguistic knowledge is innate, Tomasello proposes instead that the most fundamental aspects of uniquely human communication are biological adaptations for cooperative social interaction in general and that the purely linguistic dimensions of human communication are cultural conventions and constructions created by and passed along within particular cultural groups.


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Tomasello has a lot of interesting points and findings about the evolution of communication . While there is a lot of great information, it's poorly organized and sometimes repetitive which makes it a somewhat undesirable read. It's written as if he sat down and just started having a one-way conversation with you about everything he know about the evolution of communication. There are constant reminders letting you know the topic you are currently reading about was mentioned in another chapter or will be, and he jumps from topic to conclusion to history, then back again (sometimes not even in this order). It would have been better if it was more of a textbook format with topics broken apart into sections, outlines, and more graphical representations of the data Tomesello sometimes just talks about.
Overall, I think there is some good information and although I wouldn't refrain from recommending, I do caution that the format somewhat hinders the quality of how it's communicated with the reader.


1 A Focus on Infrastructure
2 Primate Intentional Communication
3 Human Cooperative Communication
4 Ontogenetic Origins
5 Phylogenetic Origins
6 The Grammatical Dimension
7 From Ape Gestures to Human Language
Author Index
Subject Index

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About the author (2010)

Michael Tomasello is Codirector of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig. He is the author of The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition and Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition.

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