“Why We Cooperate”

An excerpt from Why We Cooperate (MIT Press, 2009) by Michael Tomasello:

First, humans actively teach one another things, and they do not reserve their lessons for kin. Teaching is a form of altruism, founded on a motive to help, in which individuals donate information to others for their use…

Second, humans also have a tendency to imitate other in the group simply in order to be like them, that is, to conform (perhaps as an indicator of group identity). Moreover, they sometimes even invoke cooperatively agreed-upon social norms of conformity on others in the group, and their appeals to conformity are backed by various potential punishments or sanctions for those who resist. To our knowledge, no other primates collectively create and enforce group norms of conformity. Both teaching and norms of conformity contribute to cumulative culture by conserving innovations in the group until some further innovation comes along.

I’ve always been an avid reader of Tomasello, and his latest book shines among the best works of comparative anthropology. But what I’ve loved most about Tomasello are his forays into social philosophy, as seen in the quotation above.

Here’s just one way to think about Tomasello’s framework for Why We Cooperate: how does Tomasello’s enumeration of two separate processes for cultural production alter your thoughts concerning education? I think there’s a tendency amongst educators – especially English teachers – to believe in certain kinds of teaching as a means to certain brands of conformity. For instance, I often hear opponents to standardized testing say, “if we create the expectation for a set of ‘correct’ answers to literary questions, then we will end up with hopelessly automated cultural awareness.”

But that argument relies on a continuity between teaching and imitating, something refuted, at least in part, by Tomasello’s research. We end up with a conflagration of processes, when in fact we  might understand cultural production better if we separate, in our minds, learning from conforming. We might achieve this separation by stipulating that (1) learning involves only information transfers, and (2) conforming includes behavioral imitations alongside a variety of implicit and explicit beliefs or judgements concerning the imitated behaviors.


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