When Edward O. Wilson’s “Sociobiology” was published in 1975, setting forth a comprehensive biological analysis of animal (and human) social behavior, its supposed political implications made the book controversial for some people. For others—including myself—it was a magisterial blending of ethology, ecology and evolutionary theory. Michael Tomasello’s “Becoming Human” should be less controversial. But it is comparably magisterial—merging primatology, developmental psychology, cognitive psychology and evolution.
Mr. Tomasello’s goal is widely shared but rarely achieved: identifying the biopsychological wellsprings of human uniqueness. After all, the bottom-line lesson of evolution is one of continuity among life forms, even though many capacities of Homo sapiens do not have clear correlates among nonhuman animals: Only people can program computers, solve differential equations or read this newspaper. But scientists have had a hard time describing the origins and sources of these and many other capacities, because there is nothing qualitatively discontinuous that separates our DNA or neurobiology from our great ape relatives. “Becoming Human” makes an impressive argument that most distinctly human traits are established early in childhood and that the general chronology in which these traits appear can at least—and at last—be identified.
Worldwide, there is no researcher like Mr. Tomasello, whose abundant academic affiliations identify him as an interdisciplinary master: co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, co-director of the Wolfgang Kohler Primate Research Center, honorary professor at Manchester University’s Department of Psychology and professor of psychology at Duke University. His knowledge of scientific disciplines that typically have little to say to one another is apparent on nearly every page of this book.
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