Professor Michael Tomasello was awarded the Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Cognitive Science 2010 because his multidisciplinary research has given us a much deeper understanding of cognitive processes in primates in general, and language acquisition processes in humans in particular.
According to Michael Tomasello, joint attention, or two individuals consciously focusing on one and the same action, is the structuring principle underlying many aspects of human communication and learning. Tomasello based this conclusion on extensive research. He is one of the few scientists worldwide who is acknowledged as an expert in multiple disciplines; his research interests range from cognitive processes in apes to developmental psychology and language acquisition in children. In Tomasello’s view, the basic difference between human beings and apes is that from infancy, humans are capable of something that apes are not, or in any event do less well: putting themselves in another’s position and knowing what the other is observing and thinking. Thanks to this unique ability, he argues, humans were able to develop a culture as part of their evolutionary process. The principle that people understand one another’s intentions also provides the basis for language acquisition, according to Tomasello. Children slowly learn the rules of grammar by communicating with the adults around them every day. Tomasello’s theory of usage-based linguistics rejects the theory of generative grammar, which assumes that children learn language owing to an innate universal grammar.
Although the jury is still out concerning the distinction between humans and apes and the way in which children learn language – and Tomasello would be the first to stress this – his original ideas, which are solidly grounded both theoretically and empirically, are generally considered to have made a major and innovative contribution to our understanding of cognitive processes.
Tomasello M., Kruger A. & Ratner H. 1993. ‘Cultural Learning’. In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16: 495-552
Tomasello M. & Call J. 1997. Primate Cognition. Oxford University Press, Oxford
Tomasello M. 1999. The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Harvard University Press, Harvard
Tomasello M. 2003. Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition. Harvard University Press, Harvard
Tomasello M. 2008. Origins of Human Communication. MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts
Michael Tomasello was born in Bartow, Florida, in 1950 and studied psychology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He received his doctorate in experimental psychology from the University of Georgia in Athens. He became professor of psychology and then of anthropology at Emory University in Atlanta. At the same time, Tomasello conducted psychobiological research at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. In 1998, he was appointed researcher and co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Three years later he became co-director of the Wolfgang Köhler Primate Research Center, which cooperates with the Leipzig Zoo. Tomasello is an honorary professor in psychology at the universities of Leipzig and Manchester, UK. He has authored an impressive list of publications and has been a visiting scholar, professor and instructor at Harvard University, the University of Rome, Stanford University and UC Berkeley. His awards and distinctions include a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1997 and the Hegel Prize in 2009. In addition to his research achievements, Tomasello has reached out to a wider public in publications, lectures and television programs to explain how humans and apes (or dogs) are similar and how they differ.