The psycho-linguist prof. from Duke University joins Wes, Dylan, Seth, and Chris Heath to discuss his 2022 book, The Evolution of Agency: Behavioral Organization from Lizards to Humans.
What is human agency? How would we determine whether an animal is a legitimate agent, as opposed to just acting automatically? Tomasello investigates this by thinking about what capabilities and behaviors constitute agency and the degree to which near-human animals have these.
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To be an agent, according to Tomasello, is to be able to self-regulate, to stop oneself from doing certain things, to make deliberate choices, to observe one’s own behavior and potentially modify it. These capabilities require a feedback loop (“circular causation,”), and Tomasello observes simpler feedback loops in other mammals. For instance, a squirrel caching a nut has to look at the available terrain for digging, and so has some choice in where to put the nut, even though the behavior of nut caching is itself hard wired. In any environment with uncertainty, animals adapt to adjust to changing conditions like this, and the observation and modification of behavior that this involves is a precursor for human agency. In particular, the need for cooperation among members of the same species raises a challenge that only flexible creatures can meet. Tomasello argues that to reflect on one’s own decision-making requires an “executive tier” of functioning, and he’s interested in where that level of functioning came into the evolutionary story.
Tomasello’s viewpoint is informed by philosophy, in that he’s not just looking for forms of apparent reciprocity among animals, but is thinking about normativity itself, which is more abstract, and so (just as was the case for language, discussed in our ep. 323) requires the imaginative ability to adopt another person’s point of view and so create a “we” that combines the self and others. Moreover, agents have to have notions of causality and how their actions can affect others. Great apes are able to do this even though they don’t have language, so while agency is related to the shared attentional abilities involved in language, the abilities in the two cases are not identical.
Audio editing by Tyler Hislop.
Continue with part two.