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Distinguished Speaker Events



Our project will host a variety of distinguished speakers who will give public talks on themes relevant to the Boundaries of Humanity.

Past Distinguished Speaker Events:

Thursday April 27, 2017 (5:00-6:30pm): Michael Tomasello, PhD 

  • Talk Title:  Human Collaboration

Although great apes collaborate for some purposes, recent studies comparing chimpanzees and human children suggest that human collaboration is unique both cognitively and motivationally. In particular humans seem adapted for collaborative foraging, as even young children display numerous relevant mechanisms, from special ways of coordinating and communicating to special ways of sharing food to special forms of social evaluation. The Shared Intentionality hypothesis specifies the ontogeny of these underlying mechanisms and their consequences for both human cognition and human social life.

  • Michael Tomasello is the Co-Director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.  

Talk Synopsis


In an April 27th, 2017 talk at the workshop on Culture, Cognition, and Boundaries, Dr. Michael Tomasello discussed his theory of shared intentionality.

Dr. Tomasello proposes that while humans and other primates may have similar capacities for cognition and sociality, humans are highly cooperative to a degree not shared with nonhuman primates. He highlighted both individual and shared intentionality as features of human cooperativity. Individual intentionality involves purposeful actions and requires an understanding of the intentions of others, but is, at its core, competitive, not cooperative. Dr. Tomasello argued that this is a feature of nonhuman ape behavior. Humans, according to Dr. Tomasello, have shared intentionality, the ability to participate with others in collaborative activities to accomplish shared goals and intentions. This shared intentionality contributed to the development of culture by facilitating the creation of social norms and institutions.

Dr. Tomasello argues that shared intentionality developed in two steps: joint intentionality and collective intentionality. Joint intentionality consists of joint attention, a joint commitment to working together, and a joint action. He believes this behavioral trait emerged after homo, when an ecological shift forced collaborative foraging among individuals. At that time, individuals who worked together to get food that they could not get alone had an advantage. Collective intentionality involves collective conventions that individuals within a society agree to, including the value of monetary objects, roles in society, social norms, and institutions. Dr. Tomasello believes this latter trait emerged in Homo sapiens and led, in part, to the creation of culture.

Dr. Tomasello’s research focuses on the uniquely human psychological mechanisms that govern joint intentionality, which he breaks down into three components: joint intentions, coordination and communication, and sharing the spoils at the end. To illuminate the differences between ape and human behavior in each of these steps, Dr. Tomasello looks at how these two species’ behavior differs when they are placed in the same scenarios.

Joint intentions, the first step, consists of sharing the same goals. Dr. Tomasello presented experiments that showed that young children, when another individual has disengaged from a cooperative task, will try to re-engage the individual. Chimps in the same scenario will try to do the entire task themselves. Children will continue to collaborate until all those involved get a reward, while chimps will stop collaborating as soon as they get their own reward. Children will also often take turns, make a joint verbal commitment, and rebuke each other if one individual does not follow through. Chimps will not take turns. These observations suggest that chimps are using each other as a social tool to get what they want. Humans do this too, but often during collaborative exercises humans do not view the exercise as completed until everyone gets a reward.  

The second step of joint intentionality is coordination and communication. Dr. Tomasello shared experiments in which human children are observed directing individuals, helping individuals, and communicating instructions to individuals. Additionally, human children are better at monitoring and predicting their partner’s role than chimps are. This ability leads to a dual level structure of joint intentionality: jointness and individuality. While individuals share one goal, they still maintain their individuality and different roles. Thus, humans can interchange roles during collaborative actions, understanding roles as independent of individuals. Humans also have impartial role standards: the same requirements exist for anyone in the role, helping humans respect and value their partners, while creating interdependence. Additionally, because humans are able to take different perspectives, they are able to think more flexibly. Nonhuman apes cannot do this – the way in which they interpret an action or an item is embedded into their goal structure. Humans are also capable of cooperative communication, while nonhuman apes are not: children can understand and follow pointing, while nonhuman apes will follow only gaze or head movement. This capability of children suggests that they know that someone else is communicating something and thus are able to reason recursively. Chimps aren’t able to do this, as they are almost always competing with, not trying to help, each other. Finally, children can predict the false beliefs of others, whereas chimps have a difficult time doing this.


The third step of joint intentionality is sharing the spoils fairly. Dr. Tomasello shared an experiment that focused on the motivation of nonhuman apes, in which chimps are cooperating to get food. Chimps will recruit each other, even let each other out of cages, for participation in a task that requires cooperation. When the reward is presented to them as divided, they will share the spoils. However, when the reward is lumped as one, the dominant individual will steal the food. If this happens multiple times, the subordinate will quit. Thus chimps are unable to create stable collaboration because they are unable to share the spoils fairly. When the same experiment is done with children, they will call each other out for not sharing, seeking an even split between the individuals. Children’s goal is not to gain the maximum amount of the reward possible, but to ensure a fair division. Often when calling each other out, children will not tell the other individual what to do, but simply point out the injustice, expecting the other individual to correct themselves. Additionally, for children – but not for chimpanzees – collaboration facilitates equal sharing. In all cooperation, free riders pose a problem and need to be dealt with. Chimps will protect their rewards equally at all times – it does not matter if another individual collaborated with them or is a free rider. However, children will actively exclude free riders. Without effectively punishing free riders, it is difficult for collaboration to develop and to be sustained.


Dr. Tomasello noted some of the limitations of this theory, namely that most of the experiments have been done in western, educated, industrialized, rich populations in democratic communities. Other experiments are currently running in groups of different socio-economic statuses in Peru, India, and Canada. These experiments hope to illuminate cross-cultural differences in joint intentionality.

Dr. Tomasello argues that joint intentionality can be scaled up to the cultural level. This can be seen in the ability of children to detect and object to cheating in collaborative actions in which they are not involved, an action that chimps do not do. Joint intentionality helps to create social norms and conformity that facilitate cooperation through creating an interdependent collaboration. This capability is due in part to humans’ ability to interchange roles, creating fairness, equality, and impartiality. It is also due to humans’ “social mirror:” the ability to evaluate how our own behavior will be interpreted by others. These capabilities lead to guilt and self-regulation, and distinguish humans from nonhuman apes.

Written by Boundaries of Humanity Project student assistant, Sarah Bell

Edited by Steven Michael Crane



Thursday April 20, 2017 (5:00-6:30pm) Antonio Damasio, MD, PhD


  • Talk title: Biology and the Boundaries of Humanity
  • Antonio Damasio is the Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience, Psychology & Philosophy, and the Director of the Brain and Creativity Insitute at the University of Southern California.


Talk Synopsis


In an April 20, 2017 talk at the Stanford Humanities Center, Professor Antonio Damasio discussed human exceptionalism and its defining features as the opening Distinguished Speaker Event for the Boundaries of Humanity Project.


For most of humanity’s existence, both philosophy and science supported the idea that humans were unique among animals. However, Darwin’s The Descent of Man challenged this idea with its argument that humans differ from other species in degree but not in kind. As biology has progressed, challenges to human exceptionalism and the overlap between humans and non-humans have grown. Two such challenges come from new gene editing technologies, e.g. CRISPR/Cas9, and from artificial intelligence. 


These developments contribute to societal skepticism about human exceptionalism, as well as to a decline in the public’s conceptions of human dignity and morality. This trend is supported by two premises, both of which Professor Damasio critiqued. The first is that life, including all organisms and their brains, is entirely algorithmic.  Professor Damasio argued instead that living creatures are not just formulas, but are also the execution of those formulas in flesh, blood, and complex biology. He likened these formulas to scores of music and argued that humans and other living creatures are not just the scores themselves, but also the music from these scores, as played out in space and time. The second premise is that algorithms are not affected by the materials that produce them and that it matters not whether they are made of carbon or silicon. They will always produce the same outcome. Professor Damasio used the experience of feelings as a counterexample to this statement.  Our basic biological processes, which may be portrayed well by algorithms, result in something more: feelings that directly correspond to the success of those biological processes in maintaining homeostasis.  While humans may create machines that are capable of displaying something similar to human feelings, the machine’s “experience” of these feelings is not the same as a human’s experience of feelings.


Continuing, Professor Damasio articulated his evidence for human exceptionalism. He argued that while some human behavior is shared by many different organisms, there are key distinguishing factors between humans and other species. For example, human cultural productions are much greater and more complex than those of other species. Professor Damasio focused on human mental faculties including symbolism, narrative, learning, and memory. He argued that these capabilities, specifically the extensive integration of memory and language into human cognition, allows for a contextualization of feelings that differs from that of other species. Specifically, the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus is especially complex in humans.  This structure, an active site of neurogenesis even in adult humans, allows us to recall specific events and people, giving important context to our feelings and memories.  Thus, human feelings are connected to past memories, and other brain structures also connect feelings to imagination and future plans. While animals may have similar basic feelings, their feelings are not contextualized in this way, though we do share the same core mechanisms and biological sources.


These contextualized feelings facilitated the creation of human moral principles. Professor Damasio argued that moral principles were generated by reflection on the human condition, as a result of examining and contextualizing feelings (e.g. actual suffering and pain, prospective flourishing and pleasure) and imagining how the causes of feelings could be sought or avoided. Thus, human moral principles are not a mere natural result of biology and evolution but are constructed intentionally by humans under the guidance of values.  Taken together, these arguments build a case for the exceptional status of humans, not just in degree but also in kind.


Written by Boundaries of Humanity Project student assistant, Sarah Bell

Edited by Steven Michael Crane