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Many Minds

Jul 12, 2022

Welcome back, friends! Apologies for the brief delay in getting this episode out. We’re now happily back on track and super stoked for what we have coming up—starting with today’s episode.

My guest is Dr. Michael Tomasello, a voraciously interdisciplinary thinker, an incredibly productive scientist, and a pioneer in the systematic comparison of chimpanzee and human capacities. Mike is a Distinguished Professor in the department of Psychology & Neuroscience at Duke University, where also holds appointments in Evolutionary Anthropology, Philosophy, and Linguistics. He is the author of growing list of influential books, including the recent Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny and a new book coming out this fall titled The Evolution of Agency.

In this conversation, Mike and I talk about how he came to study both children and chimpanzees. We discuss the challenges of working with each of these groups—and the challenges of comparing them. We talk about some of the key concepts that have figured prominently in Mike’s work over the years—like joint attention and false belief—and well as some of the concepts he’s been elaborating more recently—including norms, roles, and agency. We also discuss Vygotsky and Piaget; how humans got started down the path toward intense interdependence and cooperation; and what Mike thinks he got wrong earlier in his career.

Lots in here, folks—let’s just get to it. On to my conversation with Dr. Michael Tomasello. Enjoy!


A transcript of this episode is available here.


Notes and links

3:30 – Early in his career, Dr. Tomasello was affiliated with the storied Yerkes Primate Center.

5:00 – Major works by Lev Vygotsky (in translation) include Mind in Society and Thought and Language.

7:00 – A video about some of the early work of Wolfgang Kohler.

10:30 – Dr. Tomasello is the Emeritus Director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.

17:00 – A chapter outlining some key results of “looking time” (or “preferential-looking”) experiments in developmental psychology.

21:00 – A recent article by Cathal O’Madagain and Dr. Tomasello about “joint attention to mental content.”

25:00 – A paper by Holger Diessel on demonstratives and joint attention.

25:00 – A video describing work that Dr. Tomasello and colleagues have carried out on chimpanzee theory of mind. A 2019 general audience article summarizing the state of this research.

28:00 – Dr. Tomasello’s book on child development, Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny, was published in 2018.

31:00 – A recent paper by Dr. Tomasello on the importance of roles in human cognition and social life.

34:00 – A recent paper by Dr. Tomasello on the psychology behind the human sense of obligation.

35:00 – A paper of Art Markman and C. Hunt Stillwell on “role-governed categories.”

36:00 – A paper by Christophe Boesch on “cooperative hunting roles” among chimpanzees.

38:00 – A very recent paper by Dr. Tomasello, “What is it like to be a chimpanzee?”

39:15 – A study by Dr. Tomasello and colleagues about whether apes (and children) monitor their decisions.

40:45 – Dr. Tomasello’s most cited book, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, was published in 2001.

43:00 – Dr. Tomasello’s next book, The Evolution of Agency, will be published in September by MIT press.

You can read more about Dr. Tomasello’s work at his website.


Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) (, which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from assistant producer Cecilia Padilla. Creative support is provided by DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd ( Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala (

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