For decades Tomasello has explored what makes humans distinctive. His conclusion? We cooperate. Many species, from ants to orcas to our primate cousins, cooperate in the wild. But Tomasello has identified a special form of cooperation. In his view, humans alone are capable of shared intentionality—they intuitively grasp what another person is thinking and act toward a common goal, as the subway rescuers did. This supremely human cognitive ability, Tomasello says, launched our species on its extraordinary trajectory. It forged language, tools, and cultures—stepping-stones to our colonization of every corner of the planet.
In his most recent research, Tomasello has begun to look at the dark side of cooperation. “We are primates, and primates compete with one another,” Tomasello says. He explains cooperation evolved on top of a deep-seated competitive drive. “In many ways, this is the human dilemma,” he says.