Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Cognitive Science 2010 awarded to Michael Tomasello

14 April 2010

The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences has awarded the Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Cognitive Science (USD 150,000) to Professor Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

He is receiving the prize 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. 

Research: The basic difference between humans and apes

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.

Researcher

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.

Key publications

  • 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

Prize

Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Cognitive Science was established in 2006. It is the first major international prize in the relatively new, broad field of cognitive science, which explores how human beings and animals acquire knowledge. Ms Charlene L. de Carvalho-Heineken, who succeeded her father Alfred Heineken as the chairperson of the Alfred Heineken Fondsen Foundation after his death in 2002, agreed to establish this sixth Heineken Prize because of her father's lifelong interest in the workings of the human brain. The prize is being awarded for the third time this year. Previous laureates were Stanislas Dehaene and John Anderson. The jury was chaired by Jacqueline Meulman.

Presentation

The Heineken Prizes will be presented on Thursday 23 September 2010 during an extraordinary meeting of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.