Michael Tomasello, a former Emory psychology professor who is currently director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, was awarded 1.3 million Swiss francs or approximately $1.4 million through the Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize for his research comparing collaborative processes of young humans with their closest primate relative, the great ape.
The award comes from the Zurich-based Jacobs Foundation, an organization focusing on childhood and youth development. Since 2009, the Klaus Jacobs Research Prize has been awarded to two scientists who have produced research in the field of childhood development. Klaus J. Jacobs, entrepreneur and founder of the Jacobs Foundation, hoped for scientific advancements in childhood development to promote more universal well-being for all children, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or socioeconomic status, according to the Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize website.
Tomasello plans to use the prize money to begin cross-cultural research in Kenya, which he explained has more peer-centered child development — where older siblings have a larger influence on children during development — than nations like the United States or Germany, where he previously conducted research. In the United States or Germany, child development is often adult-centered, meaning children are primarily raised by their parents. The prize money gives him an opportunity to delve into the implications of peer-centered childhood development, he said.
“The idea of researching the differences between peer-centered and adult-centered has always been in the back of my mind, but I’ve never quite had the resources to pursue it,” he said.
A developmental psychologist whose research interests include the comparison of the cognitive processes and culture in human children and apes, Tomasello focused his winning research on the ability of young humans to coordinate and group themselves regardless of adult direction. He discovered that one-year-old toddlers who can barely speak have the ability to cooperate with other humans. He concluded that this distinction is the primary difference between humans and the great ape.
Tomasello received his undergraduate degree in psychology from Duke University in 1972 and his Ph.D. in experimental psychology from the University of Georgia. His interest in child development was sparked in an undergraduate psychology class, during which the professor “brought kids into the class and showed us the cool things they did,” he said. His affinity for undergraduate psychology showed him his true interest in child development and evolution.
“I discovered my natural interest in origins: child development, how we got where we are, and evolution, how the species got where it is,” Tomasello said.
After teaching psychology at Emory from 1980 to 1998 and conducting comparative and evolutionary research at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Tomasello moved to Germany and started work as director at the Max Planck Institute while teaching as adjunct faculty for graduate students at the University of Leipzig. Although Tomasello said he enjoys his position immensely, he admitted to missing teaching undergraduates at Emory.
Tomasello has published several works, including Origins of Human Communication (2008) and Why We Cooperate (2009), and served as visiting faculty at many institutions, including Harvard University, the University of Rome and the University of California at Berkeley.
Tomasello credits much of his success to his first job teaching and researching at Emory. A supportive working environment and inspiring colleagues, he said, were the foundations for every following research project he undertook.
“The best effect a scientist can hope for after putting research out is that other scientists will replicate, use and cite it,” he said. “To me, that’s the most rewarding aspect of the award.”
Tomasello will be presented with his award on Dec. 2 at the University of Zurich.
— Contact Anusha Ravi.