The Evolution of Agency

The Evolution of Agency

Behavioral Organization from Lizards to Humans

By Michael Tomasello

A leading developmental psychologist proposes an evolutionary pathway to human psychological agency.





A leading developmental psychologist proposes an evolutionary pathway to human psychological agency.

Nature cannot build organisms biologically prepared for every contingency they might possibly encounter. Instead, Nature builds some organisms to function as feedback control systems that pursue goals, make informed behavioral decisions about how best to pursue those goals in the current situation, and then monitor behavioral execution for effectiveness. Nature builds psychological agents. In a bold new theoretical proposal, Michael Tomasello advances a typology of the main forms of psychological agency that emerged on the evolutionary pathway to human beings.

Tomasello outlines four main types of psychological agency and describes them in evolutionary order of emergence. First was the goal-directed agency of ancient vertebrates, then came the intentional agency of ancient mammals, followed by the rational agency of ancient great apes, ending finally in the socially normative agency of ancient humans. Each new form of psychological organization represented increased complexity in the planning, decision-making, and executive control of behavior. Each also led to new types of experience of the environment and, in some cases, of the organism's own psychological functioning, leading ultimately to humans' experience of an objective and normative world that governs all of their thoughts and actions. Together, these proposals constitute a new theoretical framework that both broadens and deepens current approaches in evolutionary psychology.


$30.00 X ISBN: 9780262047005 176 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 15


  • “If animals are not mindless stimulus-response machines, what are they? Charles Darwin knew his theory of evolution depended on the answer. The radical idea proposed in Michael Tomasello's groundbreaking book is that animals are agents—their psychology evolved to allow control of their choices. One of the most accomplished psychologists of our time builds an overwhelming case that all psychology evolved to give freedom of choice to solve life's most unpredictable problems. As accessible as it is persuasive, this instant classic will drive scientific agendas and will be read by students of human nature for generations to come.”

    Brian Hare

    New York Times bestselling author of The Genius of Dogs

  • “In this impressive and engaging book, Michael Tomasello provides a compelling account of the nature of agency and the forms of its expression in living things, from humble 'filter feeders,' through reptiles, mammals, and great apes, to human beings. Tomasello thus charts the evolution of agency from simple forms of goal-directed activity to complex, culturally mediated intentional action that is enabled and constrained by socially established objective norms. This is psychology as it should be done—in unity with evolutionary theory, biology, anthropology, philosophy, and whatever other disciplinary perspectives are needed to bring the phenomena into view. The result is a book that, though short and accessible, abounds with transformative insights, not least of all that the first principle of psychology should be not mind or behavior, but agency itself. Bravo.”

    David Bakhurst

    George Whalley Distinguished University Professor, Queen's University, Canada