Tomasello's research focuses on the social learning skills of chimpanzees and young children. What he's shown, among other things, is that human children are instinctively nice. Not all the time, of course, or even most of the time. But they are sometimes altruistic, and that sets them apart from chimpanzees.
Lest you think he's asserting there is no such thing as the "terrible twos," Tomasello made clear the cooperative behavior he studies is "relative to nonhuman primates." In other words, kids are quite altruistic when compared to apes. They gesture to communicate that something is out of place. They empathize with those they sense have been wronged.
They have an almost reflexive desire to help, inform and share. And they do so without expectation or desire for reward, Tomasello said.
"There is very little evidence in any of these cases that children's altruism is created by parents or any other form of socialization," Tomasello said of his experiments.
Of course, that doesn't mean that all our altruistic impulses are built in. They develop as we learn and are shaped by our culture and environment. But, according to Tomasello, it's a skill that the great apes can never learn.
Put through similar experiments as the children, apes demonstrate an ability to work together and share but choose not to. While a child's initial reaction—or sense of guilt or shame—might guide his decision to share some candy with the other child who helped him get it, a chimpanzee has no problem working with another ape to get a piece of food but will keep the spoils to himself.
Tomasello also wrote a piece for the NY Times back in May: How Are Humans Unique? In it he goes into more detail about how we differ from their nearest relatives - that even as children we believe in shared goals and commitments, and have a capacity for collective thinking. But there's a downside to these skills.
Of course, humans beings are not cooperating angels; they also put their heads together to do all kinds of heinous deeds. But such deeds are not usually done to those inside “the group.” Recent evolutionary models have demonstrated what politicians have long known: the best way to get people to collaborate and to think like a group is to identify an enemy and charge that “they” threaten “us.” The remarkable human capacity for cooperation thus seems to have evolved mainly for interactions within the group. Such group-mindedness is a major cause of strife and suffering in the world today. The solution — more easily said than done — is to find new ways to define the group.
Who was it that said that religion is comforting to those on the inside, and terrifying to everyone else?