Biologist Mark Pagel shares an intriguing theory about why humans evolved our complex system of language. He suggests that language is a piece of “social technology” that allowed early human tribes to access a powerful new tool: cooperation.

Why you should listen:

Mark Pagel builds statistical models to examine the evolutionary processes imprinted in human behavior, from genomics to the emergence of complex systems — to culture. His latest work examines the parallels between linguistic and biological evolution by applying methods of phylogenetics, or the study of evolutionary relatedness among groups, essentially viewing language as a culturally transmitted replicator with many of the same properties we find in genes. He’s looking for patterns in the rates of evolution of language elements, and hoping to find the social factors that influence trends of language evolution.

He says: “Just as we have highly conserved genes, we have highly conserved words. Language shows a truly remarkable fidelity.”

Who is he:

At the University of Reading, Pagel heads the Evolution Laboratory in the biology department, where he explores such questions as, “Why would humans evolve a system of communication that prevents them with communicating with other members of the same species?” He has used statistical methods to reconstruct features of dinosaur genomes, and to infer ancestral features of genes and proteins.


  1. Why does Pagel say language is dangerous and subversive?
  1. 2. How does language “alter the settings” in someone else’s brain?
  1. Why is chimp behavior limited to “social learning”? Are you influenced by your own social learning? Discuss.
  1. Why does Pagel think social learning is a visual thief? What is the negative impact?

How language transformed humanity with Mark Pagel


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