How Language Transformed Humanity

In a recent TED talk, biologist Mark Pagel discussed how language was an evolutionary tool that helped humans advance beyond their competitors to reach the prominence that we see today. He examined language not through the lens of a linguist, but that of a biologist, and he had some interesting insights to offer.

He talks about the idea of visual theft, and how that is counter-productive to the survival of a species. It promotes, in essence, the “every man for himself” mentality that hurts cooperative efforts. The crux of Pagel’s presentation is that we have evolved and produced much of our current lives through the act of cooperation. We make sure that we as a species survive, not concerning ourselves too highly with the priorities of the individual.

When he speaks of language, he ends with the concept of “one world, one language.” He explains that while it may have served smaller communities in the past, separated by physical distance, to have their own language, in a world connected so intimately through mass communication and the internet, it would appear counter-intuitive to not shift towards a single language. He views language as a social technology that can help us continue with greater prosperity in the future.

Mark Pagel is a professor of Biology at the University of Reading.

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