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.




  • subvert – undermine the power and authority of (an established system or institution)
  • scattered – throw in various random directions
  • hubris – excessive pride or self-confidence
  • take something for granted – fail to properly appreciate (someone or something), especially as a result of over familiarity
  • arrowhead – the pointed end of an arrow
  • dalliance  – a casual romantic or sexual relationship
  • conduit – a person or organization that acts as a channel for the transmission of something


Think about it

Answer the questions below. Pause at the times indicated in brackets.

  • What is the similarity between language and a remote control? (1:10)
  • In the context of the Babel story, what is ironical about languages?
  • What is social learning? (3:43)
  • What have you learned about homo erectus and Neanderthals? (5:00)
  • In what way is social learning a visual theft? (7:58)
  • Why did language evolve? (9:55)
  • What is the fundamental difference between homo sapiens and its ancestors? (12:33)
  • What seems to be the reason for the existence of many different languages within a relatively small area? (14:42)
  • What future does Mark Pagel envision for the world? How does he justify it? Do you agree?


Practice makes perfect

Fill in the blank spaces with the missing word. Use ONE word per blank space.

And so some time around 200,000 years ago, our species confronted this crisis. And we really had only two options for dealing with the conflicts that visual theft would bring.

One of ________ options was that we could ________ retreated into small family groups. Because then the benefits of our ideas and knowledge would flow just to our relatives. ________we chosen this option, sometime around 200,000 years ago, we ________ probably still be living like the Neanderthals were when we first entered Europe 40,000 years ago. And this is because in small groups there are fewer ideas, there are fewer innovations. And small groups are more prone to accidents and bad luck. So if we ________ chosen that path, our evolutionary path would ________ led into the forest — and been a short one indeed.

The ________ option we could choose was to develop the systems of communication that would allow us to share ideas and ________ cooperate amongst others. Choosing this option would mean that a vastly greater fund of accumulated knowledge and wisdom would become available to any one individual than would ever arise from within an individual family or an individual person ________  their own. Well, we chose the second option, and language is the result.


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