How language transformed humanity: Mark Pagel on

Posted by: Emily McManus

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. (Recorded at TEDGlobal 2011, July 2011, in Edinburgh, Scotland. Duration: 20:11.)

Watch Mark Pagel’s talk on, where you can download it, rate it, comment on it and find other talks and performances from our archive of 1,000+ TEDTalks.

Comments (5)

  • James Wilber commented on May 26 2012

    It surprises me when TED allows presenters that so obviously have an agenda. Most talks are good, if not excellent. Then there are those few that make wonder how the audience was able to sit through it without shouting the speaker off the stage.

    Mr. Pagel begins with the assertion that only humans can learn by watching one another. He gives as example, chimpanzees, which he says cannot learn by watching. It takes about two seconds to realize this is completely false. There is plenty of documented evidence of chimpanzees learning skills from humans and each other. it doesn’t take much to find videos of chimps and bonobos exhibiting high degrees of cooperation, and imitating what they see humans and their fellows do. It’s a completely, and I don’t use this term lightly, bone-headed observation by a person who doesn’t know the first thing about animal behavior.

    Why go so far to distort the facts? Mr. Pagel’s agenda becomes apparent soon enough. In his opinion, humans developed language not to increase their ability to cooperate, but to inhibit it. In some bizarre libertarian world-view, Mr. Pagel ascertains that language was developed for economic reasons. To be able to hide their actions from their fellow humans so they can not be imitated. In his view, language was created in order to use that knowledge as a bartering chip at a later time. He presents no evidence for this convoluted hypothesis, just a religious belief in the free market.

    TED really should do a better job at screening presenters to filter out this kind of nonsense.

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