Mark Pagel on Evolution, Culture, and Language

This last week I’ve been working my way through Mark Pagel’s new book, Wired for Culture, published a few weeks ago. I have a long way to go, but I’ve noticed that many of the points made in the book are also reflected in the TED talk that he gave last summer:

From what I understand, Pagel’s rough outline for the evolution of language, culture, and cooperation is that we first had an evolutionary advance in our ability to learn directly from other people through observation. This made it possible for people to observe somebody else’s technological development and acquire it for their own use. This is beneficial for the observer, since they are then able to acquire useful behaviors without going through all the trouble of working them out on their own, which could potentially save someone from fatally trying the wrong thing.

This however is what Pagel refers to as ‘visual theft.’ The observer robs the developer of an idea, which in the end takes away the selective advantage that their development might have brought. To maintain that advantage, it is in the developer’s best interest to attempt to hide their idea from others, with the exception of their close kin.

To cope with this challenge, Pagel argues, we could have taken one of two paths. On the one hand, we could have retreated into moving in small familial groups, so that when we ideas were stolen, they were only stolen by genetically related kin. Or, we could develop communication systems to facilitate widespread cooperation between larger groups of people. With the intelligence with which to invent our ideas, our linguistic systems with which to transmit ideas, and our social learning mechanisms with which to acquire them, humans had access to a trove of information about the world and how to live in it that far exceeded what any one person could ever have invented on their own. Pagel argues that humans took this second path, and the benefits of our culturally instituted cooperation has opened up for us the wealth of knowledge and technology that has allowed us to colonize the entire habitable world.

He argues that we use language in a way that places limits around our cooperative group. There are something like 8,000 distinct languages in the world, but what is interesting is that the most linguistic diversity appears not where groups are more isolated from each other, but where groups are more concentrated. Pagel argues that this diversity arises from a need to limit who we share our knowledge and technology with, since there may be eavesdroppers waiting to steal ideas. Cooperation and language are to solve the problem of visual theft, and language diversity is to solve the problem of audio theft.

I haven’t gotten far enough in the book to have encountered his entire argument, but from the introduction it seems as if he will then argue that to maintain that level of cooperation, and to protect it from free-riders, humans evolved a suite of new psychological characteristics that prime us for being a good member of a society.  That argument is what I think i am the most interested in, so I think that I’ll probably try to review it later on.


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