A tiny number of ideas can go a long way, as we’ve seen. And the Internet makes that more and more likely. What’s happening is that we might, in fact, be at a time in our history where we’re being domesticated by these great big societal things, such as Facebook and the Internet. We’re being domesticated by them, because fewer and fewer and fewer of us have to be innovators to get by. And so, in the cold calculus of evolution by natural selection, at no greater time in history than ever before, copiers are probably doing better than innovators. Because innovation is extraordinarily hard. My worry is that we could be moving in that direction, towards becoming more and more sort of docile copiers.

evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel.


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How Language Transformed Humanity

In this TED talk 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.
Infinite Stupidity - Mark Pagel via Edge

Mark Pagel is Fellow of the Royal Society and Professor of Evolutionary Biology; Head of the Evolution Laboratory at the University of Reading; Author Oxford Encyclopaedia of Evolution; co-author of The Comparative Method in Evolutionary Biology. His forthcoming book is Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind.

I want this book.

Mark Pagel via Edge

One of the first things to be aware of when talking about social learning is that it plays the same role within our societies, acting on ideas, as natural selection plays within populations of genes. Natural selection is a way of sorting among a range of genetic alternatives, and finding the best one. Social learning is a way of sifting among a range of alternative options or ideas, and choosing the best one of those. And so, we see a direct comparison between social learning driving idea evolution, by selecting the best ideas –we copy people that we think are successful, we copy good ideas, and we try to improve upon them – and natural selection, driving genetic evolution within societies, or within populations.

I think this analogy needs to be taken very seriously, because just as natural selection has acted on genetic populations, and sculpted them, we’ll see how social learning has acted on human populations and sculpted them.

What do I mean by “sculpted them”? Well, I mean that it’s changed the way we are. And here’s one reason why. If we think that humans have evolved as social learners, we might be surprised to find out that being social learners has made us less intelligent than we might like to think we are. And here’s the reason why.

If I’m living in a population of people, and I can observe those people, and see what they’re doing, seeing what innovations they’re coming up with, I can choose among the best of those ideas, without having to go through the process of innovation myself. So, for example, if I’m trying to make a better spear, I really have no idea how to make that better spear. But if I notice that somebody else in my society has made a very good spear, I can simply copy him without having to understand why.

What this means is that social learning may have set up a situation in humans where, over the last 200,000 years or so, we have been selected to be very, very good at copying other people, rather than innovating on our own. We like to think we’re a highly inventive, innovative species. But social learning means that most of us can make use of what other people do, and not have to invest the time and energy in innovation ourselves.

Now, why wouldn’t we want to do that? Why wouldn’t we want to innovate on our own? Well, innovation is difficult. It takes time. It takes energy. Most of the things we try to do, we get wrong. And so, if we can survey, if we can sift among a range of alternatives of people in our population, and choose the best one that’s going at any particular moment, we don’t have to pay the costs of innovation, the time and energy ourselves. And so, we may have had strong selection in our past to be followers, to be copiers, rather than innovators.

Followership is part of a vast meta-genetic pattern of human culture, where we need fewer innovators as our networks grow better at transmitting innovation. As social density increases, social learning increases, and the very best ideas can reach everywhere: or better, everyone.

There are currently 7,000 different languages spoken, or 7,000 mutually unintelligible systems of communication in one species… more languages than mammals species. The closer the tribes the more you’ll find variations in language. Humans unlike any other animal can’t communicate with other members of its own species.

Wired For Culture.

Mark Pagel.


“I’ve got a fun assignment for somebody. We just received a new piece from John D'Agata that needs to be fact-checked, thoroughly. Apparently he’s taken some liberties, which he’s admitted to, but I want to know to what extent.”
The Lifespan of a Fact by John D'Agata (author) and Jim Fingal (fact-checker)

“Some people think emotionally more often than they think politically. Some think politically more often than they think rationally. Others never think rationally about anything at all. No judgment implied. Just an observation.”
Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier by Neil deGrasse Tyson and edited by Avis Lang

“The English 4th Baron Raglan, Major FitzRoy Richard Somerset of the Queen’s Grenadier Guards, once remarked that ‘culture is roughly everything we do and monkeys don’t.’ This comment nicely summarizes one of the main messages of this book.”
Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind by Mark Pagel


Language transformed humanity

Para el biólogo Mark Pagel la pregunta “¿cómo evolucionamos hasta ser la especie que somos?” tiene una respuesta muy simple, basada en 3 conceptos clave:

, Social Learning, y Cooperative societies

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…

Our cooperation depends upon acquiring high-quality and up-to-date information about others’ reputations. Lacking that information, as we saw from the principle of information, it has paid us throughout our evolutionary history to withhold cooperation simply as a way of avoiding providing help to people who might not share our dispositions.

My Supervisor’s Work Has Been Featured in a Rap Music Video!

So apparently this comedian, Zach Sherwin, came across the article my supervisor published last year. The article investigates ‘ultraconserved words’.

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Mark Pagel: How language transformed humanity (by TEDtalksDirector)


Mark Pagel: How language transformed humanity (by TEDtalksDirector)

Social learning is really visual theft, and in a species that has it, it would become positively advantageous for you to hide your best ideas from others, lest they steal them. This not only would bring cumulative cultural adaptation to a halt, but our societies might have collapsed as we strained under the weight of suspicion and rancor.

So, beginning about 200,000 years ago, our fledgling species, newly equipped with the capacity for social learning had to confront two options for managing the conflicts of interest social learning would bring. One is that these new human societies could have fragmented into small family groups so that the benefits of any knowledge would flow only to one’s relatives. Had we adopted this solution we might still be living like the Neanderthals, and the world might not be so different from the way it was 40,000 years ago, when our species first entered Europe. This is because these smaller family groups would have produced fewer ideas to copy and they would have been more vulnerable to chance and bad luck.

The other option was for our species to acquire a system of cooperation that could make our knowledge available to other members of our tribe or society even though they might be people we are not closely related to — in short, to work out the rules that made it possible for us to share goods and ideas cooperatively. Taking this option would mean that a vastly greater fund of accumulated wisdom and talent would become available than any one individual or even family could ever hope to produce. That is the option we followed, and our cultural survival vehicles that we traveled around the the world in were the result.”

via Brain Pickings

September 21st Recommendation - Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind by Mark Pagel

Genre/Themes: Non-fiction, Society, Social Constructs, Sociology, Psychology

“A unique trait of the human species is that our personalities, lifestyles, and worldviews are shaped by an accident of birth—namely, the culture into which we are born. It is our cultures and not our genes that determine which foods we eat, which languages we speak, which people we love and marry, and which people we kill in war. But how did our species develop a mind that is hardwired for culture—and why?

Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel tracks this intriguing question through the last 80,000 years of human evolution, revealing how an innate propensity to contribute and conform to the culture of our birth not only enabled human survival and progress in the past but also continues to influence our behavior today. Shedding light on our species’ defining attributes—from art, morality, and altruism to self-interest, deception, and prejudice—Wired for Culture offers surprising new insights into what it means to be human. “


TED Talks – Mark Pagel on how language transformed humanity

Intriguing talk, in which Pagel explains his theory that language evolved as piece of social technology in order to enable cooperation. Not sure I’m completely on board, but it’s a brilliant talk with some stand-out lines - H

Each of you posesses the most powerful, dangerous and subversive trait that natural selection has ever devised. It’s a piece of neural-audio technology for re-wiring other people’s minds. I am talking about your language.
Mark Pagel: How language transformed humanity

For when you have some moments to spare. After first watching this a couple years ago, in tandem with my trade school experience I really got to thinking about tools. As Mr. Pagel draws light onto the fact that language evolved as a tool to exploit cooperation I was becoming increasingly aware of this expansion of how I comprehend tools. And resources for that matter. Inspirational resource bases, technical resource bases, and natural resource bases along with our application of them are what got me chewing on the idea of destiny design.

I have a unique spot at work, being fresh in construction but also curious, being a female who has holes in her shoes, and being able to use a table saw and my intuition have only highlighted my drive to shake up the industry. I care about my coworkers, a large portion are friends outside of campus. I care about the material and quality of the end result.

Lastly, in my current read, ‘Only Cowgirls Get the Blues’
Nostalgically soaking up Bonanza Jellybean’s letter to Sissy she is describing a take of a fellow cowgirl’s on the notes of masculine and femininity:

“…she says the capacity for motherhood is the source of women’s strength. Only women stand between technology and the destruction of nature. If we’re ever going to get the world back on a natural footing, back in tune with natural rhythms, if we’re going to nurture the Earth and protect it and have fun with it and learn from it- which is what mothers do with their children- then we’ve got to put technology (an aggressive masculine system) in its proper place, which is that of a tool to be used sparingly, joyfully, gently, and only in fullest cooperation with nature. Nature must govern technology, not the other way around…”

My gosh darn ambition is propagated all around me, keeps me sane about my messy little life.

Language and Agriculture

The archaeologist Colin Renfrew in his Archaeology and Language links the spread of these languages to the origin of agriculture sometime around 9,000–10,000 years ago in the region of the world known as the Fertile Crescent (roughly present-day Turkey and Iraq). Farming reset the world’s carrying capacity to a higher level, allowing a greater number of people to survive in a given area. The growing populations meant that farmers and their ideas spread out in all directions from the Fertile Crescent. Those that went north and west formed what we recognize today as the Greek, Germanic, and Romance or Latinate languages of Western Europe; those that went north and east produced the Slavic languages; and those that went south gave rise to the languages of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. The Basque language of northern Spain, although in Europe, is not an Indo-European language. In fact, it might be an isolated remant of the languages that were spoken by the hunter-gatherers in Europe before farming and farmers arrived. Russell Gray and his colleagues were later able to confirm Renfrew’s arguments by applying dating techniques to the Indo-European languages, confirming that this family probably did arise sometime around 9,000 years ago. And it is because of descent with modification within the separate branches of this family that today we recognize similarities in the Romance languages of Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese, just as we recognize similarities in the Germanic languages of German, Danish, Dutch, and English.
Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind (Mark Pagel)

Evolution, Culture, and Our Human Identities

Mark Pagel, professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Reading, has written a new book that examines human cultural diversity from an evolutionary point of view. A summary of his argument is presented in the current edition of New Humanist and is available to read online here.

Pagel describes an innate human predilection to form group allegiances, which spur us to remarkable acts of altruism toward our own but also to vigorous defense against imminent threats and perceived slights coming from members of other groups. Rather than an irrational or “savage” tribalism that continues to infect modern civilization, Pagel interprets this “uniquely human ‘capacity for culture’” as “the defining event in modern human evolution.”

Culture became our species’ strategy for survival, easily the most potent trait the world has ever seen for converting new lands and resources into more humans, and their genes. In fact, the rapid pace of cultural change meant that our cultures quickly came to take over the running of our day-to-day affairs. Our cultures and not our genes supply the solutions we use to survive and prosper in the society of our birth; they provide the instructions for what we eat, how we live, the gods we believe in, the tools we make and use, the language we speak, the people we cooperate with and marry, and whom we might fight or even kill in a war.

The ability to share culture across the generations makes it reasonable to think of it in evolutionary terms, with some cultural inheritances proving more successful than others and thereby getting reproduced in subsequent generations. There remains much debate surrounding our capacity to form and transmit culture. Is this truly a uniquely human trait, and if so, how? Pagel’s focus on the bonds of cooperation and the boundaries of competition, and how this connective tissue of human society is not strictly dictated by family ties, is a compelling interpretation which perhaps explains many of our most irrational behaviors toward each other—both noble and repugnant. While Pagel’s argument effectively naturalizes some of our most inexcusable behaviors (e.g., slavery, genocide), he concludes on an optimistic note, asserting that ours is a history characterized by “the triumph of cooperation over conflict”.

I’m not an anthropologist, so I can’t speak with much authority on the theoretical merits of Pagel’s argument. I find his optimistic conclusion warranted, however, as long as we remember that culture is our “second nature”, rather than our first. Culture is natural in the sense that we more or less acquire it via the accidents of our births—like “native” and “nation”, “nature” derives from the Latin verb for being born—but culture is far more malleable and voluntary than the first nature embedded in our DNA. As a result, explanations that invoke an allegedly timeless cultural characteristic as the root cause of various social phenomena can falsely prevent us from recognizing the potential for rapid and directed cultural change.

This is what makes the recent observations of the Nobel laureate economist, Amartya Sen, so important. Sen reminds us that our cultural identities are “robustly plural," as well as fluid, and to pretend otherwise is to invite an "illusion of destiny"—such as a seemingly inevitable ”clash of civilizations“. Even for someone such as myself, derived from overwhelmingly northwest European roots that long have been transplanted here in North America, my identity as a human being is no more "pure” or stable than that of someone of more obviously diverse cultural roots, such as Barack Obama or Sen himself. While our identities might be partly imposed upon us by society, sometimes with a great deal of bigotry, we also retain the ability to fluidly define and redefine who we are through reasoned choices suited to the context. Thus, as Sen argues:

The freedom to determine our loyalties and priorities between the different groups to all of which we may belong is a peculiarly important liberty which we have reason to recognize, value, and defend. (Identity and Violence, p. 5)

This freedom to choose and define our own identities is perhaps the most glaring omission from the various liberties enshrined in our U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence. It is not exactly stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, either, although that document certainly embodies the spirit of the idea.

Fresh Starts | Fiction | In Which I Attempt To Swap The Word 'Baby' With The Word 'Nazi', Then Forget All About It And Start Talking About Amazonian Tribes Instead

I’ve often tried to figure out in my fiction whether words can ever get a fresh start; whether they can ever escape from the weight of their associations. So, if, for example, we were to attempt to reclaim an ugly, tainted word like ‘child’ by switching it out for a more innocent word like ‘Nazi’, how long would it take for the reader to not only have their expectations subverted, but to change their understanding of both terms more permanently?

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As soon as I typed ‘Nazi Baby’ into Google, I knew this would exist. I just knew.
I mean, obviously a newborn Nazi has no word-associations. Or does he? Do we, in the Jungian sense, have a genetic reaction to certain words, in the same way that certain sound pitches can instinctively cause sensations of fear in us? The subjectivity of language is too often taken as a given. While it’s easy to imagine a world in which ‘dog’ is ‘cat’, could there ever be a world in which ‘howl’ could signify ‘full frontal lobotomy’ without having the fleeting sense, every time the surgeon said ‘full frontal lobotomy’, of a howl? If I took one of the Amazonian Piraha tribesmen - who remain isolated from civilisation, their own obscure dialect only very recently translated - to Notting Hill, pointed to a happy Nazi as it laughed, and said, “laughter”, would he have a vague idea of what I meant, or would he think I was saying, “Did you know Notting Hill was filmed here?”

Because, speaking of the Piraha, I’m reminded of the story in Daniel Everett’s excellent Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, when a junior researcher who was trying to decipher their language in order to discover whether it was really true that the tribe had absolutely no creation myths accidentally mistook a Piraha warrior’s excited request for Everett to pick up some shopping for intense spiritual affirmation. That’s more interesting to me than Yucatan or the other, mostly apocryphal tales of colonists who mistook natives’ descriptions of ‘I don’t know what you’re saying’ or similar for a place-name, because the gap between the spiritual and the mundane is such a fascinating one. There’s that idea that even the emotion behind the words can be completely lost. Hell, even Brian Friel, so cynical about the gap between languages in the first act of Translations, turns sentimental when his lovers Maire and Yolland get together, echoing each other’s words in English and in Irish with a sort of subconscious harmony. So can we ever gain words that have an innate, objective meaning, or would they simply have meaning in their delivery, in spite of themselves?

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The Piraha have never seen Translations. They prefer Tom Stoppard.

And how would one go about creating such a genetic reaction, anyway? Innocent terms that have become tainted through saturation, through their being used in the media in an unfairly negative context (I’m thinking “Islamic”, or “Segway”) are only tainted culturally. The unfair weight they’ve accumulated will dissipate in time. But how many languages and how many cultures would you have to go through before a word like “joy” becomes, in itself, actually joyful? What is the oldest word in the world that still retains its exact meaning?

According to Mark Pagel of Reading University, it’s the 20,000-year-old “who”, though other sources seem to think it’s “I”. (Good old Oedipal English, killing off its forebears.) Terms of identity, of defining the self. Interesting, especially as their nearest competitors are all numbers. The most intriguing entry lower on the list is “tongue” – after we define ourselves, we then wish to define our method of defining ourselves? Then comes “star”. I have no explanation for “star”, frankly. Is there something in the word “star” that perfectly defines a star?

No, you’re quite right; I don’t have any of the answers. Words almost certainly don’t have any innate meaning, nor is it plausible that they could be made to do so. You’re probably also quite right to call this pointless navel-gazing when the experiment itself would take several civilisations to chart and could probably only ever exist as a hypothesis. Cruel, but right.

Childish bastard.

Jon Ware
Fiction Editor
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