Part I (00:00 – 12:00)

Before you watch

Mark Pagel builds statistical models to examine the evolutionary processes imprinted in human behavior, from genomics to the emergence of complex systems — to culture. His latest work examines the parallels between linguistic and biological evolution by applying methods of phylogenetics, or the study of evolutionary relatedness among groups, essentially viewing language as a culturally transmitted replicator with many of the same properties we find in genes. He’s looking for patterns in the rates of evolution of language elements, and hoping to find the social factors that influence trends of language evolution.

Vocabulary notes

Cumulative cultural learning is psychologically prepared by a set of adaptations that facilitate the transmission and acquisition of information within and across generations. Teaching, high-fidelity imitation, and language are three linked abilities that work in concert to support cultural transmission in humans

Telemetry is the automatic measurement and wireless transmission of data from remote sources. In general, telemetry works in the following way: Sensors at the source measure either electrical data (such as voltage or current) or physical data (such as temperature or pressure)

While you watch

While watching, pay attention to the following words and expressions in context. Use them in your answers to the questions below and discussion.

subversive trait


implant the thought


offspring (mass noun)

usurp power



confront the crisis

prone to accidents

  1. Why does Mark Pagel think that language works like a remote control device?
  2. Tell the Tower of Babel story.
  3. How does the lack of social learning affect the life of chimpanzees?
  4. How long did the Homo erectus live? The Neanderthals?
  5. Did the Homo erectus or the Neanderthals have the social learning ability?
  6. What kind of social dilemma did our species face around 200,000 years ago? What two possible ways of evolution could we have followed in tackling this dilemma?
  7. What example does Mark Pagel give to illustrate the importance of language for human cooperation?

After you watch

Answer the following questions:

  1. What does social learning mean? How does it affect our life?
  2. Why did language evolve?

Discuss in pairs:

  • The irony of the Tower of Babel story is that our languages exist to prevent us from communicating.  On the other hand, human species developed language to learn and to cooperate. Does language divide people or does it contribute to their cooperation? Think of the examples to illustrate these contradictory aspects of human interaction.
  • Make a list of all possible situations when we couldn’t do without language (think about different aspects of life). Compare your list with the other students’ ideas.

Part II (12:00 – 20:11)

Watch this part of the presentation and identify its main message.

While watching, pay attention to the following words and expressions in context. Use them in your answers to the questions below and discussion.

potent trait


density of different languages

distinct human languages

encounter a new language

establish identity

raise a burden

impose a barrier

absurdity of the situation

conduit of cooperation

After you watch

Answer the questions:

  1. How many languages are spoken on Earth? And in Papua New Guinea alone?
  2. Why have we evolved such a wide range of distinct languages?
  3. What does a map of Facebook friendship links look like?
  4. What arguments does Mark Pagel offer to prove that we need one common language?
  5. Does Mark Pagel accept the idea that Neanderthals could have had language? Why?