Here’s an interesting talk about language and its evolution, given by Mark Pagel.
Mark Pagel is head of the Evolution Laboratory in the Division of Zoology, at the University of Reading. He is also the editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopaedia of Evolution and co-author of the classic The Comparative Method in Evolutionary Biology, as well as author of numerous influential publications and works.
In this TED talk he speaks about language; a topic where he has many interesting ideas. The Question of Language fascinates me, I’m starting to think that this issue (origin, evolution, and other why’s and how’s) is more fundamental than any other question. The reason being that language seems to precede everything else: philosophy, mathematics, physics. Maybe even thinking, since this is somehow based on ‘words’.
In this talk, Pagel starts by attempting to understand what distinguishes us from chimpanzees. Primates have hands therefore they can, in principle, develop and use tools and indeed they do. But why didn’t they build any civilization or technology at all? Why do they have the same life since millions of years? Pagel argues that their social learning, which is basically visual theft (copy), is not accumulative. They do not transmit (complex [*]) information from generation to generation or between different groups. Language is then the crucial trait that differentiates us from chimpanzees. Without it, species are doomed to repeat the same thing over and over again. This in turn relies on our memory/learning abilities which are a priori unrelated to language. He doesn’t touch upon this crucial issue here.
It was interesting to see that our species aroused around .2 billion years ago, roughly the same time as language evolved. The Homo sapiens quickly spread around the world and dominated it, leading to the extinction of the Neanderthals (who, according to Pagel, did not develop a language).
Language, he argues, has evolved as a solution to the inherent problems of visual theft. Our species seems to have opted for large social communities instead of small groups more prone to accidents and less creative (have fewer ideas and fewer innovations). Language was then required for cooperation and agreements.
At the end of the talk, he takes this view to the extreme arguing that our globalized world is in need of more communication and cooperation, should tend to one global language. Functionally equivalent traits, he argues, do not exist in Nature; one of them always drives the other extinct (**).
Is this going to destroy cultural diversity? Will globalization, indeed, favor a peaceful cultural ‘unification’ or the opposite leading to identity crises?
[*] How could we define complex here ? Animals do share informations (intra- and extra-species) among themselves. It’s a fact. Thus either this information is not elaborate or complex enough to permit an evolution of concepts and ideas (what I would see as an emergence of intelligence), or language is not the full story and our intelligence needs at least one crucial extra component.
[**] Some examples from technology: Metric system, hexadecimal basis for time, mp3, CD, google, facebook…etc.