Using biological evolution as a template, Mark Pagel wonders how languages evolve.

Why you should listen

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.
 
At the University of Reading, Pagel heads the Evolution Laboratory in the biology department, where he explores such questions as, "Why would humans evolve a system of communication that prevents them with communicating with other members of the same species?" He has used statistical methods to reconstruct features of dinosaur genomes, and to infer ancestral features of genes and proteins.

He says: "Just as we have highly conserved genes, we have highly conserved words. Language shows a truly remarkable fidelity."

What others say

“What the new studies accomplish is a far more sophisticated analysis of the regularity of language change that earlier scholars noted or theorized,” — Linguistic Anthropology blog

Mark Pagel’s TED talk

Quotes from Mark Pagel

[Language allows you] to implant a thought from your mind directly into someone else’s mind, and they can attempt to do the same to you, without either of you having to perform surgery.
Mark Pagel
TEDGlobal 2011 • 1.1M views Aug 2011
Informative, Fascinating
Each of you possesses the most powerful, dangerous and subversive trait that natural selection has ever devised. It’s a piece of neural audio technology for rewiring other people’s minds. I’m talking about your language.
Mark Pagel
TEDGlobal 2011 • 1.1M views Aug 2011
Informative, Fascinating
It might be inevitable that we have to confront the idea that our destiny is to be one world with one language.
Mark Pagel
TEDGlobal 2011 • 1.1M views Aug 2011
Informative, Fascinating