Professor Mark Pagel
University of Reading, UK
Lecture: Wired for Culture: the origins of the human social mind, or why humans occupied the world
Dates: 23, 24, 28, 29 October 2019
Location: Sir Charles Wilson Lecture Theatre, University of Glasgow
Recordings are available below
Professor Mark Pagel, Fellow of the Royal Society and distinguished evolutionary biologist and professor at University of Reading, UK, visited the University of Glasgow and delivered four Gifford lectures between the 23rd and 29th of October 2019. The lecture series, Wired for Culture: the origins of the human social mind, or why humans occupied the world, focused on some of the evolutionary processes and pressures that humans have faced during the latter stages of their evolution, and the ways in which the solutions found by evolution may have primed modern people to think, communicate, behave and live in certain ways.
Professor Pagel’s lectures stem in part from his long-standing work on several key aspects of the evolutionary process, which he interrogates through the building of statistical models and through ‘tree-thinking’ to examine relationships in the natural, and cultural, world. His interests lie in how the evolutionary process works at many levels, from genomics through to emergent complex systems, and how it results in key contributions not only to animal behaviour but also to human behaviour, including language and culture.
The overarching theme of the lecture series was a treatment covering why humans are the way they are, how they came to be that way and how our evolved modern human biological characteristics can explain how humans live now and why we ended up occupying vast swathes of our planet, even regions we’re not fully physically adapted for.
To help encourage a new generation of thinkers in these areas, Prof. Pagel kindly led a seminar for PGR students and ECRs on 25 October.
Lecture 1: The evolution of language: from speech to culture
All animals communicate, but language is uniquely human. In this talk, Mark Pagel will show how human languages evolve very much like biological species and even adapt to their hosts – human speakers. He will discuss when language emerged, whether Neanderthals and other hominins were capable of speech, and ask the question of why only humans seem to have language. Professor Pagel will show how language has been more important to human success than have our genes, and that many of our genetic traits exist because of language. Finally, we will explore why are there so many languages and what does the future hold for them.
Lecture 2: The evolution of creativity: you're not as clever as you think
Human societies are unique among animals for their ability to accumulate knowledge and technologies. It is why we are able to build soaring cathedrals, smart-phones and driverless cars, while our close genetic cousins the chimpanzees live life on the forest floor as they have for millions of years. Why this difference? The usual answer is that we are smarter than the other animals, and we can just figure things out. But it turns out that we are far less clever than we like to think, and most of us never invent anything, much less understand how the things around us work. Even something as simple as a pencil combines many technologies. How, then, have we accumulated knowledge and technology while no other species has, and what can we do to promote innovation in the future?
Lecture 3: Human tribalism - a curse of our evolutionary past?
Humans spent the first 95% of their evolutionary history living in small tribal societies, only beginning 10,000 years ago to live in larger groups. Today, we routinely live and work among others in our millions. And yet this poses a dilemma. Nothing in our evolutionary past prepared us to live in these large groups, so how do we explain the enormous social groupings of the modern world and how can they be made to work given our ancient tribal instincts? Surprisingly, the answer lies in our tribal nature itself.
Lecture 4: The end of Anthropology? What does the future hold for the worl'd languages and cultures?
The existence of easy high-speed travel, unprecedented levels of migration, and globalisation in the form of 24-hour worldwide media and social media are bringing about a rapid blending of the world’s peoples, their societies and their languages. Already over 50% of the world’s population lives in cities, and the numbers are rising. Are we still evolving, and what will our cities, languages and cultures look like in 50-100 years?