Mark Pagel, University of Reading

Thursday, 17 October 2013 at 14:00 in the Large Operon, EMBL Heidelberg

Mark Pagel, University of Reading, UK

Reflections on the origins of the human social mind


Humans routinely engage in sophisticated copying of others’ behaviours, they have a preference for copying behaviours that lead to better outcomes and they do this vicariously, that is, without the need for specific training or rewards. Remarkably, this ability to 'copy with a purpose' is not present, or is present in only the most rudimentary fashion, in the rest of the animal kingdom, and there is reason to believe that even the Neanderthals lacked it. Copying with a purpose is also a form of what I call 'visual theft', allowing an individual to steal another’s knowledge, wisdom and skills merely by watching, and without having to pay the costs of trial and error learning. I propose that the unique human social mind evolved out of the need to solve the social crisis of 'visual theft'. Solving this crisis led to our theory of mind, our language, our deception and our morality, and most importantly our cooperative sociality based on specialization and exchange.


Professor Mark Pagel is an evolutionary theorist and fellow of Britain’s Royal Society, with interests in mathematical and statistical modeling of evolutionary processes. His current interests include language and cultural evolution, networks, regulation, emergence of complex systems, robustness and evolvability, punctuational versus gradual evolutionary change, and evolutionary genomics. His co-authored 1991 monograph on comparative statistical methods in evolutionary biology is standard reading for the field and he is the author of several other statistical methods for identifying and analyzing evolutionary trends and for inferring phylogenetic trees.   His group's work regularly appears in the pages of the journals Nature and Science, and receives widespread media attention.  Professor Pagel has recently been awarded £2 million from the European Research Council to continue his work on the evolution of human languages.  His book Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind was published in 2012.