Darwin-L Message Log 1:233 (September 1993)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.

<1:233>From sally@pogo.isp.pitt.edu  Tue Sep 28 14:19:53 1993

To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Re: Heritability and cultural evolution
Date: Tue, 28 Sep 93 15:23:29 -0400
From: Sally Thomason <sally@pogo.isp.pitt.edu>

 Elihu Gerson agrees with the earlier poster (whose name I forgot
to make a note of -- sorry) that descent-with-modification is a
reasonable way to look at a language family's development.  So it
is; but note that it's not the way to look at *all* resemblances
among languages and language families -- there are other sources of
similarities, including structural principles common to all human
languages, easy-to-learn sounds and sound sequences, and other
typological factors that do not in themselves provide evidence
for descent with modification, i.e. for a historical relationship.

 And right, there is no obvious analogue in language history to
natural selection, though certainly developmental tendencies of
various degrees of specificity can be identified.

 Sometimes people adopt the language of their conquerors, and
sometimes not: it was the Norman French who shifted to English after
ca. 1200 A.D., not vice versa.  The social factors that determine
the outcome of language contact don't lend themselves to easy
prediction.  Still, there are ways of figuring out the histories
of languages in and out of contact situations -- of distinguishing
between inherited features and borrowed features.  So yes, there
are theories of genetic relationship (the biology-derived terminology
of historical linguistics dates to the 19th century) and also of
influence from other languages.

 It isn't true, by the way, that human populations tended to be
immobile until fairly recent times.  If there were such a tendency,
the Americas would still be unpopulated, and so would all those
islands in the Pacific, among other places.  And in places like
northern Asia, nomadic populations have been nomadic for a very
long time.  That's one reason all languages show the effects of
language contact. And that makes the assumption that genes
and language should match risky.  In fact, close inspection of
the trees published in Cavalli-Sforza's Nov. 1991 Scientific
American article (similar to, but I think not identical with, the
patterns reported in his & others' 1988 article referred to
in an earlier posting) shows that there is *no* good match at all
between his linguistic trees and his genetic trees.  One problem with
his linguistic trees is that some of their end nodes are not linguistic
groups in anyone's classificatory system ("European", "Sardinian",
"Indian").  But even if one takes the linguistic trees at face
value, they don't match the genetic trees.  Check it: you'll see
what I mean.  And even where there does seem to be a match in
Cavalli-Sforza's trees, notably in the Americas, at least some
other research has come up with conflicting results.  See
Callegari-Jacques et al., "Gm Haplotype Distribution in Amerindians:
Relationship with Geography and Language" (Am. J of Physical
Anthropology 90:427-444, 1993).  The last line of their abstract
reads, "The notion of a homogeneous Amerind genetic pool does not
conform with these and other results."

  Sally Thomason

Your Amazon purchases help support this website. Thank you!

© RJO 1995–2016