Darwin-L Message Log 2:98 (October 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.

<2:98>From WILLS@macc.wisc.edu  Mon Oct 18 21:55:21 1993

Date: Mon, 18 Oct 93 21:58 CDT
From: Jeffrey Wills <WILLS@macc.wisc.edu>
Subject: mauscripts and genetics--Why care?
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

[First: I missed a day of Darwin (by digest), so I apologize if I overlap with
another poster.]

A few contributors have politely asked what the point is of pushing the
manuscript/genetics analogy so far.  Intellectual ambits can always be widened,
but hasn't this analogy gone far enough?
	A year ago I would have agreed, but I was very impressed with the
results (not just theory) of the O'Hara-Robinson experiment last year.  As
several of you know, with the use of a cladistics program O'Hara was able in a
matter of minutes to take a binary data set of manuscript variants and produce
a stemma (a historical tree of the manuscripts) which was fairly accurate (as
judged against Robinson's lengthy work by hand).  It is now quite clear to me
that the evolutionary biologists have some handy devices which we can use in
stemmatics, but we need to know more about them to learn how to improve their
accuracy or adapt them to our needs. The fruits of detailed discussions about
ms./genetic transmission processes and selections will be in our improved use
of such programs--at the very least.
	What do biologists have to gain from the conversation? Someone else
would have to speak to that. Since there are many more biologists with much
more research money, my suspicion is that the benefits are decidedly lopsided
toward the manuscript side. On the other hand, the nature of the linguistic or
manuscript record has some comparative advantages. Occasionally for manuscripts
there is external data that lets us know where they were, who copied them and
when. This allows us an external check on our method of reconstruction. This
evidence about specific mutations between items in our manuscript trees is not
really availabe for the fossil record, I suspect.  It is not just more fossil
evidence, it is a different type of evidence. Likewise the linguistic record
has many problems, but sometimes we have enough material to go back more
closely and confirm or reject a reconstruction of dialect spread, for example.

Jeffrey Wills

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