Darwin-L Message Log 4:11 (December 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.

<4:11>From CRAVENS@macc.wisc.edu  Sun Dec  5 21:03:08 1993

Date: Sun, 05 Dec 93 21:05 CDT
From: Tom Cravens <CRAVENS@macc.wisc.edu>
Subject: Re: Ancestral and derived character states in systematics
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

One major problem with the tree in historical linguistics is that it can
describe closer links than general principles would allow. A grossly
clumsy example...

Rumanian and Sardinian, both descended from (spoken) Latin, share some
striking and hard-to-explain phonological developments. These are not
found in other Romance speech types. In spite of the fact that out-of-the-way
Rumania and Sardinia are prime suspects as relic areas, there is no
reason to believe that the developments are fossilizations of a common
earlier stage (other than the observation--used to feed a circular argument--
that they are peripheral areas and do share the features in question).
If we were to construct a tree of descent based on these features alone,
Rumanian and Sardinian would find themselves arranged in a way that would
suggest far greater affinity than is the case.

Now, few linguists would want to construct a tree on the basis of one feature,
but it is quite possible to choose a number of features (on purpose or by
accident) which would still motivate a tree diagram showing commonality
of innovations, and thus suggest close relation in linear descent, when in
fact the convergence of changes appears to be quite accidental, not even
traceable to the momentum of drift. Curtis Blaylock once called this "the
tyranny of the Stammbaum", and it's a minor plague in (some forms of)
historical linguistics.

My question is, how do other historical sciences which employ the tree
avoid this trap?

Tom Cravens

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