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Darwin-L Message Log 4:74 (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.


<4:74>From WILLS@macc.wisc.edu  Sat Dec 18 15:58:12 1993

Date: Sat, 18 Dec 93 15:59 CDT
From: Jeffrey Wills <WILLS@macc.wisc.edu>
Subject: Re: DARWIN-L digest 95
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

George Gale writes:
>I would like to give my response to the _Sci.Am._ article by Renfrew. Although
>I'm no linguist (I teach philosophy of language from time-to-time: but that
>hardly counts, does it? :-) ), yet I thought that Renfrew's article serves
>a useful purpose, and might even end up as a reading in my class next Fall.
>Here's why. First, it's daring. There's a certain need for that, in any
>science. Secondly, it announces itself as daring. Such announcement is
>ALWAYS needed in a daring hypothesis. Thirdly, it quite clearly states that
>it is a minority opinion. This is useful for obvious pedogogical reasons.
>Fourthly, it is a Big Picture. Although this is related to its being daring,
>it's obviously not the same. Finally, it embodies the integrative spirit
>which has manifested itself so frequently on this list.

Yes, Renfrew states his as a minority view, but methinks he doth protest too
much. It is a generous rhetorical figure, in which he casts himself as the
innovative underdog. Curiously, you will note, he never gives us the arguments
for the majority in a way that would allow you to appreciate a true debate. I'm
in favor of daring, but not refusal to debate specifics. My lack of sympathy
for Renfrew is partly influenced by the long history of this affair. As early
as 1970 when he tried to correlate linguistic and archaeological strata in a
paper in R.A. Crossland and A. Birchall's _Bronze Age Migrations in the
Aegean_, he has been corrected about his linguistic methodology (see Crossland
in that same volume. He has blustered on, ignoring languages and linguistics
and resting on his archaeological authority. Just not cricket.

>In response to Wills complaint that the majority (Renfrew's "splitters"?
>I ask this naively, but honestly...) don't/haven't gotten the same amount
>of ink, I offer to include in my readings an analogue article from the
>majority. [I realize that Wills might be making just the point that there
>ARE no analogue article, precisely because Renfrew's getting all the ink in
>_Sci.Am._ and its ilk. My offer still stands, given this further
>understanding.] I hope I haven't misunderstood Wills' point. In any
>any suggestions for alternative readings.

Why are there few analogous articles from "the majority" (although I believe it
strongly in this case, I am always suspicious of myself when I claim that tag)?
	1) press bias. An easy answer, but somewhat justified. There is reason
to believe that SA in particular has refused to print the other side of the
story. More often, however, the issue is that new and speculative sells and
established and reliable does not. Here, the NYT Science page might be cited as
a well-meaning dupe for a number of unlikely hypotheses it has covered in the
last few years.
	2) motive. To many linguists the theories of Greenberg and Nostraticists
are the linguistic equivalent of creationism, alchemy and UFOs--possible but
based on non-verifiable data and really not discussable. This may seem unfair,
but many linguists simply don't think there is any evidence or viable
methodology for these proto-proto-language pirouettes. How can you get
motivated to write about something which you think is a non-starter?
	3) sociology of the field. Although creationism is a topic of general
interest (if polls, press and school boards are any indication) how has it been
disestablished from the academy? Answer: critical mass of scientists who
repeatedly assert alternatives. But let's take Indo-European or Amerindian
linguistics, fields which probably have fewer that 50 publishing practitioners
each across the country--fields which require a knowledge of many languages not
taught in any American high school or even most colleges--fields which
typically publish work in small-circulation journals and engage in conferences
unnoticed by the press.

All that said, however, let me suggest a few articles I have used for
undergraduate discussions of this topic:

Robert Wright, "Quest for the Mother Language", Atlantic Monthly (April 1991),
39-68.[An article which dramatizes the debate by juxtaposing Sheveroshkin and
Hamp as respective proponent and opponent]

Lyle Campbell, review article of Joseph Greenberg's _Language in the Americas_
in _Language_ 64.3 (Sept. 1988), 591-615. [to which Greenberg responded in the
65.1 (March 1989) issue]

the book review/forum on Renfrew's _Archaeology and Language: The Puzzle of
Indo-European Origins_ in Current Anthropology 29.3 (June 1988) 437-468 with a
number of linguistic and anthropological responses.

several articles in _Antiquity_ 62 (1988): one by Christopher Ehret who works
on Nilo-Saharan, and one by Andrew and Susan Sherratt of Oxford "The
Archaeeology of Indo-European: an alternative view".

Often I have given students a folder with the Wright and Campbell articles and
some of the crazy newspaper articles and found them treating Greenberg et al.
with far more respect than I think he deserves. Why? Because they are out of
their depth and want to be cautious; they want to be polite and respectful of
anything in print; Campbell turns out to be too detailed for them to read
carefully. The reality of course is that like many bad books Renfrew, Greenberg
et alii succeed by page count. A thorough reponse to a book flawed in both data
and methodology would take at least as much space as the original.

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