Darwin-L Message Log 5:8 (January 1994)

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.

<5:8>From GOLLAV@axe.humboldt.edu  Tue Jan  4 12:19:52 1994

Date: Tue, 4 Jan 1994 10:24 PST
From: GOLLAV@axe.humboldt.edu
Subject: Re: Linguistics controversy
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

John Langdon asks, re the objections that we historical linguists have
to Renfrew, Greenberg, etc., and parallel problems in other fields:

>  why is it so difficult for linguists/paleoanthropologists to communicate
>  this to outsiders, even to scholars trained in critical analysis in other
>  fields? I can be swayed when I sense the weight of the discipline leaning
>  heavily to one paradigm or another, but that is very difficult for an
>  outsider to perceive based on a few SA or secondary articles and books.
>  Note that the authors of such articles, _on both sides of the argument_,
>  are writing with similar styles and convictions-- asking the reader to
>  have informed faith, not an independent critique.

The overwhelming weight of the disciplinary paradigm is against Greenberg's
grandiose and slipshod scheme of wide linguistic interconnections, while
Renfrew is a non-linguist who has blustered into a field he knows little
about.  It OUGHT to be the business of the editors of the responsible
generalist publications--and unuversity presses--to appropriately marginalize
their statements, however eloquent and convincing their rhetoric.  But this
responsibility is not being appropriately exercised.  The editor-in-chief of
_Scientific American_ , persuaded that Greenberg is a persecuted genius, has
taken up his cause.  Stanford University Press -- over the objections of some
in that university's Department of Linguistics, let it be said -- has seen
fit to publish not only Greenberg's stuff (he is, after all, a senior member
of the Stanford faculty) but, far worse, Merritt Ruhlen's "A Guide to the
World's Languages," a book that has all of the trappings of a standard
reference work but is, in fact, simply a parroting of Greenberg's views.
(Ruhlen is too marginal a figure to hold down an academic job, and his
principal employment seems to be funding generated by Greenberg)  The field,
as a colloquy among professionals, has long since made up its mind about this
nonsense and expressed its collective disapprobation in review after review;
the problem is that this consensus is ignored by a couple of important

A group of us, broadly representing "establishment" opinion in linguistics,
last summer appealed to Jonathan Piel, editor of _Scientific American_, in
a group letter.  In reply, Piel called us a "posse" and refused to print our
"well known objections" to Greenberg and Ruhlen's work.

It is not clear what we should do.  I suppose we could write popularized
debunking articles and try to get them published in rival magazines, like
_Discover_ or _Natural History_.  A couple of us have considered using
_Lingua Franca_ as a vehicle for exposing the bias of _Scientific American_.
Probably most effective of all would be to take up Bob O'Hara's challenge and
start producing a fairly steady stream of readable articles on solid work in
historical linguistics.  The problem is, none of us has the popularizing
talent of an S. J. Gould, and even if we had such a paragon among us, it's
a lot easier to spin a web of seductive but baseless hypotheses than to
depict the doubts and cautions of real historical understanding.

Let me put it to the non-linguist readers of DARWIN-L:  what would attract
YOUR attention in an article on historical linguistics?  What would you most
like to hear from us?

--Victor Golla
  Humboldt State University
  Arcata, California

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