Darwin-L Message Log 5:10 (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.

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<5:10>From delancey@darkwing.uoregon.edu  Tue Jan  4 13:16:01 1994

Date: Tue, 4 Jan 1994 10:58:47 -0800 (PST)
From: Scott C DeLancey <delancey@darkwing.uoregon.edu>
Subject: Re: Linguistics controversy
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

On Tue, 4 Jan 1994, JOHN LANGDON wrote:

> This discussion on historical linguistics sounds a lot like discussions in my
> field of paleoanthropology (among others): mainline researchers plagued by a
> nonsensical theory that won't go away because "proof" and "disproof" are
> impossible, if not meaningless. I spent much of last semester in an extended
> email discussion of the aquatic ape hypothesis, for example. The archaeology
> list has been lamenting the airing on network television of a theory that the
> Sphinx was made in Atlantis.
> Is this a parallel case? ... Are Renfrew's ideas so
> clearly off the wall in the perspective of other linguists as those of Elaine
> Morgan are for anthropologists?

Yes.  Actually I think that the cases are very parallel, in that neither
Morgan's nor Renfrew's ideas are self-evidently absurd (unlike, say,
creationism or von Daniken-type stuff).  To properly evaluate them you
have to know enough about the relevant discipline to understand how they
present better-grounded explanations, and how the outsiders' hypotheses
are necessarily inconsistent with these explanations.  In Renfrew's case,
he badly wants to eliminate "invasions" or other population movements as
elements of an explanation for linguistic distribution (or anything else).
So he therefore has to insist that the differentiation between Celtic and
Germanic, for example, must have occurred in situ, as part of a secondary
differentation of an originally more homogenous Indo-European-speaking
population.  The problem is that everything we know about historical
linguistics and sociolinguistics argues that it couldn't have happened
that way, that the developement of differences as radical as those
that distinguish Celtic from Germanic within 2-3 millenia could only
happen if the two populations were isolated from one another for a
substantial period.

> If so, why is it so difficult for
> linguists/paleoanthropologists to communicate this to outsiders, even to
> scholars trained in critical analysis in other fields?

Because there isn't a nice simple story that we can tell to set against
theirs.  The informed conviction that Renfrew (or Morgan) can't be right
comes not from having read one or two textbooks that give the party line,
but from having a wide enough knowledge of actual history or prehistory to
know what kinds of things do happen and what kinds of things don't.
     The case of Greenberg is even more difficult, in that it is entirely
possible that some of his claims about wide-ranging genetic relationships
could be true (whereas Renfrew's story of the Indo-Europeanization of
Europe simply could not be).  The problem with Greenberg is his methodology--
he has simply not presented adequate evidence for any of his claims, or
given any convincing reason to believe that his methods are capable of
producing such evidence.  This is something which other scholars should
be able to handle, but it's a *really* hard notion to get across to the
general public:  "Well, he could be right about some of that, for all
we know, but if so it's just by accident"!

Scott DeLancey                        delancey@darkwing.uoregon.edu
Department of Linguistics
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403

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