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Darwin-L Message Log 5:47 (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.


<5:47>From GOLLAV@axe.humboldt.edu  Sun Jan  9 18:58:40 1994

Date: Sun, 9 Jan 1994 17:04 PST
From: GOLLAV@axe.humboldt.edu
Subject: Greenberg & Renfrew (one last time)
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

One final posting on Greenberg and Renfrew, and then I promise to hold
my peace.

Donald Phillipson writes:

>  The historical record suggests no one gets credit for sheer
>  originality.  Credit comes for "making a contribution" i.e. integra-
>  ting the novel idea with the rest of the discipline, or else for
>  solving disciplinary problems.  Being right is (usually) necessary
>  but not sufficient.  Inspired guesses that do not integrate with at
>  least some other knowledge are a non-category.

And Fraser Neiman writes:

>  The unfortunate tendency is for practitioners in archaeology and
>  linguistics to send immediately for the game warden and have the
>  poachers hauled off the estate.  I think a more profitable attitude
>  might be to recognize that the correct interpretation of the archaeo-
>  logical and linguistic records is going to have to agree with the
>  correct interpretation of the genetic record, and vice versa.  This
>  does not mean that Cavalli et al. are right.  I think they _have_
>  pointed the way to an important methodological opportunity.  Although
>  they may not have exploited it in an entirely satisfactory fashion.

Phillipson's observation holds for Greenberg, Renfrew, and for others of
their ilk, EVEN IF they are "pointing the way to an important methodo-
logical opportunity.  As the Wegener case shows, even a well-argued and
potentially productive hypothesis can still fail to "make a contribution"
if it does not cross the threshold of connectedness with the body of already
accepted hypotheses at the time.  Greenberg and Renfrew are egregiously
short on such connectivity.

I regret the following ad hominem remarks, but it is necessary to make them
to show this particular problem in the clearest light.  The root cause
of Renfrew's and Greenberg's failure to gain acceptance for their ideas --
Cavalli Sforza is another matter -- is that they are lazy.  They have indeed
glimpsed certain possibilities and syntheses.  But they have laid their work
on the table in the shoddiest of states, with little attention to the
historical details as they are understood by informed specialists.

Scott DeLancey and Jeffrey Wills have already described Greenberg's sins of
ommission and commission in the comparative vocabularies of _Language in the
Americas_.  Let me cite a typical gaffe of Renfrew's.

In the article he published in the January issue of _Scientific American_,
he explains the dispersal of the "Na-Dene" language stock as one of the
"climate-related dispersals" of the late Holocene.  By this he means that,
like the expansion of the Eskimo-Aleuts along the Arctic coast, or of other
language families in Siberia, the Na-Dene expansion was probably motivated
by the opening up of an ecological niche on the northern periphery of
human settlement.  The initial Na-Dene dispersal, he believes,  represents
"an early adaptation to the tundra environment." --  Plausible enough to the
non-specialist, but the "Na-Dene" language family is a historic relationship
linking Athabaskan, Eyak, and Tlingit (some--including Greenberg--also add
Haida).  Of these Na-Dene subgroups, only Athabaskan has a "tundra" location;
the other languages are deeply entrenched in Northwest Coast environments.
Renfrew presumably derives the latter from the former, by social mechanisms
unspecified.  While the origins of Northwest Coast populations are far from
clear (here is where genetics may have a lot to say), this is certainly
not the most likely scenario.

This, however, is a small embarrassment compared to what comes next.  To
explain the wide dispersal of Athabaskan speech communities throughout much
of Western North America -- including enclaves on the Pacific coast of Oregon
and California as well as the Navajo and Apache of the Southwest -- Renfrew
invokes another mechanism, "elite dominance," by which he means military
conquest and similar agressive expansions of populations.  I cite the
passage in full (p.120):

>  Later, when climate or ecological factors rendered the area [i.e.,
>  the "tundra"] less hospitable to them, they moved south.  Some speakers
>  of Proto-Na-Dene penetrated as far as Arizona and New Mexico.  Elite
>  dominance, amplified by horeseback riding, accounts for the presence
>  of the cultures related to this language group throughout much of the
>  continent.

This howler, I think, gives the game away.  Renfrew is so profoundly
ignorant of North American culture history that he believes (a) that the
Athabaskan expansion of ca. 700-1200 AD was part of the "Proto-Na-Dene"
expansion of 2000 to 2500 years earlier (to cite the usual glottochronological
estimates); and (b) that this was accomplished by Genghis-Khan-like mounted
horse warriors, when every schoolchild, at least in the United States, knows
that the horse was brought to the Western Hemisphere by Europeans after 1492.

In other words, Renfrew couldn't be bothered to look up some elementary
facts in a desk encyclopedia before commiting his "new synthesis" to writing
in a journal that has a circulation in the millions.

The sad truth is, both Renfrew and Greenberg have taken advantage of their
considerable seniority (both Renfrew and Greenberg are well past 60
and heaped with academic honors) to publish and publicize some half-baked,
overweening claims to significant breakthroughs.  In so doing, they have not
only failed to gain acceptance for what might well be "true" hypotheses, but
have brought a certain odor of disrepute on the whole enterprise of
interdisciplinary prehistory.

Historical science must be cumulative, and new hypotheses and syntheses
must work hard to integrate with previous schemata.  Historical facts will
not go away or change their color to suit the integrating fad of the day, and
most of the hypotheses we work with in one generation will be equally "true"
(or "false") in the next.  A meaningful and productive marriage of genetics,
archaeology, and historical linguistics can only be the product of years of
research, by teams of researchers confident of the worth of the enterprise
and respectful of every shard of data.  Arrogant balderdash, promulgated
largely in a journalistic mode, cannot speed this process, and may indeed
significantly retard it by stirring the anger and resentment of the very
individuals on whose specialized work it must build.

Victor Golla
Humboldt State University
Arcata, California  95521
gollav @ axe.humboldt.edu

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