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Darwin-L Message Log 6:89 (February 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.


<6:89>From WILLS@macc.wisc.edu  Mon Feb 21 20:51:27 1994

Date: Mon, 21 Feb 94 20:50 CDT
From: Jeffrey Wills <WILLS@macc.wisc.edu>
Subject: Reconstructing backwards
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

	One point of difference between biological and linguistic method which
arose a few weeks ago concerned assumptions on the unity and singularity
of the tree(s). That is, biologists assume a single tree of life--the question
is just where specific lifeforms go on it--whereas linguists reconstruct
multiple trees--so the question is which tree a language goes on at all.  Hence
the linguistic question "Is A related to B?" seems foolish to biologists for
whom an affirmative answer is obvious and the question is really "How closely
related is A to B?" or "Is A more closely related to B or to C?".
	A follow-up question.  Linguists only have the end branches of their
trees and have little hope of ever finding evidence of the roots, but I assume
that biologists have more confidence in their ability to describe initial,
primordial, primitive, vel sim. life and probably an approximate (even if
rough) story line starting from simple cells on up.  Question: does knowledge
about the root make a difference in method in reconstructing the tree?
	My guess is that biologists can combine their reconstructions of early
stages with data of later stages to bias their conclusions of which later forms
show inheritances and which innovations.  Linguists, on the other hand,
usually have no way of deciding which of two early variants is inherited
(conservative, etc.) and which is an innovation.  That is to say, we have no
useful idea of what proto-World might look like and cannot group languages
or language families on the basis of shared variation from it.
	Or are the gaps in the tree of life large enough to create aporia too?

Jeffrey Wills
wills@macc.wisc.edu

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