Darwin-L Message Log 4:75 (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.

<4:75>From sally@pogo.isp.pitt.edu  Sun Dec 19 08:55:26 1993

To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Re: DARWIN-L digest 95
Date: Sun, 19 Dec 93 09:58:51 -0500
From: Sally Thomason <sally@pogo.isp.pitt.edu>

   Jeffrey Wills makes some good points in commenting on why
one doesn't see more rebuttals to Greenberg, Renfrew, et al.
in the popular press (or elsewhere).  Actually, though, there
are more rebuttals around than one might suspect from just
reading Scientific American.  Some of them are unfortunately
not yet published; a major supposed-to-be-forthcoming collection
of papers from the "Greenberg conference" (University of Colorado,
1990) has been slow in coming to print; it's to be edited by
Allan Taylor, and the publisher is Stanford University Press.
There are papers by Greenberg, Ruhlen, several specialists in
American Indian languages, an Africanist (Paul Newman), other
linguists (notably Johanna Nichols), and various nonlinguists --
archaeologists, physical anthropologists, biologists.

   Not long after that conference, a report on it appeared in
SCIENCE, written by Virginia Morrell, who attended the entire
conference and interviewed many of the participants.  That article
is balanced and readable; I'd recommend it to anyone who wants an
overview of the controversy over Greenberg's proposed "Amerind"
family.  It's short, though -- not much detail.

   There are a number of reviews and commentaries on Greenberg's
1987 book LANGUAGE IN THE AMERICAS besides the one by Campbell
that Wills mentions.  Greenberg replied to Campbell's review in
LANGUAGE (though his reply contains little information that isn't
already in the book), and a year or so later James Matisoff wrote
a commentary on the controversy from a non-Americanist perspective,
also in LANGUAGE.  Other reviews are Robert Rankin's in International
Journal of American Linguistics (last year, I think), Willem Adelaar
in LINGUA (1989), and Liedtke in a European journal (ANTHROPOS?  --
An English translation of it, prepared by Greenberg himself, appeared
in a recent issue of MOTHER TONGUE, the newsletter/journal of the
Association for the Study of Language in Prehistory).

   Besides Rankin's review, IJAL has published two or three critical
analyses of the data in Greenberg's book, over the past couple of
years.  (It's probably safe to say that almost all specialists in
Native American languages are not favorably impressed by Greenberg's
methodology or proposals; Greenberg says this himself, and attributes
the rejection of the proposals to a reluctance on the part of
Americanists to face [what he imagines they will see as] unpleasant

   Last year or so the BBC produced a program on the distant-relationship
controversy.  It featured Renfrew, Greenberg, Ruhlen, Sheveroshkin,
Dolgopolskij, and Luca Cavalli-Sforza; the only critic of their shared
stance on the issues was Donald Ringe.  NOVA is currently revising that
program for showing in the U.S., and the revised version will present a
more balanced view of the controversy.  (It won't appear until sometime
in 1994.)

   And finally, for the mathematically inclined, Ringe's monograph on
statistical arguments in Greenberg's book and more generally on statistical
tests for genetic relationship vs. chance similarity appeared a year or
two ago, was reviewed briefly in LANGUAGE earlier this year by William
Poser, and has attracted considerable attention.  Greenberg wrote a
reply, but did not address Ringe's actual statistical arguments in his
reply; Ringe also replied to Greenberg -- both in the Proceedings of
the American Philosophical Society, March 1993.

   One source of interest in the distant-relationship proposals is the
desire on the part of scientists in other disciplines to make use of
the results of such research.  It's easy to understand this desire,
of course.  Ruhlen's classification of the world's languages, which
relies heavily on Greenberg's proposals, has been used, for instance,
in identifying populations for testing in the Human Genome Diversity
Project, of which a/the prime mover is Luca Cavalli-Sforza, a very
eminent geneticist.  At a conference on the project in early November
this year I presented a brief synopsis of (what I see as) the
mainstream historical linguist's view of genetic relationship and
the problems with proposals of very distant relationships.

   Sorry to be so long-winded...I wanted to give a somewhat fuller
picture of the responses to proposals of distant relationships.  Most
of them are not in the popular press, as I say, but in the scholarly
literature and in scholarly conference presentations -- which are,
some of us would say, the best place to conduct scholarly inquiry.
Linguistics isn't the only field in which exciting ideas appeal more
to the popular media than less grand & sweeping approaches do.

   Sally Thomason

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