Darwin-L Message Log 5:33 (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.

<5:33>From DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu  Fri Jan  7 23:21:40 1994

Date: Sat, 08 Jan 1994 00:27:31 -0400 (EDT)
From: DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu
Subject: Greenberg and other controversial beliefs
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Organization: University of NC at Greensboro

I came across this book in the library recently and thought it might
be of some interest in the context of our discussions of aquatic apes
and other controversial beliefs:

  Harrold, Francis B., & Raymond A. Eve (eds).  1987.  _Cult Archeology and
  Creationism: Understanding Pseudoscientific Beliefs about the Past_.  Iowa
  City: University of Iowa Press.

I only glanced at it (and noticed that there was no index), so can't give
a full review, but if anyone else is familiar with the book perhaps we can
be treated some commentary on it.

With regard to the linguistics controversies that have been discussed, I am
leery of making a comparison with creationism, which is a very different case
it seems to me.  But it is certainly possible to find examples in systematics
and evolutionary biology of work that was very poorly done, but was done by
prominent people and has gotten a lot of attention.  The most conspicuous
recent case is that of Charles Sibley, who has been publishing work on bird
phylogeny for a number of years, work based on DNA hybridization studies.
What Scott DeLancey wrote of the Greenberg situation could almost be applied
to the Sibley case word for word:

       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"!

Sibley's work (his comprehensive summary is _Phylogeny and Classification of
Birds_, Yale Univ Press, 1990) has been very sloppy, he has rarely published
the un-massaged data that are behind his conclusions, and his analytical
techniques are either inappropriate or overextended, and there is reason to
believe that he doesn't really understand them very well himself.  But as
Scott was saying with respect to Greenberg, Sibley's conclusions are not
really contradicting established views, because in many cases he is drawing
conclusions that go beyond anything that has yet been established, so there
isn't yet any counter position to set up against him.  It is possible,
therefore, that some of his conclusions may actually be right.  But then if
one generated trees randomly it is possible that some of them might be right,
too.  (This comparison exaggerates the case, but it makes the point.)  Sibley's
work generated news articles in _Science_ (as did Greenberg's), and he also
published a summary of it in _Scientific American_, believe it or not.  His
proponents have tended to be people who are biologists, but who are not
systematists; and since his work uses DNA (very fashionable), well, it must
be right.

I wrote a critical review of Sibley's book that some might find interesting
in the context of these discussions; I think the linguists involved in the
Greenberg debate might even find that Sibley and Greenberg share some
methological weaknesses.  The citation is:

  O'Hara, Robert J.  1991.  [Review of _Phylogeny and Classification of Birds:
  A Study in Molecular Evolution_].  _Auk_, 108(4):990-994.

If you can't find it in your local library you can send me a snailmail
address and I'd be glad to send you a reprint.  Most of the relevant news
articles and the early uninformed positive reviews are cited in my review.

Bob O'Hara, Darwin-L list owner

Robert J. O'Hara (darwin@iris.uncg.edu)
Center for Critical Inquiry and Department of Biology
100 Foust Building, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro, North Carolina 27412 U.S.A.

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