Darwin-L Message Log 5:81 (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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<5:81>From HOLSINGE@UCONNVM.BITNET  Fri Jan 14 19:54:53 1994

Date: Fri, 14 Jan 1994 07:56:57 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Re: Systematics and linguistics
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

Scott DeLancey raises an interesting point:

      The problem which recurs again and again is that we find two languages
      with some substantial amount of what appears to be common vocabulary,
      that, if they are indeed related, are related so distantly that more
      conclusive evidence of relationship has been obscured over time.

This problem isn't that dissimilar from those that biological systematists
sometimes face, whether in plants, animals, or bacteria.  In fact, in some
ways it is the same problem.

A recent example concerns the evolution of bats.  All zoologists agree (I
think, I'm a botanist) that there are two major groups of bats -- the microbats
and the megabats.  Most zoologists have also agreed that the microbats and
megabats share a more recent common ancestor with one another than they do
with any other group of animals.  The evidence is drawn from details of
skeletal anatomy (and more recently from molecular sequences).  Pettigrew
suggests, however, that one group of bats (the megabats as I recall, but
someone please correct me if my memory fails me) shares a more recent
common ancestor with primates than with the other group of bats. Pettigrew
bases his conclusion on detailed studies of neural anatomy.

Both hypotheses can't be right.  So zoologists have to make a choice.  If they
choose Pettigrew's approach, they explain the resemblances in skeletal anatomy
among bats as the result of convergent adaptation to flight.  If they choose
the traditional interpretation, they explain the resemblances between one group
of bats and primates in neural anatomy as convergent adaptation of the visual

I'm not sure what processes would produce convergence in vocabularies, but it
appears that the problem Scott DeLancey is describing is similar in many ways
to the one I've just described, except perhaps that linguists do not yet have
a comprehensive theory that they could use to explain the convergences.

-- Kent

|  Kent E. Holsinger            Internet: Holsinge@UConnVM.UConn.edu |
|  Dept. of Ecology &           BITNET:   Holsinge@UConnVM           |
|    Evolutionary Biology, U-43                                      |
|  University of Connecticut                                         |
|  Storrs, CT   06269-3043                                           |

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