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December 15, 2003

Language by the plough

I finally read the paper on Indo-Europeans that gave support to the "Anatolian Farmer" hypothesis. It was very compelling. I'm mildly convinced.

Update: OK, here is the link zizka pointed to about linguists criticizing the study. Follow the links within the link, and you can find many attacks and pot-shots of the study.

A few points.

1) I agree that outside-of-speciality-people need to bone up on an area they are "invading" before they get into using their techniques in said area[1]. I've detected obvious historical and ethnological errors in papers that study the genetic history of group X with method Y, and it is pretty stupid seeing as how all you need is a basic reference to double check your assertions and presuppositions (they usually go along the lines of assuming that "general knowledge" outside of a speciality of points in a speciality are the consensus, when usually they are out of date by a few decades).

2) That said, why is more technique bad? Molecular biologists and geneticists were told to stop talking about things they didn't know about by palaeoanthropologists when they asserted from DNA evidence that humans and other primates went they separate ways far more recently than the consensus in the field they were invading. The palaeoanthropologists had to eat eat crow when the fossils later vindicated the wet lab guys. Today the two work in concert exploring questions about the past.

3) Conflicts between different disciplines investigating the same topic are fascinating and often lead to a more thorough understanding, and sometimes a paradigm shift. If I remember correctly, in the late 19th century biologists and geologists asserted that the Earth must have been really old (for evolution and geological processes), but physicists couldn't figure out a way that the sun could produce the requisite energy for such an extended period (they didn't the have weak and strong nuclear force, so no fusion). Of course eventually the conflict disappeared when physicists had a more fleshed out model of stellar evolution from both observation and theoretical physics. Linguists of all people should be open to methods and ways of thinking that shift paradigm, their field after all has broken out of a niche in cultural anthropology by expanding across other disciplines and importing techniques and models. The general point, stay in your own area, has some truth to it. Many natural scientists get very irritated when "deconstructing theorists" decide to Study Their Way of Thinking (or what not). But the problem is really that these people aren't contributing anything to science, and are probably not that sincere in forwarding scientific knowledge since they often don't believe it is anything more than a belief-system a priori. For all their hubris and ignorance, I think people who want to investigate linguistic-historical questions through genetics and other methods that might map well have their heart in the right place. Yeah, it sucks that the mainstream press listens to them and accepts their pompous pronouncements as if wisdom came into the world with evolutionary biology (this is the general tone of some of the objections), but reform and inform rather than revolt.

By the way, do linguists mostly reject Greenberg's theories about Native American languages?. Its congruency to recent genetic evidence is a mighty peculiar coincidence if it isn't the correct model (the difference between "Na Dene" and "Amerinds").

fn1. Intellectual imperialism, done well, is a good thing. We are all conscious beings, so I think a little bit of exportation of "rational choice" from economics is OK. Similarly, we are all biological creatures with pre-packages of instincts and impulses shaped by our evolutionary history, so a little bit of exportation of "evolution" from biology is OK. The problem happens when arrogance becomes overwhelming. The physicists (like Francis Crick) who came into biology reshaped the science with their methods and mind-set (also, remember Linus Pauling, who made contributions all over the map and was only just beaten out by Crick & Watson in the hunt for the structure of DNA). Similarly, the inclusion of mathematically oriented minds was crucial to the maturation of the "Neo-Darwinian Synthesis." Cries of imperialism and the "inappropriateness" of methods from physics or mathematics toward understanding biological questions abounded in the early years, but I think today such folk are remnants of the Old Order. The question is...are you a reductionist? I am. So I think cross-fertilization is good, all knowledge is the same in the end...do I sound like a consiliator or what?

Posted by razib at 07:03 PM