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Re: genetics & linguistics

From:Boudewijn Rempt <bsarempt@...>
Date:Wednesday, July 21, 1999, 14:32
On Thu, 1 Jul 1999, alypius wrote:

> See _The Great Human Diasporas_, by Luigi & Francesco Cavalli-Sforza, pp. > 196-202. ~alypius
I've received this book yesterday from the interlibrary loan system. (Curiously enough, it appears to be in the possession of a hospital library). It's not a very scholarly work, more popular in nature, but extremely interesting nonetheless. I can see his argument, but I can also see the flaws. The author tries to prop up his general theory by using a linguistic theory (by first defining his genetic populations as defined by the subgrouping of languages - using a suspect subgrouping as a starting point), and then uses the results of the genetic theory to prove the linguistic theory. If I understand Cavalli-Sforza correctly, then genetic drift indeed proceeds at a regular rate, and he's naturally taken to the theory that linguistic drift also proceeds at a regular rate, much like genetic drift, a theory which he takes as proven. Johanna Nichols (1992:214) correctly points out that this basic assumption is wrong: There are enormous differences between the material foundations of population genetics and those of linguistics: population genetics has a secure mathematical basis because there are two alleles at each gene locus, the chances of one or the other being inherite by an offspring are precisely calculable, and the effects of natural selection can at least be modeled. Linguistics has no analogs to alleles, genes, chromosomes, etc., or to inheritance or dominance; there is very little natural selection operating on language, and nothing resembling the two-allele inheritance. She also points out some broad analogies, however. Cavalli-Sforza's argument means he has to use some rather suspect linguistic sources, like Swadesh and the later Greenberg - and he condemns critics of those two not with arguments, but by saying the criticism is incomprehensible to him, that history will prove him right, the critics are not really interested and besides, don't know what they are talking about (182-183). I am rather more impressed by Matisoffs (Matisoff 1990) arguments against Greenberg, myself. Of course, Cavalli-Sforza may be right, if only in the broadest, general terms, but even he admits his theories break down in the chaos prevalent in, for instance, the Himalayas. I finally came to the conclusion that while a correlation between genetic grouping and the group of speakers of a certain language is established as being often present, there is no necessary corrolation, and that in every specific case both groupings have to be established independently and then the areal extent can be compared: genetic evidence cannot prove a linguistic hypothesis, nor can linguistic evidence prove a genetic hypothesis, but if both types of evidence independently give the same results, the whole theory is strengthened. Since the linguistic affinity of Korean and Japanese seems still not to be satisfactorily determined, where not at that point already. Perhaps the central issue is that people like Cavalli-Sforza (and Greenberg) tend to want to look at the broad issue, and are rather disdainful of the details. It appears that they often think that the actual quality of the data they use is relatively unimportant, because the broad sway of their research will cancel the errors out, and as a consequence they seem to be intolerant of evidence that contradicts their theory, especially if that is on a level of detail they do not work with, themselves. References Matisoff, James, 1990. On Megalocomparison. Language, 66. 109-20 Nichols, Johanna. 1992. Linguistic Diversity in Space and Time. Chicago: University ofChicago Press Boudewijn Rempt |