Daily Data Dump – Friday

By Razib Khan | July 30, 2010 1:02 pm

Have a good weekend.

Death of A Language. Since I started being more pro-active about my general lack of respect for modern American cultural anthropology I’ve gotten a lot of response. On the specific question of whether linguistic diversity is inversely proportional to economic growth, I’ve gotten some mixed-responses, and find all the conclusions inconclusive (I’ve had some r-squared results sent to me privately). Here’s A Replicated Typo reviewing a paper which tentatively supports my theoretical inference empirically. As I said, looking at the correlations are now in my “stack” of “TO-DO”‘s. But more broadly the normative gap between myself and my critics remains. So in the post I point to here, the author paraphrases a linguist as saying: “The languages spoken on the islands are considered to be almost 70,000 years old and are theorized to have African roots.” My comments about this sort of stuff are dismissive, and this experience only reinforces my disrespect for the “discourse” which linguistic anthropologists are introducing into the public domain. There are intellectual reasons to be interested in linguistic isolates not part of the big language families (e.g., Semitic, Indo-European, Niger-Kordofanian, etc.), but no language is “70,000 years old.” The Andaman Islanders are not black-skinned elves, immortals who brought their culture in toto from the ur-heimat of Africa, genetic and cultural fossils who have been in total stasis. Cultural anthropologists presumably understand that all humans are equally ancient, derived from African ancestors, and that all languages and peoples are African (or at least 95% so within the last 100,000 years), but their communication to the public confuses the issue and presents some groups as “pristine.”  As it is, Andaman Islanders have a major issue with high mortality levels due to being exposed to Eurasian pathogens. Language death is a relatively secondary issue for a group which had to be forcibly separated from Indian settlers in the 1960s for their own survival as a biological group.


‘Petite’ woman thrown off plane to make way for obese teenager who needed two seats. The source is a British tabloid, so take with a healthy dose of skepticism. But the general issue of obese people and airline flights is something that the obese and non-obese have to confront regularly. As a non-obese person I’ve had the discomfort of obese people using my own space as “overflow” to become more comfortable. The weirdest thing that has happened to me was on a trans-Atlantic flight where an obese man came and sat next to me in what had been an empty seat. Thirty minutes before the flight landed he went back to his seat, so I got up and saw where he’d come from, and it seems that he was sitting next to another obese person. It must have been uncomfortable for both of them, but still. Looking around there were a few other empty seats on the flight, but I was the slimmest person adjacent to any of them, so I strongly suspect that I was “targeted” for my co-passenger’s comfort. It must really be stressful to be obese on a long flight, but I really hate being penalized for being thin enough that I don’t “use” all my space.

The rich are different from you and me. One issue is that if there’s a huge wealth differential between two people there’s always the tension of the poorer person asking the wealthier one for money at some point. It makes wealthier people more guarded and less compassionate because they’re no longer in a plausible situation of reciprocity. They start seeing everyone as a utility maximizing rational actor trying to work an angle. Those with relatives in poor countries probably know what I’m getting at in terms of how fiscal imbalances distort personal relationships.

What Makes Humans Unique ?(III): Self-Domestication, Social Cognition, and Physical Cognition. Humans, the self-domesticated animal? Or perhaps some humans domesticated others?

Did emotions evolve to push others into cooperation? Rationality is bounded by emotion. Proximate individual behavior dictated by general intelligence is one dimension of humanity, but heuristics grounded in non-rational elements of cognition are evolutionarily informed and ecologically useful (or were).

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Comments (17)

  1. atyl

    Re: ‘Petite’ woman thrown off plane. That particular article you posted doesn’t mention it, but the woman in question was flying standby while the 14 year old had tickets paid for in advance, so it would seem to me the woman was ‘targeted’ more for that reason than for her non-obesity. Granted, none of this address the crux of the issue, but I thought I’d mention that story is probably a bit less black-and-white as The Daily Mail makes it out to be.

  2. thanks! that changes perception a lot.

  3. So, your remark on my blog “the idea of a 70,000 year old language is dumb” got me thinking and researching. So, thank you for saying something that triggered me to go read up more fascinating stuff.

    What I’ve uncovered so far is that Dr. Abbi herself doesn’t seem to claim that the language is 70,000 years old, but that the tribes “are the remnants of the first migration from Africa that took place 70,000 years ago” (http://www.terralingua.org/bcdconservation/?p=125). So, its possible that the reporter misrepresented her point of view. Also, the news article does not quote Dr. Abbi saying this, but is just reported.

    So, I’m disappointed with the rigor of your conclusion (about the nature of the public discourse by linguistic anthropologists). I have a link to the news article on my blog. You could’ve checked it out yourself to see if I hadn’t goofed. Further, even if the reporter did quote her, it is not uncommon to have reporters misquote the speakers (inadvertent mistakes). So, it strikes me as hasty/prejudiced to dismiss the work of linguistic anthropologists without a direct reference to some writing by Dr. Abbi or some linguist. To be fair to you, I don’t know what background you’re coming from and what your other experiences have been with linguistic anthropologists.

    Thanks for sending some traffic my way. Cheers,

    Dinesh

  4. gfygf

    I hear what you’re saying about the fat folk and without agreeing or disagreeing (I myself am NOT fat and do not like sitting next to them on planes, trains or automobiles) I just want to note the interesting point that people’s comfort with discussing them in this context could just as easily be applied to tall people (unless you accept the free-will blame nonsense which I know you generally don’t). I hate sitting in front of a tall person who won’t let me recline my seat back but publicly complaining about them is considered to be in horrible form while complaining about fat people is considered more or less acceptable (if somewhat deliciously naughty).

    There is of course the element of people blaming fat people for their predicament while acknowledging that tall people “are just made that way” but I think the greater part of the explanation for this particular skew is because of the widely differing status that tall vs. fat people command in society. For fine evolutionary reasons tall people are innately looked up to (in more than just the literal sense) while for modern fashionable reasons (things were different in the Polish shtetl in the 1700s) fat people are apologetically denigrated.

    As for me and mine, may the lord keep us away from both fat and tall people (okay, and negros, just kidding! 🙂 ) in tight and confined spaces. Amen.

  5. gfygf, good point. both fat and should just be priced accordingly. there are too many large and fat now that one-size-fits-all prizing in tight economy seats is just causing too many problems.

    dinesh dutt, your misimpression is the norm, not exceptional. i believe that linguistic anthropologists generally tolerate these confusions because it aids in the urgency of their ends. i was rather sure that the linguist in question had more nuanced views, but i have never seen these sorts of scholars correcting a particular set of confusions which work to favor their normative argument.

    and the argument that the andaman islanders are “the remnants of the first migration from Africa that took place 70,000 years ago” is probably wrong. we are all the remnants of the first migration, since there was probably only one. over the last generation there have been some minority views of multiple migrations, but they have never been mainstream. again, the “not even wrong” confusions always aid in emphasizing the specialness of these “fossil people.”

  6. One issue is that if there’s a huge wealth differential between two people there’s always the tension of the poorer person asking the wealthier one for money at some point. It makes wealthier people more guarded and less compassionate because they’re no longer in a plausible situation of reciprocity.

    The separation is as much a cause as a result of the wealth differential. Individual wealth accumulation is impossible without some kind of break of reciprocity. A case in point is the basketball player Manute Bol, who pumped millions of dollars into his country but had very little personal wealth in the end. Tens of thousand of people were in his debt, however, and to the extent that his society remained traditional he could have demanded and received help from any of them. The case of Peter Tosh is somewhat similar; as I understand, he was killed by someone he had helped in the past because at one point he had no money to give him. (Gift economies are fragile and break down into resentment and feuding).

    Bol and Tosh are exceptional cases because they went back and forth across the threshold between very poor and very rich societies (Bol and Tosh being very high income even by our standards.)

  7. jb

    Even if there was only one migration out of Africa, the Andaman islanders could still be plausibly viewed as a “remnant” population, in a way that the rest of us aren’t.

    If the ancestors of the current Andaman islanders arrived on the islands shortly after the out-of-Africa migration, and if since then there has been relatively little mixing with people from the rest of the world, and if — as seems very likely — their population has always been small, then they could easily be much more similar to the people of the migration than are the rest of us. This seems to me the natural interpretation of any talk about “remnant populations,” and while it isn’t necessarily true of the Andaman islands, it strikes me as being more likely to be true there than of any other place I can think of.

    The situation with languages is of course different. Languages can change very fast even in small populations, so the Andaman languages aren’t likely to have any special similarity to the language(s) of the out-of-Africa migrants. But if the languages of the islands have never been replaced by outside languages in all that time, then their study could still conceivably shed some extra light on the original language or languages of the migrants, and for that reason I think those languages are particularly valuable, and I regret the loss of any of them (in the same way that I really regret the loss of the original language of the African pygmies).

  8. If the ancestors of the current Andaman islanders arrived on the islands shortly after the out-of-Africa migration, and if since then there has been relatively little mixing with people from the rest of the world, and if — as seems very likely — their population has always been small, then they could easily be much more similar to the people of the migration than are the rest of us. This seems to me the natural interpretation of any talk about “remnant populations,” and while it isn’t necessarily true of the Andaman islands, it strikes me as being more likely to be true there than of any other place I can think of.

    right. but let’s drill down little further.

    1) if they’re first settlers, and their pop has always been small, then their neutral gene frequencies are going to be way out of whack. arguably shifting further than mainland groups.

    2) so that leaves the possibility of selective sweeps which they weren’t privy too because they were isolated

    finally, i think they probably were later arrivals than the out of africa. will dig into the literature and get back to you here.

  9. A final statement on this subject of 70,000 years. Here is what Dr. Abbi said in response to my question about the statement in the news article. She’s quite clear in her response.

    “Yes the press has made a mistake. No language in its present form can be claimed to be that old. Linguists can reconstruct with some surety upto 10,000 years and in cases of isolated languages much longer, but certainly not beyond 15000.”

    I agree with your point of emphasizing the specialness. But that might have been more the work of the reporter. There isn’t a dearth of bad science reporting, if you look around.

    Cheers,

    Dinesh

  10. Billare

    Interesting link, Razib: http://bjoern.brembs.net/news.php?item.632.3 Apparently previous annotations of FOXP2 missed an exon lying aways from it, and this guy’s team discovered that mutations at that locus are implicated in self-learning in D. melanogaster, implying a very deep genetic basis for language…(e.g., suggesting here was no sudden repurposing of gene function, but rather specialization of an ancient one)

  11. “Cultural anthropologists presumably understand that all humans are equally ancient, derived from African ancestors, and that all languages and peoples are African (or at least 95% so within the last 100,000 years),”

    Razib, sorry, this is total nonsense. Linguists who are interested in prehistory and in that remain linguists, rather than speculative prehistorians, understand that Africa harbors only a fraction of linguistic diversity in the world (20 stocks vs. 140, say, in America), that it has very few isolates and small families (likely a common situation in the Paleolithic), that grammatically African languages are derived, while languages on both sides of the Pacific Rim are ancestral, that the phonetics of the Khoisan languages (clicks) are too rare worldwide to be considered particularly ancient. See my book “The Genius of Kinship” for a whole host of problems with the out of Africa model of human dispersals coming from linguistics, ethnology and kinship studies.

  12. german, language and genes evolve in different ways. it makes sense to me that the new world could have a lot of linguistic but not genetic diversity. but if africans had language before they expanded out of africa, then all subsequent languages presumably trace back to that language (unless modern humans picked up languages from other human lineages outside of africa).

  13. “german, language and genes evolve in different ways. it makes sense to me that the new world could have a lot of linguistic but not genetic diversity. but if africans had language before they expanded out of africa, then all subsequent languages presumably trace back to that language..”

    Ironically, one of the founders of the out of Africa theory of human dispersals, Cavalli-Sforza, believes that genes and language co-evolve. (This is in fact a broader theme coming from both genetictsts and anthropologists working at Stanford; comp. Bill Durham’s Co-Evolution book). Cavalli-Sforza, Feldman and others published a few studies trying to demonstrate isomorphism between language trees and genetic trees. Out of Africa is supported by linguistic evidence only if flawed language classifications (such as Greenberg’s) are used. This casts doubt – serious doubt IMO – on the reality of the out of Africa model itself. Limited genetic diversity in the Americas (and we’re only talking about intragroup diversity, as intergroup diversity is the greatest in the New World) can just a easily be a factor of effective population size (a complex demographic parameter, as you know), not age. It’s rather plausible that Middle Paleolithic/Upper Paleolithic human populations were small, isolated, with large intergroup diversity measures and if they spoke any languages the overall picture would look rather like what Europeans encountered in America in 1492.

  14. i don’t think that linguistics has anything to do with ‘out of africa’ for most workers. certainly not for most molecular geneticists or paleoanthrpologists.

    s intergroup diversity is the greatest in the New World

    can i get a citation on this? i don’t recall seeing this in Fst numbers.

  15. “can i get a citation on this? i don’t recall seeing this in Fst numbers.”

    Absolutely. See, e.g., Rosenberg, “Genetic Structure of Human Populations”, p. 2382, Table 1. Or, to quote from Tishkoff, “The Genetic Structure and History of Africans and African Americans,” 2009: “The proportion of genetic variation among all studied African populations was 1.71% (table S3). In comparison, Native American and Oceanic populations showed the greatest proportion of genetic variation among populations (8.36% and 4.59%, respectively)…” For classical markers, Hartl’s textbook even uses South American Yanomamo as a case study to illustrate Fst statistics. Pretty much all systems attest for the highest intergroup diversity in the Americas.

    So, there’s a very close parallelism between levels of linguistic diversity by region (high in America followed by Oceania) and levels of intergroup genetic diversity by region (high in America followed by Oceania). A strong case can therefore be made for language-gene co-evolution if the right statistics are matched. I think all geneticists – and I recently spoke with Tad Schurr about it – would admit that, in an ideal world – by which I mean a four-field anthropological approach to human origins – linguistic distributions and genetic distributions are in good fit, with deviations stemming from secondary processes of gene flow and language shift. Unfortunately, the out of Africa model may have been misled by the misreading of archaeological and paleobiological evidence, and the real history of modern human populations as described by genetics, kinship studies and linguistics still needs to be told.

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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