Sunday, 8 September 2013

Speaking of Evolution

Voices from the past: Ancient secrets in today's words - life - 05 September 2013 - New Scientist

An article in this week's New Scientist illustrates something I've mentioned before. Languages evolve by Darwinian Evolution.

Regular readers will remember how I showed that we can tell the Bible was written by people who were ignorant of many things, including geography, history, biology and language distribution, when they wrote the absurd tale of the Tower of Babel to try to explain language diversity. (See How We Know The Bible Was Written By Ignorant People and More Bible Babble.) Of course, their primitive, simplistic, parochial and essentially ignorant explanation was the default 'God did it!", which was code for "I don't know but I'll pretend I do" no less in those days than it is today. Indeed, we see exactly the same primitive level of parochial ignorance and use of simplitic default answers in lieu of actual knowledge in culturally backward and scientifically iliterate societies today, where religious fundamentalism is still found.

It also illustrates how the basic principles of evolution don't just apply to DNA/RNA-based life but to any replicators, provided the three basic components of Darwinian Evolution are present. The article is about languages and how they evolved and diversified from common ancestors.

The three essential components of Darwinian Evolution are:

  • Variation.
  • Replication.
  • Selection.

If those components are present then evolution is bound to occur. If there is separation then diversification is also bound to occur as the system adapts to local conditions.

The New Scientist article by Douglas Heaven is about the work of New Zealanders Russell Gray and Quentin Atkinson of Auckland University.

As a trained biologist, Gray notes these [language] differences with the same eagle-eyed curiosity that he has used to study the evolution of bird behaviour. "If you're looking at courtship displays in birds and how their differences are produced by descent with modification, it doesn't seem like a huge leap to think about languages in that way," he says. Living among the Pacific Islands – a hotspot for language diversity – Gray just has to listen to the sounds around him to hear the way that languages can mutate, splinter and proliferate like separate species.

Gray and Atkinson's trick was to feed language data into an evolutionary computer algorithm designed to work out relationships between genomes. It produces a range of possible 'family trees' together with the likelihood that each tree fits the known data.

So far, they have used the technique to try to resolve a dispute concerning the origins of the Indo-European group of languages for which there are two proposed models. One has the origin in Anatolia (the area corresponding to modern Turkey) and spreading out from there with the spread of agriculture starting some 8-9,000 years ago. The other places the origin in what is now Ukraine some 3000 years ago, with the spread being due to marauding horsemen. Gray and Atkinson's method estimated that the origin must have been around 8-10,000 years ago, which fitted almost exactly with the out of Anatolia hypothesis.

Now they have refined their technique and applied it to the Pacific Islands. What they found exactly matches what was already known from archaeological and genetic evidence - that the languages (and by implication, the people) spread out from Taiwan into the East Indies and the Philippines, and then to the Pacific Islands in a series of migration pulses between 3000 and 800 years ago.

So it seems the powerful science of Darwinian Evolution is proving fundamental to understanding another subject, just as I showed with Darwin's Powerful Science.

And once again we see the idiotic nature of a Bible story of the Tower of Babel, which claims totally unrelated and mutually incomprehensible languages were created as is in juxtaposition by a magic man in the sky, just as Darwinian Evolution shows the idiotic nature of the Bible story of the creation of all species by the same magic man. The truth, of course, is that there is a perfectly natural explanation for languages just as there is for species, and magic is nowhere involved in the process.

Almost unbelievably, despite the abundance of contrary evidence, people still earn their living selling people bad science and downright lies designed to reinforce their primitive superstition and the parochial ignorance on which it depends and people still imagine their simplistic, default "God did it!" answer is going to convince educated people that their ignorance trumps all the science and learning to which we all now have access.

Douglas Heaven; Voices from the past: Ancient secrets in today's words, New Scientist 05 September 2013 Magazine issue 2933.

Russell D. Gray & Quentin D. Atkinson; Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin; Nature 426, 435-439 (27 November 2003) | doi:10.1038/nature02029

Gray, R.D, Drummond, A.J, Language, Greenhill, S.J; Phylogenies Reveal Expansion Pulses and Pauses in Pacific Settlement; Science 23 January 2009: Vol. 323 no. 5913 pp. 479-483; DOI: 10.1126/science.1166858

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  1. Wasn't the Science paper accompanied with one showing that the linguistic evidence of expansion across the Pacific matched data from Helicobacter sequence divergence seen in samples recovered from human populations across the Pacific?

    1. That sounds very likely but I don't have full access to the paper and it's not mentioned in the abstract.

      Would make another good subject for a blog. :-)

    2. I'll see if I can dig them out for you. Coincidentally, after leaving the comment, I found these Science papers mentioned in a comment at Panda's Thumb - turns out a similar study in PNAS looking at yams corroborates the findings!

    3. That would be interesting, please.

    4. Here's a link to the helicobacter paper:


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