News: On language origins, thinking, race & politics


Language origins

April 15: Language serial founder effects?, a comment from John Hawks on the published paper featured below in the NY Times. Hawks notes one of the problems with the paper is it does not match current genetic findings:

Atkinson suggests that African populations have had more time to recover diversity after a bottleneck at the origin of language. That seems an inauspicious suggestion, considering that the genetic model of a founding bottleneck in Africa has taken some serious body blows this year.

April 14: Languages Grew From a Seed in Africa, with reporting from Nicholas Wade. Seems interesting, but would like to hear more opinions from linguistic anthropology. It also relates to something I’ve wondered about in my blog-post Denisovans, Neandertals, Anthropology 101: How has Eswaran’s Diffusion Wave Model been faring against the new admixture sequencings? This language study seems against Diffusion Wave, as it suggests bottlenecks in an overall expansion pattern. Nicholas Wade seems to hew pretty close to the story this time, until the last paragraph:

In the wake of modern human expansion, archaic human species like the Neanderthals were wiped out and large species of game, fossil evidence shows, fell into extinction on every continent shortly after the arrival of modern humans.

The first point, about Neandertals wiped out is untrue, as there were places of long coexistence. The second point, about large game animals, is hotly contested. See the comment stream below for more from Helga Vierich, who has done anthropology with hunter-gatherers. Also see the critique of Jared Diamond in the sections on Domestication, Agriculture, Civilization.

Thinking or retaining?

April 18: “Come On, I Thought I Knew That!” reports on how “people retain significantly more material when they study it in a font that is not only unfamiliar but also hard to read.” Interesting. But what if the goal is not to retain but to think? Will it really help if people struggle with a hard font, and so can’t finish the article or book? Certainly true that “difficulty builds mental muscle, while ease often builds only confidence.” But didn’t we know that already? And again, what kind of difficulty? What kind of mental muscle?

Race and politics

April 21: Racial Resentment at Its Root analyzes how race was central to 2008 voting patterns:

The most powerful form of racial animus in politics today is often called “racial resentment,” as reflected in anger about blacks’ demands, criticism of blacks’ work ethics, and believing that racial discrimination has largely disappeared. Such racial resentments had stronger effects on candidate choice than in any other recent presidential election. Moreover, everything associated with Obama became racialized.

More evidence we are not in a post-racial society, as examined in the blog-post Race Remixed?

April 20: Bacteria Divide People Into 3 Types and it turns out those types don’t seem to have anything to do with reported ethnicity, sex, weight, health, or age. “One possibility is that the guts, or intestines, of infants are randomly colonized by different pioneering species of microbes.” I predict enterotype therapy will eventually be more powerful than what was promised as gene therapies. I also corrected a misinterpretation in the comment stream: strange how quickly people want to believe types must be related to ancestry, and racialized.

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  • Helga Vierich

    I agree on all counts. About Diamond – Diamond has got a lot of errors in his research. There is no proof that the large fauna became extinct solely – or even mainly- due to hunting by humans.

    For one thing, for many of the megafauna, there was about 90% habitat loss as the glaciers receded. There were also new diseases (and parasites) coming in, brought by animals like moose and eurasian wolves, not to mention the competition these animals represented as they spread.

    Humans change their environments. Big deal. Every living thing has an effect on its environment, and vice versa…

    HOWEVER! When a species is introduced into a new environment, it can have profound consequences for that environment, altering the ecological balance, eliminating some competitors and causing previously rare species to explode in numbers.

    Diamond made a critical error: instead of viewing the effect of human migration into the Americas (or Australian or New Zealand) as an example of the effect of the introduction of a new species (like the introduction of starlings into NA, or the introduction of rabbits to Australia) he took it to be an illustration of a destructive capacity unique to our species.

    He then compounded the error by making this huge generalization that even hunting and gathering humans were a scourge on the earth and would never do anything but destroy the ecosystems where ever they lived…. in other words, it is human nature that is the problem, and we are, in effect, doomed by it.

    That is complete rubbish.

    Now Diamond, of course, did not put it into such bald terms, nor did he word his speculations concerning the fate of the American Megafauna in such a way that did not leave room for other possible explanations. He knew it for speculation, and he stopped just short of sawing the limb out from under himself.

    But other people have not been so sanguine about this issue.

    I think anyone at all aware of the current research into these very questions knows full well that the issue is far from settled, but that, at least, not all of the blame can be laid at the doorstep of the first Amerindians.

    Finally, as far as I know, there are still hunter-gatherers living today, and while their numbers are small compared to the ever expanding segment of humanity contained in the completely unsustainable fossil-fueled bubble, these foraging folk stand a pretty good chance of being some of the only economies on earth left standing, still viable and healthy, when that bubble bursts.

    Some writers have even gone so far as to say that even hunter-gatherer civilizations were bound to fail, since they all over-exploited their resources…!!!

    Well! Hunting and gathering is not a “civilization” and its LIFESPAN appears so far to be set to outlast that of everything else that humans have tried.

    And, no, they do not inevitably overshoot their resources. For instance, there is evidence from archaeology that there have have been foragers in the Kalahari for at least 10,000 years, without destroying the ecosystem or overshooting their carrying capacity. Furthermore, there is evidence that people who appeared anatomically very much like todays San (or Bushmen) have been living as foragers in Southern Africa for as much a 120,000 years, and that in fact, subsaharan Africa might well be where our own species of Homo sapiens sapiens actually originated.

    I’ve been there. The place has some of the highest densities of large mammalian fauna on the entire planet. In the Kalahari in particular I saw 124 species of large mammals, 28 of reptiles and over 300 species of birds… and I was not even looking for any, just driving my truck from one camp to the next. Hardly a blasted and destroyed environment. The parts that were blasted and destroyed all surrounded the boreholes where cattle and other livestock were being raised. The overgrazing there was awful, but could certainly not be laid at the door of the resident foragers!

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Helga,
      Thank you for the extensive refutation of Diamond–that’s some good stuff to think about in these debates.

  • Helga Vierich

    Oh, and the gut flora article – I saw that one too recently. More like due to infant feeding practices inter-acting with microbial ecologies passed on within families, surely?

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Helga, Thank you for the comment. This may be based on infant feeding practices, but if it were passed on within families, one would expect a higher correspondence with ethnicity. Of course, the sample of American-European-Japanese, seems confined to the highly-industrialized world, and it would be interesting to see this research expanded. Also, this link (via the Neuroanthropology round-up) is about how the brain is shaped by bacteria in the digestive tract.