Indo-European Origins

Ideological Agendas and Indo-European Origins: Master Race, Bloodthirsty Kurgans, or Proto-Hippies?

This final contribution to the Indo-European series turns once again to the potential ideological agendas lurking behind theories of IE origin and expansion. As was noted previously, no other issue in human prehistory has been so ideologically fraught; the original IE speakers have been recruited to serve a variety of fantasies, ranging in temper from naively benign to unimaginably vile. For Nazis and their ilk, the original Indo-Europeans constituted the Aryan super-race whose descendants were destined to rule the world. Followers of a certain feminist school of prehistory, in turn, have turned the “Aryan thesis” on its head, portraying the same people as the bloodthirsty “Kurgans” overrunning the peaceful, matriarchal civilization of “Old Europe” and ushering in a global age of violence and male domination. As was argued in the earlier post, it is understandable that some scholars would want to discredit all such overreaching interpretations based on the crushing might of the horse-empowered original Indo-Europeans. If it could be demonstrated that the IE languages were actually spread by Neolithic farmers slowly pushing into new areas as their numbers increased, all such troublesome theories would be effectively undermined.

Yet it is one thing to hope for such a paradigm switch and another to push it along by a purposeful manipulation of data and analysis. Doing so would be a blatantly ideological act, and hence a betrayal of science and reason. Assessing scholarly motivations, however, is a hopeless task, and we have no way of knowing whether Bouckaert et al. have intentionally selected their data and skewed their model in order to support the Anatolian thesis of IE origins. We do think that it is possible, however, that they have unconsciously let their own ideological commitments guide their research program. Our evidence here comes from two sources. First, as we have demonstrated over the past two months, both the data selection and the model construction are warped to consistently favor the Anatolian hypothesis, most egregiously by ignoring all ancient IE language spoken in the steppe zone and by ruling out advection as a mechanism of language spread. Second, it seems likely from the comments posted on this website that distaste for the idea of violent incursions, often viewed as a necessary feature of the “steppe hypothesis,” colors the authors’ perspective. Quentin Atkinson, the article’s corresponding author, quotes Larry Trask to make this point:

Nevertheless, the vision of fierce IE warriors, riding horses and driving chariots, sweeping down on their neighbours brandishing bloody swords, has proven to be an enduring one, and scholars have found it difficult to dislodge from the popular consciousness the idea of the PIE-speakers as warlike conquerors in chariots.

Although the desire to wish away the “bloody swords” of the human past is understandable, it is also naïve, as violence unfortunately pervades our history. One does not have to embrace the vision of Thomas Hobbes, recently updated and re-theorized by Steven Pinker in his tome, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, to accept that this is indeed the case. I suspect that Pinker exaggerates the bloodiness of hunting-gathering societies, a charge made most forcefully by Christopher Ryan, co-author of the intriguing and controversial Sex at Dawn, yet I also suspect that Ryan descends into hyperbole of his own in emphasizing the peacefulness and sexual license of our Paleolithic ancestors. But when it comes to pre-modern agricultural societies, the evidence is overwhelming: enveloping violence was the norm almost everywhere. If one wants to rule out the possibility of bloody swords and other weapons, one would be advised to examine something other than human history.

But even if armed struggle has been pervasive for most of the past 10,000 years, it does not follow that all non-foraging societies have been equally bloody. As is always the case, different groups vary considerably on this score. If one searches the ethnographic literature, one can find a few documented tribal farming societies that shunned warfare and all of its trappings. Yet the unfortunate truth is that such groups were usually victimized by their more aggressive neighbors, and hence were seldom successful in maintaining their numbers and territories.

One of the most interesting groups of historically peaceful peoples is the Hanunó’o of the Philippines, whose social formation was described by the great American anthropologist Harold Conklin roughly a half century ago. The Hanunó’o constitute a small group (roughly 14,000) of tribal cultivators living in the southern interior portion of the lightly populated island of Mindoro. An encyclopedic treatment of Philippine ethnic groups* frames their peaceable inclinations in concise terms: “Warfare, either actual or traditional, is absent.” But Hanunó’o were able to maintain their irenic way of life only by retreating to rugged and inaccessible areas, and even so they were periodically targeted for centuries by slave raiders from the Sulu Archipelago. Intriguingly, the Hanunó’o seem to be a remnant of what was once a much larger and more sophisticated society, evident by the fact that they have long enjoyed widespread literacy in their own script, an essentially unprecedented phenomenon in a small-scale, tribal society. Conflicts between Spain and the Muslim naval powers of the southern Philippines (the so-called Moros) evidently destroyed the formerly prosperous mercantile centers of Mindoro, after which remnant groups fled the bloody swords of both the Spaniards and the Moros into the inaccessible uplands. There they maintained a generally peaceful way of life, although at a fairly significant cost.

But with the exceptions of some hunter-gatherer bands and a few societies of tribal cultivators, nearly continual violence was the common lot of humanity before the contemporary era. Thus even if Indo-European languages spread into Europe and South Asia through the gradual influx of Neolithic farmers, as Bouckaert et al. argue, the process would have almost certainly been marked by generalized conflict and extensive bloodshed as the Mesolithic indigenes were dispossessed of their lands. By the same token, had the IE languages been spread by horse-riders advancing into the lands of the Neolithic farmers, as most versions of the “steppe hypothesis” contend, violence would also have accompanied the process. But would such a scenario have necessarily entailed substantially greater levels of bloodshed than the majority of such cultural “encounters” experienced over thousands of years across the globe? Equestrian warriors would certainly have had profound military advantages over horseless peoples, but that does not necessarily mean that they would have been any more savage than the human norm. It is also quite possible that IE languages spread mostly through gradual incursions supported in large part by economic or other non-military advantages. Anthropological blogger Al West, for example, surmises that the early Indo-European speakers gained power by selling horses and other goods (see below) to other peoples. Certainly the massive non-IE linguistic substrates found in such IE branches as Greek, Germanic, and Indo-Aryan indicate deep levels of cultural exchange with the indigenous inhabitants of the regions into which the early Indo-European speakers moved.

Portraying the early Indo-Europeans as a uniquely fierce or malevolent people, as some of Marija Gimbitas’s followers were inclined to do, involves more ideological projection as sound appraisal. One can certainly stress the violent nature of their social interactions, but one can just as easily place the emphasis elsewhere. In fact, one can even turn the Gimbutas thesis on its head and portray the steppe-dwelling early Indo-Europeans as gender-egalitarian precursors to the hippies of the late 20th century. Although such a portrayal strays again into the realm of fantasy, it is no less reasonable than either the Herrenvolk (“master race”) or the “demonic Kurgan” theses. As such an inversion of the conventional framing of the original Indo-Europeans makes an interesting thought experiment, and I would ask my readers to indulge me here for a few paragraphs.

The prime evidence for “gender egalitarianism” among early Indo-Europeans derives, ironically, from the realm of war. As was mentioned in an earlier post, the Scythians, an Iranian-speaking group who maintained a largely pastoral way of life in the hypothesized IE steppe homeland, were noted for their female warriors. Herodotus famously wrote of the Amazon fighting women of the region, an observation partially conformed by recent archeological finds; as David Anthony reports, twenty percent of the Scythian/Sarmatian “warrior graves” of the lower Don and Volga river valleys include female remains that had been dressed for battle in identical fashion to the males whose skeletons were found in the same graves. The mere presence of women warriors does not, of course, imply actual gender egalitarianism, nor does it say anything about the social relations of the actual proto-Indo-European speakers, who lived in earlier times. It does, however, indicate a significant extent of female empowerment in an important IE group that maintained an equestrian mode of life on the Pontic Steppes.

Imagining the early Indo-Europeans as proto-hippies is made possible by the group’s close association with marijuana and perhaps other psychoactive plants. Building on the works of archeologists Andrew Sherratt and David Anthony, Al West argues that, “it’s possible that proto-Indo-European speakers became rich and powerful through selling … intoxicants,” further claiming that “Indo-European-speaking people traded THC-laden hemp from the steppes all the way down into the Near Eastern cities, which were naturally a major centre for trade from all over Eurasia. … If this scenario is right, then to the people of Babylon the arrival of Indo-European speakers must have seemed like one crazy dream.”

Although West is probably off-track in suggesting that proto-Indo-European speakers were responsible for the spread of cannabis as a recreational or spiritual drug, such an association is reasonably made for the progenitors of one the main branches of the IE family, the proto-Indo-Iranians. Evidence again comes from both Herodotus, who famously wrote of cannabis ingestion among the Scythians, and from archeological digs; Sherratt discovered charred cannabis residue in a Kurgan site dating back some 3,500 years BCE. Linguistic evidence also plays a role. The hemp plant, which produces valuable fibers and seeds in addition to its mind-altering resin, had been known across much of Eurasia for millennia, and thus had undoubtedly been referred to by many different local names. Cognates linked to the word “cannabis,” however, spread across and beyond the Indo-European-speaking realm in the third millennium BCE, which is believe by some experts to indicate that a new pharmaceutical use for the plant had been discovered and was itself expanding. Although the lines of linguistic descent are not clear, the new term for the plant, which eventually gave rise to the Latin word Cannabis, seems to have been associated with proto-Indo-Iranian steppe dwellers (see the discussions here, here, and here).

Cannabis was probably not the only mind-altering substance used by these people. Perhaps the largest mystery in the history of pharmacology is the identification of soma, the ritual intoxicant of the Rigveda, known as haoma in the Avesta (the sacred text of Zoroastrianism). More than a hundred Vedic hymns extol the unknown substance. Linguistic evidence indicates that soma/haoma was probably not cannabis, although it has been speculated that they were often consumed together. Numerous plants and fungi have been proposed as soma candidates, as spelled out in a detailed Wikipedia article. The primary division in the scholarly literature is between those who think that it was a hallucinogenic substance (such as the mushroom Amanita muscaria) and those who think that it was a stimulant, such as ephedra (also known as má huáng or “Mormon tea”). Recent research seems to be inclining in the direction of ephedra.

Regardless of its true identity, “soma” was ensconced in the Western public imagination by the publication of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in 1932, in which a drug called soma is used as mechanism of social control. More recently, the name has been embraced by the hippie community of northern California. The Wikipedia includes a “soma” article dedicated to a marijuana breeder of that name; the article itself notes that this particular Soma is “internationally known as a ‘Ganja Guru’ after developing award-winning cannabis strains.” I doubt very much, however, that ancient Indo-Iranian folk pharmacologists would have recognized this Soma as a kindred spirit.

The point of this excursion is not to argue that such a deeply anachronistic “proto-hippie thesis” has any merit. It is rather merely to show that making such an argument is possible. All human cultures are complex assemblages of ideas and practices, any number of which can be selected for emphasis. Especially when it comes to poorly understood cultures of the ancient past, we should be wary of any thesis that is based on any kinds of essential traits.

*Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia. Volume 2: Philippines and Formosa. Edited by Frank M. LeBar. 1975. New Haven: Human Relations Area Files Press. Page 76.

 

Ideological Agendas and Indo-European Origins: Master Race, Bloodthirsty Kurgans, or Proto-Hippies? Read More »

103 Errors in Mapping Indo-European Languages in Bouckaert et al., Part I

As our criticisms of Bouckaert et al. have been extremely harsh, we must justify them in some detail. I have accused the authors of erring “at every turn,” a charge that reeks of hyperbole. But even if that claim is exaggerated, it is still not too far from the mark. To demonstrate the extraordinary density of error in the Science article, the next few posts will dissect the authors’ base map of Indo-European languages (Figure S6 in their Supplementary Materials). This map, depicting the distribution of both modern and ancient Indo-European languages, forms a key input for their “explicit geographic model of language expansion” (Bouckaert et al., p. 957), as the locations of the sampled languages shown on this map are fed into the model in order to calculate the location of the PIE homeland. Many of the errors and inconsistencies found on their other maps stem from mistakes made in this initial figure.

The map in question shows the location of the 103 Indo-European languages analyzed. The brief caption notes that “colored polygons represent the geographic area assigned to each language based on Ethnologue.” This assertion is misleading at best. The Ethnologue does not consistently map modern languages, and it pays little attention to long-extinct ones such as Hittite. And where the Ethnologue does map, it typically does so in vastly greater detail than Bouckaert et al. Compare, for example, how the two sources depict the languages of what is now southern and central Pakistan in the paired figures to the left.

Regardless of the source (or sources) used, the map is highly inaccurate. To illustrate the cavalcade of error found in Bouckaert et al., I have isolated 103 miscues, some admittedly rather minor, but others highly significant. As recounting all of them would be tedious, I will simply note them in call-outs on expanded details from their “master map.” I have prepared twelve such enlarged maps, each focusing on a different part of the historically Indo-European-speaking world. I will post these maps sequentially over the next few days, discussing in the accompanying posts some of their more egregious errors. Today’s post will conclude with a consideration of South Asia; subsequent ones will move in a westward direction, terminating in the British Isles.

Before examining the portrayal of the Indian Subcontinent in Bouckaert et al., a few words are in order about their general approach to mapping. Analyzing their base-map is no easy matter, as they do not follow conventional cartographic procedures. Their all-important polygons are often impossible to trace, obscured by the large, numbered circles used to label the 103 languages. Another perceptual problem stems from their use of overlays, with multiple extinct languages (in red) layered upon extant languages (in blue). The resulting color blends yield confusing intermediate shades. Note on the detail posted to the left the depictions of Luvian, Hittite, Classical Armenian, Kurdish, and modern Armenian. Determining which language is indicated in which places takes some patience.

A more intractable problem concerns the map’s temporal framing. The short explanation provided in the caption makes the issue seem simple: “Red areas indicate ancient languages and blue areas indicate modern languages.” Left unanswered is the time frame of “linguistic modernity.” In some places, the term is defined broadly, extending back hundreds of years. Cornwall, for example, is shown as inhabited by speakers of modern Cornish. Such a view is anachronistic, as Cornish had disappeared from most of the peninsula by 1700, and was essentially extinct before the modern revival movement began in the 20th century. (Today Cornish is estimated to have only “a few” native speakers.) Elsewhere, the mapping of “modern languages” refers to the late 20th century. The German zone, for example, fits only the post-WWII period, after millions of German speakers had been expelled from Pomerania, Silesia, and Sudetenland. The map, to put it simply, plays fast and loose with time and space.

Even more problematic is the mapping of many languages on the basis of political rather than linguistic features. As was noted in an earlier post, all of the maps used in the study show signs of what I called “geopolitical contamination,” in which the boundaries of modern-day states incorrectly determine those of language groups, following Max Weinreich’s dictum that “a language is a dialect with an army and navy.” I was puzzled, for example, by the fact that Moldova was placed outside of the Indo-European realm in Figure S4, showcased on Quentin Atkinson’s website. The reason is readily apparent when one considers the map of the 103 language polygons (Figure S6). Here Romanian is depicted as almost exactly coincident with Romania. Moldova is fully excluded from this realm, even though the official “Moldovan Language” is differentiated from Romanian solely on political grounds. One can indeed identify a Moldovan subdialect of Romanian, but it spans the Romanian-Moldovan border. Moldova should thus have been placed within the Romanian polygon, yet it is instead depicted in the same manner as Hungary, giving the impression that it lies outside the Indo-European realm. The consequences of such a strategy are troubling for the contemporary world, but become positively pernicious when retroactively extended into the past, which is precisely what the Bouckaert model does. As a result, almost all of Moldova is ludicrously mapped as most likely never having been occupied by Indo-European speakers in Figure S4.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Such geopolitical contamination is clearly evident in the depiction of the languages of South Asia, posted here. Note that Bengali, often regarded as the world’s sixth most widely spoken language, is essentially limited to Bangladesh, its 80+ million speakers in the Indian state of West Bengal written out of the linguistic community. Even more unreasonably, Vedic Sanskrit is given the polygon of a modern political unit. The supposed territory of this ancient language is outlined and shaded in red in the map posted here. This area, it turns out, precisely fits the territorial extent of Punjab before it was partitioned by the British. That colonial-era Punjab would have no bearing on the distribution of Vedic Sanskrit, spoken some 3,000 years ago, should go without saying. It is also worth noting that the former Punjab included what is now the Indian Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh, which features peaks 22,000 feet above sea level. It is safe to assume that such areas were never part of the Vedic Sanskrit realm.

 

Mapping Vedic Sanskrit is no easy task, but that is no excuse for using a modern geopolitical proxy. Careful studies show that the world of the Rig Veda was largely limited to what are now the Indian and Pakistani states of Punjab along with the Vale of Peshawar and Swat Valley. “Vedic India” in the larger sense extended from this region down the Ganges Valley through Bihar and southward to encompass Gujarat, as can be seen in the second map posted here. Either of these two areas could easily have been used for the Vedic Sanskrit polygon.

 

I will not comment further on the remaining errors and infelicities on the Bouckaert et al. portrayal of South Asia, as a number of them are noted on the map itself. I have also posted a fine Wikipedia map of the current distribution of the Indo-European languages of South Asia for comparative purposes. (Note that this Wikipedia map lumps a number if disparate dialects into single languages, such as Bihari.)

As we shall see in forthcoming posts, similar errors litter all other portions of the original language map employed by Bouckaert et al. As a result, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the authors simply do not have the level of geo-linguistic comprehension necessary for carrying out their task. I have taught the geography of modern languages at leading universities for twenty-five years, and I can peg the level of understanding demonstrated by students fairly accurately. That of Bouckaert et al. would clearly fall into the “B” range. Given the unfortunate realities of grade inflation, that means that more than half of my undergraduate students finish their terms with a better understanding of the distribution of languages than the authors of a supposedly path-breaking article on the origin and spread of the world’s largest language family published in one of the world’s leading scientific journals.

 

 

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Why the Indo-European Debate Matters—And Matters Deeply

As expected, we have received a few complaints from friends, acquaintances, and Facebook-followers in regard to the current Indo-European series. “Why get so exercised over a single article,” some ask, reminding us that science is a self-correcting endeavor that will eventually winnow away the chaff. Others question the entire enterprise, wondering why we would care so much about such an obscure topic.

We agree that science is, in the long run, a self-correcting undertaking, which gives it vast power. But self-correction does not come automatically; it takes work, which we are happy to provide. And in the short-term, counterfeit research can do great harm, as the Lysenko Affair in the Soviet Union so well demonstrated. We also find it deeply troubling that a nonsensical article would not only be accepted for publication in one of the world’s premier scientific journals, but would immediately be trumpeted in the mass media for “solving” one of the key mysteries of human pre-history. The episode uncovers a whiff of corruption in the scientific-journalist establishment that needs a blast of fresh air.

In regard to the second set of complaints, we must reject them outright. The Indo-European issue is not obscure, trivial, or unrelated to pressing issues of our day. In fact, it is difficult to locate a single topic of historical debate that has been more ideologically fraught and politically laden over the past 150 years than that of Indo-European origin and expansion.

Indo-European studies took on a heavy ideological burden in the late 1800s, a development that would indirectly lead to the most hideous examples of genocide and mass-murder that the world has ever witnessed. The supposedly superior “Aryans” of Nazi mythology were none other than the speakers of Proto-Indo-European (PIE). Nazi propagandists conjured their own wildly off-base theories about I-E origins, but their fantasies had roots in the scholarly endeavors of German philologists. And while Nazism was militarily crushed and its ideological foundations pulverized, the movement refuses to die. Indeed, it seems to be experiencing something of a revival in eastern Germany, Hungary, and—of all places—Russia. On numerous occasions, I have found myself directed by Google to the odious “Stormfront” website while searching for images and ethnographic descriptions of various Eurasian ethnic groups. The Aryan myth also continues to feed racially troubling ideologies outside of Europe, particularly in Iran and northern India.

Even scholars who have sought to undermine the noxious notion of the Aryan Herrenvolk have occasionally generated their own benign but still fantasy-laden counter-narratives. The key figure here is the late Lithuanian-American archeologist Marija Gimbutas, noted for placing the I-E homeland in the Pontic Steppes. Gimbutas’s scientific research was solid, and we suspect that she was largely correct in locating the PIE homeland. But in seeking to turn the Nazi view on its head, she went too far—and some of her lay followers went much too far. In the feminist retelling of the tale that she inspired, the Aryans become the Kurgans, a uniquely violent, male-dominated people who destroyed the peaceful, gender-equitable if not matriarchal civilization of “Old Europe.” In Riane Eisler’s 1988 treatise, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future, the Kurgan conquests are seen as ushering in a global age of male domination and mass violence. The work was a bestseller, blurbed by noted anthropologist Ashley Montagu as the “most important book since Darwin’s Origin of Species.”

Eisler’s global vision failed from the onset: as male domination characterized almost all historically known human societies, it cannot be attributed to a single ancient people located in one particular part of the Earth. Recent research has also tended to undermine many of her more specific claims. The Old Europeans were probably not as peaceful and female-centered as they had been portrayed, and the PIE speakers and their immediate descendents were probably not so insistently androcentric. Certainly the early Indo-European speakers were no strangers to violence and domination, but how do we account for the female Scythian skeletons from the Kurgan homeland tricked out in military gear? Perhaps Herodotus was on to something when he wrote of Amazon tribes in the area. More to the point, we now understand that the early Indo-European-speakers could not have simply invaded Old Europe and subjugated its inhabitants, as they lacked the state-level forms of military organization necessary for wide conquests. As Anthony shows so well in The Horse, the Wheel and Language, the process was almost certainly one of gradual incursions, marked by both social predation and mutualism, that allowed the militarily advantaged, semi-pastoral, equestrian I-E speakers to slowly spread their forms of speech. And while their languages did indeed expand over vast areas, they did not simply replace pre-existing tongues. Almost everywhere, older linguistic elements survived. Major non-I-E substrates characterize such I-E subfamilies as Germanic and Greek. A huge problem for both Nazi ideology and the Gimbutas/Eisler thesis is the fact that most of the Germanic root words pertaining to war are non-Indo-European. The mysteries here remain deep.

Considering the misuses to which the issue of I-E origins has been put, it is understandable that some people would want to reject the idea that the original speakers were war-like horse-riders from some remote, northern homeland. All such troublesome interpretations would vanish if I-E expansion could instead be linked to the gradual movement of simple farmers from the Near Eastern agricultural heartland into the sparsely settled lands of Mesolithic Europe. But if the evidence indicates otherwise, as it most assuredly does, the result is merely another myth. Scientific responsibility demands the search for truth, even if the truth leads into uncomfortable areas.

Regardless of the complications introduced by ideological distortions, investigations of I-E origins and expansion have a huge bearing of the study of human prehistory. Indo-European, after all, is by far the world’s largest language family when counted by the number of speakers. Linguistic evidence about the family’s spread tells us much of significance about the historical development of a vast section of the Earth’s surface over many centuries, even millennia. Studies of human prehistory depend crucially on three lines of evidence: those derived from archeological digs; from genetic studies; and from linguistics. Over the past decade, much progress has been made in bridging linguistic and archeological evidence, as demonstrated by David Anthony’s The Horse, the Wheel, and Language. To the extent that the burgeoning genetic investigations of Y- and mitochondrial DNA lineages can be incorporated into this linguistic-archeological nexus, a much richer understanding of the prehistoric human past awaits. For a path-breaking interdisciplinary foray into this territory, see Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Smail, Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present.

Such developments, however, risk being cut short if the field of historical linguistics continues to languish. Further progress will depend not only on linguists carrying out their own research, but also on their passing down of their knowledge and techniques to future generations of students. Such lines of intellectual transmission, however, are threatened by cutbacks in linguistic departments, as well as by the assaults on the field mounted by interlopers who have somehow managed to convince many scientists that linguistic evidence is of little account when it comes to studying the history of languages. To the extent that the Anatolian hypothesis gains ground among archeologists and geneticists on the basis of the recent Science article, our collective knowledge of the past will take a sharp step backwards.

The most troubling aspect of the affair, however, is not the threats that it poses but rather the revelations that it makes about the integrity of the scientific and journalistic establishments. A scholarly journal such as Science is duty-bound to vet any potential contribution through established experts. Yet I have a difficult time imagining that the article in question was subjected to proper peer-review through any qualified specialist in the field in which it sits: Indo-European historical linguistics. Either the article was never sent to a competent linguistics reviewer, or the resulting review was irresponsibly ignored. And yet this is not the first time that a preposterous article on historical linguistics has appeared in Science (and also in Nature), as we shall see in future posts. Have the editors of this august journal decided that the discipline of linguists has somehow failed, and that its field of historical inquiry should therefore be handed over to epidemiologists and computational modelers? If so, on what possible grounds was this decision reached? Unless such questions can be answered, I have a difficult time avoiding the conclusion that the editors of Science have betrayed the basic canons of academic responsibility.

While contemplating these issues, I am continually reminded of the Sokal Hoax, an episode that revealed the vacuity of postmodernist literary theory and “science studies” in the mid-1990s. This affair came to my attention when I was participating in the conference on “The Flight from Science and Reason” organized by the New York Academy of Sciences. A rumor began to circulate among the attendees that a noted physicist and mathematician with solid leftist political credentials was perpetrating a prank that would debunk Social Text, perhaps the leading journal of poststructuralist theory, and in so doing deflate the pretension of those who sought to undermine science in the name of human liberation. Sokal’s article, entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” argues that since science is merely a social construct, quantum gravity, especially as interpreted through the new-age lens of “morphogenetic fields,” can have progressive implications for political action. The paper was accepted and duly published, despite the fact that it was, as its author soon admitted, “a pastiche of Left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense . . . structured around the silliest quotations [by postmodernist academics] he could find about mathematics and physics.” Sokal designed the hoax as a kind of test of the allegations made by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt in their book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science. As he discovered, even the most palpable nonsense imaginable could be published in Social Text so long as it sounded good and flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.”

While the Sokal Affair was a purposive hoax, the members of the Boukaert team evidently believe that their article constitutes a contribution to knowledge. But what the authors think about their own work is of no significance, as the arguments they make must stand on their own. Had Alan Sokal actually believed that the “construction” of quantum gravity could be a politically progressive act, would his article have been any less nonsensical? The current authors have thus perpetrated an unwitting hoax, but the end results should be no less embarrassing for the editors of Science than the Sokal Affair was for those of Social Text. Boukaert et al. begin by improperly framing the problem, and then go on to err at every turn. It is not so much that the article’s conclusions are incorrect, but rather that every assumption it makes, every technique it employs, and virtually every “fact” that it marshals is either incorrect, inappropriate, or misleading. Yet this work was published in one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals. Something here smells rather fishy.

But if the mere publication of the article in Science raises questions about intellectual integrity, its immediate celebration in the pages of the New York Times points to a deeper mire. Science publishes hundreds of articles each year, a tiny fraction of which are ever mentioned in the New York Times, let alone showcased in the newspaper’s main section. Yet the Times has gone out of its way on more than one occasion to trumpet “contributions” to linguistic history from members of the Bouckaert team, specifically Quentin Atkinson. Evidently, the editors of the supposed newspaper-of-record in the United States have concluded that the work of these scholars constitutes one of the most important scientific stories of the past decade. On what possible basis could such an assessment have been rationally made?

Journalists, like academics, are expected to adhere to certain standards of professional behavior. Unless they are writing for the editorial pages or are explicitly employed in “advocacy journalism,” reporters are expected to remain as objective as possible, not letting their own interests, political predilections, or friendship and kin networks direct their work. Such guidelines are impossible to follow to the letter, and as a result complete objectivity is a mere ideal. But such an ideal is still supposed to influence behavior in self-respecting media outlets, eliminating the excesses of partisanship. In the present case, however, all such ethical fetters seem to have been removed. Nicholas Wade’s reporting on this issue has been non-objective in the extreme. One can only speculate as to why Wade has been determined to act as Quentin Atkinson’s pocket journalist, ever ready to proclaim his latest clumsy foray into linguistics as a scientific breakthrough on par with plate tectonics.

To appreciate the level of corruption revealed by the Bouckaert Affair, imagine that a parallel series of events occurred in a different walk of life, such as business. Imagine, for example, that an established financial firm with a reasonably good reputation decided to apply its mathematical models to an unrelated business, one in which both the leaders and employees of the company had no experience. Being ignorant of their new field, they made a number of naïve and ultimately untenable assumptions about how it operates, and thus when they applied their favored methods, unexpected breakdowns occurred. Soon the firm began to hemorrhage money. But rather than admit to their failure, the managers instead crowed about their success, hiding their mounting losses in misleading accounting sheets and obscurely written reports. But even as the company began to collapse, its reputation strengthened and its stock-market valuation rose. Such gains, it turns out, stemmed from glowing reports on its new venture in the business media, most notably the New York Times. The most substantive Times’ piece on the venture appeared not in the paper’s business pages, but in its main news section, gaining it a particularly wide readership. The fact that it was written by the former editor of its business section, a person widely regarded as one of the country’s leading economic journalists, helped propel the story. For a while, it appeared as if the firm could do no wrong. And then …

In the world of commerce, such a story would end with the quick death of the firm, as well as that of its business model. To the extent that any company making consistent losses will eventually fail, business—like science—is a self-correcting enterprise. Failure in business, however, is generally more pressing than it is in science, as rather more money and power is typically at stake. Intrinsic error can linger in science for decades, as demonstrated by the prolonged resistance of geologists to the ever-mounting evidence for continental drift. In a field as marginal as Indo-European studies, well-funded pseudo-scientific works could withstand invalidation by under-funded scholars for many years. In the popular imagination, moreover, erroneous ideas can escape correction altogether, lodging so firmly as to be all but irremovable by evidence. Examples include the widely known non-facts that the Eskimo languages have a multitude of words for snow, and that Europeans before Columbus thought that the world was flat. The Indo-European Affair, in short, matters, and matters deeply. I find it cause for deep concern, and as a result I will continue to write about it.

But after one more post, the current series on Indo-European origins will go on hiatus for a few weeks. Both Asya and I must travel for a short period, so blogging in general will be light for the next week or so.

 

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