Nicholas Wade

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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Mismodeling Indo-European Origin and Expansion: Bouckaert, Atkinson, Wade and the Assault on Historical Linguistics

Dear Readers,

As GeoCurrents passed through its August slowdown, plans were made for a series on the Summer Olympics. Thanks to the efforts of Chris Kremer, we have gathered statistics—and made maps—relating Olympic medal count by country to population and GDP, both overall and in regard to specific categories of competition. The series, however, has been put on hold by the recent publication of two heralded articles on the history and geography of the Indo-European language family. On August 24, a short piece in Science—“Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family”—made extravagant claims, purporting to overturn the most influential historical-linguistic account of the world’s most widespread language family. On the same day, Nicholas Wade, noted New York Times science reporter, wrote a half-page spread in the news section of the Times on the Science report, entitled “Family Tree of Languages Has Roots in Anatolia, Biologists Say.” Over the next few days, the story was picked up—and often twisted in the process—by assorted journalists. Within a few days, headlines appeared as preposterous as “English Language Originated in Turkey.”

As Wade’s title indicates, the Science article, written by Remco Bouckaert and eight others (most notably Quentin D. Atkinson), seeks to overturn the thesis that the Indo-European (I-E) family originated north of the Black and Caspian seas. It instead locates the I-E heartland in what is now Turkey, supporting the “Anatolian” thesis advanced a generation ago by archeologist Colin Renfrew. The Science team bases its claims on mathematical grounds, using techniques derived from evolutionary biology and epidemiology to draw linguistic family trees and model the geographical spread of language groups. According to Wade, the authors claim that their study does nothing less than “solve” a “long-standing problem in archaeology: the origin of the Indo-European family of languages.” (Strictly speaking, however, the problem is not an archaeological one, as excavations by themselves tell us nothing about the languages of non-literate peoples; it is rather a linguistic problem with major bearing on prehistory more generally.)

As GeoCurrents is deeply interested in the intersection of language, geography, and history, the two articles immediately grabbed our attention. Our initial response was one of profound skepticism, as it hardly seemed likely that a single mathematical study could “solve” one of the most carefully examined conundrums of the distant human past. Recent work in both linguistics and archeology, moreover, has tended against the Anatolian hypothesis, placing Indo-European origins in the steppe and parkland zone of what is now Ukraine, southwest Russia, and environs. The massive literature on the subject was exhaustively weighed as recently as 2007 by David W. Anthony in his magisterial study, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Could such a brief article as that of Bouckaert et al. really overturn Anthony’s profound syntheses so easily?

The more we examined the articles in question, the more our reservations deepened. In the Science piece, the painstaking work of generations of historical linguists who have rigorously examined Indo-European origins and expansion is shrugged off as if it were of no account, even though the study itself rests entirely on the taken-for-granted work of linguists in establishing relations among languages based on words of common descent (cognates). In Wade’s New York Times article, contending accounts and lines of evidence are mentioned, but in a casual and slipshod manner. More problematic are the graphics offered by Bouckaert and company. The linguistic family trees generated by their model are clearly wrong, as we shall see in forthcoming posts. And on the website that accompanies the article, an animated map (“movie,” according to its creators) of Indo-European expansion is so error-riddled as to be amusing, and the conventional map on the same site is almost as bad. Mathematically intricate though it may be, the model employed by the authors nonetheless churns out demonstrably false information.

Failing the most basic tests of verification, the Bouckaert article typifies the kind of undue reductionism that sometimes gives scientific excursions into human history and behavior a bad name, based on the belief that a few key concepts linked to clever techniques can allow one to side-step complexity, promising mathematically elegant short-cuts to knowledge. While purporting to offer a truly scientific* approach, Bouckaert et al. actually forward an example of scientism, or the inappropriate and overweening application of specific scientific techniques to problems that lie beyond their own purview.

The Science article lays its stake to scientific standing in a straightforward but unconvincing manner. The authors claim that as two theories of Indo-European (I-E) origin vie for acceptance, a geo-mathematical analysis based on established linguistic and historical data can show which one is correct. Actually, many theories of I-E origin have been proposed over the years, most of which—including the Anatolian hypothesis—have been rejected by most specialists on empirical grounds. Establishing the firm numerical base necessary for an all-encompassing mathematical analysis of splitting and spreading languages is, moreover, all but impossible. The list of basic cognates found among Indo-European languages is not settled, nor is the actual enumeration of separate I-E languages, and the timing of the branching of the linguistic tree remains controversial as well. As a result of such uncertainties, errors can easily accumulate and compound, undermining the approach.

The scientific failings of the Bouckaert et al. article, however, go much deeper than that of mere data uncertainty. The study rests on unexamined postulates about language spread, assuming that the process works through simple spatial diffusion in much the same way as a virus spreads from organism to organism. Such a hypothesis is intriguing, but must be regarded as a proposition rather than a given, as it does not rest on a foundation of evidence. The scientific method calls for all such assumptions to be put to the test. One can easily do so in this instance. One could, for example, mathematically model the hypothesized diffusion of Indo-European languages for historical periods in which we have firm linguistic-geographical information to see if the predicted patterns conform to those of the real world. If they do not, one could only conclude that the approach fails. Such failure could stem either from the fact that the data used are too incomplete and compromised to be of value (garbage in/garbage out), of from a more general collapse of the diffusional model. Either possibility would invalidate the Science article.

Such a study, it turns out, has been conducted—and by none other than Bouckaert et al. in the Science article in question. Their model not only looks back 8,500 years into the past, when the locations and relations of languages families are only conjectured, but also comes up to the near present (1974), when such matters are well known. Here a single glance at their maps reveals the failure of their entire project, as they depict eastern Ukraine and almost all of Russia as never having been occupied by Indo-European speakers. Are we to believe that Russian and Ukrainian are not I-E languages? Or perhaps that Russians and Ukrainian speakers do not actually live in Russia and Ukraine? By the same token, are we to conclude that the Scythian languages of antiquity were not I-E? Or perhaps that the Scythians did not actually live in Scythia? And these are by no means the only instances of the study invalidating itself, as we shall soon demonstrate. An honest scientific report would have admitted as much, yet that of Bouckaert et al. instead trumpets its own success. How could that possibly be?

One can only speculate as to why the authors proved incapable of noting the failure of their model to mirror reality. Did they neglect to look at their own maps, trusting that the underlying equations were so powerful that they would automatically deliver? Could their faith in their model trump their concern for empirical evidence? Or could it be that their knowledge of linguistic geography is so scanty that they do not grasp the distribution of the Russian language, much less that of Scythian? If so, they are not operating at an acceptable undergraduate level of geo-historical knowledge. Alternatively, the authors might be aware that their model generates nonsense, but prefer to pretend otherwise, hoping to buffalo the broader scholarly community. They seem, after all, to conceal their approach as much as possible, couching their “findings” in jargon-ridden prose that proves a challenge not just for lay readers but also for specialists in neighboring subfields. (Translations of such passages as “Contours on the map represent the 95% highest posterior density distribution for the range of Indo-European” will be forthcoming.)

Regardless of whether the authors are intentionally trying to mislead the public or have simply succeeded in fooling themselves, their work approaches scientific malpractice. Science ultimately demands empirical verification, and here the project fails miserably. If generating scads of false information does not falsify the model, what possibly could? Non-falsifiable claims are, of course, non-scientific claims. The end result is a grotesquely rationalistic and hence ultimately irrational approach to the human past. As such, examining the claims made by the Science team becomes an example of what my colleagues Robert Proctor and Londa Schiebinger have aptly deemed “agnotology,” or “the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt, particularly the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data.”

As the critique we offer is harsh and encompassing, GeoCurrents will devote a number of posts to examining in detail the claims made and techniques employed by Bouckaert, Atkinson, and their colleagues. But before delving into the nitty-gritty, a few words are in order about what ultimately lies at stake. We are exercised about the Science article not merely because of our passion for the seemingly esoteric issue of Indo-European origins, but also because we fear for the future of historical linguistics—and history more generally. The Bouckaert study, coupled with the mass-media celebration of the misinformation that it presents, constitutes an assault on a field that has generated an extraordinary body of rigorously derived information about the human past. Such an attack occurs at an unfortunate moment, as historical linguistics is already in crisis. Linguistics departments have been cutting positions in historical inquiry for some time, creating an environment in which even the best young scholars in the field are often unable to obtain academic positions.

The devaluation of historical linguistics is merely one aspect of a much larger shift away from the study of the past. Subdisciplines such as historical geography and historical sociology have been diminishing for decades, and even the discipline of history faces declining enrollments and reduced faculty slots. Academic history itself, moreover, has been progressively shying away from the deeper reaches of the human past to focus on modern if not recent historical processes. Such developments do not bode well for the maintenance of an educated public. At the risk of descending into hyperbole, we do worry about the emergence of something approaching institutionally produced societal dementia. The past matters, and we care deeply for the preservation of its study.

*Make no mistake: we at GeoCurrents are strong supporters of the scientific method. Linguistics is itself a logically constituted, rigorous endeavor that counts as a science in the larger sense of the word, and I have myself co-edited a work defending science and reason against eco-radical and other far-left attacks (The Flight from Science and Reason, edited by Paul R. Gross, Norman Levitt, and Martin W. Lewis. 1997. New York Academy of Sciences).

 

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