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Why the Indo-European Debate Matters—And Matters Deeply

Submitted by on September 13, 2012 – 2:37 pm 41 Comments |  
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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