A Comparison of Historical Biology and Historical Linguistics (off topic)

From: Alexanian, Moorad <alexanian@uncw.edu>
Date: Tue Apr 26 2005 - 14:45:52 EDT

I received this essay and thought it may be of interest to the list. Moorad
 
 
A Comparison of Historical Biology and Historical Linguistics
By Lydia Hazel(1), Bachelor of Arts in Latin (1983), Master of Arts in Linguistics (1989) from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
 

The following discussion compares general facts about biological organisms with similar general facts about languages to show the different conclusions drawn. It argues that historical biologists should adopt a research approach consistent with that used in historical linguistics to test the Neo-Darwinian hypothesis that all species are genetically related.
 
 Biologists have compiled a chronology of increasingly complex life forms from the fossil record. They have also shown that all living beings have a common intracellular component called genes, many of which are similar across species, and which change over time. Furthermore, they have detailed similarities in mature and developing anatomical structures across species and have noted, in some cases, that the degree of genetic similarity among species correlates with the degree of their anatomical similarity. From these general facts, they have concluded that they can historically relate all living beings by means of genetic variation(2).
 
 Similarly, linguists have compiled a chronology of increasingly complex writing events from the archaeological record(3). They have also shown that all languages have distinctive word internal sounds, called phonemes(4), many of which are quite similar across languages(5), and which change by phonetic variation over time(6). Furthermore, they have detailed the similarities in fully acquired and developmental structures across languages (7,8) and have noted that, in some cases, the degree of phonetic similarity among languages correlates with their degree of structural similarity(5, 6). But unlike biologists, linguists have not concluded from these general facts that they can historically relate all languages by means of phonetic variation. Instead, they have shown that one cannot historically relate all languages(6) for various reasons, for example, the constraints arising from the physical aspects of the vocal and auditory tracts and of the neurological central pr!
ocessing system(9), and from the basic semantic and grammatical units, called morphemes, in which phonemes occur(10).
 
 It is possible that constraints similarly exist on the effects of genetic variation, with the result that biologists cannot use genetic differences to historically relate all species. Such constraints might result from the specific DNA/RNA and protein structures and functions essential to biochemistry(11), others from mutation repair mechanisms(12), others from the specific nature of germ cells(13), which are the only cells relevant to historical change(2), and still others from the interaction of the developmental onset times for mutation effects with the developmental onset times for various phases of germ cell formation(13,14).
 
 In any event, specific facts about genetic differences in germ cells exclusively determine which species may be genetically related just as specific facts about phonetic differences in words exclusively determine which languages may be phonetically related. Historical biologists who compare fossils, gross anatomy, and genetic material separated from its impact on germ cells prevent, rather than advance, knowledge about species relatedness by means of genetic variation. Similarly, historical linguists would have prevented knowledge of language relatedness by means of phonetic variation if they had compared archaeologically recovered writing events, present day languages, and isolated phonemes without perpetual coincident reference to the reality of the individual words in which phonemes occur. And if they had insisted, from these decontextualized comparisons of phonetic data, that all languages were phonetically related, they would never have discovered the systematicity o!
f phonetic variation(15); nor would they have had any means of explaining those aspects of language variation that do not reduce to discrete points of phonetic variation, such as differences in supra-segmental(16), phrase structure rules(17), and semantic organization(18, 19).
 
 The historical biologist's job is much simpler in terms of data compilation and comparison than the historical linguist's because there is only one relevant cell type for comparison -- germ cells(2). How much simpler the task of historical reconstruction of languages would be if a linguist only had to isolate two equivalent words (cf., male and female germ cells) across languages for comparison. Given this simple protocol that the reality of biological reproduction supplies, the historical biologist should proceed as follows. Among members of the same species, where common descent is known, the same sex germ cells are essentially identical, except for their genetic matter(2). Deducing from this, one should group species by degree of same sex germ cell similarity, compare those same sex germ cells which are most similar, subtract out a common genetic core, as exists among members of the same species and among members of two different species from an observed speciation!
 event(2), categorize the genetic differences, and cross reference them with facts about potential specific genetic effects on germ cell formation, physiology and morphology. In this way, germ cell comparisons and their reconstructed common genetic cores become to the historical biologist what equivalent word sets(6) (or potential cognates) and roots(20) (or proto-languages) are to the historical linguist. If the historical biologist proves from these same sex germ cell comparisons that that the effects of genetic differences are sufficient to account for the diversity of the world's species, he should next consider facts about the observable occurrence of mutations to see if modified descent by means of genetic variation is actually possible.
 

1 address: 1468 S. Poplar Camp Road, Makanda, IL 62958; phone: 618-549-1148 or 618-525-1148; email: LydiaJH@aol.com <mailto:LydiaJH@aol.com>
 
2 Villee, C. A. "Chapter 32: Evidence for Evolution," in Biology: Seventh Edition. (W. B. Saunders Company, Philadelphia, 1977), pp. 753-781.
 
3 Howell, R. W. and Vetter, H. J. Language in Behavior. (Human Sciences Press, New York, 1976), pp. 177-188.
 
4 Makkai, V. B., editor. Phonological Theory: Evolution and Current Practice. New York: (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., New York, 1972).
 
5 Ladefoged, P. A Course in Phonetics. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., New York, 1975), pp. 258-259.
 
6 Lyons, J. Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics. (Cambridge University Press, London, 1968), pp. 21-38.
 
7 Chomsky, N. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. (M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, MA, 1965).
 
8 Lenneberg, E.H. Biological Foundations of Language. (John Wiley and Sons, Inc., New York), pp. 125-187.
 
9 Lenneberg, E.H. Biological Foundations of Language. (John Wiley and Sons, Inc., New York), pp. 33-124, 188-226.
 
10 Perkell, J. S., and Klatt, D. H., editors. Invariance and Variability in Speech Processes. (Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, NJ, 1986).
 
11 Villee, C. A. Biology: Seventh Edition. (W. B. Saunders Company, Philadelphia, 1977), pp. 34-38.
 
12 Kimball, J. Kimball's Biology Pages, at http://biology-pages.info/D/DNArepair.html, 2005.
 
13 Villee, C. A. Biology: Seventh Edition. (W. B. Saunders Company, Philadelphia, 1977), pp. 613-623.
 
14 Villee, C. A. Biology: Seventh Edition. (W. B. Saunders Company, Philadelphia, 1977), pp. 586-597.
 
15 Ladefoged, P. A Course in Phonetics. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., New York, 1975), pp. 23-90.
 
16 Ladefoged, P. A Course in Phonetics. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., New York, 1975), pp. 443-481.
 
17 Chomsky, N. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. (M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, MA, 1965), pp. 63-147.
 
18 Lyons, J. Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics. (Cambridge University Press, London, 1968), pp. 400-481.
 
19 Chomsky, N. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. (M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, MA, 1965), pp. 148-192.
 
20 Lewis, C.T. "Table of Roots," in An Elementary Latin Dictionary. (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979), pp. 935-952.
Received on Tue Apr 26 14:48:46 2005

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