Your Daily Science Update for Friday the 30th really does seem to be taking the perspective that scientists should give up doing science, and simply trust Biblical Literalism. It’s called Linguists Argue over Language Origins, and is about a scientific controversy over a Science paper from April of last year: Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa by a Quentin D. Atkinson of Auckland University.
Mr Thomas begins:
According to a 2011 study published in Science, evidence points to language beginning in Africa, which goes along with the very popular “out of Africa” story of human origins.
Auckland University anthropologist Quentin Atkinson examined the distribution of phonemes, which are fundamental sound units such as consonants and vowels. He found that languages farther from Africa used fewer phonemes. For example, the South African Nguni languages use a wider variety of sounds than other languages, including clicks and pops.
He goes on to provide his version of the criticisms:
Some critics say that Atkinson hand-picked the data for his study. In a comment also published in Science, Michael Cysouw and two others expressed “problems with Atkinson’s findings,” including a procedure that “necessarily ‘spreads’ any origin across a contiguous geographic region, even in the case of totally random data.”
You can read the Cysouw et al. in full here. This was not the only critical comment published on the same day (Feb 10) in Science: here and here are two more, while Atkinson’s response can be found here.
Now, I’m not reading that anyone was accusing him of hand picking the data, more that the data he used was biased in some ways. The ‘totally random data’ thing is quite definitely disputed by Atkinson:
As Cysouw et al.’s own simulations show, when the method is applied to random data, the area supported using a BIC threshold of four includes the whole world, correctly indicating that the random data do not point to any particular origin location.
Thomas goes on:
Cysouw, a quantitative comparative linguistics expert at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, said that if Atkinson’s methods were applied to aspects of language other than phonemes—for example, “the construction of subordinate clauses”—the results would show that the “origin of language [was] in eastern Africa or the Caucasus or somewhere else entirely,” according to an LMU news release.
The news release B.T. is linking to is here. The ‘eastern Africa’ seems to refer to the apparent placement by Atkinson’s data of the origin of language in South-West Africa: Atkinson himself is just saying ‘Africa’. And he seems to have answers to this criticism also.
However, all the response Thomas allows is:
Atkinson defended his thesis, stating that the criticism “does not undermine” his original conclusions.
No further explanation is given. Nor does Thomas discuss a further exchange in Science on March 2, in the form of another comment and a response. This comment, unlike Cysouw’s, did not go so far as to call Atkinson’s results “an artifact of using suboptimal data, biased methodology, and unjustified assumptions.” They instead claim that “[t]he data at best support only a weak interpretation of the serial founder hypothesis.” But the response seems solid, though I’m likely biased by the lack of a rebuttal to the rebuttal.
It seems to me that whatever the outcome of this, an origin of language in Africa does seem likely, if not necessarily the whole story. And for the purposes of annoying the young-Earth creationists, that will do.
But we go on:
“Linguists have long sought to throw light on the origin of language by analyzing patterns of language distribution,” according to LMU. But even if researchers go back and forth in this manner forever, they would probably never find the big-picture answers just by focusing on “analyzing patterns.” This is because they are ignoring the best information available on the subject: the Bible.
By restricting themselves to empirical surveys interpreted through a framework based on evolutionary history, which suggests that languages naturally evolved from an ape-like source, researchers would never discover that languages actually arose suddenly and supernaturally at the dispersion of the human population from Babel about 4,000 years ago.
Yes, yes – forget empiricism, use the Bible. Trust in us, that’s all you need: no explanation as to why their version of events is correct, no attempt to interpret the data to support their ‘model‘. Just use the Bible.
Well, what did you expect?