- Commentary on Chen et al.'s "Worldwide Analysis of Genetic and Linguistic Relationships of Human Populations" (1995)
Due to an error at the printer, the original article page range (571–578) was incorrect. The correct pagination is 573–580 and is reflected in this updated article. Click here for the corrected PDF.
Scope, Context and Contribution. This paper well attests to Robert Sokal's broad contribution to a cross-disciplinary human prehistory. For here, he and Jiangtian Chen team up with Merritt Ruhlen to add a linguistic perspective to a genetic one: specifically, to test whether the lineages of our languages might correlate, on a very ambitious worldwide scale, with those of our genes. "The implications . . . for the origin and history of our species would be great," as they put it, and certainly the stakes could hardly be higher for a holistic understanding of our origins.
With such potential does come a commensurate temptation, however. Indeed, it must immediately be pointed out that the particular vision of language relationships and prehistory espoused here by Ruhlen is distinctly unorthodox and exceptionally controversial among historical linguists, such that grave concerns attend the "classification" that he contributes as the language "data" here. Not that this disqualifies the approach, however. Rather, in a sense it only reflects the ambition: to investigate potential correlations between linguistic and genetic lineages at the broadest possible level worldwide, and at the greatest time-depth possible. The very value of this paper is that it aspires to put to the test Ruhlen's most controversial claims for deep language relationships. To do so, care is taken to keep a fairly tight rein on them, and to keep the method itself sufficiently distanced from them, without taking them as given ("If higher linguistic structure did exist, as claimed, we would expect . . .").
A key result of this paper, in fact, is that it duly finds nothing to those claims, at least in the aspect assessed here: whether there emerges any clear correlation with genetics. Instead, the results incline toward the orthodox position as to what languages can and cannot reliably tell us of prehistory. In so doing, they render a service to all disciplines with a stake in understanding human prehistory. Notwithstanding the great advances in genetics since this paper was published, the latest generation of scholars in this cross-disciplinary field would do well to bear more in mind the lessons from this pioneering contribution.
Obviously, the task that Sokal and his colleagues set for themselves here is best understood in the context of its time. They refer specifically to Cavalli-Sforza et al. (1988) as having "reported not only a remarkable match between [End Page 573] genetic and linguistic groupings but also a correspondence between linguistic superfamilies with major genetic clusters." That claim had at once been very heavily disputed, of course, on two main counts: the putative superfamilies are in fact but linguistic fiction; and any apparent correlation is merely an artifact of the linguistic claims and the genetic clusters—both being effectively functions of the same determining factor, geography. Chen et al. (1995) specifically set out to address and test both of these concerns.
Another element of the context was a counterreaction, at times likewise overzealous, downplaying too far the reasonable default expectation that genetic and linguistic lineages should be expected to match at least in some circumstances. Such was what Sokal had already striven to demonstrate in "other geographically more limited studies" together with other co-authors, as cited here. Linguistic orthodoxy might even deem those illustrations more restrained and rather more sound than Chen et al. (1995) itself, but it alone has the merit of testing the potential correlation on a grander worldwide scale. And on that broad level it does suggest that to insist on "no intrinsic relation between genetics and language" is indeed overstated—even if those indications hold only on the level of certain language families well-established in linguistic orthodoxy, and not Ruhlen's macro-family claims.
Ultimately, Sokal's approaches would contribute to integrating comparative language data more fully into a cross-disciplinary prehistory. For as well as spurring and facilitating research into correlations with genetics...