Mapping Linguistic Phylogeny to Politics

In a recent article covered in Nature in Societes Evolve in Steps, Tom Currie of UCL, and others, like Russel Gray of Auckland, use quantitative analysis of the Polynesian language group to plot socioanthropological movement and power hierarchies in Polynesia. This is based off of previous work, available here, which I saw presented at the Language as an Evolutionary System conference last July. The article claims that political complexity can be determined using linguistic evidence in Polynesia, along with various migration theories and archaeological evidence.

I have my doubts. The talk that was given by Russel Gray suggested that there were still various theories about the migratory patterns of the Polynesians – in particular, where they started from. What his work did was to use massive supercomputers to narrow down all of the possibilities, by using lexicons and charting their similarities. The most probable were then recorded, and their statistical probability indicated what was probably the course of action. This, however, is where the ability for guessing ends. Remember, this is massive quantificational statistics. If one has a 70% probability chance of one language being the root of another, that isn’t to say that that language is the root, much less that the organisation of one determines the organisation of another. (On a related note that I won’t go into, I have my doubts about this sort of quantificational study, as well. For one, the lexicons that were worked with were done in post-hoc standardised orthography, and as such didn’t really suggest the actual phonetic detail, a point raised by one of the audience members (I believe it was Pullum). For two, the interconnectivity of the Polynesian languages by no means means that one languages proportional derivational split means anything. (If that makes sense.))

The article in Nature, short as it is, does thankfully manage to cast doubt on the research which suggests that is possible.”

“So the only question would be ‘are languages a good way to work out relationships between societies?’” In general, Diamond says, languages do fit the bill.
Unfortunately, how is never stated. But a few arguments are raised (as I’ve said):
  • Quantitative analyses have never traditionally been used by anthropologists or sociologists in this fashion.
  • The geopolitical situation of such a wide area means that statements cannot be made with certainty, given the likelihood of different sorts of movements and political fall out, such as fractionation, which occur generally in such contexts.
  • The mapping of political evolution to linguistic phylogeny is not clear cut.

I’ve already stated the issues I have with the general use of these structures, anyway: phonetic detail, orthographic convention which is applied after the gathering of data, and statistical relevance to linguistic phylogeny. But let us also compare the history of the Polynesian Islands (something I won’t pretend to be an expert in, but I’m certainly better placed to talk about it than most, having read more than a little on the subject.) To sum it up shortly: some islands were at war with only other island groups, some islands remained historically neutral to other’s blood feuds, there was a very good knowledge of where, across thousands of miles, other archipelagos and chains resided, there was travel between them, not always for warfare, there was considerable movement that was occasionally residual and long-standing, and not mere trading, and there were languages that could be thousands of miles apart and not mutually incomprehensible. As well, some islands had different political hierarchies than others, even when within spitting distance of each other. Finally, the historical political evidence that we have is often poorly recorded, and political hierarchisation is not something which is easily traced back archaeologically in an essentially stone-age society (as far as I am aware, and here I may be wrong. The article does substantiate many of its claims with archaeological evidence, which is a major point for it.).

But let’s look closer: what are they actually trying to say? Merely that political organisation and hierarchies rise and fall in complexity in steps instead of in jumps. They argue that this is a held notion, but that it hasn’t been backed up by quantitative analyses. The actual article states, clearly, that “recently, phylogenetic trees showing the historical relationships between these societies have been inferred using basic vocabulary data, by applying the same techniques that biologists use with genetic data to infer the shared ancestry of a species.” Ok, that’s fine– wait. No, I’m not sure I agree with that statement. Biologists use genes to chart the movement of species, ancestry, sister-species and the like, sure. But they don’t use those genes to mark how a particular tribe of bonobo followed one leader versus another, and it would be ridiculous to do so. But this may be a poor analogy.

So how did they judge that political systems flow this way? “By mapping data about the characteristics of societies onto the tips of these trees, we can use phylogenetic comparative methods to make inferences about what societies were like in the past and how they have changed over time.” (801) So, they took present-day analyses of the political systems, hard-coded them into the tips of the languages, and then saw if the political systems fell out naturally? I’m not sure this is how it works. Again, the mapping of language onto political systems isn’t clear (I feel like I’m repeating myself here.) Secondly, though, languages are resistant to political organisation. When a society changes from an acephalous group to a simple chiefdom, one doesn’t expect that the pronoun usage or the word for kava would change. And this seems  to be what is being suggested, here. Finally, the geographical distribution of their data doesn’t reflect the region as well as it could, as it comes from a single projected language group: New Guinea appears to have only four languages, for one. And what about bilingualism?

Here I’ll stop. I welcome any comments that anyone has. I’m probably going to be reading more into the research behind this test, as it is the first of it’s kind, and very interesting, especially as I am not an anthropologist. If it produces results which are in line with the general consensus, then I hope that it continues to shed light on more information. My problem is I want to know which is shedding light on which, here, and exactly where is the line where the darkness begins to actually be an issue.



Nature News:

  • Currie, T. E., Greenhill, S. J., Gray, R. D., Hasegawa, T. & Mace, R. Nature 467, 801-804 (2010). | Article
  • Gray, R. D., Drummond, A. J. & Greenhill, S. J. Science 323, 479-483 (2009). | Article
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