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The Three Dimensions of Human History
A Talk With Colin Renfrew

Philip Anderson, Marc D. Hauser, Steven Pinker, and Colin Tudge on The Three Dimensions of Human History by Colin Renfrew

From: Philip Anderson
Date 9-20-97

John, I was very impressed by Colin Renfrew's interview(and not just because he is the master of my college). It is delightful to find someone who is broad enough to look with skepticism at the accepted wisdom in several related fields, and honest enough to state his own prejudices clearly.

I wonder in an amateurish way if people have really thought about the questions posed by the Australian aborigines. They seem to have arrived 60,000 years ago, one is told, and to be fully modern and to have a fully developed language. A lot of the time scales proposed in the older theories seem to be excluded by this. Humans seem to have scurried around with remarkable efficiency, very early. It seems almost unlikely that it took 50,000 more years to get to the americas.

From: Marc D. Hauser
Date: 9-20-97

In thinking about the blend of archaeology, genetics and language, I am curious about what Colin thinks about the notion of domain-specific knowledge systems and the extent to which something like tool use depends upon a language module. In this sense, studies of animals, lacking language are crucial. Sure, animals use tools, but they haven't built a computer or even a swiss army knife. Is there something about combinatorial operation, shared by both complex tool use and language, that would allow us think that the two have co-evolved?

From: Steven Pinker
Date: 9-20-97

I am a big fan of the way that Colin Renfrew reintroduces living, talking, moving human beings to the study of prehistory. Too often we read of pottery styles or phonological rules as if they grew out of the ground, or mysteriously migrated across continents as if they had little legs. Renfrew has produced an enlightening and useful analysis of the ways in which the aggregate behavior of real people could have led to the distribution of languages and artifacts we find today. It is a wonderful unification of archeology and comparative linguistics with the rest of the human sciences.

I also share his excitement about reconstructing human prehistory by combining linguistic, archeological, and genetic data. I often cite that area when asked for the most promising frontiers of research on language for the next decade. But I'm frustrated at the way it's been done so far. Some of the highly publicized matchups between genetic and linguistic family trees are slapdash at every step. The genetic trees sometimes invite skepticism (as when they show the Japanese being closer to Europeans than to Chinese) which is reinforced when the trees obtained from different methods have very different geometries. The linguistic trees are not accepted by most linguists, to put it mildly. And claims about the goodness of fit between the two are often impressionistic and something of a stretch.

I sympathize with Renfrew's frustration at the reluctance of most linguists to rise to the challenge of seeking deeper roots for language families. True, the Nostraticists and Proto-Worlders have not met the burden of proof of showing that their families are anything more than a combination of statistical coincidences and wishful thinking. But it's also wrong to dismiss the hypotheses by saying that they aren't using anointed methods. Many linguists tend to be blinkered by a few traditional methodologies, not appreciating that science is a constant struggle for more and more sensitive ones. I find that they also tend to misunderstand the consequences of noise, imprecision, and error in the data. To some linguists, that disqualifies the entire database. But to anyone who has grown up using inferential statistics, it's an everyday nuisance that one can deal with.

The key point is that there is bound to be useful information even in crude, error-laden, approximate databases on similarities between languages; it's just a matter of developing better and better statstical tools to handle them, as the molecular geneticists have been doing for the past decade. I agree with Renfrew that a new generation of scholars, with an unorthodox, interdisciplinary training, will have to be grown to realize the promise of this new field.

Naturally I am more sanguine than Renfrew about the Darwinian approach to mind and culture. It's important to keep in mind that Richard Dawkins' notion of memes is not the only way to use evolutionary theory to explain culture. Dan Dennett argues that it's important, but Dawkins himself gave a more modest assessment when he said that he meant his memes discussion largely as a way of vividly illustrating that the theory of natural selection applies to anything that can replicate, not just DNA. Many evolutionary psychologists, such as Martin Daly, have criticized memetics as a significant theory of cultural transmission (for one thing, a mind that passively accepted memes would be a sitting duck for exploitation by others), and in How the Mind Works I criticize it for other reasons. Natural selection could have created a complex mind that does not mirror natural selection in its workings.

Has the Darwinian framework told us anything much that we didn't already know? I think the answer is yes. Some of the examples I discuss in How the Mind Works include inductive and deductive reasoning, mental imagery, memory, beauty, sexual desire, emotions such as fear, disgust, and anger, the causes of lethal violence, the numerical abilities of children and nonhuman animals, and the shaping of personality.

I do share Renfrew's skepticism about the standard story about the Upper Paleolithic revolution, though perhaps for somewhat different reasons. The archeological record is bound to underestimate our ancestors' cultural achievements, because until recently there weren't many people on the planet, and most of the things people make quickly rot into nothing. The recent finds of polished tools, fishhooks, and other postrevolutionary artifacts in Zaire, dated to 75,000 years ago, challenge the idea that humans everywhere were stuck with crude artifacts until Cro-Magnon times, and I suspect that more such discoveries are in store.

I have always found it hard to believe that the people of 100,000 years ago had the same minds as those of the Upper Paleolithic revolutionaries to come, indeed, the same minds as ours, and sat around for 50,000 years without it dawning on a single one of them that you could carve a tool out of bone, or without a single one feeling the urge to make anything look pretty. I would be eager to learn Colin Renfrew's speculations of what a more complete archeological record of the past 100,000 years might look like.

Thanks to Colin and to John for the stimulating interview.

From: Colin Tudge
Date: 9-20-97

I have read your interview with Colin Renfrew with great interest and apart from saying I found it extremely interesting I have just three comments:

1. In Day Before Yesterday (aka Time Before History) I suggest that it is at least possible that people in pre-neolithic times may well have milled about the place, interbreeding where they met (as well as making war) just as they are known to have done in neolithic and historical times. If this were the case it would certainly complicate attempts to integrate linguistic history with genetic history. What, after all, would such studies show in the modern US or Europe? However, the recent studies by Paabo and others, showing that neanderthal DNA was very different from Homo sapiens DNA suggests that, at least in this instance, people of different groups really did (or were at least capable of) keeping themselves very much to themselves. In principle, though, comparison of linguistic versus genetic history really would help to show whether and to what extent pre-neolithic populations stayed separate, or integrated. In many contexts this is a key issue.

2. I am very intrigued by the comments concerning pre-agricultural people, which Lord Renfrew equates with pre-neolithic people. I am increasingly taken with the idea (by no means original to me!) that people were 'farming' to an ecologically significant degree well before the neolithic, and indeed from about 40 000 years ago onwards. 'Farming' in this context would not involve the entire gamut of activities that nowadays are covered by that term. At bottom it simply implies protection of favoured crop plants against rival predators and weeds, clearing of space to allow favoured plants to grow, and burning the grass to freshen it up and encourage game (as practiced by present-day Australian aborigines). A little later it could involve deliberate planting of favoured crops -- perhaps by seed but perhaps also, especially in the tropics, by vegetative means, which need mean simply pushing sticks into the ground and then protecting them. Such minimal activity could make a huge difference to ecological success -- enough to account for the out-competing of the neanderthals. Note, too, that farmers are much more efficient as hunters -- since they are no longer dependent on the prey-base. This is why and how domestic cats are so destructive to small birds in the suburbs; they don't need the birds for food and so their numbers do not go down when the birds become scarce. Thus, some dabbling in farming and game management helps to account for the outstanding success of the first people in the Americas and Australia, and helps to explain how those people were able to perpetrate the 'Pleistocene Overkill'. The 'Neolithic Revolution' is not the beginning of agriculture. It is simply the time when agriculture suddenly became conspicuous (a) because the people were victims of their own success, so that the human population rose while the game population diminished and suddenly they needed to farm (whereas before they did it to supplement hunting and (b) because the neolithic coincides with the end of the last Ice Age, with the concomitant loss of land mass, and in particular of the fertile coastal plains: forcing people inland into smaller cultivable areas. The notion that people learned to farm early also explains how it is that farming apparently arose spontaneously in many different parts of the world at intervals after 10 000 years ago. The people were not re-inventing it each time. They were simply becoming obliged -- for different reasons in each case but always because their population was rising -- to begin farming on a conspicuous scale.

This hypothesis suggests that people would have been able to improve their own chances of survival and their own ecological impact significantly -- critically -- without disturbing the landscape on a scale sufficient to show up in the archaeological record. They would simply increase the frequency of certain plants and animals in a given area, at the expense of others. Ie, there can be no direct evidence for this hypothesis since it predicts that there should be no evidence. This makes it largely untestable so that dyed in the wool scientists qua scientists ought to throw it out: no test, to idea. However, it is also very likely (it seems to me) that this idea is true.

3. Lord Renfrew is clearly less than enchanted by evolutionary psychology. This is not the time to enter this discussion in detail but some of his arguments seem to me too dismissive. Who, for example, are the 'ultradarwinists'? I know a great many people involved in evolutionary psychology and in evolutionary studies in general and I do not know any who answer to that description. All serious biologists accept, for example, that any evolved system is bound to be 'imperfect' in various ways and in particular is bound to carry a great deal of redundancy. But it is fruitful (good parsimonious science) to explore the possibility that any given quality is adaptive before suggesting that it is not. It's just a question of testing the more testable things first. His suggestion that evolututionary psychology has so far told us nothing we do not know is not actually true, but even if it were it would not be a strong argument. We would expect that studies of human behaviour would indeed generally confirm rather than abnegate much of what we know already -- unless we were to suppose that most of what we know or think we know already is simply wrong, which would be a very peculiar supposition. These are early days, too. People might have said (I don't know that they did, but they might have done) that Newton's laws of gravity did not tell us anything new, since we already knew that the Earth travels neatly around the Sun and that apples fall downwards.

What is needed, though, I reckon, is a discussion of what kinds of studies in general are worth carrying out - not just in evolutionary psy but in all fields: how we should judge their worth; what we would expect to get out of them. We might also look at the particular problems of distinguishing between the truly fruitful studies in evolutionary psy and those that are cocktail chat. I am perfectly content that the best studies are very far removed indeed from cocktail chatter and provide tremendous insights; but since this clearly is not universally accepted I reckon the evolutionary psychologists ought to spend a little more time laying out their stall, and pointing out why this is the case.

Anyway, these are first thoughts.

I look forward to further conversations.

Best wishes -- Colin Tudge

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