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Department of Psychology
University of Auckland
What a global tree of the world’s languages can tell us about the past, present and future of human cultural diversity
Since Darwin, it has been recognised that languages, like species, evolve via a process of descent with modification. Darwin even used the notion of a global genealogy of the world’s languages to bolster his argument for the origin of species. Yet while biologists have gone on to infer genealogical relationships between all living things, including those at the root of the ‘tree of life’, there is no widely accepted global tree of the world’s languages. Two centuries of linguistic scholarship has identified more than 200 language families and almost as many isolates, but linguists remain extremely skeptical of attempts to infer deeper genealogical connections. In this talk I will explain how, even given linguists’ well-founded concerns, newly available data and Bayesian inference techniques now make it possible to overcome many of the limitations of earlier work and generate a posterior distribution of global language trees. Rather than a single global tree, this distribution of trees provides a principled estimate of what can and cannot be said about the origins of the world’s ethnolinguistic diversity given current evidence. I will present such a treeset, and then show how, despite considerable phylogenetic uncertainty, it provides new insights into the past, present and future of human cultural and linguistic diversity. These include addressing longstanding questions from across the social sciences, such as how to quantify ethnolinguistic diversity, what ecological and cultural factors drive the gain and loss of ethnolinguistic diversity, which cultures and regions carry the most ethnolinguistic diversity, and how accounting for these ancient connections between cultures is critical for drawing valid inferences about culture and cognition in the modern world.
Bio: Quentin Atkinson is a Professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland, co-Director of the University of Auckland Behavioural Insights Exchange (UoABIX) and Research Affiliate with the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography at the University of Oxford. He runs the Language Cognition and Culture Lab, which uses lab and field experiments, computer modelling and evolutionary theory to shed light on topics as varied as the origins of linguistic and cultural diversity, the function of religion, the psychology of climate change, how evolved cognitive biases shape our social behaviour and why political systems vary the way they do around the globe.