Monday, June 02, 2008

Languages and genomes

While looking through Technorati I stumbled on this blog post..."Litterature - Can languages be understood by treating them like genomes?". That caught my attention because a few years ago, while teaching population genetics at Carleton University in Ottawa I told my students about this tribe on Vancouver Island: The Nuu-Chah-Nulth. I have great respect for the first nations and I wanted my students to learn from an anthropological point of view, not just through a stretch of nucleotides. While doing my research for my course I found a few articles including this one: Gene flow across linguistic boundaries in native North American populations.

Using statistical methods and mtDNA analysis, the authors found that language can in fact be replaced (or modified) faster than mutations can occur because language can be transmitted in a vertical fashion (just like DNA) as well as horizontally between unrelated people. Because first nations have been subjected to tremendous pressures through the centuries it is plausible to think that at times DNA might have evolved at different speeds when compared to language evolution depending on the tribe.

A few highlights:

  • The Navajo and Apache, who reside in the Southwest, have high nucleotide diversities, in the range of nucleotide diversities in populations classified as Amerind speaking.
  • Several sites were polymorphic only in populations classified as Amerind-speaking, but none occurred in all populations attributed to Amerind.
  • With respect to Greenberg’s three language families, the average nucleotide diversity within populations is low in Eskimo-Aleut populations and high in Amerind populations. However, nucleotide diversity varies considerably among the populations classified as Na-Dene-speaking.
  • The Alaskan Athabascan and Haida populations, who reside in the North, have low
    nucleotide diversities, in the range of nucleotide diversities in the Eskimo-Aleut-speaking populations.
When reading through the blog, I slowly realize that the author is a believer of intelligent design** and that, like all ID proponents, he decides to include some no-so-objective-god-related-stuff in his blog. Here's what he states while trying to explain why languages can not be understood the same way a DNA sequence can:
"The problem is that languages are fully teleological, whereas the tools of molecular phylogeny do not acknowledge teleology in genomes."
In other words...God created the do not even try to study them with objective techniques!

**Silly me...the title of the Blog site is: Literature - A discussion of ID-relating reading