Letter to Science: Forster and Renfrew

Keith Hunley (University of New Mexico) and I recently wrote a letter to Science magazine regarding Forster and Renfrew’s rather extraordinary article which states that male immigration is required for language shift. Science declined to publish it, so we’re including it here.

Here is the letter:

Drawing on haploid genetic data from six locations, Forster and Renfrew conclude that language transmission in occupied regions requires immigrant males. There are numerous counter examples to this male-transmission hypothesis in the remaining 99.9% of the world’s languages. For example, while Athabaskan speakers in the American southwest received both Y-chromosomes and mitochondrial genomes from Northern North American, the latter are considerably more widespread in the southwest today (1). Polynesia is also particularly interesting because a mix of East Asian mtDNAs and Melanesian Y-chromosomes comprise current Polynesia groups (2). Even a cursory examination of the anthropological literature would reveal numerous additional examples that paint a considerably more nuanced picture of language spread (3). Even their example Viking is problematic. While it is true that Vikings transmitted both Y-chromosomes and Scandinavian languages to Iceland, only their Y-chromosomes survived in England and Russia.

These examples belie the complex nature of biological and linguistic change and, more importantly, the fact that language change is social, not genetic. Moreover, their view of language change is decidedly non-evolutionary. Husbands do not pass their languages unchanged to offspring, and languages are not transmitted in a single generation following initial contact. Instead, language change occurs over multiple generations, with continual exchange between migrant and indigenous languages. Language borrowing in turn affects the lexicon and grammar of both sets of languages, contributing to a pace of change that far outstrips that in genetics.

We reject the sweeping male-centric view presented by Forster and Renfrew and advocate a more thoughtful examination of the nature, causes, and meaning of biological and linguistic evolution and co-evolution.

1.                  R. S. Malhi et al., Am J Phys Anthropol 137, 412 (Dec, 2008).
2.                  M. Kayser et al., Current Biology 10, 1237 (Oct 19, 2000).
3.                  L. Campbell, American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America (Oxford University Press, New York, 1997)

And here is Science’s response. Of the many reasons for not publishing this letter, saying that they only publish “positive” responses is damning. How can a serious scientific publication maintain such a policy?

Dear Dr. Bowern,

Thank you for submitting an E-letter to Science responding to the Perspective, titled “Mother Tongue and Y Chromosomes.” We have read over your contribution, but will not be able to publish it. We are currently only posting those letters most likely to promote positive and stimulating discussion online.  We are letting you know as a courtesy in case you wanted to seek another outlet for your letter. 

Please do not reply to this email, as it will not be read by Science. Unfortunately the volume of submissions precludes specific discussions about individual submitted E-letters. 


The Editors
Science Magazine


4 responses to “Letter to Science: Forster and Renfrew

  1. Perhaps one of the linguistics representatives to AAAS might be able to intercede with respect to the *need* for a printed response to this article from the linguistics community?

    The stated policy of only publishing letters ‘…likely to promote positive and stimulating discussion…’ is astonishing.

  2. What about that letter wouldn’t promote positive and stimulating discussion, is what I’d want to know.


  3. That’s depressing. How could Science sink so low as to only want “positive” responses?

  4. I’m sincerely hoping they meant “positive” in the sense of “good” rather than “approving of the article” – not that that would excuse their incredibly patronising reply. Did they end up publishing any other letter pointing out the numerous counterexamples, or did they just not want to know?

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