Saturday, May 10, 2014


     I enjoyed reading Margolit Fox’s new book, The Riddle of the Labyrinth which discusses the decipherment of Linear B in the early 1950s.  The book discusses the major players in the process.  Arthur Evans found the tablets with the unknown script at Knossos in Crete. He tried for 40 years but did not succeed.  Alice Kober figured out what type of language group it was by studying (before computers) the associations and endings of syllables or words.  Michael Ventris finally realized it was an ancient Greek language using a totally different alphabet system.  Each of the contributors was flawed and yet each had some major insight that turned out to be correct. The book raises questions about their personalities and the influence social circumstances had on their careers and personal lives. As I read the book, I thought of the relation to coding, translating languages, and linguistics which does a comparative study of languages including their evolution.  At the same time I thought how this field differs from genetics with its genetic code, role in translating nucleotide sequences into amino acid sequences in proteins, and the evolution of life from a molecular level to an organism and population level. 

     Languages are clearly created by people but they are not intelligently designed by a creator who invented French, Korean, Swahili, or Greek.  Those languages evolved over the years.  When we read 19th century literature, we find it wordy.  When we read Shakespeare, we need a footnoted copy to figure out the meaning of words and idioms of the past.  Reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is easier in translation than in middle English.  Reading Beowulf is virtually impossible without old English dictionaries or footnotes.  In a similar way genes have evolved by mutations over eons.  Just as there is a social selection of which words  survive and which ones get lost, there is a natural selection for mutational expression which leads to extinction (no progeny) or survival (the adaptive conditions won out). We are not troubled that modern languages did not exist some 3000 years ago but have evolved. Yet those who believe in an intelligent designer for the origin of species cannot imagine how humans can be derived from ape-like ancestors or how mammals could be derived from reptiles or reptiles from amphibians, or amphibians from fish working backwards to the origin of early life forms as bacteria-like or virus-like.  

       One major difference is the time scale of evolution.  For languages it is about 4000 years at most for written languages.  They have the advantage that symbols or words written in stone have survived.  In a similar way there are fossils that go back millions or 100s of millions of years.  They are more difficult to interpret than the languages used since humans began writing their transactions and thoughts. But no one would argue that Jesus spoke English or that the Biblical texts handed down were written in English for Moses to read.   Nor should one readily doubt that the life on earth differs in kind and complexity as we examine more ancient rocks.  The human bones in our graveyards are not found in the rock strata that give us dinosaurs.  Whale bones are not found in the ancient seas that teemed with crinoids.  

No comments: