Ilya Tëmkin – Perils and promises of cultural phylogenies: evolution of the Baltic Psaltery

CISEPS – Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Economics, Psychology and Social Sciences

Perils and promises of cultural phylogenies: Evolution of the Baltic Psaltery

Ilya Tëmkin
National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution) and NOVA (Northern Virginia Community College)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013, 12:00pm
Room U6/3061, Piazza dell’Ateneo Nuovo 1, Milano

psaltery-phylogenyAbstract: The new millennium has brought a new impetus for rigorous historical reconstruction into the field of material cultural evolution by applying phylogenetic analysis (originally developed for discerning evolutionary relationships among living organisms). A detailed study of the Baltic psaltery, a plucked stringed instrument that has enjoyed popularity in Northeastern Europe since the Middle Ages, reveals perils and promises of these methods, particularly of novel network-based approaches. Every group of people that has preserved the instrument, regards it as an essential symbol of their ethnic identity with its presumed origin and significance deeply rooted in traditional culture, as evidenced through mythology, epic poetry, songs, and ritual. Despite its cultural significance, the history of the Baltic psaltery has been a controversial subject for over a century. The patterns of historical relationships revealed by phylogenetics-inspired approaches may help settling the controversy and link disparate data on the iconography, archaeology, and cultural anthropology of the Baltic psaltery.

The seminar is part of the CISEPS project The diffusion of cultural traits, whose goal is to trigger interdiciplinary debates, emphasizing common problems and peculiarities among economics, philosophy, anthropology, geography, history, biology and many more fields. Thinking in terms of cultural traits – i.e., characters depending in some way on social learning – doesn’t imply exhaustion of cultural processes; rather, it means thinking critically to scientific models and metaphors for studying culture.

Boundaries, foundation, and physics of Babel: the interdisciplinary study of language

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563). Source: Wikipedia. Originally from Google Art Project. Levels adjusted and uploaded by Dcoetzee.

If, by ‘Babel’, we mean the set languages that have appeared in the world, we may want to research the ‘boundaries of Babel’ by asking whether the expansion of Babel is prevented (i.e., whether unobserved languages are impossible languages), and, if so, by which factors. The boundaries of Babel are being explored by partnerships of linguists and neuroscientists. Neo-chomskian approaches find evidence of neural networks dedicated to language processing, and study how these networks constrain the space of possible grammars, whereas lexico-grammar looks at neuroscientific evidence that syntax is not a separate function in the brain. Research questions also expand beyond a tight focus on the brain-language relationship. By ‘foundations of Babel’ we refer to broader, ancient brain functions in which articulated language is embedded. Imitation can be one of those functions. ‘Physics of Babel’ refers to many extra-brain factors that are lacking in non-human species, and that together make language possible. Research on the boundaries of Babel is a fascinating and open scenario, not only interdisciplinary, but also multi-directional, beyond the language function and beyond the exclusive role of the brain.

Look for it in the Publications page (with additional links):

Serrelli, E (2013). I confini, le fondamenta e la fisica di Babele: lo studio interdisciplinare delle lingue e del linguaggio. Scienza & Filosofia 10, 53-67. ISSN 2036-2927 []