Language variation:
They have discovered something unexpected about how languages are distributed.  (Rivers of Words, SCIENCE vol. 344 no. 6182 April 25, 2014 page 340 reviewing work by Axelsen and Manrubia published as Proc. R. Soc. London Ser. B 10.1098/rspb.2013.3029 (2014))  There are about seven thousand language groups surviving out of a greater number.  The distribution of them and in particular the way some areas have more diversity than others, is reminiscent of the way species are distributed, and this already suggests that there is an environmental element to it.

I would simply have guessed that languages tend to diverge and more would be found where people have lived longer and in higher densities.  But nay, a number of significant geographical elements emerged.  One of the two most significant factors is rough terrain – lots of hills and mountains – and the other is rivers.

Rough terrain restricts travel, and rivers facilitate it.  I could have guessed that much.  It turns out that both of them promote language diversity.  Hmm.  I kind of see how that could work, but it is kind of counter-intuitive, isn’t it?  Why don’t they have the opposite effect?

I suppose I could point out that in hill country languages diverge because people can’t get around while in places of easy travel languages diverge because it helps limit gene pool sizes.  But I’d hardly call it evidence.  I get more of an awkward feeling.  Somebody is going to say, “A theory that predicts everything predicts nothing.”  But that’s not fair.  People look for multiple effects from the same laws all the time.  That’s probably why they are so reluctant to consider a new law.

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