Category Archives: Adaptation

Why do some countries adopt the Kyoto protocal and IPCC recommendations earlier than others?

How is science empowered in different countries? What are the actors and conflicts in different countries? Why is it that more democratic countries seem to adopt the Kyoto protocol earlier than others? The social sciences have a real role to play in answering these questions which will be discussed in the upcoming IHDP Open Meeting in Bonn by researchers affiliated to the COMPON project.

The COMPON project, Comparing Climate Change Policy Networks, is a network of social scientists developing cross-national surveys to explain why some countries adopt IPCC recommendations quicker than others. COMPON, started by US sociologist Jeffrey Broadbent and now includes studies in Japan, China, the United States, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Sweden, England, and Greece.

The aim is to trace the flow of cognitive models (“facts,” frames, ideas and normative evaluations) concerning climate change between the global and national levels, and within the national levels in the policy-formation process… [The] policy network method includes the full range of organizations involved in climate change politics (government agencies, political parties, business, union, NGO and movement associations).

One of the researchers involved is German sociologist Philip Leifeld who has an interesting piece on is homepage that more democratic countries are faster at ratifying the Kyoto protocol.

The rate of adopting the Kyoto protocol in different countries

[Red shows democratic countries; Black undemocratic - countries are classified using different indices - not HDI doesn't show a clear difference]

The trend is followed for other similar international agreements like the Montreal protocol and the Cartagena protocol on biosafety. Philip discusses why we see these patterns:

Why do we find this impressively consistent pattern? Why do democratic countries ratify the protocols faster than the others? We find four theories about this in the literature:

1. Corruption: In countries with high levels of corruption, industry lobbying can more easily assert national policies against climate protection or similar “threats”.
2. Accountability: Democratic countries have a better capacity to foresee upcoming long-term risks because science, policy-makers and the media engage in an open, public discourse.
3. Collective goods and public choice: Climate protection is a collective good, and countries have an incentive to be freeriders regarding international agreements. But only autocratic countries can afford to do so because they do not have to face punishment by the voters.
4. Capacity: Non-democratic countries usually have a lower level of development, less money and more other competing problems, so they assign a low priority to climate protection.

Which theory is now valid, and which one is wrong? The answer is: We don’t know. The problem is that democracy, corruption control, development, freedom of speech and assembly, wealth, etc. are highly collinear, so it is not possible to separate the effects. This is rather a theoretical than a methodological problem. The plots in figure 4 exhibit the problem: Corruption, development and democracy can all be predicted by gross domestic product per capita.

There are only some small clues that may provide preliminary answers: If we try to assess whether corruption or democracy are responsible for ratification pace, it may be a good idea to look at countries that are democratic but also corrupt or countries that are neither corrupt nor democratic. The only strong outlier in this sense is Singapore, which scores low on most democracy scores and also low on the corruption index. Singapore ratifies the Montreal protocol very early but is an extreme laggard in the cases of Kyoto and Cartagena, so it does not provide us with a satisfactory answer. The second clue may be the difference between the two climate protocols, Kyoto and Montreal, and the biosafety protocol, Cartagena. On the one hand, the difference in pace between democratic and non-democratic countries is much less extreme for the Cartagena protocol, and biosafety is indeed much less important for the industry than pollution control, so this may be a case for the corruption theory. On the other hand, the difference is still there, and it is consistent over all indices, so this suggests that a combination of several explanations is at work. Which one is the most important can unfortunately not be determined at the moment.

Habits of Resilient Organizations

EcoTrust‘s blog/web magazine People and Place first issue is on Resilience Thinking, and features a number of articles on resilience including a interview with Brian Walker.  One interesting article proposes Six Habits of Highly Resilient Organizations:

1. Resilient organizations actively attend to their environments.
2. Resilient organizations prepare themselves and their employees for disruptions.
3. Resilient organizations build in flexibility.
4. Resilient organizations strengthen and extend their communications networks – internally and externally.
5. Resilient organizations encourage innovation and experimentation.
6. Resilient organizations cultivate a culture with clearly shared purpose and values.

The authors write:

Most companies live fast and die young. A study in 1983 by Royal Dutch/Shell found only 40 corporations over 100 years old. In contrast, they found that one-third of the Fortune 500s from 1970 were, at that time, already gone.

What differentiates success and failure, resilience and collapse? The Royal Dutch/Shell study emphasizes shared purpose and values, tolerance of new ideas, financial reserves, and situational awareness.

More recently, Ceridian Corporation collected best thinking and strategies to publish an executive briefing on organizational resilience. They highlighted the paradox that successful, resilient organizations are those that are able to respond to two conflicting imperatives:

* managing for performance and growth, which requires consistency, efficiency, eliminating waste, and maximizing short-term results

* managing for adaptation, which requires foresight, innovation, experimentation, and improvisation, with an eye on long-term benefits

Most organizations pay great attention to the first imperative but little to the second. Start-ups often excel at improvisation and innovation but founder on the shoals of consistent performance and efficiency. About half of all new companies fail during their first five years.

Each mode requires a different skill set and organizational design. Moving nimbly between them is a tricky dynamic balancing act. Disruptions can come from anywhere – from within, from competitors, infrastructure or supply chain crises, or from human or natural disasters. The financial crisis has riveted current attention, but it’s just one of many disruptions organizations must cope with daily. Planning for disruption means shifting from “just-in-time” production and efficiency to “just-in-case” resilience.

Holly Gibbs on biofuels and climate change

Science News reports on Holly Gibbs talk on biofuels and land clearing at AAAS:

Two papers published last year suggested that clearing tropical forests to plant biofuel crops might actually worsen climate change, but that planting biofuels crops on “degraded” land – such as abandoned agricultural land – offers a net benefit to climate.

Gibbs analyzed satellite images taken from 1980 to 2000 to try to answer the question of whether tropical crops are largely being planted on deforested or degraded land. She found that the majority of new crops were planted on freshly deforested rather than degraded land.

Gibbs said she could not tell from her data whether the new crops were planted for food or fuel. But she added, “What we know is that biofuel use is definitely fueling deforestation.” She said when biofuel prices increase, the amount of deforestation increases as well. She said she would personally estimate that between one-third to two-thirds of deforestation over the past couple of years has been due to the planting of biofuel crops.

“If we run our cars on biofuels produced in the tropics, chances are good that we are effectively burning rainforests in our gas tanks,” Gibbs said.

Notes on desiging social-ecological systems

Pruned on the rehabilitation of degraded landscapes presents Pedreres de s’Hostal:

Pedreres de s’Hostal is a disused stone quarry on the island of Minorca, Spain. In 1994, the quarry saw its last stonecutters, and since then, the non-profit organization Líthica has been hard at work transforming this industrial landscape into a post-industrial heritage park.

Conservation Magazine’s Journal Watch reports on a recent paper Willis, S.G. et al. 2009. Assisted colonization in a changing climate: a test-study using two U.K. butterflies. Conservation Letters DOI:  10.1111/j.1755-263X.2008.00043.x, which describes a successful assisted colonization:

Based on climate models and a survey of suitable habitats, scientists introduced 500 to 600 individuals of two butterfly species to new sites in England, miles away from what were, in 1999 and 2000, the northern limits of their natural ranges. After monitoring for six years, they found that both introduced populations grew and expanded their turf from the point of release, similarly to newly colonized natural areas.

The butterflies’ success outside of their usual limits suggests that their naturally shifting distributions had been lagging behind the pace of climate warming, the researchers conclude. The results also bode well for the careful use of this sometimes controversial technique for other species threatened by climate change. After all, wildlife can only run so fast and for those species moving up mountains to escape the heat, there’s only so far they can go.

MacArthur Foundation granting $2 million to help ecosystems and human communities adapt to the effects of climate change. On Gristmill:

the IUCN and the World Wildlife Fund — will use it to establish a new Ecosystems and Livelihoods Adaptation Network. Details on the network are still being hashed out, but it’s intended to be a resource for promoting best practices to conservation groups, governments, and others. It will aid projects such as creating protected corridors to help mountain-dwelling animals migrate to higher elevations and restoring natural barriers on coastlines, such as mangrove forests.

On Gristmill, futurist Jamais Cascio posts his recent reflections on geo-engineering in response to the detailed comparison between different geoengineering strategies a writes Geoengineering is risky but likely inevitable, so we better start thinking it through:

If we start to see faster-than-expected increases in temperature, deadly heat waves and storms, crop failures and drought, the pressure to do something will be enormous. Desperation is a powerful driver. Desperation plus a (relatively) low-cost response, coupled with quick (if not necessarily dependable) benefits, can become an unstoppable force.

If we don’t want to see geoengineering deployed, we have to get our carbon emissions down as rapidly and as widely as possible. If we don’t — if our best efforts aren’t enough against decades of carbon growth and temperature inertia — we will see efforts to do something, anything, to avoid global catastrophe.

On Worldchanging Alex Steffen argues that Geoengineering Megaprojects are Bad Planetary Management:

Many of us oppose geoengineering megaprojects, not because we are afraid of science or technology (indeed, most bright green environmentalists believe you can’t win this fight without much more science and technology), but because these kinds of megaprojects are bad planetary management.

It’s bad planetary management to take big chances with a high probability of “epic fail” outcomes (like emptying the sea of life through ocean acidification). It’s bad planetary management to build large, singular and brittle projects when small, multiple and resilient answers exist and will suffice if employed. It’s bad planetary management to assume that this time — unlike essentially every other large-scale intervention in natural systems in recorded history — we’ll get it right and pull it off without unintended consequences.

Jamais and Alex debate their points a bit in the WorldChanging comments.

STEPS Centre Reframing Resilience report

Melissa Leach, director of the STEPS Centre, has written and posted a report on the Reframing Resilience symposium the centre hosted in Sept 2008 (Re-framing Resilience: A Symposium Report – pdf 484kb).

The symposium aimed to address questions such as:

  • How does resilience intersect with development and debates about it?
  • What insights does resilience thinking bring to understanding and action concerned with reducing poverty, vulnerability and marginalisation?
  • What are some of the frontier challenges, tensions and gaps as resilience thinking engages with perspectives and debates from other angles and disciplines?

Melissa Leach concludes her report by summarizing the final panel of the symposium:

a panel of speakers (Esha Shah, Andrew Scott, Henny Osbahr, Bronwyn Hayward, Joachim Voss, Carl Folke, Melissa Leach, Andy Stirling) offered their reflections on what had been learned, and what challenges and opportunities remain. Summarising across these discussions, a series of central themes emerged.

First, there is great value in a systems approach as a heuristic for understanding interlocked social-ecological-technological processes, and in analysis across multiple scales. Yet we need to move beyond both systems as portrayed in resilience thinking, and the focus on actors in work on vulnerability, to analyse networks and relationships, as well as to attend to the diverse framings, narratives, imaginations and discourses that different actors bring to bear.

Second, debates about resilience need to engage with normative concerns. This means that when we use terms like vulnerability and resilience we need to attach them to a person, form or organisation, rather than discuss them in the abstract. There is also a need to deal with the many trade-offs between people, systems, levels and scales in a normative way: someone’s resilience may be someone else’s vulnerability, or resilience at one scale may compromise that at another – but the key question is what trade-offs do we want or not want to see? Linking resilience with normative debates in this way may provide a valuable platform for critical discussion, helping to fill the current gulf between optimising and justice-based approaches in development, and contributing to the building of a new ethically and morally-driven development discourse.

Third, resilience approaches can be enriched through more disaggregated attention to action and strategies, considering transformations and transitions; endogeneity/exogeneity and depth of transitions; the relationships between functions, flows and structures; the dynamics (shocks/stresses) they address, and the agency (control/response) involved. We need to consider the processes through which actors at different levels decide strategies, and which would be enabling in terms of adaptiveness, learning, flexibility and empowerment.

Fourth, power and politics are crucial – as a growing area of resilience thinking that could valuably be strengthened with insights from other areas of work in politics, governance and democratic philosophy. Power relations are involved in assigning or avoiding responsibility and accountability; the domination of certain framings/narratives over others, asymmetries between pathways, and which are pursued and which are not. While resilience thinking is clear about the need to conserve life support systems, this will often require politically progressive thinking and action to challenge and transform unsustainable structures and framings in radical ways, and to hold powerful actors and networks to account. Depending on the issue and the setting, strategies might involve a spectrum from discursive and deliberative politics, to more antagonistic politics of resistance and struggle; all involve moves away from the managerialism that characterised early resilience approaches, towards conceptualising it in fundamentally political terms.

Finally, reframing and working with resilience involves an array of challenges for language and communication, and linking understanding and action. Resilience approaches involve complex language and concepts, and integration with other disciplinary perspectives can add to this complexity. A series of balances need to be struck, between attention to the nuances of different frameworks, and articulating their differences clearly; between conceptual advance, and remaining grounded in empirical settings; and between understanding complexity, and the clarity needed to inform policy and practice. The latter is crucial: policy decisions are being made as a matter of urgency in areas from climate change and energy to agriculture, water and health. Building resilience and pathways to Sustainability thus requires both reflection and reflexivity, and clear communication in terms that decision-makers can use.

Ethan Zuckerman’s Propositions for Successful Development Innovations

Ethan Zuckerman writes about innovation in developing countries in Innovating from constraint and suggests seven “rules” or propositions about how innovation proceeds in the developing world.  He writes:

I’d been asked by the organizers [of the seminar on the Information Society in Barcelona] to talk about how NGOs and social change organizations innovate, with the special challenge that I wasn’t supposed to celebrate innovative projects so much as I was to talk about the process of innovation. As I thought about this, I realized that I a) didn’t have much understanding of how social entrepreneurs innovate and b) didn’t have much confidence that social entrepreneurs generally did a good job of innovating with social media tools. Generally, I think that social entrepreneurs place far too much faith in social media tools and assume that they’ll be more popular, useful and powerful than they actually turn out to be.

So I offered a talk about some very different types of innovation – African innovations including the zeer pot, William Kamkwamba’s windmill, biomass charcoal, and endless examples of innovation using mobile phones. My argument was that innovation often comes from unusual and difficult circumstances – constraints – and that it’s often wiser to look for innovation in places where people are trying to solve difficult, concrete problems rather than where smart people are sketching ideas on blank canvases.

I offered seven rules that appear to help explain how (some) developing world innovation proceeds:

  • innovation (often) comes from constraint (If you’ve got very few resources, you’re forced to be very creative in using and reusing them.)
  • don’t fight culture (If people cook by stirring their stews, they’re not going to use a solar oven, no matter what you do to market it. Make them a better stove instead.)
  • embrace market mechanisms (Giving stuff away rarely works as well as selling it.)
  • innovate on existing platforms (We’ve got bicycles and mobile phones in Africa, plus lots of metal to weld. Innovate using that stuff, rather than bringing in completely new tech.)
  • problems are not always obvious from afar (You really have to live for a while in a society where no one has currency larger than a $1 bill to understand the importance of money via mobile phones.)
  • what you have matters more than what you lack (If you’ve got a bicycle, consider what you can build based on that, rather than worrying about not having a car, a truck, a metal shop.)
  • infrastructure can beget infrastructure (By building mobile phone infrastructure, we may be building power infrastructure for Africa – see my writings on incremental infrastructure.)

The most experimental part of a very experimental talk was applying these seven principles to three ICT4D experiments – One Laptop Per Child, Kiva and Global Voices. Ismael has a review of my talk including the scores I offer for each of the projects on these criteria.

Björk discusses Iceland’s response to financial crisis

From Pitchfork – the Icelandic musician and star Björk, on the Icelandic response to the financial crisis (which locked up Iceland’s imports as massive bank failures lead to a currency crash):

… the Náttúra Campaign, the Icelandic environmental movement co-founded by Björk. Náttúra’s original mission was to protest the construction of foreign-backed aluminum factories in Iceland, but in recent weeks, the movement has taken a dramatic turn. ….

Björk: For the last two weeks, Icelanders are getting a crash course in economics. I mean, I didn’t know about these things two weeks ago. The news is full of right-wing guys saying, “Stop the environmental value stuff! We should just build factories everywhere now, because that’s where the money is!” …

These aluminum smelters, nobody wants to build them in Europe, because there’s so much pollution. So it’s like, “Oh, just go dump them in Iceland.” We are getting them energy for so cheap that they are saving so much money by doing all this here.

Instead, what we are saying is, we’ve got three aluminum factories, let’s work with that, we cannot change that. Why not have the Icelandic people who are educated in high-tech and work already in those factories in the higher paid jobs, why not let them build little companies who are totally Icelandic with the knowledge they have? Then they get the money and it stays in the country. Then we can support the biotech companies and the food companies and all these clusters. I think that if you want to be an environmentalist in Iceland, these are the things you’ve got to be putting your energy into.

A lot of investors [are] coming, and I’m hoping they will want to invest in the high-tech cluster. There are money people here that did not lose a lot of money. For example, here is one investment company in Iceland only run by women. They are doing fine. [laughs] They aren’t risk junkies. They just made slow moves. The people who are crashing, they took a huge loan and then another huge loan, and so on. And it’s all just air. But these women didn’t build on air.

I’ve also been trying to get someone to Iceland to suggest green industries to Icelanders and introduce us to the companies that haven’t even been built yet in the world. This man Paul Hawken, who is famous in the States, he has agreed to come here in November. He’s supposed to be a green capitalist. He’s a functionalist, not just an idealist. I’m hoping he can unite these two polarized groups in Iceland. I’m setting up a meeting with him and the people in power. Because I think private money people can put money into those seed companies, but most of all, the government has to do it. It has to be a mixture of two things. It cannot just be visionary money people.

Refocusing medical research

Philosopher Peter Singer writes a newspaper editorial Tuberculosis or Hair Loss? Refocusing Medical Research:

… the diseases that cause nine-tenths of what the World Health Organization refers to as “the global burden of disease” are getting only one-tenth of the world’s medical research effort. As a result, millions of people die every year from diseases for which no new drugs are in the pipeline, while drug companies pour billions into developing cures for erectile dysfunction and baldness.

…If drug companies target diseases that affect only people who are unable to pay high prices for drugs, they cannot expect to cover their research costs, let alone make a profit. No matter how much their directors may want to focus on the diseases that kill the most people, the current system of financial incentives means that if they did so, their shareholders would remove them, or their companies would soon be out of business. That would help no one. The problem is with the system, not with the individuals who make their choices within it.

At a meeting in Oslo in August, Incentives for Global Health, a nonprofit organization directed by Aidan Hollis, professor of economics at the University of Calgary, and Thomas Pogge, professor of philosophy and international affairs at Yale, launched a radical new proposal to change the incentives under which corporations are rewarded for developing new medicines. They suggest that governments contribute to a Health Impact Fund that would pay pharmaceutical companies in proportion to the extent to which their products reduce the global burden of disease.

…Hollis and Pogge estimate that about $6 billion a year would be required to enable the Fund to provide a sufficient incentive for drug companies to register products that target the diseases of the poor. That figure would be reached if countries accounting for one-third of the global economy – say, most European nations, or the United States and one or two small affluent nations – contributed 0.03 % of their gross national income, or three cents for every $100 they earn. That’s not a trivial sum, but it isn’t out of reach, especially considering that affluent nations would also benefit from cheaper drugs and from medical research that was focused on reducing disease rather than on maximizing profits.

Shipping containers and world trade

The BBC is planning to follow and report on the progress of a container around the world for a year.  They have painted a container and bolted a GPS transmitter to allow is readers to follow its progress around the world on their map (as I write this the container full of whiskey in Scotland).

The BBC named their project The Box after The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger an interesting book on the history of containerization and its effect on globalization by Marc Levinson (here is a book review from Ethan Zuckerman and an essay by Witold Rybczynski).

I read the book earlier this year and enjoyed it.  I would have liked more economic history and statistics in the book, but its main problem was that people mocked me when I told them I was reading a book about containers. However, containers have become an essential part of global trade and of its rapid growth.

Trends in world trade of total merchandise, intermediate goods and other commercial services, from 1988-2006 (100=1988).  From WTO\'s World Trade Report 2008.
Trends in world trade of total merchandise, intermediate goods and other commercial services, from 1988-2006 (100=1988). From the WTO’s World Trade Report 2008.

Below are some maps of parts of global trade.  They give a bit of an idea of where such a container is likely to move between.

Structure of world trade of between 28 OECD countries in 1992. The size of the nodes gives the volume of flows  in dollars (imports and exports) for each country . The size of the links stands for the volume of trade between any two countries. Colors give the regional respectively memberships in different trade organisations: EC countries (yellow), EFTA countries (green), USA and Canada (blue), Japan (red), East Asian Countries (pink), Oceania (Australia , New Zealand) (black).  From Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies.
Structure of world trade of between 28 OECD countries in 1992. The size of the nodes gives the volume of flows in dollars (imports and exports) for each country . The size of the links stands for the volume of trade between any two countries. Colors give the regional respectively memberships in different trade organisations: EC countries (yellow), EFTA countries (green), USA and Canada (blue), Japan (red), East Asian Countries (pink), Oceania (Australia , New Zealand) (black). From Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies.

World trade imbalance web for the years 1960 and 2000. Directed network of merchandize trade imbalances between world countries. Each country appears as a node and the direction of the arrow follows that of the net flow of money.  (Serrano et al 2007).
World trade imbalance web for the years 1960 and 2000. Directed network of merchandise trade imbalances between world countries. Each country appears as a node and the direction of the arrow follows that of the net flow of money. (Serrano et al 2007).

The book – The Box – includes lots of interesting history of the container system, and how as a system it lead to innovations, efficiencies, and had many unintendend consequences.  One example, is that it made many old ports obsolete which reshaping many city centres (over decades), but also the creation of new ports and the changes in container ships they triggered – caused ongoing shifts in global trade patterns.

One key cycle of change was a postive feedback between ship size and port attributes. Because the fuel consumption of a ship does not increase proportionately to the number of containers a ship can carry – containers ships have become bigger and bigger – which has had the effect of focusing trade into ports that can handle the large ships and the trade volume.  These big ports then lead to the construction of more bigger ships. Wikipedia lists the world’s busiest container ports – the top are Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong , Shenzen, and Busan.  This concentration of big ships in big ports has had the effect of making world trade unexpectedly (for economic theory) “lumpy.”  Paul Krugmann explains:

[Economic theory suggests] a country like China should export a wider range of products to a small country, like Ecuador, than it does to a big country, like the US. Why? Because Ecuador, being small, probably has fewer industries that are cost-competitive with Chinese exports. In fact, however, China seems to export a wider range of stuff to bigger economies.

A possible explanation is the lumpiness of transport costs: there are more container ships heading from China to US ports than to Ecuadorian ports, so that it’s worth sending over a bigger range of stuff. It’s like the reason there are fewer food choices in supermarkets on St. Croix (where we spent our last vacation) than in New Jersey — there’s just one boat with groceries coming over every once in a while, so you can’t keep, um, arugula in stock.

Reading the Box also makes it clear that while higher fuel prices will reshape trade patterns and probably boat designs, neither global trade patterns nor transportation costs will return to those of the 1960s or 1970s.  This is due to huge improvements in logistics that have radically dropped the labour cost for shipping goods long distances, and this has also decreased fuel costs.

The rapid expansion of skills in logistics is a hidden environmental efficiency of the moden world economy – in that it allows things to be moved around for less cost than earlier in history.  However as occurs with most increases in efficiency, modern society undoes the environmental advantages of efficiency by using the cost saving to simply move more stuff for the same amount of money.

Logistics makes at least parts of the world “flatter.” And the ease of making these connections appears to make it easier to spread tools and ideas as well as goods.  The World Bank claims that countries with the most predictable, efficient, and best-run transportation routes and trade procedures are also the most likely to take advantage of technological advances, economic liberalization, and access to international markets.  While countries with higher logistics costs are more likely to miss the opportunities of globalization.  The World Bank ranks countries using a logistics performance index which measures the ease with which the country connects to the global economy.  Singapore, Netherlands, and Germany are at the top as the most accessible; while Rwanada, East Timor, and Afghanistan are at the bottom of the rankings.

Of course, novel solutions also produce novel problems.  Discarded containers litter landscapes worldwide (finding uses for them has become a standard architecture project), container ports are centres of environmental and biotic pollution, and the ease of using containers is also useful for smuggling.

And at least my impression from reading The Box, was that containerization has not finished trasnforming the world economy.

P.S. Ethan Zuckerman also has a long post Mapping a connected world discussing containers and world trade.

Language and Evolution: Frequency selection and Bursts

John Whitfield has an interesting review article Across the Curious Parallel of Language and Species Evolution in PLoS Biology (PLoS Biol 6(7): e186) on language and species evolution.

One parallel between living things and languages is that their most important components show the least variation. In biology, this means that genes such as those involved in the machinery of protein synthesis change so slowly that they can be used to discern the relationships of groups that diverged hundreds of millions of years ago. Likewise, the most commonly used words, such as numbers and pronouns, change the most slowly. Looking at 200 of the commonest words in 87 Indo-European languages, Pagel’s team found that the frequency with which they are used in everyday speech explains 50% of the variation in the rate of word change [4]. Similarly, Erez Lieberman, an evolutionary theorist at Harvard University, and his colleagues have found that over the past millennium, English verbs have become regularized at a rate inversely proportional to their frequency [5]. The frequency effect means that some rates of lexical replacement are comparable to the evolutionary rates of some genes, says Pagel; he thinks that these words might allow researchers to build family trees showing the relationships between languages reaching back 20 millennia, compared with the 8,000 years or so that most linguists currently think possible.

Earlier this year, Pagel and his colleagues uncovered another parallel between linguistic and biological change. Languages, they found, change slowly for a long time, and then undergo a sudden burst of change [6]—what biologists call punctuated equilibrium. These bursts seem to coincide with periods of linguistic speciation, when populations split and their languages diverge. Looking at trees of Indo-European, Austronesian, and Bantu languages, the researchers found that those languages that had gone through the most splits had changed more, with up to a third of changes being associated with split points. Pagel suggests that languages change when populations split because groups consciously or unconsciously use how they talk to define themselves and separate insiders from outsiders—as in the Old Testament book of Judges, when the men of Gilead identify their Ephraimite foes by their inability to pronounce the Hebrew word for an ear of grain, shibboleth, now a general term for a linguistic password.