March 8, 2005

Prof Studies Manuscripts With Evolutionary Theory

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Determining genealogy may most commonly apply to living organisms, but Prof. John Cisne, earth and atmospheric sciences, has developed a process to find the genealogy and accuracy of medieval manuscripts. Using biological evolutionary theory, he can theorize how a manuscript has changed over centuries of time.

Describing manuscripts as if they were living organisms, Cisne calls the original manuscript the “parent”. Each parent manuscript will have offspring that replicate the original. Just as with organisms, the more manuscript offspring that exist, the faster the number will grow. He has modified the standard population growth models used in population ecology and forestry to determine how many copies of a manuscript existed at different times in history. Cisne’s models take into account natural and unnatural destruction, such as political reasons, as well as reprinting and copying.

Since manuscripts can’t reproduce on their own, mutations — scribal errors — are commonly present. According to Cisne, about one in 20 words will be mistakenly rewritten from one copy to the next. These mistakes help determine the genealogy of manuscripts.

“You can make sense of the information in manuscripts the way you cannot yet in DNA,” Cisne said.

Prof. John Chiment, biology, the former director of the Cornell Institute for Biology Teachers, has also been doing work with medieval manuscripts. Chiment is a paleontologist by training, like Cisne, and is trying to develop a process of manuscript dating using x-ray fluorescence.

Chiment feels that a manuscript’s true age is very important because a version copied much later than the original was written may be purposely changed to eliminate ideas the copier disagreed with or felt were outdated.

“If you consider manuscripts to be descending, there is evolution,” Chiment said.

Through this process of determining delineation, Cisne has discovered that many more manuscripts have survived from the medieval period than previously thought. For any manuscript that was ever popular, at least one surviving copy will probably exist.

Accordingly, the growth of a manuscript will eventually reach its limit; the demand for the text generally goes down after original popularity. Cisne notes that controversial works do not comply with the model as well as technical writing. He tested the model on the works of the Venerable Bede, a late 7th and early 8th century Benedictine Monk from England who wrote and taught about subjects such as history, mathematics and the Bible. Bede’s technical works, a standard arithmetic text for example, fit well with Cisne’s model. Another work of Bede’s about religion displayed a rather different growth history because of the influence of the Church and politics.

Cisne classifies his work as a rough model for a sociological process. He feels that an exact equation for the number of manuscripts surviving would be impossible, but that his findings can provide a more informed determination about a manuscript’s history.

“Paleontologists [try to determine genealogy] all the time. If there are seven different kinds of zebras today, how many were there a million years ago?” Chiment said.

During his extensive research in the fields of paleontology and evolution, Cisne felt that new objects were needed to gain time perspective on today’s living organisms.

“We needed new kinds of fossils,” Cisne said.

Cisne found that manuscripts made of parchment provided a historical record. There are a few parchments that date back several thousand years and many that have lasted at least 1,300 or 1,400 years.

Cisne’s findings were featured in the Feb. 25 edition of Science Magazine in an article entitled “How Science Survived — Medieval Manuscripts’ ‘Demography’ and Classic Texts’ Extinction”.

In a related article in Science Magazine entitled “How Science Survived — Medieval Manuscripts as Fossils”, Prof. Sharon Larimer Gilman, biology, and Prof. Florence Eliza Glaze, history, both of Coastal Carolina University reviewed Cisne’s work.

“His work provides a wonderful example of the potential value of collaboration between the arts and sciences,” Gilman and Glaze wrote in their review.

Archived article by Rebecca Shoval
Sun Staff Writer