The World Without the West: Out-of-America Theory and Eurocentric Cosmologies
A revolution of the magnitude promised by the out-of-America theory of human origins requires a historiographic analysis. We need to understand how come science erred to the degree it did by focusing so exclusively and parochially on Old World centers of anthropogenesis. History of ideas and cultural criticism are the two disciplines in the social sciences and humanities that can provide relevant perspectives on the origin of an idea held by the scientific community. This is not the place to conduct an extensive study of the development of European cosmological ideas. But one comment from out-of-America detractors deserves a counterargument.
One Mitchell Porter and one pconroy liken out-of-America to out-of-Antarctica. They naively assume that it’s my theory that’s preposterous, not their comparison. And it’s really not about the fact that, unlike Antarctica, the New World actually has both humans and primates. It’s the deeply-rooted belief that mainstream science with its insistence on the recent peopling of the Americas is the purveyor of enlightened thought without a shade of obscurantism. But a quick historiographic exploration suggests otherwise. Below is one of the famous (among European historians) T-in-O maps of the globe dated to the Middle Ages. Prior to the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, the West as a cardinal point simply didn’t exist in European consciousness. Leslie Fiedler (The Return of the Vanishing American. New Work, 1968, pp. 29-30) has a nice passage that describes this the situation,
“For a long time, Europeans thought of themselves as inhabiting a world without a West: a three-fold oecumene made up of Europe itself, Asia, and Libya, which is to say a ruling and redeemed North plus a subsidiary and redeemable East and South. The fourth direction they considered closed off to colonization and the hope of salvation by the impassable barrier of the River Ocean, which could be glimpsed through the terminal Straits of Gibraltar or from the shores of those peripheral European Isles, Ireland and Iceland…. The belief is formally represented in the Pope’s threefold miter, which signifies his ecumenical sway over the triple orbis terrarium; and it was explicitly argued by St. Augustine, who decided that, even if there were a fourth quarter of the world, it could not possibly be a territory inhabited or inhabitable by those for whom. Christ had died, but only a watery waste banned to all but spirits, subhuman or superhuman.”
Let’s see how much has changed since the Middle Ages in the Western perception of the New World.
On the left we have a typical depiction of the two principal theories of human origins – Multiregional Evolution (a) and out-of-Africa with Complete Replacement (b). In the center, the global distribution of archaic admixture as detected in the innate immune gene OAS1 (Mendez et al. “Global Genetic Variation at OAS1 Provides Evidence of Archaic Admixture in Melanesian Populations,” Mol Biol Evol 2012). On the right is a figure taken from Spencer Wells’s Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genographic Project (2006) showing human dispersals as revealed by mtDNA and Y-DNA.
On all these diagrams presumably representing the world, as geneticists and paleobiologists see it, the New World is missing. This doesn’t mean that there are no maps and diagrams that show the world with the Americas included, but the very existence of global maps and diagrams from which the America is excluded betrays the underlying cultural bias to see the New World as too “new” to be of any value to the study of human origins. And at least since Darwin’s passionate defense of descent as the “hidden bond of connexion,” “origins” are deemed important – they define what a species or a subspecies essentially is.
Although we’ve absorbed the fact that America is a continent and modified our maps of the world accordingly, in the domain of human origins research we still largely maintain a medieval European T-in-O cosmological vision. While scientific method has colonized everything from the subatomic to the extraterrestrial world, there are still pockets of knowledge governed by essentially pre-scientific ideas. The bias against the New World as having comparable antiquity to the Old World in terms of human presence is so entrenched that it has survived multiple “revolutions” in our understanding of human origins and the origins of American Indians – from the Twelve Lost Tribes of Israel to Hrdlicka’s colonization out of Siberia less than 5,000 years ago to the Clovis I model. Regardless whether the theory of human origins of scientific or not, the New World will always be portrayed as recently colonized and the dates for the colonization will always look uncannily similar to the biblical dates for the creation of the world. The inability of scientifically-minded people to rationally engage with out-of-America theory – whether critically or supportively – confirms the hypothesis that aversion to the out-of-America reversal of common perception stems not from the data but from static, deep-seated, cosmological beliefs carefully passed down from generation to generation. Essentially, any account of the origin of New World humans at a time disproportionately more recent than the origin of Old World humans (in complete oblivion to the extent of linguistic, biological and cultural diversity found among Native American populations) is a medieval cosmological atavism and an out-of-Antarctica type of idea. Without overcoming it, science will remain crippled in its ability to objectively represent the world.
(This historiographic note grew out of my conversations with historian of science Robert Proctor in 2004.)