Out-of-America Antecedents. I. William James Sidis

Out-of-America is a largely unique theory. But even the most unusual theory of all has antecedents. Steve Sailer asks “Didn’t William James Sidis have some kind of Out-of-America theory 90 years ago?”

I hereby announce a new theme on this blog devoted to the antecedents of out-of-America thinking. There won’t be too many of them. Some of them were men of distinction, others just crackpots but each case is interesting for cultural, anthropological and historiographical reasons, if for nothing else. There also a lot of men of distinction and a lot of crackpots who never argued for out-of-America and who vehemently oppose it now, so, I think, it would make sense to balance them off.

William James Sidis (1898-1944, photo on the left courtesy of sidis.net) is one of the greatest child prodigies in the U.S. An Enlightenment man, he spoke a dozens languages, invented an artificial language (Vendergood), received a patent for inventing a rotary perpetual character and scored an IQ between 250 and 300. At the age of 11, he gave a paper on four-dimensional bodies before Harvard’s mathematical Society and inspired Charles Sanders Peirce to write an article entitled “Precocity and Genius.” Born into a family of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, he was a son of a psychologist and polyglot Boris Sidis who subjected his son to rigorous training from an early age in order to prove that one can leapfrog over society’s educational system. Boris counted among his friends the famous American philosopher and one of the founders of pragmatism, William James. One of the remarkable facts of William James Sidis’s life is that he was named after the legendary philosopher who in turn was a godson of one of the founders of Transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Connected through the ties of fictive kinship to the founders of two uniquely American cultural movements originating in northeastern U.S., William James Sidis remained forever intrigued by and immersed into “American roots.”

He also seem to have been forever puzzled by the roots of his own prodigious personality. Not only did he receive his first and middle names in an unusual way (his father was clearly trying to decisively plant a Jewish boy into the new American cultural ecosystem), he used a wide variety of Anglo pseudonyms to publish writings on such widely divergent topics as cosmology, American Indian history, vehicular transfers and individual rights in the U.S. In a manner similar to the ill-famed German immigrant Karl Gerhartsreiter who assumed several fictitious Anglo names throughout his life in the U.S., most recently Clark Rockefeller, Sidis was apparently desperately trying to capture his individual essence.

In 1935, around the time when Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Indian Reorganization Act (1934), also known as the Indian New Deal, Sidis wrote the book entitled “The Tribes and the States.” The timing could not be more symptomatic. The Indian Reorganization Act constitutes a watershed in American Indian history. It reversed the privatization of Indian lands by the Dawes Act (1887) and reaffirmed the territorial integrity and self-government of American Indian tribes. Sidis’s book attempted to trace the history of North America, with a focus on his beloved Northeast from which his godfather and his godfather’s godfather sprang, from the days of yore to 1815. A 620-page book remained unfinished and unpublished.

The remarkable passage in which Sidis introduced out-of-America thinking is worth quoting at length:

“No explanation has as yet been generally agreed on as to whence came the original American race, although, ever since there has been regular communication between the two sides of the ocean, numerous explanations have been suggested. Most of the explanations have been by way of reconciling the existence of an American race with the whites’ rather conceited assumption that the human species must have come from their own side of the ocean. Examples of such theories are William Penn’s hypothesis (adopted by the Mormons) that the reds are the descendants of the lost tribes of Israel, or the theory championed by many modern anthropologists, to the effect that the ancestors of the red race came to America from Asia, by way of the Bering Strait or the Aleutian Islands. Some anthropologists have placed this migration as late as the fourteenth century!

Why should it be any more necessary to explain the presence of a red race in America than that of a white race in Europe, or of a black one in Africa? True, all races are probably of a common origin; but that origin may have been in the western hemisphere just as easily as the eastern…. Probably the Eskimos came across the Bering Strait, since they are of a different race than the red tribes of America, but much more closely allied to the Mongolian peoples of the opposite side of the Arctic Ocean. Also, there are some peculiarities of the Pacific coast dwellers of America, which might be explained by some sort of Mongolian immigration into America which mixed with red tribes already here. But the red race itself, which has no resemblance to anything on the Asiatic side, could hardly be explained by a Mongolian migration; for only a few superficial resemblances can be found between the red and yellow races….

The Cro-Magnons. In connection with the pre-history of the red peoples, an important fact is that there were red men at one time in Europe as well as in America. The most persistent of Europe’s cave-dwelling races were the Cro-Magnons, who were physically very much like the red race, and are even shown by some cave paintings in Western Europe as colored red and wearing the same sort of top-feathers as were common among the eastern Algonquins of North America. The Cro-Magnons were mainly located near the Atlantic regions of Europe, though found over most of Europe and northern Africa. The densest Cro-Magnon population appears to have been around the head of the Bay of Biscay, where there is still spoken a language called Basque, which is totally unrelated to any language on earth, but whose general structure resembles only the red-race languages of America. That this type of language must have once been general through most of Europe is indicated by European place-names; so that, apparently, the language spoken in Europe before the advent of the Aryans must have been one of red-race structure.”

Apparently, it takes an IQ of 300 to formulate a null hypothesis for a study of the origins of American Indians – “Why should it be any more necessary to explain the presence of a red race in America than that of a white race in Europe, or of a black one in Africa? True, all races are probably of a common origin; but that origin may have been in the western hemisphere just as easily as the eastern.” In the first phrase Sidis nails the compulsive obsession with which science sought to provide an explanation for the origin of American Indians. It’s not the origin of Europeans or the origins of Africans that bothered the learned men of those times, but the origin of American Indians. And this origin was supposed to satisfy one condition – it was supposed to be recent. As if the conquest of America was not complete until Europeans issued a verdict on the timing of the original settlement of the continent. In the second phrase, Sidis acknowledges that there is no apriori reason why humans could not have originated in the Western Hemisphere. I wish all scientists approached the problem of the “peopling of the Americas” with the same logical clarity.

And to what extent Sidis’s ideas about Cro-Magnon man are out of step with modern research? After years of painstaking ancient and modern DNA research in Europe we now essentially share Sidis’s mindset – Paleolithic hunters and gatherers were replaced by waves of Neolithic farmers and cattle-breeders. And we still don’t know where European hunter-gathers came from – mtDNA-wise they seem to have belonged to various U-lineages, which is a subset of macrohaplogroup N with a far eastern and New World distribution. They did use bird feathers and bones for ornamentation and music and now we know that late Neandertals used eagle feathers as well. It’s noteworthy that Sidis uses linguistics – his forte – to argue for an American Indian connection of Basques. While no firm linguistic connection between Basque and American Indians exists, the Dene-Caucasian hypothesis groups Basques and Na-Dene languages into one superphylum.

However, the most interesting aspect of Sidis’s The Tribes and the States is the attempt to show that American democracy – the political system that Sidis and his father, who had tasted the reality of Ukrainian pogroms, adored – has its roots in Iroquois and Algonquin tribal governments of the prehistoric and early colonial Northeast. His rather baroque understanding of North American Indian sociopolitical organization (Tribe – Phratry – Gens) came largely from Lewis Henry Morgan who, too, was passionate about American democracy and Indian antiquities and who was adopted into the Iroquois nation. And after having analyzed such indigenous sociopolitical institutions as adoption of foreigners and confederation of autonomous tribes, Sidis concluded that the former yielded the unique American practice of naturalization, while the former – a political formation unknown to Europe.

“Thus was created a type of organization new to the world of white men, although common among the reds ― a federated republic.”

In the same way as he was willing to entertain the origin of man and of Cro-Magnon man from the New World, Sidis argued for the origin of American democracy in American Indian tribal governments. Just like John Collier turned the tables around and instead of forcing American Indian tribes to conform to the European model of private land ownership allowed the tribes to continue to own their lands collectively, Sidis shifted attention from John Locke to Deganawida as intellectual progenitors of the idea of American Republic.

While Sidis was shunned back in the 1930s for his heterodox ideas, in the 1980s historians Donald Grinde and Bruce Johansen arrived at the same conclusion (entirely independently of Sidis, see Johansen B. 1989. “William James Sidis'”Tribes and States”: An Unpublished Exploration of Native American Contributions to Democracy,” Northeast Indian Quarterly 6 (3), 24-29.) Scott Pratt in “Native Pragmatism: Rethinking the Roots of American Philosophy” (2002) further extended the argument to apply to the roots of American Pragmatism, the brain-child of Sidis’s godfather, William James.

To conclude this post on the remarkable and troubled prodigy, William James Sidis, I’d like to quote from Robert Pirsig’s Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (1991, p. 408):

“The experience of William James Sidis had shown that you can’t just tell people about Indians and expect them to listen. They already know about Indians. Their cup of tea is full. The cultural immune system will keep them from hearing anything else.”