TUESDAY, DECEMBER 29, 2020
An allegation concerning the role of Storyline: At one time, every schoolchild knew the doggerel verse:
In fourteen hundred and ninety-two,
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
Well, maybe not every child. But what did Columbus actually find when he arrived at the island known today as Hispaniola—the island which is shared today by Haiti and the Dominican Republic?
More specifically, how many people were already living there? How many people were already there when Columbus arrived?
In last Saturday's New York Times, two scholars presented a fascinating new estimate of that pre-Columbian population. For our money, their fleeting portrait of Storyline may have been even more striking.
What role does Storyline play in human affairs? At one point, the professors offer a striking observation on that very point.
Storyline is powerful! First, though, here's the way Professors Reich and Patterson started last Saturday's column:
REICH AND PATTERSON (12/26/20): In 1492, Christopher Columbus touched land for the first time in the Americas, reaching the Bahamas, Hispaniola (present-day Dominican Republic and Haiti) and eastern Cuba. After he returned to Spain he reported that he had encountered islands rich in gold. A few years later his brother Bartholomew, who also traveled to the Americas, reported that Hispaniola had a large population whose labor and land could be put to the advantage of the Spanish crown. He estimated the population at 1.1 million people.
Was this figure accurate? It soon was a matter of dispute. Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish monk and colonist who became the first chronicler of the human disaster that unfolded in the Americas after the arrival of Europeans, estimated a far larger number: three million to four million.
The population size of “pre-contact” Hispaniola would continue to be a contested issue until the present day, not least because of its profound emotional and moral resonance in light of the destruction of that world. Modern scholars have generally estimated the population at 250,000 to a million people.
According to Reich and Patterson, modern scholars have made a range of estimates which fit within that range. At the low end of the scale, they've estimated the population at a quarter million people.
As they continue, Reich and Patterson explain the methodology which has led them to believe that the population was actually a great deal smaller than that. First, though, they offer this overview of the previous scholarly discussion:
REICH AND PATTERSON (continuing directly): Some of the arguments for large population numbers in the pre-contact Americas have been motivated by an attempt to counter a myth, perpetuated by apologists for colonialism like the philosopher John Locke, that the Americas were a vast “vacuum domicilium,” or empty dwelling, populated by a handful of Indigenous groups whose displacement could be readily justified. In a similar vein, some of the arguments for large population sizes have been motivated by a desire to underscore how disastrous the arrival of Europeans was for Indigenous people.
By any measure, the arrival of Europeans was catastrophic for Indigenous Americans. This is true whether the numbers of people were in the hundreds of thousands or millions—or for that matter, the tens of thousands. It is questionable to pin our judgments of human atrocities to a specific number. To learn from the past, it is crucial to be willing to accept new and compelling data when they become available.
In the case of the pre-contact population of Hispaniola, such data have arrived. By analyzing the DNA of ancient Indigenous Caribbean people, a study published in Nature on Wednesday by one of us (Professor Reich) makes clear that the population of Hispaniola was no more than a few tens of thousands of people. Almost all prior estimates have been at least tenfold too large.
Reich and Patterson are well-regarded scholars. According to the New York Times, "Dr. Reich is a geneticist at Harvard who specializes in the study of ancient DNA. Dr. Patterson is a sociologist at Harvard with expertise in the Caribbean."
Reich and Patterson are now saying that the population of Hispaniola was "no more than a few tens of thousands of people" when Columbus arrived. As described in the rest of their column, their methodology sounds strong to us, but we have no way of knowing if their new estimate is correct.
What we were most struck by was their account of the genesis of those larger estimates. The professors say that earlier, much larger estimates were driven by "motivated reasoning"—by love of Storyline.
Where did those earlier, allegedly erroneous estimates comes from? According to Reich and Patterson, some scholars wanted to counter a myth in which European colonialism was OK because the Americas had been largely uninhabited.
Other scholars wanted to drive a related point. They wanted to emphasize the obvious fact that the arrival of Europeans tended to be disastrous for indigenous people.
In these throw-away comments, Reich and Patterson say that their scholarly colleagues were driven by Storyline as they composed their population estimates. Wanting to tell a certain story, they put their thumbs on the scale.
How many people were already there when Columbus arrived? Was the number as large as one million? Or was the number as low as nine thousand to eighty thousand, the range of possibilities which seems to be implied by another part of this column?
We don't know how many people were already there. But as we read this fascinating essay, we were struck by the portrait the professors drew of the role of Storyline.
"Man [sic] is the rational animal," Aristotle is widely said to have said. Our work of the past twenty years has suggested an alternate anthropology:
We humans are the animal which put its thumbs on the scale.
This behavior is widely observed, even here in Our Town. In modern times, we in Our Town are especially inclined to behave this way with respect to matters of gender and race.
We don't think that this is a wise or winning play. We don't think this tendency serves progressive interests and human values. We expect to discuss this tendency at length in the coming year.
Millions were already here: As far as we know, many millions of people were already living in the Americas before Columbus arrived.
Charles Mann told this paradigm-shattering story in his acclaimed book, 1491. It's one of the two or three most fascinating books we've read in the past twenty years.
UPDATE: Just to be clear, we don't know whether earlier scholars were right or wrong in their population estimates. If they were wrong, we don't know if any form of "motivated reasoning"—devotion to Storyline—helps explain their errors.
On what basis do Reich and Patterson feel they can say that earlier estimates were influenced by attraction to Storyline? We have no idea.
That said, we were struck by the ease with which this suggestion was made, even on the highest academic level. We should have noted the difficulties which attend such ascriptions of motive, but we were battling our failing computer every step of the way.
Storyline seems to drive much of what we humans do, even over here in Our Town. That's especially true of the way we approach race and gender over here. We expect to explore such important matters in the year ahead.