Social Studies of Science

Welcome to Social Studies of Science!

Here I reflect on the human origins and the peopling of the Americas research as a social and cultural problem. This section is informed by the burgeoning field of the social and cultural studies of science, technology and medicine (that I was able to appreciate thanks to a course taught at Stanford by Joan Fujimura), but my aim is more modest and narrow. I test the hypothesis that 1) our basic understanding of the peopling of the New World had become fixed long before science developed as a special form of knowledge production; 2) we inherited a thourougly Eurocentric and Old World-centric bias from the Bible, in which Indians are not mentioned. While science has questioned the Bible’s explicit statements, it did not do so with its implicit assumptions; 3) theories of the recent origin of American Indians developed in the context of the rapid and violent colonization of North America, hence there was a social pressure to present American aborigines as a young population, with a shallow history of occupation of the New World, and an insignificant offshoot of a Siberian population. As the recent Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh demonstrates, economic competition for land can be accompanied by a special discourse about “origins” in which the pretender nation is invariably construed as a recent newcomer; 4) science routinely suffers from the Tolstoy syndrome.

I agree with the idea underlying the social studies of science, namely that “objective” knowledge is always culturally constructed, but I hold the positivist assumption that any puzzle has a rational solution. Hence, I prefer to give my own answer to the problem of the “peopling of the Americas,” which has the form of a “normal” testable hypothesis, instead of just wielding critique of pre-existing theories as incosiderate of such social parameters as gender, race or class. For me, constructivism and positivism are two sides of the same coin, and one should to be able to skillfully employ both strategies.

As an example of the application of a combined (positivist and interpretivist) logic, let us consider the nature of maps of human genetic diversity.

Underhill

They are all frozen at 1492. While there is no way a serious scientist can claim that Europeans have been in the Americas since the time immemorial, the colonialist ethos forces him to obliterate the effects of colonial occupation from the map. The genetic effects of European colonization on the gene pools of Africa and, especially the Americas, are never showed, as if this colonization is not part of human genetic history. The distribution of European, African and Asian genes in America is considered irrelevant for the purposes of science, this time them being the origins of human populations.

But are they really irrelevant? While it is repeatedly claimed that Africa contains the greatest genetic diversity among continents, empirically it is probably not true because, since 1492, the pole of diversity has been rapidly shifting toward the Americas. The flows of immigrants from all the corners of the globe probably made America, by the year 2000, the most genetically diverse continent. Notably, the first mtDNA studies that paved the way to the present recognition of the radical difference between African and non-African diversity utilized blood samples from American blacks. If mtDNA will have been sequenced 40,000 years from now, would we be able to determine that America was not always as diverse as it has recently grown to be? Also, could a similar event, namely many migratory waves into Africa some 30,000 years ago, be responsible for the pre-1492 levels of diversity in Africa?

I am interested in Native American responses to the Bering Strait theory, to the megafauna overkill hypothesis, and to the ways of knowing the human past. The words of the Miami chief, Little Turtle, allegedly communicated to Count Volney in the late 18th century, have not lost their relevance:

“Why could not those Tatars,

who resemble us, have come from America?

Is there any evidence to the contrary?

And why could not we all have been born here?”

It is noteworthy that such Indian scholars as the late Vine Deloria and Devon Mihesuah consider the Bering Strait theory just a sterotype of European imagination.

After almost 200 years of scientific research, we do not have good proof that American Indians actually came from Asia. The earliest known archaeological cultures in the Americas have no technological antecedents or parallels in Siberia. American Indians are too diverse morphologically, linguistically, genetically, and culturally to have descended from a group of Siberian hunters or Southeast Asian beachcombers. The extent of Amerindian diversity squared against their population size has never been properly appreciated, and the original European belief in the homogeneity of American “savages” continues to hold a spell over learned men and women.

What about archaeological finds in the Americas earlier than 12,000 years? They will be found. I side with conservative archaeologists in believing that only valid archaeological sites count. But I disagree with conservative archaeologists that the absence of evidence equals the evidence of absence. The paucity and poor visibility of American pre-Clovis, by itself, seems to be suggestive of the great antiquity of human presence in the Americas, for it is exactly what one would expect from the earliest phases of human demographic evolution: low population size, high individual mobility, low population density, and the absence of stable sociopolitical groups. In the Old World, on the contrary, Late Pleistocene population expansions were conducive to population amalgamation. A richer archaeological record is a necessary consequence of this process.

Since it is expected to enliven a serious discussion with a good joke, look at a picture of an African healer, Credo Mutwa, taken some 30,000 years ago. (Thanks go to Professor Andrei Znamenski of Alabama State University.)

Three major logical flaws underlie our present approach to human evolution. First, we jumped to a conclusion about an external origin of our species before having answered the question of its internal origin. Epistemologically, we are fully armed to give a convincing and uncontroversial answer only to questions pertaining to the sapient history of Homo sapiens sapiens. Second, we believe, quite animistically, that sporadic finds of skulls, stones, and bones somehow speak to our interest in human evolution. Instead, I believe that only systemic evidence derived from modern human populations (genetics, kinship systems, language, mythology) can be used to generate hypotheses about human evolution. Archaeology and paleontology can hope only to illustrate some facets of these hypotheses. Third, we have been searching for the origins of human language, culture and behavior in (paleo)biology and archaeology. Instead, we should be looking at the origins of language, culture, and behavior from within language, culture and behavior. Unless we find satisfactory answers to these questions, we cannot fully rely on the results furnished by the scientific method applied to problems above and beyond these more immediate concerns. The reason for this dictum is simple: scientific method and its results are subject to the very same evolutionary forces that it attempts to elucidate. We are not interested in whatever picture of the world scientific method can generate; we are interested in a bigger process by which scientific method has been generated.

Finally, kinship studies can provide a most interesting case study for the social studies of science. Much 19th century theorizing of descent and kinship occurred within the bounds of a single kindred with a long history of first cross-cousin marriage of which Charles Darwin and two of his cousins, Francis Galton and Hensleigh Wedgwood, are the most famous representatives.

Darwin et al.-3

Darwin et al.

Leave a Reply