One of the many things I admire about Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is that he has the ability to take the knowledge and concepts in his brilliant mind, and translate them easily into terms for the average person to consider. JRE host Joe Rogan was stunned when Dr. Tyson stated that Columbus “… coming to America was the most significant thing to ever happen in our species”. (00:10 to 00:19). The video interview was published on August 22, 2018, and it is shared below.
The Columbian Encounter Shaped Human Existence
In short, Dr. Tyson lays out the facts about how the Columbian encounter rejoined two separated and stranded groups of the same species (that would be us, folks). One group was the Asians that crossed the Bering Strait Land Bridge, and the other was everyone else still in Africa, Europe and Asia. The rejoining of these two groups had a profound effect on the world, and there are many seldom-discussed details about it revealed in this enlightening video. Further evidence linking Europeans and Native Americans is available at the Science Nordic research website1.
When conversing about some of the diseases passed to the Indians during the Columbian encounter, Dr. Tyson mentions a much lesser-known fact: the Native Americans passed syphillis to the Europeans (starts at 5:31). The exact details aren’t explained due to time limitation, but he frames that statement with the acknowledgement that there are other people who know more about how the diseases were transferred, but that he is not among them. As I mentioned before, Dr. Tyson has the ability to explain sophisticated topics in layman’s terms. He also has the admirable trait of one who will qualify a statement by saying that there are others who might know more about a particular subject than he does.
This is science at its best. A true scientist understands how evidence-based research works (the scientific-method), and that there are others more specialized in a topic than he is. Conversely, there are many scientists who do not have nearly the level of expertise in astrophysics like he does. This is how science works – evidence-based research not only leads to repeatedly provable answers, but also refines the branch of science that the specialty resides in. This is how the human species makes progress. Specialization puts the scholar onto a sharply focused path, and this means that the study of other topics unrelated to the specialization consume much less time or falls to wayside completely.
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson Joe Rogan Podcast
Outcome of the Columbus Encounter
The last ice age lowered sea levels enough to expose the Bering Strait land bridge, which acted as a migratory route into the Americas. Western Eurasians probably crossed the land bridge from Asia into Alaska. The glacial melt-off at the end of the Ice Age increased sea levels, submerging the Bering Strait land bridge. This ended any further migration into North America, and blocked any return home. At this point, the human species was separated into two isolated groups for at least 10,000 years, and had no knowledge of the existence of the other group. That ended in October 1492, when the Columbian encounter brought the human species back together again.
During this time, diseases were unknowingly transmitted in both directions. The Indians received old world diseases, while the Europeans brought syphilis back to Europe. This exchange was purely by accident, as microbiology (virology, bacteriology, immunology), and modes of transmission (especially asymptomatic) were unknown until several hundred years later.
The end result is that two separated groups became one again. If it wasn’t Columbus who made that connection, it certainly would have been someone else. The level of expertise at shipbuilding and the modes of navigation made the trip possible & repeatable. The inevitable reconnection cost lives on both sides of the Atlantic by the inadvertent transmission of disease. While old world diseases might have been introduced as early as Columbus’ first voyage, the Indians most likely passed syphilis to Europeans, a disease which has killed tens of millions of people in the old world since the Columbian Encounter. This disease only became treatable in the early 20th century when German physiologist George Ehrlich discovered Salvarsan (Compound 606), which was followed by the less toxic NeoSalvarsan, and then finally replaced in 1940 by Penicillin. Despite being treatable, it still remains a major killer today, especially among infants. In 2018, the National Institute of Health (NIH) attributed 300,000 fetal and neonatal deaths to Syphilis.
The fact remains that we are here today because of the Columbian encounter. We should appreciate that our species was brought back together and how this encounter created so many of us. Our future is a gift, and we should make the best of it by continuing to advance scientific understanding of our world, as well as learning how to treat each other with kindness. We are one species – human.
DNA Links Western-Eurasians and Native Americans
Interestingly, an article in Nature shows that DNA evidence points to a fundamental relationship between modern-day western Eurasians to modern-day Native Americans2. They are genetically closely related. There is no known close relationship with East Asians. This suggests that western Eurasians had a much farther reaching north eastern migration path than previously thought. There is also a newly-established relationship indicating that early Polynesians had contact with Native South Americans.
The Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson Joe Rogan Interview adds a New Dimension to Columbian History
Near the end of the interview (07:05), Dr. Tyson states “… there is a lot to blame Columbus for …”, but that the encounter was inevitable. We agree the encounter was inevitable. But was there really a lot to blame Columbus for, or is the blame built on outdated or inaccurate data? If so, what exactly is he at fault for versus all of the other actors in the Columbian encounter? It would be interesting to know what evidence Dr. Tyson draws from when he makes this statement. A claim like this needs to be substantiated against primary source documents. This is an important point, as evidence and methodology are critical.
1 Danish Research Website – On the web at https://sciencenordic.com/anthropology-archaeology-denmark/dna-links-native-americans-with-europeans/1393344, ScienceNordic, Published 11/22/2013, accessed on 7/12/2020.
2 Nature Research Journal – On the web at https://www.nature.com/articles/nature12736, Nature, Published 11/20/2013, accessed on 7/12/2020.