How Linguists Are Pulling Apart the Bering Strait Theory
Over the past few weeks, new scientific discoveries have rekindled the debate over the Bering Strait Theory. Two of the discoveries were covered recently in Indian Country Today. The first “More Reasons to Doubt the Bering Strait Migration Theory,” dealt with the growing problem of “science by press release,” as scientific studies hype their conclusions to the point that they are misleading; and the second, “DNA Politics: Anzick Child Casts Doubt on Bering Strait Theory,” discussed how politics can influence science, and the negative effects these politically-based scientific results can have on Native peoples.
It is generally assumed that the Bering Strait Theory has almost universal acceptance from scientists. So, for example, the New York Times, in an article on March 12, “Pause Is Seen in a Continent’s Peopling” stated unequivocally that “The first migrations to North America occurred between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago,” with the new wrinkle that maybe on their way from Asia Indian ancestors laid over in the Bering Strait region (Beringia) for thousands of years before traveling on to the Americas.
Therefore it is usually presumed that the primary critics of the theory must be anti-science, like the “creationists” who argue against evolution, or New Age pseudo-scientific conspiracy theorists. Thus in 1995, when the late Sioux philosopher Vine Deloria Jr. published Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact and challenged the Bering Strait Theory, he was savagely attacked by many scientists who lumped him in with those fringe groups.
The vitriol that poured from some of the harshest critics, such as John Whittaker, a professor of anthropology at Grinnell College, who referred to Deloria's book as "a wretched piece of Native American creationist claptrap,” seemed excessive. The critics also demonstrated that they clearly did not comprehend Deloria’s argument. Red Earth, White Lies, embroidered by Deloria’s wry sense of humor and rambling musings, shows he was not anti-science, but rather anti-scientist. In particular, he was against those scientists who held narrow views of the world, who had no respect for other people’s traditions, who fostered a cult of superiority either for themselves or for their society, and who were afraid to search for the truth unless it already conformed with established opinion.
Deloria also argued that science, when studying people, was not neutral. In his view, some scientific theories harbored social and political agendas that were used to deprive Indians and other minorities of their rights. Many of the assumptions that underlay certain scientific principles were based on obsolete religious or social views, and he urged science to shed these dubious relics. The issue for Deloria was not science vs. religion (or tradition), it was good science vs. bad science, and in his view, the Bering Strait Theory was bad science.
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