Blog reader Nicholas Waller directed me to an interesting article in today’s Times of London (behind a pay wall) by the Welsh musician Gruff Rhys, who discussed how the hunt for a lost tribe of “Welsh” Indians in the United States inspired Rhys’s new project, American Interior, which is a combination of album, film, book, and app. The project traces the life of John Evans, a Welshman who fell victim to the hoaxes of Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg), who fabricated a great deal of “evidence” for Welsh history. Evans believed that the medieval Welsh prince Madoc (Madog) colonized America, and he devoted his young life to exploring Spanish Louisiana in hopes of finding a lost tribe of Welsh descendants. He became bitterly disappointed when the Mandan tribe turned out to be neither as white nor as Welsh as he had hoped. At the age of 29, Evans, broken in spirit, vanished into the Louisiana swamps and became lost to history.
His quixotic quest might have been forgotten except for the fact the Thomas Jefferson sent the results of Evans’s work during a Spanish expedition to find the Northwest Passage to Lewis and Clark to help them cross America. In a letter of January 22, 1804, Jefferson wrote to Lewis: “In that of the 13th inst. I inclosed you the map of a Mr. Evans, a Welshman, employed by the Spanish government for that purpose, but whose original object I believe had been to go in search of the Welsh Indians, said to be up the Missouri.” From this there arose a modern myth that Jefferson intended to find the Welsh Indians.
Rhys is no believer in lost Welsh tribes, and he has interesting things to say about the way Welsh history and culture contributed to the myth of Welshmen in ancient America:
Gwyn “Alf” Williams, the late professor of Welsh history, remarked once that myths themselves can become an operative historical reality: you could argue that Madog was used as a kind of warrant for the British crown to colonise lands occupied by the Spanish in the name of a Welsh prince. So Evans was escaping colonisation in Wales by possibly aiding the colonisation of someone else’s land. I’m not looking to canonise him: there are contradictions in his life, which only makes it more interesting and poignant.
Book Claims White People Genetically Adapted for Modern Life
I’ve talked often enough about the racist undercurrent of efforts to justify colonization, particularly in terms of how searches for “white” inhabitants of the pre-Columbian Americas have historically been used to deny Native American title to American lands. It is therefore troubling to read about the new book from former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade called A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History (Penguin, 2014). The book argues that the “three principles races” of humankind—white, black, and Asian—evolved differently to adapt themselves to particular cultural, political, and economic conditions. (He also counts Native Americans and Pacific Islanders as races, but less interesting ones.) Therefore, white people are genetically adapted to neo-liberal capitalism, while Asians are genetically adapted to authoritarian dictatorship and blacks to “tribalism.” (Apparently the wars of European nationalism are somehow more sophisticated than mere tribalism.)
This, Wade says, goes back to the Paleolithic, when light skinned peoples rose to dominance through campaigns of genocide against dark-skinned peoples in Europe and Asia. He argues that Paleolithic people lived in small tribes with extremely limited intergroup genetic contact, something that modern genetics simply does not support. Early humans were so frisky they even got it on with Neanderthals for crying out loud! Worse, he claims that the Neolithic Revolution inspired a genetic shift among (future) white people that made them less aggressive, taming the constant and hostile warfare of hunter-gather society. Here he seems wilfully blind to the fact that the first evidence for warfare emerges everywhere right around the time when groups began settling down and were therefore unable to resolve conflicts by walking away to a new land.
For Wade, evolution works on different timetables for different races—blacks and Asians maintain their primitive associations from early prehistory to today, even when living in different cultures; however, white people evolved into a new breed of better-adapted masters of industry, thrift, and democracy within a few generations. This occurred, he says against evidence, because rich people (he cites medieval Britain here) had more and superior children than the poor, so many in fact that some of these children became the new poor, raising the overall genetic fitness of Britain through superior genes.
The rise of the West was not some cultural accident. It was the direct result of the evolution of European populations as they adapted to the geographic and military conditions of their particular ecological habitat…From an evolutionary perspective, an imminent decline of the West seems unlikely. Western social behavior, the source of the open society and open economy with their rewards to innovation, has been shaped by evolution as well as by culture and history and is unlikely to change anytime soon.
For wade, evolution has also granted Europeans more “delicate manners” and sensitivity to others. But those manners were not biological, any more so than Japanese bowing or Chinese kowtowing. Every culture has rituals; to claim one more sophisticated than another is to impose an ethnocentric view. Louis XIV imposed what we call “manners” on his court to keep his sniping aristocrats from doing violence to one another at table and to distract them from plotting against him; it’s why he had all of the butter knives rounded, which they remain to this day. Europeans used to enjoy watching unspeakable acts of animal cruelty. This changed in the Austrian crown lands not because genes made them kinder but because Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II had a visceral reaction to seeing such “sport,” banned it, and tried to encourage better behavior. Perhaps Joseph was genetically predisposed, but certainly all of the Habsburg Empire didn’t change their DNA just because he changed his mind, and it was recently enough—less than 300 years ago—that it would be a rather dramatic change to affect all of Europe so quickly. We’re still breaking up cockfighting and dogfighting rings here in the U.S.
Wade also says that evolution explains black African violence and “the adaptation of the Jews to capitalism.” Yes, the Jews are genetically programmed to covet money! In fact, any and every stereotype turns out to be the result of a genetic predisposition. In his earlier 2007 book Before the Dawn Wade even wondered if the Chinese carried a gene for superior ping pong skills. Populations move all the time; when the Huns came out of Asia and fathered children with Europeans, did that somehow turn Europe authoritarian? Did the influx of Spanish genes somehow give Native Americans gentleness and thrift?
The trouble with Wade’s thesis, as anthropologist Jonathan Marks wrote in a review in In These Times, is that it risks arguing that the perceived “winners” in society are determined by unbreakable natural law and their social positions are therefore inherent and unchangeable. The rich are rich because they’re just better; the West is dominant because their genes are stronger; etc.
Scientific American has a review that explains Wade’s scientific fallacies in great detail, and it also links to many other negative reviews of the book. For my purpose, however, it’s important to see that the overarching theme of a racial component to human history—and the role of race in determining history’s winners and losers—remains as potent today as it was a century ago. Fringe historians aren’t alone in looking for ways to justify and defend the current social order through appeal to a largely fictional past.