30 January 2008

Larry Schweikart’s Claim

In his article for History News Network, “Why It's Time for a Patriot's History of the United States,” Larry Schweikart makes a number of claims regarding the content and merits of A Patriot’s History. I’ve been spending some time examining one: “[we] note that considerable new research in the hard sciences and medicine shows that some diseases thought to be ‘transmitted’ from Europe likely were already here.” This claim raises two immediate questions. Which New World diseases were thought to be Old World diseases? What research in the hard sciences supports their claim?

New World / Old World

Which New World diseases were thought to be Old World diseases? Schweikart and Allen offer two answers:
Native populations had epidemics long before Europeans arrived. A recent study of more than 12,500 skeletons from sixty-five sites found that native health was on a “downward trajectory long before Columbus arrived.” Some suggest that Indians may have had a nonvenereal form of syphilis, and almost all agree that a variety of infections were widespread. Tuberculosis existed in Central and North America long before the Spanish appeared, as did herpes, polio, tick-borne fevers, giardiasis, and amebic dysentary.
Schweikart and Allen, A Patriot’s History, 8.

Disease also decimated the colony. Jamestown settlers were leveled by New World diseases for which they had no resistance. Malaria, in particular, proved a dreaded killer, and malnutrition lowered the immunity of the colonists.
Schweikart and Allen, A Patriot’s History, 17.
I’m nearly ready to present a posting here at Patriots and Peoples showing that research in the so-called hard sciences favors an African origin for malaria, at least for its most virulent strain, and that this research was widely disseminated roughly during the time that Schweikart and Allen should have been finishing the research for their text. Of course, the scientific answers regarding the origins of malaria are inconclusive, as is customary for scientific research. Scientists are a skeptical tribe and they present their research with a degree of uncertainty that is misread to produce the distortions propagated by anti-intellectual crusades against such “truths” as evolutionary theory, the necessity of habitat protection and restoration, and models of climate change that reveal the effects of carbon dioxide emissions.
I will deal with malaria and Jamestown in "Death in Jamestown" which should be posted in a matter of days. In addition, “Origins of Malaria” will address some of the latest work in the hard sciences (at the time A Patriot's History was in preparation) with respect to malaria. While I’m moving forward on these two articles, I’m pursuing other aspects of Schweikart’s claim. The existence of a variety of infections, including nonvenereal syphilis, comes as no surprise to anyone with the faintest knowledge of the vast literature on Indian health, demography, and depopulation. Indeed, except for malaria, none of the maladies listed by Schweikart and Allen are among those listed by Henry Dobyns as Old World diseases that decimated indigenous populations in the Americas.

Hard Sciences

What research in the hard sciences supports their claim? I can find no citations to medical journals or the like in Schweikart and Allen’s bibliography. There are two texts that include work in a field called macrobioarchaeology, and two short articles in popular scientific journals. The two citations to science journals are both “[a]mong those who cite higher numbers” (9), and neither supports their claim. That leaves The Backbone of History: Health and Nutrition in the Western Hemisphere, edited by Richard H. Steckel, and Jerome C. Rose; and Michael R. Haines and Richard H. Steckel, A Population History of North America. Steckel calls his work social science (i.e. “soft science”), but his work must be the “hard science” to which Schweikart refers.
It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. –Sherlock Holmes
A. Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes, 315.
According to the publisher, The Backbone of History “gathers skeletal evidence on seven basic indicators of health to assess chronic conditions that affected individuals who lived in the Western Hemisphere from 5000 B.C. to the late nineteenth century.” This book is the source for the language “downward trajectory,” a phrase available in numerous reviews, such as the New York Times article, “Don't Blame Columbus for All the Indians' Ills,” also cited by Schweikart and Allen. However, the New York Times article is clear that Steckel and Rose “say their findings in no way diminish the dreadful impact Old World diseases had on the people of the New World.” This assertion runs counter to the thrust of the argument in A Patriot’s History.

A Scholar’s Frustration

I do not own either of Steckel’s books cited by Schweikart and Allen. The Backbone of History is unavailable in my public libraries—city and county; nor does it exist in either university library in my city. The nearest copy I’ve located is 85 miles south of my home at my alma mater. A Population History does exist at one local library, but when I checked there in December, it was checked out until the end of January (their online catalog indicates that it is there today, so perhaps I can examine it later this week). Thus I’ve been forced to defer full examination of Schweikart and Allen’s professed sources, but initial forays into summaries offered in book reviews, and articles accessible through JSTOR are pushing me towards an assessment nearly identical to that offered in “America was not a disease-free paradise”: superficial reliance on quotable comments from books that argue the opposite of the larger claims in A Patriot’s History. I keep seeking credible scholarship in Schweikart and Allen’s text, but it eludes me.

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