Jewish World Review Oct. 3, 2000 / 4 Tishrei, 5761
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- WHENEVER I ASSERT that conservatives are the true defenders of science today, liberals laugh (or e-mail me with ridicule). They ask, "How can conservatives claim to be pro-science when they indulge the political agendas of creationists?" It's a fair question and one they might ask of themselves first.
Consider the decree this week by Bruce Babbitt - the most politicized Interior Secretary since at least the Reagan administration - that the Kennewick Man must given to a handful of Indian tribes in compliance with Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
Who's the Kennewick Man? Well, we don't really know, and thanks to Bruce Babbitt and a bunch of American Indians no less zealous and irrational than the most die-hard creationists, we may never know.
The Kennewick Man is the name scientists gave to a skeleton accidentally found on federal land near the town of Kennewick, Wash., four years ago. What makes him a scientific Rosetta stone is that his skeleton has been carbon-dated to be about 9,300 years old, making it among the oldest human fossils ever found in North America, and certainly the most well-preserved.
He could also be the most important anthropological find in North America. But to discern that, scientists would first have to study him more closely, especially genetically. But they've been blocked from doing that because the federal government, under intense pressure from American Indian groups and their allies, has kept him in cold storage while "ownership" of the remains could be determined.
The tribes contend, no doubt in all sincerity, their religion demands they rebury the remains of what they contend is a direct ancestor. According to NAGPRA, Native Americans are permitted to reclaim "sacred artifacts" (this has led to efforts by some tribes to pillage all sorts of items from American museums).
What adds to the controversy, and the intensity of feelings on both sides of the conflict, is the strong likelihood that he is not an American Indian at all. Scientists are convinced from the preliminary data that he's decidedly older and more Asian than the Indians who first migrated to the region. Some scientists suspect his closest relative may be the aboriginal Ainu people of Japan. Whatever he was, it's a mistake to assume that our modern racial categories have any meaning going back that far.
Still, if it could be proved that Kennewick Man was part of an earlier migration to North America that was ethnically distinct from modern American Indians, it would overturn not just anthropologists' conventional wisdom about when and where Indians come from, it would also conflict with some of the Indians' religious tenets.
"We do not believe that our people migrated here from another continent, as the scientists do," Armand Minthorn, a tribal trustee and spokesman told U.S. News & World Report in 1998.
Minthorn told The New York Times this week that the administration's edict is a "tremendous victory" for his people. "It just can't be expressed how much this means to us culturally," he said. Others see Babbitt's decision as a capitulation to identity politics and radical multiculturalism.
Babbitt says he made his decision this week because he was convinced by the "oral histories" of the local tribes and the "geographic data" that suggest "these tribes have hunted and fished this area É for millennia."
Actually, nobody disputes that. The question is whether these tribes have hunted and fished the area for more than nine millennia, something scientists doubt very much.
It's interesting that Babbitt would consider these oral histories authoritative. Nine thousand years is, after all, a long time for word of mouth to be reliable. It's even older than all the events of the Bible, after creation. On the timeline of human history, the construction of the pyramids and the building of Ancient Rome would be closer to events today than to events of Kennewick Man's era.
Ultimately, it's hard to see how this effort by American Indians and their allies is any more legitimate than the efforts of creationists to block the teaching of evolutionary theory.
At least creationists rely on texts that have been unchanged for thousands of years rather than the spiritual equivalent of urban legends. Moreover, creationists do not argue that evolutionary theory cannot be taught in the schools. They merely insist that creationism be taught as well.
Those supporting the burial of Kennewick Man are not willing to take that step toward pluralism. Indeed, for all of the silliness and paranoia of those who try to keep evolutionary theory out of the schools, they've done little to obstruct the study of it by scientists. That can hardly be said by those who support the reburial of Kennewick