Theory, History and Myth

DNA sequencing has totally changed the understanding that we have of our genetic makeup and is consequently changing our understanding of early human migration. In an article in the NY Times Science section, human DNA has been found in Neanderthals from Siberia that is 100,000 years old. This upsets the accepted theory that humans of European and Asian ancestry left Africa 50-60,000 years ago. It was a good theory.

Theory is a marvelous invention. It clearly separates humans from other animal forms allowing us to make hypotheses that can lead us to discovery. But theory also has a way of embedding itself into our consciousness in a way that can be obstructive. The DNA discovery has altered a view that anthropologists have long accepted. In my field of English furniture history there are many gray areas where theory has been accepted as fact, something I have written about in the past.

In a recent post, I wrote about Mary Beard’s, “SPQR, A History of Rome” and how she intertwined myth and history as representing factual history. Of course, Romulus and Remus were not nurtured by a wolf, if they even existed, but their story was essential to later Romans. It is a little like believing the myth about George Washington and the cherry tree. It isn’t true, but it serves as a kind of aggrandizement of one’s origins and every family, town and country has them.

The problem is when myth, history and theory are lumped into bad behavior. The takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge is a case in point. The logic of the occupiers was that they, not the Government, should the arbiters of how the land is used. In the eyes of many, the Government is constantly conspiring to undermine our freedoms. Such hogwash! Unfortunately, the result was destruction of property and historical artifacts, a guaranteed byproduct of lawlessness. It is also a story that does not have an end, and so more history and myth will be written. Alas!

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