Three New Lessons for Columbus Day

Many Americans seem to hold on to a romanticized portrait of Columbus even when they are exposed to his dark side.


In the run-up to Columbus Day, an infographic sailing around the web is busting myths about Christopher Columbus and condemning him as a “sex slaver, mass murderer and champion of sociopathic imperialism.” The information in Matthew Inman’s screed isn’t newhe draws it from 20th-century books by Howard Zinn and James Loewen—but his packaging surely is. Judging by the hundreds of thousands of people who have “liked” his essay and the thousands of tweets, hating on the namesake of today’s holiday has mass appeal. Here’s a taste:


I - Columbus was no hero to Native Americans or his fellow sailors

I am not about to rain on this anti-Columbus parade. The Italian leader of four Spanish voyages to the New World was no saint, to say the least. In the initial assessment of the Native Americans recorded in his journal, Columbus wrote he “could conquer the whole of them with fifty men, and govern them as I pleased.” Native Americans, he thought, “would be good servants and I am of the opinion that they would very readily become Christians.” Columbus was an opportunist and something of a bastard even to fellow Europeans. Though he admits in his journal entry of October 11, 1492 that “the land was first seen by a sailor called Rodrigo de Triana,” he cheated his fellow sailor and fudged the record to claim the lifetime pension King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella promised to the first man who saw land.

But there is nuance to be added to the Columbus backlash, and some original polling data (a Praxis first!) reveals what Americans of various stripes think about the man who is sometimes said to have discovered America.

2 - Most Americans have encountered criticisms of Columbus, but a majority still consider him a hero

In a survey I commissioned for Big Think in September through the polling agency Toluna, 55 percent of the 300 respondents say they had, at some point in their education, “read or discussed ideas that are critical of Christopher Columbus.” Not surprisingly, the younger the subjects are, the more likely they are to have heard these critiques: 70 percent of respondents aged 18-34 have encountered critical takes on Columbus in school, compared to 52 percent of respondents aged 35-54 and only 44 percent of those over 55.  

Over 75 percent of the respondents agree with the statement that “history teachers should provide information about the negative aspects of what happened to Native Americans after Columbus's journey to America,” compared to 14 percent who disagree.

But when asked which statement better characterizes Columbus, more respondents chose the sunny side of the 15th-century Italian explorer: “brave sailor who discovered America” was the choice of 54 percent of respondents, while 36 percent selected this statement: “the person whose voyage to America set the stage for genocide and disease for Native Americans.” So many Americans seem to hold on to a romanticized portrait of the sailor even when they are exposed to his dark side.

3 - Blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites to harbor a critical attitude toward Columbus

Many more Spanish speakers in the United States seem to be critical of the Spanish expeditions to the Americas in the 15th century than are non-Hispanics. Only 40 percent of Hispanic or Latino respondents chose the “brave sailor” option as the best description of Columbus, while 48 percent preferred the “genocide and disease” statement. Among African Americans, the numbers are more lopsided: only 30 percent chose “brave sailor” while 63 percent agreed more with “the person who...set the stage for genocide and disease for Native Americans.”

Compare these numbers to the views of the white subjects, where the numbers are basically inverted. Whites preferred the “brave sailor who discovered America” line to the critical description by a margin of 58 percent to 30 percent.

Why are racial and ethnic minorities less sanguine than whites about Columbus’s legacy? It could be due to a general feeling among underprivileged communities that America was built on the backs and through the oppression of people like them. The mental health problems of Aaron Alexis, the Washington, D.C., navy yard shooter, may have been exacerbated by a perception of racial discrimination, and countless studies point to the continued relevance of race in minorities’ housing, education and employment opportunities. It stands to reason that today’s disadvantaged Americans might be more sensitive to the oppression of Native Americans half a millennium ago.

A thought on Inman's proposal to replace Columbus Day with "Bartolomé Day"

The unrestrained anger against Columbus found in Matthew Inman’s popular infographic goes overboard at times, such as when he blames the explorer for single-handedly launching the Atlantic slave trade or for causing the deaths of millions of Native Americans. The 3-5 million Indians who died of starvation, violence and disease in the first few decades after contact do not all fall on Columbus’s head. Most of this carnage was inadvertentthe antibody-poor Native Americans, as Alfred Crosby details, succumbed to microbes Europeans toted to the New World, particularly the smallpox virus. And there were conquistadors with far more blood on their hands than Columbus. Hernan Cortes, the butcher of the Aztec empire, is only one example.

Finally, it is a bit simplistic of Mr. Inman to present Bartolomé de las Casas as a more deserving honoree for an American holiday. Though las Casas did bravely report on the worst Spanish crimes against Native Americans and defended the Indians in a famous debate in 1550, his argument on behalf of the Native Americans granted two at-best partial truths about their cultureidolatry and human sacrificeand advanced a specious justification of their practices. The Indians were only committing a “probable error,” las Casas claimed: a moral failing inexcusable in the eyes of God but understandable and excusable in the eyes of human beings. By sacrificing humans, las Casas untenably argued, the Indians were just trying to give a gift of ultimate value to their gods; and anyway, their priests said it was OK, so how would they have known any differently?

Aside from his unsuccessful logical jiu jitsu to defend Native American practices, Las Casas held Indians as slaves and, after freeing them, advocated the importation of Africans. He watched Spanish monks as they burned the "the vast majority" of "hieroglyphic books in the Maya world" to facilitate the Mayans' conversion to Catholicism. (He may have regretted this crime, but did little to stop it.) His story belies Mr. Inman’s facile claim that while the evil Columbus raped young girls and stole gold, the saint las Casas “found his humanity.” The fact is that many criminal acts conspired to launch America as we know it. Machiavelli said that all great foundings are built on great crimes, and he was, lamentably, correct. It will always be a complicated endeavor celebrating America's founding moments.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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