I didn’t know it beforehand, but I arrived at the climate debate somewhat prepared. Not by studying meterology, climate dynamics or ocean characteristics. Not by intensive poring over famous debates between Lincoln and Douglas. Not by looking at famous scientific controversies such as Wegener’s theory of plate tectonics.
It was popular literature of the 60s and 70s. I watched two scientific conflicts play out in books and magazines (finally a legitimate reason to buy Playboy!) and I still follow the vestiges of them now on the Internet.
When I was growing up I thought Thor Heyerdahl was the epitome of cool. I mean, c’mon—the guy’s name was Thor and he sailed across the Pacific in a raft. Then he sailed across the Atlantic in another raft. I naturally took his side when I started hearing about why he really did it—to provide some evidentiary input into the decades-old controversy regarding Pre-Columbian contact.
We don’t hear about it much anymore, but I don’t think it’s settled even now. Heyerdahl argued throughout his life that contact between the New World and the Old was more than possible—it was almost certain to have happened. He was late to the debate, which started near the beginning of the 20th Century, and Heyerdahl wandered into a vicious academic fight between two entrenched camps—the diffusionists, who like Heyerdahl argued for extensive contact and the isolationists, who maintained that the oceans had served as an uncrossable barrier prior to Columbus’ landing in 1492 (later amended to include a brief Norse colony in Newfoundland in the 10th century). Heyerdahl and the diffusionists countered with botany and biology—the sweet potato, native to the Americas, was found in the Asian islands and even had the same name (or similar variants). The same was true for the pineapple. Some of the natives who greeted the first Europeans in Polynesia didn’t really look all that… Polynesian, being white skinned with red hair.
Academia was not kind to Heyerdahl. Although much of what he advocated has grudgingly been accepted into mainstream science, it comes without his name attached to it. Some of his more extreme conjectures are used as a valid reason to reject his more common-sense ideas. In my opinion 30 years later, Heyerdahl was probably largely correct in his main themes and will eventually receive more credit than he does now.
I fell in love with anthropology while following this debate and I love it still. To my mind Heyerdahl was convincing—but I recognized even then that my natural sympathies influenced my thinking on the subject and I tried to keep an open mind. Many subsequent findings chipped away at some of Heyerdahl’s ideas, but the basic evidence remains to this day. His arguments are perhaps best summed up in Early Man and the Ocean, published in 1978. One key element of that book was Heyerdahl’s ability to empathize with his opponents. Far from despising or ridiculing them, he recognized the altruistic component that inspired the isolationist school—they were fighting to defend the intellectual and cultural abilities of Native Americans to invent and innovate without the need for the Great White Fathers to bring them civilization. I tried to be as charitable as I read about the controversy.