Anyone who loves science, or who at least pays attention to American popular culture, knows the name Neil deGrasse Tyson. Since the late-1990s, via his lectures, books, and TV shows, Dr. Tyson has surpassed his mentor, Carl Sagan, as our nation’s most well-known astrophysicist. With his booming laugh and child-like enthusiasm, Tyson is a disarming blend of likable comedian and commanding presence (think Bill Cosby–before his fall–crossed with Morgan Freeman).

To paraphrase a comment which a viewer posted underneath one of his ubiquitous YouTube clips, Dr. Tyson takes abstract scientific concepts and simplifies them for the common folk in a way that’s both entertaining and profound.

Surprisingly, he also does so with history, which I learned when I stumbled upon a 2018 YouTube clip of him on interviewer Joe Rogan’s in-studio podcast, “The Joe Rogan Experience.”

The subject was related to a topic which, oddly, is currently in the news: Christopher Columbus, specifically, the trashing of his statues across America by a combination of Black Lives Matters protesters, angry Antifa anarchists, and pro-Marxist marchers. I still have no idea how I stumbled upon this clip. Maybe, like Columbus’s navigational style, it was a bit of “dead reckoning.” I definitely didn’t expect America’s most respected scientist to mouth the following words:

“Columbus coming to America was the most significant thing to happen in our species.” 

After a few seconds of stunned silence, Joe Rogan’s one-syllable response mirrored my own: “Whoa!”

Dr. Tyson then went on explain to the “Columbus haters out there” (his words) what our institute has always maintained: Without disavowing the genuine suffering of Indigenous People which followed the exploitation of the Americas, Columbus’s act of successfully connecting two separate strands of the human species (“this is the first time this happened in 10,000 years!” Dr. Tyson marvels) was a world-changing event that altered planet Earth forever.

One of those happenings, as Dr. Tyson relates, was the blending of peoples and cultures. For instance, today’s Puerto Ricans are descended from the Tainos, the original inhabitants of the first islands Columbus encountered. Once the Spanish fully colonized the area long after Columbus, they intermarried with the Indigenous People. And, a bit later, when African slaves were imported to work in sugar cane fields, the Spanish/Taino/African mix begat the creation of the Puerto Ricans, a proud people fiercely proud of their multi-cultural roots.

Dr. Tyson is himself a living example of this, the son of an African American father and Puerto Rican mother. Why, then, would such a learned man actually praise the man who allegedly “oppressed” his own people? Is he a provocateur, an Uncle Tom, or one of those self-loathing “ethnics”?

Dr. Tyson is neither. He is a trained scientist. And, as such, he zeroes in on facts. In this case, he sees “the bigger picture” – Columbus’s voyage had the force of a planetary explosion. What today’s anti-Columbus crowd are debating are the shards of that explosion, both good (the creation of the United States of America) and bad (a nation created in liberty which yet managed to exclude slaves, Native Americans, women, and even foreigners).

These aren’t unimportant; but, in their zest to literally re-write history, the protesters who are destroying statues (illegally, by the way) are blunting any kind of civil discourse on the subject. The Rule of Law, which the Founding Father’s borrowed from my classical Roman ancestors, is being subverted by chaos, criminality, and confused thinking.

Dr. Tyson’s laser-like mind shows us the way to go: Intellect, not emotion. Facts, not hyperbole.

For example, even though an admirer of Columbus, Dr. Tyson also relates a story to show how the Admiral of the Ocean could be less than admirable. In 1504, shipwrecked after his fourth voyage, desperate to feed his starving men as they awaited rescue from Spanish ships, Columbus intimidated the Arawak tribe into sharing their food rations by correctly predicting a lunar eclipse. When it happened a few days later, it frightened them into finally complying.

Note: Columbus didn’t berate the natives, he didn’t threaten them, and he didn’t physically harm them. He used his advanced knowledge of the stars to save face so as not to further stir his Spanish crew members’ already mutinous behaviors. Indeed, when reading Columbus’s journals, which scholars like Professor Carol Delaney have actually done, it becomes clear that the Spaniards deeply resented his outsider status as an Italian from the start; their atrocious treatment of the natives could be construed as examples of deliberately undermining his leadership.

Why would Columbus use rationality to get himself out of such a pickle? Wouldn’t it have been easier to just kill the Arawaks? Does this not reflect the same calm, measured thinking process which Dr. Tyson uses to praise Columbus?

Compare this to the statement made by Chicago Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa on the night anarchists first tried to dismantle the Columbus statue in Grant Park: “Columbus was a documented human trafficker and pedophile.”

Not surprisingly, no sources are given. And again: If true, why would someone of Dr. Tyson’s intellect (and ethnicity) still find historical value in what Columbus the explorer – not necessarily the man – accomplished?

Carlos Ramirez-Rosa and Rosanna Rodriguez Sanchez have been two of Chicago’s most vociferous anti-Columbus critics. Both of are of Puerto Rican descent. Are they not aware that, if not for Columbus, they most likely wouldn’t even be “Puerto Ricans,” not to mention citizens of a nation where the concept of free speech allows them to raise their voices?

If you want to hear what thoughtful, non-combative discourse sounds like, here is a link to Dr. Tyson’s clip. Enjoy.

Neil deGrasse Tyson – Columbus Discovering America Was a Great Achievement – Joe Rogan



  1. Here is a source of information that presents another perspective from the viewpoint of the Spanish Catholics.

    In 1914 Spanish historian Julián Juderías in his book La Leyenda Negra (1914; “The Black Legend”).

    Leyenda Negra, term indicating an unfavorable image of Spain and Spaniards, accusing them of cruelty and intolerance, formerly prevalent in the works of many non-Spanish, and especially Protestant, historians.

    Columbus detractors Bartolomé de las Casas and the British authors who were primarily associated with criticism of 16th-century Spain and the anti-Protestant policies of King Philip II (reigned 1556–98) This became part of the religious polemics and wars between Spain and countries Britain and France under the sway of the Protestant Reformation.Leyenda Negra propagated by critics of Spanish policy still contributes to the general belief that Spain exceeded other nations in cruelty to subject populations; on the other hand, a review of Spain’s record suggests that it was on par with other nations.

    The Columbus Haters remained particularly strong in the United States throughout the 19th century. It was kept alive by the Mexican War of 1846 and the subsequent need to deal with a Spanish-speaking but mixed-race population within its borders. The legend reached its peak during the Spanish-American War of 1898, when a new edition of Bartolomé de las Casas’s book on the destruction of the West Indies was published. Today this anti-Columbus-anti-Catholic-anti-Italian-anti-Spanish has escalated to the events we have recently witnessed.

    Given these are attacks against us, Italian American scholars must thoroughly investigate this information and with the Spanish scholars and Catholic Church historian scholars bring these facts to enlighten the public.

    This information source is The Encyclopedia Britannica https://www.britannica.com/topic/Black-Legend

    1. Interesting point about the Black Legend. Thanks. The term was first allegedly used in 1893 in a reference to Napoleon:

      “However, if we study the life of the emperor properly, we will soon get rid of the legends, both the golden legend, and the legend that we may call the Napoleonic black legend. This is the truth: Napoleon was not a God, nor was he a monster.” —–Arthur Lévy, Napoleon Intime.

      This could certainly apply to Columbus—he was neither “a God, nor a monster.”

      One more point: During WWI, the U.S. conducted its own campaign of demonization of Germans and German culture. Silent movies show “the Huns” raping women indiscriminately and throwing infants out of windows. This is why German Americans felt such strong prejudice at that time. Those images and beliefs carried over. And isn’t Hollywood’s unending obsession with “mob movies” the modern equivalent of the “Black Legend” viz a viz Italian Americans? We are one of the most law-abiding people around, yet what it the first thing people associate with us? Criminal or evil behaviors!!

  2. Yes, I too saw the podcast and shouted “huzzah!!” VINDICATION!! I do not think his ingenious ploy to trick the natives in saving a starving crew on his fourth voyage is less admirable of the man. Understanding the context of the situation, it was Francisco and Diego de Porras and their henchmen that maligned Columbus at the time as they schemed to leave Jamaica while marooned for a little over a year. Instead of waiting for a rescue ship patiently they literally purloined native dugouts, told the natives that Columbus would pay them, and cogently encouraged the natives to starve Columbus and the remaining crew because they were evil people not to be trusted. The natives complied, and hence the ploy. Ingenuity supreme!!

    1. I agree. That was the point I was making about the lunar eclipse trick: If Columbus is the big, bad, destructive white supremacist which his critics claim he was, why didn’t he just have his crew decimate the Arawaks and take their food? Years earlier, why did he praise so many of the Indigenous tribes, and ask a priest to study their customs and mores? Again, wouldn’t a racist not give a damn and just slaughter them? And when Bobadillo came to the islands to investigate Columbus’s alleged mismanagement of them, he saw two Spaniards hanging from the galleys. Their crime? Abusing the natives. And the idea of a deeply Catholic man–so knowledgeable about the Mass that he could have “practiced the ritual himself,” according to Bartolome de las Casas—suddenly chopping off peoples’ hands and tongues for pleasure or, even more absurdly, selling nine-year old native girls into sexual slavery? It just doesn’t ring true, psychologically.

      I have the suspicion that, if a time machine is ever invented, people who travel back to Columbus’s time may see an entirely different person–a charismatic, well-meaning navigator whose single goal of finding a route to the Indies was eventually overwhelmed by events he really couldn’t control; that is, human behaviors by both his Spanish crew and and the natives themselves. Any teacher who has ever tried to corral a group of unruly kids in a classroom knows the feeling. You want to share a vision, but once the class dynamic churns out-of-control, you feel helpless, hopeless, and frustrated.

      And holding Columbus responsible for what eventually followed in the Americas is also faintly absurd. As the late local (Chicago) lawyer and activist Emil Venuti once asked, “Do we demonize the Wright Brothers for the bombing of Hiroshima”?

  3. I believe it is worth it to remember that the “hate” for Cristoforo Colombo and the denial of his importance in history are not recent phenomena.

    In fact, Northern Europeans have tried to discredit Colombo many times. Particularly, Scandinavians and Brits see themselves as masters of sailing, navigation and exploration and simply cannot stand the idea that an Italian catholic man made the epic voyage and discovery of 1492.

    Brits have always minimize Colombo and have instead emphasized the importance of the first British expedition to Newfoundland led by John Cabot (Yes, I know, it is real name is Giovanni Caboto – from Gaeta).

    Scandinavians, instead, want people to believe that Vikings have actually discovered America way before than Colombo. Numerous hoaxes have been carried on, including the creation of fake Viking artifacts.

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