First Principle- Part 1 

The perennial first principle, that we make our world from stories, applies to all domains of our life. I want to explore this first principle as it applies to both science and everyday life. Both deal with issues of truth and knowledge but we encounter them somewhat differently in science than we do in everyday life. By way of example for exploring the first principle as it applies to science, the story of human migration around the world and ultimately to what is today the Americas is a story rich with scientific evidence and the narrative derived from that evidence.

Science, Like All Stories, Is Subject to Revision

Fossilized wonders like teeth and bones, ancient DNA, and deeply etched landscapes, all provide us with concrete evidence of what came before. But it is our work to stitch them together and fill in the spaces left between them with a narrative that gives a picture of the past and how it is connected to the present. Some of the narrative inevitably will be shown to be limited at best and, at worst, almost completely inaccurate. The teeth and bones and DNA and scored landscapes did not give false evidence. It is our narrative, our stories about these artifacts and what they mean, that must be continually revised as new evidence and our stories about that evidence change the stories we already subscribe to. This is the nature of stories, and thus it is the nature of human knowledge.  

The fossilized mastodon tooth we found on the beach in Garden City, South Carolina when I was a child.

The very idea of a Pleistocene epoch followed by the Holocene epoch is itself a story. Geologists set the dates and names for these periods as a way to understand and describe the earth’s history. Drawing the line for the end of the Pleistocene at 11,700 years was chosen because of the dramatic changes occurring at the end of the Younger Dryas.[1] These epochs were defined with the advantage of a great deal of hindsight. At the time they were prescribed, history was clear that the Ice Age had ended. 

Prior to the findings at the Folsom and Clovis archaeological sites in New Mexico in the 1920s and 1930s, most people believed that humans had arrived on the continent only 4,000 years earlier. Following the Clovis discovery, the arrival date was moved to somewhere between 13,500 and 13,200 years ago. Over the next seventy years of the twentieth century, experts in the related fields furthered development of the Clovis First model. Clovis First is a theory holding that human activity at the Clovis site pre-dates any other human activity on the continent and thus was the original occupation site for earliest habitation. It was only the discoveries at the Monte Verde site in Chile in 1997 that necessitated a recasting of that storyline as the artifacts found so far south and at 14,500 years old could not be made to fit with the Clovis First narrative. Recent genetic studies have since moved that date even further back and provided us with compelling stories about an interim settlement of Beringia[2] and travels along the coastal route by boat as well as the ice-free corridor by foot. And yet we still can’t say for sure when and how the founding settlers arrived on this continent.  And we may never be able to do so. But the stories fill us with wonder as they inspire still more questions stemming from our endless desire to know.

Of course, this is not most people’s understanding of science. Rather, our still Cartesian understanding of knowing something is that to be human is to be rational, and to be rational is to possess a true representation of reality in our thoughts. Therefore, thinking and rational intellect are integrally related. Thus, it follows that to think is to represent the real. Beginning with the ancient Greeks and continuing today, a primary operating presumption is that rational thought is representational, that the content of our minds is the representations, the mirror images, of reality itself. This is the case in the philosophic tradition as well as in everyday life. In fact, the concept of the representation of reality is so fundamental to how we think about knowing, that it is generally thought of as synonymous with thinking itself. If the mind is intellect and the content of the mind is representations, then the function of the intellect—of thinking—is to represent. Philosopher Charles Taylor summed up our understanding of knowledge such that “knowledge is to be seen as correct representation of an independent reality.” 

If the accurate representation of things is the mind’s line of work, it is human nature that the mind will, at some point, strive for perfection in this endeavor. In this way, we come to the quest for certainty, for validation of the veracity of all representations. And built into this goal of perfection is a notion of objectivity that excludes any subjective perspective. In accordance with the scientific model, representational theories favor the generalized over the particular, deferring to the general rule or law to explain the particular case as a mere instance of this rule. As philosopher James Edwards explained, “Thus science aims at solving the puzzles that give rise to it by constructing explanatory theories of greater and greater scope.” It is the accurate uncovering and depiction of reality through representations that describe and explain that make a discipline scientific.

The theory regarding how the megafauna disappeared on the North American continent near the end of the Pleistocene—the Overkill Hypothesis—is a representation of a reality envisioned first by Paul Martin and then by many other scientists following him. To support his belief that humans caused the extinction of the mammoths, and thus the rest of the megafauna, through the dramatically changed environment in the absence of those mammoths, Martin pointed to the “objective evidence” of the numerous kill sites across the continent. He also modeled a scenario with representative “facts” about how the humans rapidly proliferated (100 people becoming 300,000 in 300 years) as they advanced steadily across the North American terrain, taking down 100 million “naive” megafauna as they went. Objective evidence was also found in the timing of the extinctions relative to the rise of the Clovis culture, as well as in the fact that mammoths on isolated islands continued to live on beyond the continental extinctions. 

But these same “facts” can be read quite differently by scientists with a different set of beliefs. The same evidence is a representation of a very different reality than the one Martin saw. Regarding kill sites, there are only five of the 37 extant genera of megafauna that humans have been directly associated with (at kill sites) through hard archaeological evidence. These are mammoths, mastodons, gomphotheres, camels, and horses. Given the vastness of the landmass, the number of sites where there is evidence for direct association between human-crafted stone artifacts and remains of extinct megafauna is surprisingly low in number. Because the reliability of the association is debated at some of the sites, the number is somewhere between 15 and 26.[3]

For a sense of the size of the megafauna, this is a 12,000 year-old mammoth tusk uncovered in Siberia on similar land and just to the west of what was Beringia during the Last Glacial Maximum (photo from Historyinpictures)

Further, as archaeologist David J. Meltzer pointed out, if the Overkill Hypothesis is correct, the earliest human inhabitants on the continent conducted themselves entirely differently than any other known hunter-gather groups. Hunter-gatherers will move from one habitat to another, but they do not wipe out a habitat before they move on. There is a plethora of archaeological evidence showing that early settlers on the continent consumed a broad spectrum of foods. The vast majority of it included small game, marine resources, seaweed, roots and plants. All of these were easily found in abundance and acquired with far greater ease and safety than the meat from late Pleistocene megafauna. Facing megafauna who are often over ten tons, at least twelve feet tall at the shoulder and with tusks of twelve to fifteen feet in length, a human would not take this prey lightly nor take it on when smaller game was readily available.

Neither the timeline nor the geography fits with the Clovis hunter components of the Overkill Hypothesis. By the time of Clovis, the megafauna remaining on the continent had long co-existed with humans and so could not have been naive to them and their hunting abilities, even with their new and improved Clovis stone-point technology. Early modern humans had been living with Pleistocene megafauna for hundreds of thousands of years. Meltzer makes another important point relative to the Overkill Hypothesis. He points out that during the time of Clovis Culture, what is now the American West was going through a severe drought cycle. Meltzer follows Gary Haynes in his speculation that because most of the mammoths at Clovis sites died young, it was their weakened state from drought and near-extinction as a species that allowed these sick animals to become mired in the shallow ponds. Here they posed no threat to the passing hunter-gatherers who scavenged the meat most readily attainable and left the rest to rot.

When individual studies for each extinct species have been done, each time climate change has been found to be the cause. Still, it is not such a stretch to see how easily Martin and his decades of followers could jump to the conclusion of his Overkill Hypothesis. In countless other examples, on island after island around the globe, as humans appeared, species went extinct, and in so many of these cases, the extinctions are closely associated with the arrival of humans (presuming of course that we are correct in our assumptions of when that arrival actually did occur). But large continents are not the same as islands. Today there can be no denying the negative effect of humans on nature. But the state of the planet nearly 8 billion people later is not the same as North America with its founding human population of, at most, a few thousand people.

Science Begins And Ends With a Story

The sense of objectivity assigned to science helps us relate to objects through strictly causal explanations meant to expand our understanding of how the world is ordered and operationalized. Put to practical use, this kind of knowledge has helped us function in a world that feels ordered, controlled, and inherently comprehensible. To that end, we prefer to think of science as the opposite of story-telling. But the very nature of science is to test out a story, checking the causal connections to see if they remain intact, thereby providing the story with its coherency. Generally, over time, the story will need to change as new information and new causal connections are added to the larger story in which this story exists.  

Taken from my mother’s deck in Bolinas, California. Photo is exactly as shot, but what are we looking it?

The primary concern of the pre-Socratic Greeks was to explain the order of the universe in a unified, holistic way. Heraclitus declared there was a single logos that everyone should listen to. While in Greek logos actually means “account” or “word,” Heraclitus used it to indicate an account of reality or the fundamental principle of the world—the overarching story that was the one we should all agree to. Another Pre-Socratic, Parmenides, put all of his work in the form of epic verse and he disdained empirical observation as a path to truth. More contemporarily, in The Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that “all seeing is essentially perspective, and so is all knowing.” He was adamant that every viewpoint was always value-based, never objective. For many philosophers and social scientists today, the truths of interpretation hold sway over the truths garnered from scientific observation. For them, scientific observation permits an understanding that is limited to surface appearances without insight into meaning that runs deeper and may be hidden behind the veil. It is temporally bound and thus leaves aside the broader context. Interpretation, on the other hand, may reveal a richer landscape of meaning and contextual grounding. 

I would argue that both, scientific observation and an interpretive approach, are founded in and have as their final product, a narrative—a story—whether presumed to be objectively fact-based representation or admittedly subjective and contextualized. Both strive for the accurate uncovering and depiction of reality through representations that describe and explain, i.e., that which makes a discipline “scientific.” Neither is value-free and neither will stand for all time without change based on additional stories. 

The scientific model clearly demarcates the individual and the world. Reality, as it is generally understood, consists of the accurate representations of a world external to the self-contained knower. As mind is walled off from the world, the self is identified as the mind, which is now synonymous with intellect. But this understanding ignores the basic condition that all subjectivity cannot be eliminated as the investigation’s grounding statement can never be pure representation of fact. It is always subject to the predetermined way in which that investigation is conducted, just as interpretation is always conditioned by the interpreter’s own pre-understanding.

The picture of science as being based upon meticulous standards of objectivity, rationality, and truth has been challenged by many but still holds sway. Even as the notion of truth has been redefined by contemporary theorists who maintain that truth is not a property at all, we all regularly search for and accept it at both the grand and the quotidian levels. Those who question the notion view the predicate “is true” as misleading, in that it should be taken as an endorsement of the proposition rather than a description of it. To that end, truth can no longer be the counterpoint for science that it was once held to be as the endorsement is, of course, subjectively-based and subject to change. This is the case for all stories, including those based on rigorous field efforts and deep research (into other stories).

The First Principle- Part 2 will explore the notion of truth as it relates to science.


Edwards, James C. 1982. Ethics Without Philosophy: Wittgenstein and the morallife. Tampa: University of South Florida Press.

Heraclitus. 2001. Fragments: The collected wisdom of Heraclitus. New York: Viking.

Martin, Paul S., & Burney, David A. 1999. “Bring back the elephants.” Wild Earth. Spring 1999 issue.

Meltzer, David J. 1993. Search for the First Americans. Montreal: St. Remy Press.

Meltzer, David J. 2009. First Peoples in a New World: Colonizing Ice Age America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1956. The Genealogy of Morals. (Francis Golfing, Trans.) NewYork: Doubleday.

Taylor, Charles. 1995. Philosophical Arguments. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[1] The 1000-year-long frigid Younger Dryas period began around 12,800 years. After several thousand years of steady warming and glacial melt, the earth suddenly went back into an Ice Age for a full millennium. The cause of this turnaround is generally ascribed to the resultant deluge of fresh water that poured into the northern Atlantic from the drainage of glacial Lake Agassiz as the Laurentide ice sheet retreated. This, in turn, disrupted the North Atlantic “Conveyor” which circulates warm tropical air northward and distributes a considerable amount of heat globally. The impact of this abrupt climactic turnaround had a profound effect on just about everything that was underway during the warming that preceded the Younger Dryas. 

[2] Between 27,000 and 19,000 years ago, the northern hemisphere went into a period known as the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM).  This period was the latest in which the average temperature on the planet reached a minimum while the amount of land covered by ice reached a maximum. During the LGM, there was approximately three times more glacial ice covering the Earth than there has been for most of the twentieth century. Sea levels during the Last Glacial Maximum were roughly 425 feet lower than they are today. A drop of this magnitude once again emptied the vast area (about twice the size of Texas) between easternmost Siberia and today’s Alaska of the water now known as the Bering Strait of the Bering Sea. This exposed the sea floor and created the Bering Land Bridge across a region referred to as Beringia. Megafauna as well as relatively smaller animals freely crossed this land bridge as long as the sea levels remained at least 165 feet lower than they are today.  

[3] There are more sites from this period in which extinct megafauna remains are found in paleontological settings than there are archaeological settings.  This would suggest the megafauna were more likely to die from natural causes than from human causes.

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