Many students learn in the primary grades that Christopher Columbus defied conventional wisdom about the shape of the world, boldly set forth on a voyage of discovery, and set Europe on a path towards global colonization. Other students may have learned that Columbus left a more malevolent wake—that he introduced slavery to the New World and committed genocide against its native peoples.
Neither narrative is all that accurate. In fact, in this episode we largely remove Columbus from the “Columbian Exchange” in order to focus more on ecology. While we may like to think that history’s most important events were shaped by forward-thinking heroes or scarred by inhuman villains, sometimes human virtue and defect actually have very little to do with determining the course of events. In fact, as we emphasize here, humans do not always control their own destinies.