Lewis, Clark and Darwin


Charles Darwin wasn’t born until three years after the Lewis & Clark Expedition was over, but evolutionary science is shedding a new light on a question that has perplexed me and other history buffs about their epic journey. 

Here’s the question: Why were the Indians so friendly to Lewis & Clark? The answer might just be: because the impulse to be kind to strangers is human nature, hard-wired in our genes.


Lewis & Clark were in the wilderness for 28 months, 1803-06. Countless times, the local native tribes offered the explorers a helping hand and nearly every day they granted them safe passage. The Mandan in North Dakota traded winter food and shared shelter when it was 40 below zero; the Shoshone of Idaho swapped for horses, which the Nez Perce pastured for the winter; the Clatsop of the Pacific Coast taught them how to cook fish and remained friendly even after the explorers shot out the local elk herd. And at least with the enlisted men, the women of several tribes “embraced” the explorers more intimately as well.

Yes, the explorers occasionally ran afoul of the locals – one dicey standoff with the Teton Sioux and one brief, bloody skirmish with the Blackfeet – along with some petty thievery along the Columbia River. But these episodes seem the exceptions that prove the rule.

So why didn’t the tribes just rub these invaders out?  After all, the Corps of Discovery was vastly outnumbered. In historical hindsight, it seems the Native Americans could have saved a lot of trouble, or at least bought some time, had they routed the Corps and sent them packing back to St. Louis.

A recent article in The Economist sheds light. Evolutionary biologists probed the same question: Why are humans so darned trusting of strangers? In short, it’s in our DNA.

The scientists found it’s a matter of risk versus reward. Over 200,000 years of human evolution, the trusting souls were rewarded more often than they were taken advantage of.  Those advantages paid off in reproductive success, and “trust of strangers” beat out xenophobia in our basic human blueprint.

Scientists used computer models that tested the “evolutionary fitness” of people who trust new faces, versus the risk of being taken advantage of by a stranger. They found that trusting, most often over the long run, pays more benefit than cost.

Of course, humans are much more complicated than computer models. Culture, nurture and experience all play a role in how we make decisions.  And the clash of Native and European cultures that make up American history is more complicated than any single explanation. But it’s refreshing to consider that xenophobia is not necessarily a human birthright.

Ben Long is an outdoorsman, conservationist and author in Kalispell, Mont. He attended  journalism school with Sarah Palin, but does not consider himself qualified to be president. He is senior program director for Resource Media.

Image: How Charles M. Russell imagined Lewis & Clark meeting the Natives of the Lower Columbia.

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