Time to Eat the Dogs

A Podcast About Science, History, and Exploration

The Explorer Type

The Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich

What are historians doing when “doing history”? If asked, few of us would say that we “chronicle” the past. Not that there is anything wrong with chronicling. This is certainly part of the historical craft, but if I had to wager, I’d bet most of us would use different verbs: analyze, interpret, and revise would top the list. Put differently, if we were forced to become football announcers, we would shun the position of play-by-play. We would all want to be color commentators. As much as we respect the Al Michaelses and Bob Costases of the world, we would want to be John Madden.

John Madden

Madden lets others chronicle the game. He is there to give the viewer his cogent analysis, to link the events on the field to other games, the locker room, the ocean of football statistics. The paradox of analysis is that it leads to infinitely greater shades of difference. The deeper the comparison, the more events seem unique and incomparable. Tears in his eyes, the Patriots fan wants to place Tom Brady on Mt Olympus for breaking every passing record since Odysseus threw a stick in the eye of Cyclops, but the clear-eyed color commentator says “Not so fast. The game has changed. Quarterbacks throw more now than they used to. Plus, hitting a giant in the eye with a stick is not technically a pass.”

Odysseus with stick

Brady with football

So, too, the historian, who is on his game when showing how complicated the past is, suddenly gets gun-shy when making broad comparisons or generalizations. There are good reasons for the post-modern reluctance to do this, but let’s admit it, it’s also unsatisfying. As Peter Galison pointed out in the most recent issue of Isis (see Will Thomas’s post on this at Ether Wave Propaganda), there is a tension between the rigorous need for being true to the small event, the “micro-history,” and the drama of the big picture, the sweeping generalization, and the magisterial narrative.

Is there still a place for generalizations in history? Can one be sweeping and rigorous at the same time? Can we take off our post-modern shoes for a few hours and sink our toes into the soft muck of the “big picture” without messing up the house? I don’t know. Let’s try. I spend most of my time writing about complexity, specifically, how complicated explorers are and how they reflect the unique conditions of their cultural moment. This is a relatively easy point to argue. Explorers were (and are) a diverse bunch. There were the erudite explorers such as Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin, military explorers such as James Cook and John Fremont, journalist-explorers such as Henry Morton Stanley and Walter Wellman, and the explorers who “go native” such as Charles Hall.

Still, I was wondering if there was something to this idea of an “explorer type.” This is certainly not a new idea. The literature of exploration and adventure is filled with talk of explorers exhibiting common personality traits (usually including some mixture of restlessness, curiosity, tolerance for danger and discomfort, etc). This doesn’t hold a lot of water for me, since I feel that these traits are often tacked on to the people who go out exploring ex post facto. “Well if he lost his toes to frost-bite, he must have been brave.” But what if we looked at the “explorer-type” as a cultural category rather than as a personality profile? Are there people who represent a kind of explorer figure across different professions or disciplines?

I few days ago I was reading Bones of Contention by Roger Lewin. In it Lewin describes the role of Louis Leakey within the field of paleoanthropology:

Although Leakey had highly respectable credentials — a degree in anthropology from Cambridge University, England and a fellowship in one of its most reverend colleges — he was more explorer than scientist. He loved to be out in the field, discovering new sites and returning to established ones…and he was irked by the conservative ways of the scientific establishment. He never held an academic post, and indeed became scornful of bookish armchair scholars… Perhaps this distance from academia freed him of the normal establishment constraints, for his claims were often a source of consternation among his colleagues in universities. When he said to Richard [his son] that day in September, “They won’t believe you,” he was pointedly echoing his own experience, and vicariously relishing the prospect of a fight.

Louis Leakey, bad boy of British paleoanthropology

As I read this, I thought how similar it sounded to explorers such as Robert Peary, who put together his expeditions with private funds, and enjoyed a self-defined distance from the academic community. He would collaborate with the academy, but he never hitched his wagon to their horse. He found independent routes to money and power, just like Leakey did. What about Carl Sagan? Beloved by the public for his popularization of Cosmos, Sagan was sniffed at within his own field. Or Roy Chapman Andrews who led expeditions into Mongolia on behalf of the American Museum of Natural History, became a celebrated public figure, but was always something of an outsider to the Academy. Or William Beebe who scraped together funds from different sources to organize deep-sea expeditions in his bathysphere?

I don’t know how much meat is on this particular bone, but I thought I’d give it a gnaw. It certainly makes a better meal than saying “it’s complicated.”

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