Time to Eat the Dogs

A Podcast About Science, History, and Exploration

The Problem with Scientific Exploration

As I make my way through Roger Lewin’s book Bones of Contention: Controversies in the Search for Human Origins, I’ve become convinced of two things.

First, I am embarrassed not to have read it already. Bones of Contention is well written, filled with balanced portrayals of all the major players (with personal interviews of many), crammed with arguments and counter arguments, all the while retaining a sociological slant on the business of science. That is, the creation of new knowledge in paleoanthropology seems to have less to do with new fossils or dating techniques than personalities, group dynamics, and intellectual preconceptions. Fossils matter, but often yield center stage to the human actors whirling around them. Yet through all of this, the characters of this story, many of whom are still alive, are not reduced to caricatures. They remain interesting, passionate, even sympathetic figures. I wonder why it isn’t featured in more history of modern science courses? It’s now on my list.

Second, I keep finding parallels between the history of exploration and the history of paleoanthropology. As I mentioned in a previous post, Louis Leakey seems to fit a more generalizable “cultural type” for the modern explorer. As I read about Louis’s son Richard I have been finding similar parallels. For example, there is a point in the late 19th century when explorers, particularly Arctic explorers begin to distance themselves from science. There are many reasons for this, but part of it stems from a question of self-image. Some explorers are able to generate a certain anti-scientific cachet with patrons and the press. Something like this happened with Richard Leakey as well:

Leakey is frank about his lack of technical training.”I am not a proper scientist, never will be.” Although Leakey sometimes wears this like a badge, his friends and colleagues believe that in the KBS affair, at least, it was a liability. (251)

The other point that I found interesting was in the way that Richard Leakey organized his expeditions. They tended to be very close-knit affairs, with individuals expected to work together as well as protecting one another professionally. His expeditions tended to be very well run at the expense, it turns out, of academic independence:

Anyone who has had experience of field camps will acknowledge that none is run like Leakey’s. In addition to the practical side of life in the Leakey camp, which is excellent, there is demanded a very special form of commitment. Ian Findlater, who was part of the Leakey team for more than five years, describes it this way: “Richard ran an expedition and as joint leader and main operator of the practical side he felt that he had a right to loyalty from the expedition members. Inevitably that meant agreement with him on all important factors associated with the expedition. In fact, I suspect that it was the only way such an expedition can be run. Glynn’s democractically run side of the expedition was always chaotic and badly organized. Richard’s way has its weaknesses — if you did not agree on important issues you could either back down or leave. Most of us backed down for a few times and then eventually left. Despite this, my own preference would be to work for an expedition run by Richard.” (250)

This sounds somewhat similar to Robert Peary’s expeditions to the Arctic, highly organized, tightly run affairs that offered a lot of experience to other members. At the same time, most of the members of the expedition who had aspirations to lead their own expeditions (or to capitalize on the expedition with the press) ended up running afoul of Peary who rigidly controlled what members said and wrote about his treks into the Arctic.

So in the end, it makes me wonder about models of exploration. Which of them are best suited for doing science, at least science as we currently conceive of it? In the cases of Peary and Leakey, their private field expeditions depended heavily on private funding and their personal appeal as celebrities. Richard Leakey had a deeper commitment to scientific knowledge than Robert Peary, but in both cases, their approach to exploring, so well suited for travel, survival, and promotion made them less well suited for the professional give-and-take needed for scientific work.

1 Comment»

  Youngy wrote @

It’s posts like this that make sufnrig so much pleasure

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