Time to Eat the Dogs

A Podcast About Science, History, and Exploration

What Kind of Explorer are You?

Robert Peary

Robert Peary

Explorers’ narratives only get you so close to the truth. They are — like all memoirs  — public documents, manuscripts that are written to be read by others. Yet they sometimes reveal things unawares.  For example, Robert Peary’s 1910 book, The North Pole, is not a source you would consult to figure out if Peary really made it to the North Pole in 1909. But the book reveals much about Peary’s view of the North Pole quest and his ideals of leadership (or, to be more accurate, Peary’s views as channeled through his ghostwriter). Describing the final push across the polar pack ice in April 1909, Peary states:

This was the time for which I had reserved all my energies, the time for which I had worked for twenty-two years, for which I had lived the simple life and trained myself as for a race. In spite of my years, I felt fit for the demands of the coming days and was eager to be on the trail. As for my party, my equipment, and my supplies, they were perfect beyond my most sanguine dreams of earlier years. My party might be regarded as an ideal which had now come to realization-as loyal and responsive to my will as the fingers of my right hand. [Peary, North Pole, 270-271]

Peary’s view of his expedition “as for a race” is telling. Seeing the North Pole as the finish line in a contest rather than a region to be investigated, Peary tended to look at other explorers as rival contestants rather than colleagues or collaborators.

Peary’s view of his team as “fingers” is also revealing. It shows that Peary thought of leadership as a something dictated from the top. Teams should not exhibit independence or creative judgment, any more than fingers should challenge the mind that directs them.

While Peary’s attitudes were common among explorers, they were not universal.  Alexander von Humboldt used his expedition narrative to give voice to peoples often omitted in travel literature, in particular, the Spanish and indigenous Americans who made his researches possible.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Explorer-scientists Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace had good reason to feel competitive: both arrived at the theory of natural selection independently. Yet while Darwin learned of Wallace’s discovery with a certain amount of gloom, he co-reported Wallace’s work with his own. Wallace, for his part, upheld the priority of Darwin’s claim. Both men remained on good terms.

Is it your field of work that determines your approach to your peers and employees? Or other factors — class, family, work culture, personality? As I worked on my dissertation, I remember looking warily at works that approached my topic too closely. While some of these works ultimately proved helpful, they seemed dangerous at first: objects just below the waterline which might force me to change course, or worse, send my thesis to the bottom.

Yet graduate school was also a time of generous acts. We grad students kept an eye out for one another: writing down citations for each other, photocopying sources, drinking beer, listening to bad practice speeches.

Now I’m fortunate to belong to a community of generous peers: people I seek out for advice, to read early drafts, recommend books, or suggest lines of thought. These are not the only ways to approach life in the Academy – I know of a few Pearys in the field – but fortunately I see them only at some distance, marking out territory and planting flags.


  ArchAsa wrote @

You just made me realixe what a similarity exists between explorers and researchers! Some focus on the journey, others on the goal. While I am definately ambitious and sensitive of being “overtaken” (I’m far from saintly), I have really come to loathe the 100%-goal-focused researchers. They have no real love or care for the discipline even if they are at times brilliant. They are in fact quite prepared, even willing, to take everyone down with them if they are not given the exalted position they demand. I have seen entire departments being destroyed from within by people like this. In my eyes this is true evil.

I wonder if there is a way to evaluate people by the way they travel. I once trekked the Annapurna in Nepal, which was the most amazing experience of my life. Unfortunately one of my companions was a german woman completely focused on covering as much ground as possible in a day. Instead of marvelling at the sights and meeting the people she was trying to break a record or something. People like that are from a different planet…

How do YOU travel!?

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Asa: In my research lately I feel very restless – eyes on the mountaintop, not on the path. This feels different to me than earlier projects when I luxuriated more in the delights of daily discovery. Hopefully when time opens up a bit more this summer I can get back to the experiential pleasures of research and forget – for a while – the plan for the summit.

Still, I try hard to be good to my friends and colleagues. Academic life attracts so many odd birds like us – people willing to devote years and years to the pursuit of arcane subjects. Why cut oneself off from the group of people who might care most about your work?

There are risks with being generous of course, but rarely have I heard about researchers who’ve been scooped. So much of any project has to do with interpretation that I think the dangers are overblown. (People who research subjects like Abraham Lincoln and the Nazi Party must get used to the crowds of fellow researchers).

As for travel, I like to wander. I usually try to get a bit lost and then find my way back to something I know. I rarely pursue big objectives – walk, look, eat. Although I must admit to a pang of jealously – Annapurna? I hope you have pictures. Did you bring a copy of Herzog with you?

  ArchAsa wrote @

I have amazing pictures – thanks to the landscape not the photographer. I was really very lucky weather-wise – unfortunately it is vrtually impossible to avoid parasites in the water so other parts of the journey were not as pleasant…

If there is one trip I will take with my kids when they get old enough its to Nepal. It defies words. I have only read small excerpts of Herzog’s book. However, the German imprint on Annapurna region is still evident in the amazing variety of apple pies and strudles made in local bakeries all along the trek. It’s ridiculous how good they are!

  Jessica wrote @

You know, nearly everything I’ve read about Peary paints him as a total jerk. I guess that was more or less accepted in those times; you needed to be ruthless and spiteful to win (or did you?) but he seemed to treat everyone around him like crap. I think it’s particularly incredible that someone like Matthew Henson, his immediate subordinate, who stuck with him to the end, stuck with him for that long. Many sources point to Peary even viewing the native Greenlanders as below him, despite sleeping with women up there and fathering children.

Not that I don’t respect his accomplishments and his personal strength, but I think it’s certainly a disappointment that he carried such an authoritative attitude. I’ve gotten the impression that Scott and Franklin were kind asses as well — whereas others like Amundsen, Shackleton and Stefansson were a bit more respectful of their subordinates. I think attitude mattered less in those days, and it was more of a hardcore race against time and rivals. Again, more of an all-or-nothing fight. I think as time goes on attitude begins to matter a bit more in exploration. I see a passion to win in Peary, but not a passion for the north or its people. It seems that half of Arctic explorers just went to win, the other went to learn or to retrieve vital information.

  andrewstuhl wrote @


I appreciate the attention to collaboration you foreground here. As a current student and future dissertator, I can relate to the fears us folks have of being scooped or having other scholars’ work encroach on our own.

It is a bit comforting to know that those fears are shared by others. But it is more comforting to know that many scholars start with the intention to help each other out, rather than view each other as competitors racing for that finish line.

All the best-

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