Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Historiography

Contingent World, Part 2 of 3


Last week I wrote about unpredictability, mainly as it applies to the sciences.  But one doesn’t have to understand evolutionary biology or chaos theory to appreciate the real-world significance of contingency.

Crashing your bike, for example, is a highly contingent event, balancing on the fulcrum of the tiny circumstance: the patch of black ice or the open car door. Careening into the pavement, one feels keenly the power of the unforeseeable cause. Yet other events, such as weddings,  usually unfold according to predetermined paths and produce predictable outcomes. Indeed, wedding planners make their living on this assumption, convincing couples that certainty is achievable, that contingency can be banished from church and reception hall.

All of this is to say something that is probably already pretty obvious: some events are more predictable than others. Historians have no quibble with this. The more interesting question is this: what kind of events matter? Which of them are the movers of history? (Or, as a historian might phrase it, which forces have the most historical agency?).

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

For some, the power of contingency remains a relatively minor factor in history, dwarfed by the unfolding of  large-scale, long-term events. Karl Marx’s theory of historical materialism, for example, sets up a series of stages (Feudalism, Capitalism, Socialism, Communism) that societies pass through as people try to fulfill their basic needs. In Marx’s vision, societies evolve according to a pattern which cannot be easily upset by contingent forces. History is a supertanker which moves through the water with a momentum scarcely touched by the people on deck, no matter how unpredictably they might be acting.

On the other hand, there are the proponents of  “great man” history who tend to place the course of events in the hands of individuals who make decisions that change the world: Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler, Justin Timberlake. This vision of history tends to be far more open to the power of contingency since unforeseeable events clearly effect the lives of individuals, even “great men.” While these histories remain enormously popular and fly off the shelves at Barnes and Nobles, they are seen as rather old-fashioned in the Academy. Here among the turtle-neck and tweed-jacket classes, the “great man” has been replaced by a focus on other agents: institutions, states, empires, or culture.

Yet even with the interest in big-scale forces such as  institutions and empires, the idea of contingency has gained caché within the Academy. For many it is clear that institutional or imperial events also do not have predictable outcomes, unfolding in surprising ways with unforeseeable consequences.

The irony in all of this is that historians are largely to blame for making history seem inevitable. It is not for want of trying. Historians, even more than political analysts, do Monday-morning quarterbacking, bringing coherence to events that benefit from the wisdom of hindsight. This is what we do. Yet the irony is that, in bringing coherence to seemingly chaotic events, we loose something of the reality of the event as it unfolded.

The hardest part of history, as I see it, is not in chasing down and explaining these events. It’s in conveying the sense of open-endedness that people felt in living through them.


Contingent World, Part 1 of 3

Artist Rendition of the K-T Extinction Event

Artist Rendition of the K-T Extinction Event

A month ago, I wrote here about about Nate Turner and statistical prediction. The post discussed forces big, slow, and predictable. It got me thinking about the opposite side of the spectrum: of forces short, swift, and unpredictable. So for the next couple of posts, I’m going to dig into this a bit, starting with politics.

In the next two weeks, election officials will finally decide Minnesota’s senate race between Norm Coleman (R) and Al Franken (D). Out of 2.8 million votes cast, Coleman and Franken are now separated by about fifty votes. I would like to remain optimistic about this but let’s face it: with such a narrow margin, it’s almost guaranteed that the loser will bring charges of fraud, lost ballots, etc.

Norm Coleman and Al Franken

Norm Coleman and Al Franken

After the fireworks are over, we will see a slow coming-to-terms by the losing campaign, a Kübler Ross-ian transition from bargaining to depression to acceptance. As this occurs, we will also see  “what if” stories blossom like desert flowers. Pundits and reporters will talk about how small changes in events, message, or media would have produced a different outcome.

The last bloom of political “what if” stories followed the 2000  U.S. presidential election. With great wailing and gnashing of teeth, Democrats tried to make sense of an election in which Al Gore won the popular vote yet still lost the election to George Bush. Razor thin victories for Bush in a number of battleground states, most famously Florida where he won by 537 votes of 6 million cast, fueled speculation about the many ways the election could have turned out differently.

Nader the Raider by Bill Day

Nader the Raider by Bill Day

For many, the spoiler was Ralph Nader, leader of the Green Party, who drew votes away from Gore. For others, it was the dysfunctional Florida voting system. Still others blamed Katherine Harris, Florida State Attorney General, who confirmed the official vote count. Or the Supreme Court.  Or Gore himself, who seemed so overstarched as a candidate that he even lost his own state of Tennessee.

In a sense, they are all correct. Any number of factors could have tilted the election in Gore’s favor. In the language of the Academy, we would say that the 2000 presidential election was highly contingent: the outcome wasn’t set in stone. It could have turned out differently.

As an idea, contingency has considerable heft across the disciplines of the Academy. On the science side, evolutionary biologists, have written extensively about the degree to which evolution  depended upon contingencies of the environment, that the concept of fitness does not only apply to the fleetest fox or the brawniest buck, but sometimes to the dumb luck of being well adapted to an unforeseeable event. Steven Jay Gould writes about this in regards to the middle-Cambrian organisms discovered in the Burgess Shale Formation.

Castorocauda lutrasimilis, the "Jurassic Beaver"

Castorocauda lutrasimilis, the "Jurassic Beaver," survivor of the K-T extinction event.

Better known to the rest of us are early mammals who managed to win the Darwinian lottery by being around when a comet the size of Manhattan plowed into the Earth 65 million years ago. Although the evolutionary implications of this event are still hotly debated, few doubt that something big happened to disrupt ecosystems all over the world, ultimately leading to the extinction of the dinosaurs.


The K-T extinction event, as its called, makes clear an important point: even if history of life on earth is based upon slow, incremental changes to species over time, its evolutionary course was unpredictable. Life, like the Cretaceous comet of death, could have taken a different path. Had it done so, perhaps we would all be frightened weasel-like creatures, stealing our food in the shadows of brontosaurs and pteranodons.  (For more on weasels and evolution, visit John Lynch’s Stranger Fruit)

Contingencies do not have to be comet-sized, however, to have big effects. Such was the discovery of meteorologist Edward Lorenz who found that weather simulations produced wildly different outcomes based upon minute changes in initial conditions. From this, Lorenz coined the term “Butterfly Effect,” the idea that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings might change the atmosphere enough to create (or prevent) a tornado from occurring at some future time.


Lorenz’s ideas are now a part of a larger corpus of work on chaos theory which shows the stunning effects of contingency (or as mathematicians call it, a ‘sensitive dependence on initial conditions’) in phenomena as disparate as air turbulence, irregular heart beats, and the eye movements of schizophrenics.

All of this happens at some distance from where I sit in the humanities, surrounded by books on art, maps, and social history. Yet contingency plays a critical role here too,  something I’ll take up in my next post.

The Gertrude Bell Archive

Gertrude Bell with Sir Percy Cox in Mesopotamia, 1917Gertrude Bell and Sir Percy Cox, Mesopotamia, 1917

My students are usually pretty good at the why questions of history. Why did the French revolt against their King? Answers include “Peasant frustration.” “Anger at the monarchy.” “Expensive bread.” It’s the when questions that cause students trouble. Why did the French revolt in 1789? What particularities of this historical moment led to the great unraveling of the French Monarchy?

La Liberté guidant le peuple, Eugène Delacroix, 1830

La Liberté guidant le peuple, Eugène Delacroix, 1830

This pattern holds true for discussing women in history, or more specifically, the actions of women travelers and explorers. Why did Annie Peck climb the Matterhorn (1895)? Or Fanny Bullock Workman the Himalayas (1899-1912)? Why did Mary Kingsley canoe her way up the Ogawe River in Africa (1895)? Or Nelly Bly circle the globe in 72 days (1889)? Student answers usually come in some variety of “They had to prove something to the world.” Ok, fair enough. But here is the more interesting question: Why did they all feel the need to prove it at the same time?

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie, 1797

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie, 1797

Mary Wollstonecraft certainly felt she had something to prove. Enlightenment novelist and historian, philosopher and feminist, Wollstonecraft authored A Vindication of the Rights of Woman a full 136 years before Britain fully granted women the right to vote in 1928. But living at the end of the 18th century, Wollstonecraft is something of an outlier in women’s history, a person whose beliefs and actions were at considerable remove from the rest of society. Peck, Workman, and Bly, by contrast, were part of a large social movement that extended across the Atlantic, a movement that gleefully assaulted the idea of a “separate spheres” for men and women.

Fanny Bullock Workman, holding a "Votes for Women" newspaper at 21,000 ft in the Karakoram

Fanny Bullock Workman holding up "Votes for Women" sign at 21,000 ft

In this sense, Gertrude Bell was a women of her time: born in Britain, Oxford educated, Bell was an omnivorous learner and traveler, fluent in Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and German. She voyaged around the world twice and took up a passion for mountain climbing in the Alps all before “settling down” in the Middle East as archeologist, author, and British political agent during the First World War. She collaborated with T.E. Lawrence to draw up the modern political map of the Middle East including Jordan and Iraq. Yet Bell remains hard to categorize. Sitting at the center of British political activity in the Middle East, Bell also served as honorary secretary of the British Women’s Anti-Suffrage League.

Bell left 1600 letters, 16 diaries, and 7000 photographs, all of which are in the possession of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Now the University Library has begun a four-year project to put these materials online. Here for example is Bell’s description of her ascent of the Aiguille du Géant in the Alps:

Demarquille was frozen. I gave him my big woollen gloves. My hands were warmed by the rock work, but I continued to shiver, though not unpleasantly, almost until we returned to the foot of the Aiguille. We crossed a bit of snow and turned to the left under the Aiguille where we found a hanging rope – it was just about here that a guide was killed a fortnight ago by lightening, after having accomplished the ascent by a new road up the N face said to be easier than the old. The first hour or so was quite easy. Straight up long slabs of rock with a fixed rope to hold by. Then a flank march which was rather difficult; the rocks from here to the top of the NE summit are extremely steep. At one point my hands and arms were so tired that I lost all grip in them. A steep bit down, a pointed breche and a very steep up rock leads to the highest summit where there is a cairn.

Aiguille du Géant

Aiguille du Géant

The Gertrude Bell Archive is a work in progress. Not all of the materials have been scanned. It does not have keyword or full-text search capabilities. Still it deserves to be filed as a bookmark in your growing list of exploration archives.

For more on women explorers, see posts on

Digital Archive: AfricaBib and Women Explorers

Interview with Beau Riffenburgh

Beau Riffenburgh

Beau Riffenburgh next to a bust of Sir Douglas Mawson at the University of Adelaide, South Australia, AU

History of exploration was just becoming a hot topic in the Academy when I started my graduate work in the mid-1990s. Academic interest attached itself to post-colonial studies, focusing on regions of the globe where Europeans and Euro-Americans had done most of their empire-building: Asia, Africa, and the Atlantic World.

The world of Polar exploration, however, remained quiet, a terra incognita of historical scholarship. Meanwhile, non-academic historians were churning out polar books in droves, on Robert Peary, Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton and others. I suspect that all of this attention caused academic historians to shy away even further, to view polar exploration as suspect, a popular rather than serious subject of inquiry.

It was in this environment that Beau Riffenburgh published his pathbreaking book Myth of the Explorer. Here was a scholarly approach to a “popular” subject, in this case a behind-the-scenes look at the most sensational explorers of the Victorian World. Riffenburgh’s book shattered explorers’ claims to be men of a different world, men built of a different mold. It showed how deeply embedded these men were in the world they left behind, in their values, their careers, and their financial dealings.

Myth of the Explorer thus offered academic historians a bridge to the other side, a way of approaching the sensational explorers with a different set of aims, a different list of questions. Although it is now out of print, Myth of the Explorer remains an essential resource for historians of Victorian exploration and it is cited in the works of Robert Kohler, Felix Driver, Graham Burnett, and Felipe-Fernandez Armesto. Its influence certainly extends to my own book Coldest Crucible.

It is a pleasure to welcome Beau Riffenburgh to Time to Eat the Dogs.

Your first book Myth of the Explorer looked beyond the heroic images of explorers slogging it out in the field to examine explorers’ actions back home, particularly their financial dealings with the popular press. This was a very different kind of exploration book when it came out in 1993. What led you to the project and your approach to it?

I long had been fascinated by exploration, particularly of the polar regions and Africa. I decided after working a number of years in publishing to go back for a PhD just because I wanted to spend several years researching something that really interested me. I had previously earned an MA in journalism, and also had strong interest in the history of the press. My PhD thesis, upon which Myth of the Explorer was based, allowed me to use these two interests to look at the other. Since the press played a significant role in sponsoring, promoting, and creating an interest in exploration, it seemed logical to use the press of the time as a vehicle through which to view exploration. At the same time exploration could be a subject by which to test several hypotheses that I had about the way the growth and use of sensational journalism is generally presented in studies of the history and development of the press.

How was it received?

In general, the book was received very well by reviewers. It was published by a small publisher, but it interested Oxford University Press enough that they sought it out to publish in paperback. I would like to think that it helped influence a number of scholars who have done studies since then.

You served as Publication director for the NFL in the 1980s, writing a variety of books about American football. Did your work for the NFL reveal to you any links between modern sports and 19th century exploration?

I was the senior writer for NFL Properties, the publishing and licensing branch of the NFL, and I essentially was director of historical research. I can’t say that my work there revealed any particular links between sports and exploration, but the switch between the two is not as bizarre as it initially sounds. I was one of several people around the country who conducted a good deal of research on what was sometimes known as the Ohio League, the informal grouping of professional football teams in Ohio and a few surrounding states before the founding of the NFL in 1920. This included many of the teams that went on to join the NFL, such as the Canton Bulldogs. I would like to say that the foremost scholar in this field, and one who is a marvellous researcher, is Bob Carroll, an independent researcher who lives in Pennsylvania and was the key founder of the Pro Football Researchers Association.

Anyway, the main point here is that much of this research was carried out by carefully going through old newspaper accounts of football games in order to obtain data held there but seemingly otherwise lost. When I began my PhD, I continued using nineteenth-century newspapers as my primary data source, and was able to use essentially the same collection methods. In other words, although my subject matter changed dramatically as I went to exploration, my methods remained similar, so it was not a huge change in what I had done before.

The Heroic Exploits of the World's Greatest Explorers

Exploration Experience: The Heroic Exploits of the World

In recent years, you have published a number of trade books on exploration. Your latest book, Exploration Experience: The Heroic Exploits of the World’s Greatest Explorers (National Geographic Society, 2008) combines your essays with reproduced documents, photos, and artifacts from famous expeditions. How did the experience of writing Exploration Experience and these exploration books differ from writing Myth of the Explorer?

My two major books of the past five years have been Nimrod (published in the US as Shackleton’s Forgotten Expedition) in 2004 and Racing With Death in 2008. The first was the first account of the first expedition led by Ernest Shackleton, the British Antarctic Expedition (1907-09), on which he attained a farthest south. The second is an account of Douglas Mawson’s Antarctic expeditions, primarily his Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1911-14), on which he made perhaps the most amazing Antarctic journey ever. Both of these are scholarly books, written after extensive research in the archives where original materials are held, but, hopefully, written in a manner than will appeal to a general reader. I believe strongly that there is nothing stopping a book from being both scholarly and interestingly written.

Douglas Mawson - Antarctic Explorer

Racing With Death: Douglas Mawson - Antarctic Explorer

Exploration Experience is a different type of book, in that it is heavily illustrated and contains, as you mention, memorabilia from numerous expeditions. Moreover, it is an attempt to give a look at the overall history of exploration, touching on the highlights rather than giving extensive detail about any one expedition. It was fun to write because it includes accounts of exploration in Asia, South America, Australia, and other areas that I had not written extensively about previously. The text is not one long narrative, but rather shorter highlights about different expeditions, so it is a totally different — but equally enjoyable — writing technique.

These differed from Myth of the Explorer in that they were more aimed at a general audience, whereas all along I felt that Myth of the Explorer would be more appropriate for a more specialist audience. I would like to think that all of them are enjoyable reads, but I think it is safe to say that Myth of the Explorer was not something that would grab the exploration enthusiast so easily as my more recent books.

Myth of the Explorer offered a sober, often critical portrait of Victorian explorers. Trade books on exploration, however, tend to be more forgiving of explorers’ motives and actions. Do you feel any tension in moving from one genre of writing to the other?

No, I try to follow the academic process throughout. I collect and analyze data and then present it in a fashion that I feel is fair, hopefully unbiased, and hopefully interesting. Nimrod, once to the ice, is, I hope, an exciting tale of adventure, but the materials for it were still compiled carefully and following the same “rules” of research as Myth of the Explorer. Since I have been writing and editing for a living for more than 25 years, stylistic changes in books are not excessively difficult to make, as shown by the fact that I have written a different book on a different aspect of the Mawson story in a different style. I hope it will be coming out in a year or so.

As an American living in England, you’ve had ample opportunity to compare national cultures. Do Britons and Americans think differently about exploration?

I can’t say that I think folks in Britain and the us think differently about the processes of exploration, but there tends to be a different emphasis perhaps. Regarding the polar regions, older generations in the UK grew up with the story of Robert Falcon Scott as something that everyone knew, and he was a great imperial hero, along the lines of Livingstone or Gordon. Perhaps because of this, and because of the Shackleton connection, in recent decades the Antarctic tends to have been a stronger general interest than the Arctic. The greatest American polar hero, on the other hand, was Robert E. Peary, an Arctic explorer. So although this is a huge generalization with all of the weaknesses that can be expected to accompany it, one finds a bit more Antarctic interest and knowledge in the UK and a bit more Arctic interest and knowledge in the US. This has somewhat changed with the Shackleton-mania that swept through the US and with the growth of tourism to the Antarctic, but it is at least a broad difference. And none of this is to say that neither country had any interests in the other region, as obviously Byrd was a great American hero and the British had any number of Arctic expeditions. Similarly, most Americans will learn more about Lewis and Clark and other explorers of North America, while many folks over here will be much more familiar with African exploration, for which many British explorers were key figures, such as Livingstone, Burton, Baker, etc.

What do you think about the United States’ current Vision for Space Exploration, a plan to send astronauts back to the Moon and ultimately to Mars?

I think that space exploration is very exciting. However, I do think that it is a totally different process than the exploration that was carried out in the nineteenth century. Then, to a great extent, it was based on man’s heart, will, and personal strength and determination. Now the man going into outer space would play a key role, but a very different role, since he is a part of a much larger package that requires a great deal more technological involvement. I think that much of the shift has been from man’s inner strength to his intellect.

What’s your next project?

I am currently working on a follow-uo to Exploration Experience that concentrates on polar exploration, using the same format. I am also hoping to write a lengthy book about an explorer in a totally new (for me) area of the world, but I have been asked by the potential publishers not to discuss it at this time.

A mystery to whet the appetite. Beau, thanks for speaking with us.

Nate Silver, Baseball Analyst, Prophet of the Galactic Empire

Nate Silver, forecasting the weather for 2010

Nate Silver

Like most of the free world, I spent October following the U.S. presidential election. For me this meant looking over the dailies, a graph of the national tracking average, and a red/blue map of the Electoral College. This was about the extent of my political forecasting. Not so Nate Silver, statistical boy-genius, baseball analyst, and author of the political projection site FiveThirtyEight.com. Silver’s predictions have caused quite a stir because they have been so prescient. Based on his analysis of polls, he called the election for Obama. . . in March. Call him lucky. Then he predicted 49 of 50 states correctly on election night with a 6.1% margin for Obama, within 0.4 of the actual margin. Silver can add these to a growing list of oracle-like achievements: calling the results the Super Tuesday within 13 delegates (out of 847), predicting the ascendency of the Tampa Bay Rays and the 90-loss season of the Chicago White Sox. Silver now markets a number of statistical models including PECORA, QERA, and SECRET SAUCE (an algorithm for the Big Mac?).

Silver’s uncanny ability to predict things that seem murky to the rest of us reminds me Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, published in 1951-53. Asimov’s story is set in a Galactic Empire which contains thousands of inhabited planets and quadrillions of human beings. The stunning size of this empire allows one man, Hari Seldon, to develop a set of statistical models for predicting the future of civilization, a field of study he calls “psychohistory.” Seldon’s algorithms have no ability to predict the actions of a single individual, any more than one could predict the toss of the coin. The single flip is always unknowable, but not so a hundred flips, a thousand, ten thousand, a series that becomes more predictable with each iteration. It is a science which gains precision as the data aggregates.

Hari Seldon

Hari Seldon

The story of Silver and Seldon make for good reading. But they also touch upon a very storied debate among historians about the forces that propel history. For centuries, scholars viewed this force (or “agency” as it is called in the Academy) as a power contained within the individual. In other words, one could understand the ebb and flow of empires by following the actions of powerful individuals: popes, kings, and revolutionaries. Certainly this continues to be a popular way of looking at the forces of history, as can be seen by the hefty shelf space afforded “Biography” at Borders and Barnes and Nobles. But among academic historians, the “Great Man” vision of history has lost much of its blush. Individuals continue to matter, but to many of us, the agents of history reside in the realm of the extra-human: institutions, churches, states, and the ephemeries of culture.

Marc Bloch

Marc Bloch

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the French Annales School of the early 20th century. Its founders, Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre grew tired of the emphasis on individuals and big events: wars, coups, congresses, and assassinations. Instead they saw history as a tectonic thing, a gradual unfolding of events caused by millions of people influenced by their habits, geography, and material culture. Here in episodes of “longue durée” lay the true causes for the rise and fall of empires.

So welcome Nate to the world of many parts. We expect big things.