Great Ages of Discovery
- Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery
- The Ice: A Journey to Antarctica
- How the Canyon Became Grand: A Brief History
- Grove Karl Gilbert: A Great Engine of Research
Why three ages? There are those who see many more, and those who see none at all, for exploration history, too, has its lumpers and splitters.
The lumpers view the long saga of geographic exploration by Western civilization as continuous and thematically indivisible. The Viking landers on Mars are but an iteration of the longships that colonized Greenland. The Eagle, the Command Module orbiter, and the Saturn V rocket that propelled the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon are avatars of Columbus's Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. The "new ocean" of interplanetary space is simply extending the bounds of the old. The ur-lumpers would go further. The origins of all exploration, including Europe's, reside in the genetic code of humanity's inextinguishable curiosity. Even more, space exploration, they insist, shares an evolutionary impulse. Through humanity, life will clamber out of its home planet much as pioneering species crawled out of the salty seas and onto land. The impulse to explore is providential; the chain of discovery, unbroken; the drivers behind it, as full of evolutionary inevitability as the linkage between DNA and proteins. The urge, the motivating imperative, resides indelibly within our character as Homo sapiens sapiens.
The splitters see it differently. Exploration pulses, expanding and contracting. Ming China launched seven dazzling voyagers of discovery, and then outlawed all foreign travel and prohibited the construction of multimasted boats. Medieval Islam sponsored great travelers before shrinking into the ritual pilgrimage of he hag. The Norse spanned the Atlantic, then withered on the fjords of Greenland. Plenty of people have stayed where they were: they lacked the technological means, the fiery incentives and desperate insecurities, or the compelling circumstances to push themselves to explore beyond their homeland. Like Australia's Aborigines, they were content to cycle through their ancestral Dreamtime, and felt little urgency to search beyond the daunting seas or looming peaks. A walkabout was world enough.
To the splitters, what determines the cadences of exploration are the cultural particulars - the social conditions that prompt and sustain discovery. What is commonly called "geographic exploration" has been in truth, a highly ethnocentric enterprise. It will thrive or shrivel as particular peoples choose. There is nothing predestined about geographic discovery, any more than there is about a Renaissance, a tradition of Gothic cathedrals, or the invention of the electric lightbulb. From such a perspective, the European era of exploration that has domi8nated the past five centuries is simply another in a constellation of cultural inventions that have shaped how peoples have encountered a world beyond themselves. It is an institution, and it derives much of its power because it bonds geographic travel to cultural movements, because it tapes into deep rivalries, and because its narrative conveys a moral message. It can accordingly be parsed into historical eras.
For Western civilization, these fall most easily into three grand eras. Each had its primary geographic domain, each bonded with its prevailing intellectual syndrome, each tapped a moral energy. Each had its own peculiar dynamic of geopolitical rivals and cultural enthusiasms. Each found a gesture that came to express its character. And each stage had to be rekindled. A successful launch only appears continuous in broad-brush retrospect; on closer inspection, it shows a rhythm of spark and extinction.
- from Voyager, pp. 35-37