Excerpt. Original by Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
In "Travelers' Tales," an episode of his famous Cosmos video series, the late Carl Sagan made the following claim:
The passion to explore is at the heart of being human. This impulse- to go, to see, to know - has found expression in every culture.
The belief that curiosity is an innate human characteristic is widespread. In support of his thesis, Sagan cited the examples of the early Phoenicians, the sailors of Polynesia, the astonishing fleets of the Ming Dynasty Chinese, and the Age of Discovery of Renaissance Europe.
Humans are intrinsically curious, with an inborn love of learning. Children are insatiably curious about their world.
But is this true?
The Standard Model is Wrong
The only problem with the Standard Model is that it is contradicted by a host of evidence. In support of his claim that a desire to explore lies at the core of being human, Sagan cited precisely four examples. A few others come to mind: the Vikings, perhaps the Mongols, and Arab traders and travelers. Against these few there are some striking counter-examples:
Sub-Saharan Africans never discovered Madagascar. Madagascar was settled initially by sailors from Indonesia, and its language is Malayo-Polynesian, not African. Jared Diamond calls this "perhaps the single most surprising fact of human geography." Africans never discovered nearby islands like the Cape Verde archipelago.
The Romans never explored significantly outside their Empire. We have records of a few Roman marches into Africa and Arabia, trading outposts in India, even a diplomatic mission to China. And that's it for a thousand years of Roman history. They never explored the Baltic, or Russia, or Scandinavia. For an empire whose very survival depended critically on a knowledge of geography and intelligence beyond their borders, the Roman lack of interest in geography is stupefying.
Few Asian societies (apart from Ming China) explored distant places. The Ming voyages were as much voyages of tribute gathering and diplomacy as discovery, and they were abandoned, as was the Apollo Program, as too expensive. The Chinese never, so far as we know, went north, where they could easily have island hopped to North America.
For a nation that made an icon of the frontier, the United States showed surprising reluctance to grasp what now look like golden opportunities. The Great Plains were long dismissed as the "Great American Desert," and Alaska as "Seward's Folly."
Of the thousands of cultures that have ever existed, only a relative handful have embarked on long-distance explorations. The evidence hardly supports the idea that a passion to know marks the human species. It is probably true, as Sagan claims, that the passion to explore has found expression in every culture. Whether it has found acceptance, let alone support, is quite another matter.
Are Humans Innately Creative?
Is curiosity and creativity a general hallmark of humans? The fact that we remained anatomically modern but never advanced technologically beyond the hunter-gatherer level for thousands of years doesn't inspire much optimism. The best treatment of how humans developed technology is Jared Diamond's outstanding synthesis of history and environmental science, Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond tries at every juncture to show that differences between cultures and their technology are driven by environmental and geographic factors, and not by differences in the people themselves. He strives to go beyond immediate circumstances ("proximate causes") to what he terms "ultimate causes," which he regards as rooted in the environment. For example, the proximate cause of the Spanish Conquest was Spanish superiority in weapons and armor, but the ultimate cause was that Eurasia was blessed with a variety of environmental factors that enabled technology to get a long head start in Eurasia. However, close scrutiny shows that many of his causes aren't as ultimate as they seem.
Take Diamond's account of writing. The earliest writing is crude shorthand for keeping accounts, limited to numbers and concrete concepts. Obviously, writing must have developed after settled agriculture made it necessary to start keeping track of accounts. It took centuries for writing to evolve to the point of being able to express complex ideas. So, in Diamond's view, one ultimate cause of Eurasian technological power is a variety of environmental and biological factors that made Eurasia particularly favorable for agriculture, hence the rise of writing and complex societies.
Why? If humans are inveterate tinkerers (as they are) and if hunter-gatherers have an encyclopedic knowledge of their environment (as they do), why did writing have to wait for settled agriculture? Surely many groups must have experienced the loss of a key member who died, taking important knowledge with him. Surely many groups must have faced the problem of communicating among scattered members, where it might have been nice to tell a hunting party "we were attacked and had to move - here's the new campsite." There was no lack of reasons to develop writing before agriculture. The lack of a permanent site should not have been an obstacle. Very few groups were so completely nomadic that they never returned to the same place, so almost every group should have known of protected sites within their normal range where they could have stored written records. Maybe some of the thousands of petroglyphs around the world did in fact serve for communication. But the question is nagging - if humans are really as creative and curious as we like to believe, why didn't they develop an ability to record abstract ideas simply for its own sake, instead of starting off with a very narrow and utilitarian approach to writing?
Even more nagging, Diamond refers in many places to the idea that some societies are more receptive to innovation that others, and those societies tend to surpass their neighbors and thrive. But he misses the ultimate "ultimate cause." If humans really are innately curious and creative, why should there be any individuals - much less entire societies - who resist innovation?
This is an excerpt from a great article on this site:
My conclusion would be:
We need to teach exploration and creativity, about ourselves and about each other, in addition to exploring the world..........
That is one purpose of “the arts”