Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/May 1885/Arctic Exploration and its Object
By Dr. FRANZ BOAS.
THE severe sufferings of the last Arctic expeditions, and the losses of life and property they occasioned, have depressed the public mind in regard to Arctic explorations. Great hopes have given way to the conviction of the impossibility of penetrating the ice-bound seas and accomplishing the task which formerly seemed easy. The effect of these failures is even more profound than we could anticipate; for scientists themselves, and other men of intelligence and influence, now doubt if Arctic expeditions could be of any use either for mankind or for science. And the public mind to-day is so thoroughly imbued with these ideas, that it is necessary for every geographer to combat them with all his power.
We may be allowed to pass by the objections of men who measure the advantage of every study and of every enterprise by their influence on commercial welfare. The scientist's objections are those we wish to refute. Many do not consider the discovery of new lands and new seas a task worthy a life's work, as they do not consider it a benefit for science—for their science, which is the deduction of laws from facts. They do not regard the composition of the wonderful picture of the world, as Humboldt tried to delineate in his "Cosmos" a science equal in its worth to the one which abstracts physical laws that govern matter in the worlds as well as in the atoms. However, cosmography, the study of the world and its development, is not at all inferior to physics, the study of its laws.
Geography is one of the branches of science which represent the world as we see it today, and as it is developed into its present state. In its method and subject it is related to astronomy and history. Its domain is the study of the surface of our planet, as it has been developed by the physical action of land, atmosphere, and water, as well as by the relations between land and the organisms which live on it. Regarding geography thus in its proper place in the system of sciences, we can not be allowed to consider any one of its objects as of no consequence and not worthy of being pursued with the same perseverance as those of physics, of astronomy, or natural history. In every branch of science the connection between the phenomena and processes, and the reasons for their distribution in space and time, can only be understood by the most thorough and detailed investigation.
If it be granted that every fact added to our knowledge is of value for science, not by itself, but by connecting other facts already known, there is no reason for excluding geographical researches from this principle, or to consider discoveries of unknown regions as trifling.
For the scientist it is not the benefit of commerce which makes the importance of geographical exploration, it is the new material added to our stock of knowledge which enables us to make new comparisons and to reach a more thorough understanding of the world. If we intend to prove the necessity of new polar explorations, we do not need to dwell upon the many observations which are connected with Arctic research. If we should enter more closely into the meteorological and hydrographical or the magnetical problems which may be understood better by researches in regions near the pole; if we should try to demonstrate the immense importance of those questions for the meteorology of our own regions, and for the hydrography of the navigable ocean, or for the closer investigation of terrestrial magnetism which is necessary for the purposes of navigation, we should leave the stand-point we try to maintain here—the principle that we are not allowed to judge the value of scientific work by its immediate importance for science and life, but by its value for science itself.
The effort has often been made to prove the necessity of continued polar exploration after the failure of so many attempts and the loss of so many brave lives, but the reasons brought forth were always those referring to the probable utility of new undertakings. It is not the proper way to defend a scientific work to point out the direct advantages which may be gained by it. Science itself has the right to ask any devotion of man for its purposes. A dangerous enterprise made in behalf of science does not need any proof of its usefulness, if it is possible to show that the results will indeed be a gain to the stock of our knowledge.
If we agree that cosmography be equal in value to physics, or even if we only understand that progress in physics can not be made except by exploring the phenomena in the most minute and detailed way, we have to concede that new explorations in the Arctic regions are of value for science, and that, therefore, they are undoubtedly necessary and must be demanded.
At the same time let us ask, What is the object of polar expeditions? It is the thorough exploration of the Arctic region and of all its phenomena, a great task which will give scientists work for years to come. The problems will not be solved by pushing north and gaining the pole. There are many more objects of study left besides, and it is not necessary at all to work with all our might for the achievement of this single aim. The desires of humanity and the wants of science both direct us the same way. The phenomena of the highest latitudes are not of a kind which requires the promptest attention. Though the reaching of the pole may be desirable, it is not so urgent as to demand the sacrifice of noble lives in hazardous and adventurous enterprises which might be accomplished with relative safety at a later time. If the problems awaiting their solution in the Arctic were as pressing as those of ethnography, any attempt to reach the pole would be justified. Physical phenomena, however, are not so subject to change as those of ethnography. Unknown tribes may be extinguished, or affected by the direct or indirect influence of civilization. The outlines of lands, the state of the weather and the sea, will not undergo alterations in the course of a few years.
Therefore we can not see any reason why polar expeditions should be sent out only in order to reach the pole. The history of former expeditions proves that the most successful results were obtained by making ample use of the experience gained in former voyages, and that most of the failures were due to ignorance of previous observations, or to the careless neglect of previous experiences. If new expeditions should be organized and they will be organized we shall always plead for a slow but sure progress toward the pole. From the experience gained hitherto, we are able to start at a point far north, and by studying the distribution of the land and the state of the ice yet farther north, we can conquer step by step the region hitherto unknown with comparative safety. The exploration of the pole is not a work for the bold and daring adventurer; it is the task of the careful scientist, who knows thoroughly what science will profit by every mile gained, by the study of all the phenomena of regions often passed by ships or never visited by man.
The results of a single expedition, however lucky it may be, will always be trifling as compared with the number of problems which have to be solved in the Arctic. It is quite possible that by favorable circumstances an expedition might succeed in getting far north, or discovering large areas of the unknown regions, as has happened in former years. However, the risk which the adventurers run can not be compared with the probable results. By deliberate perseverance, though the progress may be slower, the exploration of the Arctic will be accomplished in greater safety and with far greater results for science.
We wish to establish here the principle that, in the present state of affairs, daring and adventurous explorations have to be excluded from a plan of Arctic researches which is founded on scientific principles. This is not the place to determine the course which new expeditions have to take, as the discussion of this subject is not the affair of the public but of experts, who know thoroughly the phenomena of the Arctic seas and are conversant with the whole of Arctic literature. Whatever the new plans may be, the public and men of science must ask that the plan be not confined to a single expedition. The best results will be gained by considering the exploration of the polar regions as one continuous task, and fitting every new expedition into the far-seeing scheme of a thorough investigation of all the problems subject to Arctic researches. In this way we have the strong conviction that important results will be gained quicker than by spasmodic efforts now in Greenland, now in Behring Strait, now in Franz-Josef Land. There can be no doubt that such a plan will be expensive, and not so apt to produce stirring results as any other; however, it is not the purpose of the outgoing explorers to become sufferers and enduring heroes, but to bring home results which are important for their science. The meteorological stations which were established in 1882-'83 were the first step to the organization of an enterprise like that we demand, and their results will show the utility of well-founded plans.
Hitherto I have only referred to the exploration of the unknown region never visited by men. There is more work left, however, which has to be included in a comprehensive plan of research. The southern parts of the Arctic regions—for example, the east shore of Greenland, many of the immense fjords of its west shore, Baffin Land, and the central parts of the north shore of America—are barely delineated. If we look at the charts, we might be induced to believe that most of these lands are sufficiently known, while, indeed, every new journey discloses the deficiency of our knowledge. These countries, which may be reached without serious difficulties, are the proper place for investigations of great importance, and the exploration of these parts of the Arctic is even more urgent than that of the far north, as the study of the numerous tribes which live on the shore of the Arctic Ocean has to be accomplished very soon; else the rapid diminution of those peoples and the influence of European civilization will deprive the ethnographer of anything to study but their moldering remains.
It is easily understood why, after the northwest passage was found, no new researches in this part of the world were made. Many of the explorers, or those who planned the expeditions, were often more anxious to find sensational results than to further science. Polar exploration is now mostly considered merely the ambitious struggle of expeditions to get a few miles farther north than all the former explorers. We have tried to prove, in our remarks, that its aim is much nobler, and worth all the sacrifices which are brought to it.