Among the most popular shows on Animal Planet is the wildlife documentary series “River Monsters,” the ninth season of which is expected to premiere in 2017. The show’s appeal is easy to understand: Audiences love journeys into the unknown, chaperoned by clear-thinking, trustworthy guides. This interest is more than a thirst for mindless entertainment, however—it’s a refined consumerist sensibility with roots in the way people are taught about the “discovery” of the world.
The basic River Monsters formula is simple. Jeremy Wade, the show’s host and protagonist, is a “man of science” and “extreme angler” who investigates deaths around the world that he suspects are due to unwanted encounters with dangerous river fish. He then conducts a Sherlock Holmes-style investigation, complete with suspenseful fishing scenes in which he attempts to catch the suspected culprit. More often than not, Wade hooks what he’s looking for.
It’s an informative and highly enjoyable series, not least because it positions Wade as the “scientific rationalist” who sifts through evidence and takes on the unknown. The world—as revealed by Wade’s “discoveries”—is full of monsters, myths, superstitions, and danger. Viewers are made to feel like partners in his adventures, as if they’re experiencing a hybrid between Indiana Jones and CSI.
While certainly entertaining, this approach is indicative of the West’s tendency to romanticize the discovery of cultures and countries that have, in fact, been inhabited for thousands of years. This attitude is so prevalent that it’s almost invisible—but it powers much of the popular culture we consume, from “River Monsters” to CNN’s wildly popular “Parts Unknown,” starring Anthony Bourdain.
Though the romanticized “Age of Discovery” is centuries in the past, the human instinct to “discover” the world around us is permanent. The lenses through which we perceive cultures and civilizations, however, differs from group to group. Just as popular perceptions of history make it easier to examine the past through figures like Columbus, de Soto, Da Gama, Cortes, or Cooke, the Western world loves interpreting its unknown places through contemporary guides like Wade.
This isn’t to say that the West is still mired in eugenics or phrenology. Two world wars, scientific progress, and progressive movements have, to a large extent, modernized the world’s self-knowledge. But while racist hereditary philosophies have largely dissipated, the Western point of view has more or less stayed the same.
The “Science vs. X” binary is something that the West still uses to understand “others.” Reliance on rational explorers, or guides, to mediate contact with the outside world is quite clear in today’s popular non-fiction literature. David Grann’s The Lost City of Ze (2009) eventually topped the New York Times’ bestseller list while earning rave reviews on nearly every major outlet. The book focuses on a British explorer named Percy Harrison Fawcett who, along with his son and a friend, entered the Amazon in search of what he believed to be the fabled city El Dorado (or “Z,” as Fawcett called it) in 1925. These men disappeared into the jungle and were never seen again. Their disappearance eventually became a bigger mystery than the legendary city itself.
Grann’s book also tells a parallel story of how current research has disproved the age-old assumption that indigenous populations of South America were never organized or substantial enough to be classified as “civilizations.” These contemporary findings contrast with the myth-based attempts by Fawcett and others to “discover” Amazonian civilizations. El Dorado may be a myth, but finding evidence of truly complex indigenous societies in the Amazon rainforest is perhaps even more amazing.
The Lost City of Ze is a powerful narrative that reads as part adventure and part detective thriller, as are many books in its genre. Monte Reel’s Between Man and Beast (2013), for example, focuses on the 19th-century French-American explorer and naturalist Paul Du Chaillu, who, in the late 1850s, became the first modern scientist from the West to observe gorillas in their natural habitat. The book goes on to document how Chaillu’s “discovery” of the gorilla affected the debate on evolution and natural selection during the Victorian era. Most recently, Doug Preston’s The Lost City of the Monkey God, documents a journey into the jungle of Honduras, where a group of scientists actually do make a genuine finding in the Mosquitia mountains.
Then there’s Steve Kemper’s A Labyrinth of Kingdoms (2012), which details the 10,000-mile journey of 19th century German explorer and scholar Heinrich Barth through Africa, which eventually culminated in Timbuktu, a famous city in present-day Mali. More recently, there’s Jungle of Stone (2016) by William Carlsen, which tells the story of John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, two 19th-century explorers credited with the “discovery” of the ancient Mayan civilization in Central America.
A need to move on
The problem here does not necessarily lie within the books, which are, for the most part, great reads that fairly successfully note the complexities of indigenous civilizations worldwide. The bigger issue is the way all of these books tend to center on a strong central character, typically a white man, as the real hero of every story. With attention focused on these heroic explorers, the content and complexities of the “discoveries” and, indeed, the full humanity of the people they encounter, usually ends up as a convenient backdrop for the larger story.
The world is too complex for such a limited approach. A rapidly globalizing planet requires voices from a wide range of world views. Our obsession with “discovery” is as much a socially and historically informed tendency as it is a natural instinct. Learning something new is always exciting, but the West must recognize that what it sees as exotic doesn’t hold the same novelty for others.
My point isn’t to denigrate works that document Western exploration. As prejudiced and misinformed as many European explorers were, their stories are important episodes in world history. However, their narratives, viewpoints, and conclusions must be treated as part of the overall story, not the story’s central focus. If the world today wants to better understanding itself, writers, producers, and citizens must reach out to indigenous voices that represent areas of interest, without flashy explorers mediating the encounter.
This step is necessary, but increasingly difficult in today’s climate of mutual distrust between some nations and civilizations. Many voices are being silenced amidst corporate globalization. But listening to all voices from diverse civilizational histories and world views is key to increased global harmony.