American Progress (1872). This vision of manifest destiny embodied in American settlers moving westward was painted by John Gast.
The Space Review has an August 2 article up by Stephen Pyne, "Space Travel as Exploration," which is a topic I have touched on in a couple of earlier posts here. My view is that space exploration is part of a long theme in human history of exploration, colonization and imperialism. Pyne repeats some things I considered (seems I am in with people who he says take the long historical view): "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 Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria. The “new ocean” of interplanetary space is simply extending the bounds of the old."
So far, so good. Then there is apparently a school of thought that takes this idea into a pretty weird area of cultural, or even species-wide, manifest destiny. This is where things easily veer off into the tall grass. There are some ideas here that ought not to be taken literally, although certainly the fact that some people think along these lines can be examined as a phenomenon typical of our times. Pyne describes this line of thought: "[T]he long saga of geographic exploration by Western civilization [i]s continuous and thematically indivisible. ... 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."
I'd be very hesitant to suggest that these endeavours can be read as one upward progress of a particular culture or of humanity in general, in a way that can be tied genetically to Natural Selection! However, it's a fine line. Curiosity may be part of our hard wiring. But that curiosity does not always end in a climb toward the light. What does seem true is that our technology and science change and improve. Changes in technology, agriculture, knowledge, religion or economics act as catalysts to territorial expansion and create new forms of power.
Any discussion of the complex driving forces behind exploration, colonization and imperialism, always comes up against a mystery. Why does exploration inevitably give way to imperialism? In some cases, great travels change our history as a species, like men walking on the moon. But from those thrilling moments, imperialism emerges. It's a solution that has been repeatedly used throughout history during periods of consolidation and expansion. That does not equate imperialism with 'progress.' Rather, it suggests that imperialism enables the concentration of certain resources, ideas, wars, cultivation or technology at crucial times. It serves a purpose and generates its own epics.
Exploration starts with idealism and curiosity, and ends with the creation and expansion of complex power structures. It's a weird, inevitable endgame. The most rivetting epilogue to that endgame is Shelley's Ozymandias:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Pyne sees exploration leading to fundamental transformations of society. He thinks exploration becomes institutionalized because it becomes culturally embedded: "[M]any Europeans absorbed discovery into their understanding of who they were, even in some cases writing explorers into a founding mythology, a cultural creation story. In short, where exploring became a force, something beyond buccaneering, it interbred with the rest of its sustaining society. The broader those cultural kinship ties, the deeper the commitment. Societies dispatched explorers; explorers reshaped society. Exploration became an institution. The explorer became a role."
Pine assumes that discovery is a galvanizing experience and heralds new eras and whole new mindsets. Therein, for him, lies its intrinsic value for the explorers and the societies that encourage them: "An age of discovery thus demands more than curiosity and craft and yields more than data points or lore hoarded like bullion. Acquired knowledge has to be minted into useful currency; and exploring has to speak to deeper longings and fears and folk identities than science and scholarship. An expedition voyages into a moral universe that explains who a people are and how they should behave, that criticizes and justifies both the sustaining society and those it encounters. The Great Voyages provided that moral shock: they forced Europe to confront beliefs and mores far beyond the common understanding of Western civilization."
Click here for all my posts on Space Colonization and its Historical Precedents.