The Current

The most successful civilizations have always been the most open-minded: author

In a new book, Canadian scientist Andrew Rader looks at the role exploration has played in shaping the contemporary world, and how that continued desire to explore will shape our future exploration of space.

Canadian scientist Andrew Rader's book looks at history and future of exploration

In 2016, this replica of a Viking ship sailed across the Atlantic from Norway to Brockville, Ont. (Draken Harald)

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From the earliest days of humanity, curiosity has always pushed humans to explore uncharted territory and develop new technologies to get there.

That's what Canadian scientist Andrew Rader examines in his new book, Beyond the Known: How Exploration Created the Modern World and Will Take Us to the Stars.

Rader — a mission manager at SpaceX, Elon Musk's private space company — spoke to The Current's Laura Lynch about what he discovered about the history of human exploration. Here is part of their conversation. 

I'm wondering what misconceptions there are about the European Age of exploration, which was half a millennium ago.

So people often sort of think of the modern world as resulting from the conquest of the world, basically by Europeans. And they often think that Europeans had superior technology and set out to kind of conquer and colonize the world.

But if you look at Europe at the time, relative to Asia, particularly China, China was actually far more advanced than Europe at the time in the 1400s, and Asia was as well — and far wealthier, in fact. 

Canadian scientist Andrew Rader's new book looks at the history and future of human exploration. (CB Photo Studio)

We often think of the Mediterranean as sort of the centre of the world. That's literally what the word means, actually, Mediterranean. 

But I think a true centre of the world was actually India. Because it was positioned between China and Europe and for thousands of years, India was sort of the market of the world, the place of commerce where Chinese would come and Indonesians would come and Europeans would come. 

The Romans actually went to India 2,000 years ago. In fact, 2,300 years ago, the Greeks had a travel guide of the Indian Ocean. And the world is a lot more connected in that way than we usually think about. 

But I think that what actually happened is Europe was excluded from the spice market … [so] Europe went out to expose itself to ideas, and developed a commanding position and through the exploration actually drove the incentives that drove their technology. And it went hand-in-hand with the scientific revolution. 

And so Europe turned a disadvantage of being in an economically weaker position and technologically weaker position, and through the challenges that it embarked upon, created ... the world that we arrived with.

Indonesian actors in traditional 15th century Chinese dress during a festival in Semarang, Indonesia, to remember the famous Chinese admiral explorer Zheng He (also known as Cheng Ho). Zheng He led some of China's most famous international expeditions in the 1400s. ( STR/AFP via Getty Images)

But at the same time, we're dealing with many of the negative effects of that age, and colonialism and slavery and the repercussions of that. How should that be seen within the history of exploration?

Absolutely. There is significant negative externalities, as you say, slavery, colonialism, all these things. 

So I think that exploration has both the positive message of increasing technological progress and sort of giving humans this intrinsic drive, but it also absolutely has these negative consequences throughout history. 

I don't know how you wrestle with the morality of that. And I'm not saying in the book that exploration was all a good thing. I just think that it created the world that we live in, for good and ill.

Now, let's talk a little bit about China, because China, you say, played a big role, but then it seemed to sort of stop exploring. What happened?

Yeah, China in the 1400s is really interesting.

For most of history, China's been the largest country in the world and the most economically powerful country in the world. So this idea that China's, you know, this rising China today, is not a new thing.

China had these extremely impressive voyages of discovery in the 1400s and was travelling regularly to East Africa, to India, to the Middle East, Indonesia. 

A 2003 exhibit at the National History Museum in Hanoi, Vietnam, showcasing Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai artifacts from 15th-century shipwrecks off the coast of Vietnam. ( HOANG DINH NAM/AFP via Getty Images)

[But] China was an empire, with a single ruler and an elite ruling class. And they decided that they didn't want to pursue exploration because they were concerned about foreign ideas coming in, and just change that might undermine the power of the elite. 

China turned inward, and basically by 1800 was at the same technological level that it was in the 1400s.

Sort of frozen in time.

Frozen in time. Absolutely.

Parts of exploration actually became illegal in China. Is that true?

Yeah. They banned building large ships, with more than two masts I think. And basically they completely shut down overseas trade because they were worried about foreign influences.

So let's talk about explorers then, because some of them really surprised you. Mongols and Vikings, for example, seen as violent plundering forces. But they did some good things.

We think about the Vikings as barbarians, kind of, and the Mongols as well, conquering the largest land empire of all time. But both of them were really open-minded. 

The most successful civilizations throughout history have always been those who were really open-minded. The Romans, for example, copied the technologies of others. So if they found useful technologies, or useful forms of government, or useful languages — even their gods were copied from the Greeks. So they just copied everyone. It was really successful. 

An illustration of a grave believed to belong to a 10th century Viking woman warrior. (Evald Hansen)

And the Vikings had really the largest middle class, basically because they had different segments of society, and even, for example, women had the right to own property and take up legal claims and all this kind of stuff. 

And the Mongols were open-minded to all kinds of new ideas and new religions. And these people were basically sharing ideas. 

The most successful civilizations in history have always been those who have been outward-looking and willing to adopt other ideas and share ideas and take the best ideas, basically. 

It's kind of looking around the world, [and saying] "Who has the best ideas? Let's use those." 

Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Karin Marley. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.


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