Beyond the Known: How Exploration Created the Modern World


We tend to think of exploration as escape, but it’s actually about forging connections. On a personal level, we travel to connect with our roots, connect with nature, connect with fellow travelers, or connect with new lands and people. At the level of civilizations, connections precipitated the circulation of people, ideas, technologies, and resources. More connections meant more people working collaboratively to solve problems, like the historical version of the Internet. Most technologies are not invented from scratch, but modified from ideas spread by others. Writing has only been invented on our planet a very few times—possibly only twice—but spread to evolve into almost four thousand written languages. As Isaac Newton famously expressed, progress begins with “standing on the shoulders of giants”, where one discovery forms the foundation upon which the next is based. The more ideas exchanged, the more shoulders there are to stand on, and the more people standing on top of them.

Motivation for exploration has varied throughout history, but the combined result was nothing less than the creation of the modern world. Often, all it took was for a few brave visionaries to pave the way by venturing into the unknown. Humans follow where a leader has demonstrated it’s safe to tread. As with science, many of the greatest discoveries arose accidentally, from the greatest errors. Before Columbus, common knowledge held that it was simultaneously dangerous and pointless to sail from Europe out into the wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. After Columbus, doing so became commonplace. The resulting exchange of people, animals, crops, and ideas built global trading networks that form the basis of our modern economy, introduced foods that ended mass starvation in Europe, initiated the movement of millions of people free and in chains, spread diseases that devastated continents, and destroyed entire civilizations while founding others. Sometimes all it takes is boldness—even recklessness—to change the world.

Civilizations that embrace new ideas are the ones that thrive. In the ancient world, the cities of Athens and Alexandria taxed visiting ships by searching them for scrolls to be copied and indexed. During China’s Golden Age, knowledge had direct cash value: you could pay for goods with a written copy of a respected poem or manuscript. Intellectual capital is a civilization’s most valuable asset, and this drive for knowledge is stimulated by a frontier. It’s no accident that the Age of Exploration coincided with the scientific revolution. With their applied experiments in the laboratory of the globe, Columbus and Magellan were testing hypotheses about the geography of Earth by sailing into the unknown. Later expeditions were often overtly grounded in scientific purpose, like Cook’s 1769 voyage to Tahiti to record the transit of Venus, or Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle that inspired the Theory of Evolution. Exploration and science went hand in hand: the same curiosity that motivated oversea voyages stimulated discovery at home.

Exploration is, by its very nature, stretching ourselves to go beyond previously established limits. This process stimulates new skills, new ideas, and new technologies. By placing ourselves at the leading edge of what’s possible, we create incentives to solve problems that haven’t been solved before, often with unforeseen application. Columbus sailed with flimsy coastal vessels unsuited to rough Atlantic waters because oceangoing sailing ships hadn’t been invented yet—and never would have been without the knowledge that new continents lay across the sea. Without populated continents on two sides of that ocean, we never would have invented passenger liners or transcontinental air transport. At the beginning of the Cold War, we didn’t know how to send people to space, but in the process of figuring it out, NASA invented life support technologies, water filtration systems, cordless power tools, fireproof clothing, wireless data transfer, solar panels, insulin monitors, remote control systems, weather forecasting, medical scanning technologies, and more than two thousand other spinoffs.

The truth is that exploration is an investment in our future. What benefit does present-day North America bring to the countless explorers, pioneers, and immigrants who labored to create it? What benefit will our great grandchildren bring us? Should we even ask these questions? Most of the benefits of expanding into space will be realized by our future descendants, as has always been the case throughout history when our ancestors chose to look beyond their horizons. Asking why we should travel beyond Earth is akin to asking our early ancestors why they should leave the confines of the African Rift Valley. Since that part of the world is perfectly fine, why leave? But maybe there are new sources of food over the hills, or solutions to problems that can only be found by venturing out into the unknown. We humans are restless creatures, always looking to exploit new resources and opportunities, and build a better life for ourselves and our children. This restlessness has served us well. It is our curiosity that drives us forward.

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