If we did all the things we are capable of doing,
we would literally astonish ourselves.
What drives you? What gets you up in the morning? Is it the same thing that compels a person to sail around the world in a coracle or spend forty years trying to grow a black tulip? The word motivation is (rather surprisingly) little more than a hundred years old, but the thing itself (whatever it may be) is as ancient as our species. Consciously or unconsciously, and for reasons no one really understands, the reward centers of our brains are chemically stimulated by activities like making money or exacting revenge, as well as by more abstract pleasures such as witnessing beauty or solving puzzles. As habit-forming as eating, drinking, or exercise, they can drive people to the most astonishing places. Here are six people who never even paused to look up from the road.
If there is a more driven person in human history than Genghis Khan (about 1162–1227) we should pray we don’t bump into him on a dark night.
The Mongol Empire stretched all the way from the Pacific coast of China to Hungary and covered almost a quarter of the land mass of the planet. It was the largest empire the world has ever seen: four times bigger than Alexander’s and twice the size of Rome’s, and Genghis Khan created it from nothing in just twenty years. Under his leadership, the Mongols were the most successful military force of all time. From a population base of well under a million people they were responsible for the deaths of more than 50 million human beings, roughly a third of the inhabitants of the lands they conquered.
What bound the Mongols together wasn’t a lust for blood, but a newfound sense of nationhood. Until the time of Genghis Khan there was no Mongolia. Asia north of the Gobi desert was home to half a dozen loose confederations of nomadic tribes of which the Mongols were only one. Competing for sparse grazing land for their herds of sheep and horses, they were often unfriendly toward one another. Raiding, feuding, and revenge killings were common.
Genghis Khan was his title, not his name. As a boy, he was called Temüjin (“iron one”). He was of noble birth: His father, Yesügei, was a khan or clan chieftain. When Temüjin was nine, a group of treacherous Tatar bandits poisoned his father while sharing a meal.
Temüjin claimed the chieftainship, but the clan laughed at him because he was too young to take on his father’s role; he and his family were cast into the wilderness. For three years he scraped a subsistence living for them, hunting small game and gathering wild fruits. At the age of twelve he killed one of his half brothers for stealing food, cementing his role as leader of the family.
He was married at a very young age, but before long his wife, Börte, was abducted by the savage Merkit tribe. To get her back, Temüjin made an alliance with his father’s old blood brother, Toghrul, khan of the powerful Kerait. She gave birth to a son when she came home; she had been away for eight months, and raped, so the paternity of the child was in doubt. Nevertheless Temüjin accepted him, and he was given the name Jochi, “the guest.” Encouraged by their victory over the Merkit, Temüjin and Toghrul began to build a new tribal confederation.
Temüjin’s great contribution was to draw up a new set of laws, called the yassa. Based on what he had experienced, the laws were designed to eliminate the antisocial opportunism—casual theft, violent bickering, tit-for-tat kidnapping and murder—that made life on the steppe so difficult and dangerous. (Even his own father had carried off his mother from a neighboring tribe.)
Under the yassa, food was to be shared. Everyone was free to follow any religion they wished. All men (other than religious leaders and doctors) were obliged to join the army, but recruits were rewarded for their skill, not for their family affiliations. Kidnapping women and stealing livestock were forbidden. The pillaging of enemy corpses and property was not allowed until ordered by field commanders. When it was permitted, individual soldiers were allowed to keep the spoils. The children of conquered peoples were to be adopted by Mongol families and treated as equals, not as slaves. Captured troops were to be retrained as Mongol soldiers and given the same rights.
A combination of warrior code, state constitution, and Geneva Convention, the yassa was ruthlessly enforced: Disobedience brought immediate execution. Although in some ways it was really just a clear codification of existing tribal customs, its tough justice took hold at once, producing professional discipline among the existing troops, gratitude from the new recruits (and their families)—and loyalty from everyone. The ranks of the Mongol army swelled and, with each new conquest, Temüjin’s power base increased.
If this gives the impression that Temüjin was some sort of Mongol version of the Dalai Lama, then it would be inaccurate. He was fair but he was implacable. When, to establish his supremacy, Temüjin eventually had to impose his will on his original allies, the Kerait, he first offered them the chance to surrender, and when they refused, he crushed them in a series of great battles. The Kerait were by then led by Jamuga, son of Toghrul (and Temüjin’s own blood brother and boyhood friend). When the vanquished Jamuga asked if he could meet his end without his blood being spilled, Temüjin graciously had him wrapped in two felt blankets and then beaten and asphyxiated to death.
By 1206 Temüjin had achieved the unthinkable, linking all Mongol tribes for the first time into a single league. At the age of forty-two, having outmaneuvered or defeated his rivals, he was declared Genghis (or more accurately Chinggis) Khan. Many suggestions have been put forward for the precise meaning of this name—Lord of the Oceans, Universal Leader, Precious Warrior, Spirit of Light, True Khan—but the general idea is unmistakable: He was the khan of khans. No other Mongol leader ever bore this title.
You cannot operate an effective legal system without writing, so Genghis Khan borrowed the alphabet of a nearby people, the Uighur, to create standardized written Mongolian. (Uighur derives from Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, though Aramaic, ironically, never developed a written script of its own.) He also instituted a rapid communication system known as the yam. This operated like an Asian Pony Express, consisting of a chain of manned refueling stages at 140-mile intervals all over the empire. To run a yam station was a well-rewarded, high-status job. A messenger would arrive, hand his package on to a fresh horseman, and then rest and recuperate. In this way, a message could travel more than two hundred miles in a single day, outstripping the fastest army. The service was safe and secure; for merchants wanting to move goods or information it was also free. The yam was to turn the Silk Road into the medieval world’s most important highway.
None of this would have been possible without the superiority of Mongolian troops. Highly skilled, mobile, and disciplined, Mongolian mounted archers were self-contained fighting units. Protected by light helmets and breastplates made of leather or iron plates, they carried two powerful, small composite bows made from horn, wood, and sinew, each as powerful as an English longbow but much quicker to use and reload. Their quivers contained a selection of arrows for different jobs: armor piercers, blunt “stun” arrows, even arrows that whistled, which were used for sending messages. They also carried a small ax or mace. Each man had a saddlebag with his own food rations, rope, and sharpening stone, and a string of five or six spare horses. This meant there was no baggage train or camp followers to slow things down. A Mongol army could travel well over a hundred miles a day—they ate on the move and even stood up in the saddle to evacuate themselves while galloping along.
Genghis was a superb military planner. Each campaign was mapped out in advance and extensive use was made of spies and field intelligence. The troop structure was based on the decimal system: squads (ten men), companies (one hundred), regiments (one thousand), and divisions (ten thousand). Commanders controlled regiments and were given a high degree of independence.
A Mongol attack was devastating and virtually impossible for a traditional army to withstand. Appearing at terrifying velocity, the cavalry suddenly split into three or more columns and mounted a multipronged assault. The tactics required remarkable horsemanship and the troops were rigorously trained. This was done through hunting exercises. A posse of horsemen would set out onto the steppe until game was sighted, surround the animals at speed and at a distance, and then gradually close the circle, making sure nothing escaped.
The Mongols usually tried to ambush an army and destroy it in the field rather than besiege a major city, but when the time came they were both ruthless and highly original. Innovative siege warfare was another of Genghis Khan’s great skills. First, small undefended local towns would be taken and the refugees driven toward the city, putting pressure on living space and food resources. Next, rivers were diverted to cut off the water supply. If necessary, siege engines were then deployed, built on-site from local materials by prisoners of war. Mongol catapults were particularly effective, sometimes firing the bodies of plague victims over the city walls—one of earliest examples of germ warfare. Once a city was taken, its leaders were captured and executed to remove the focus for any future rebellion.
Brutal though this sounds, even Mongol siege techniques bore witness to the sense of fairness that Genghis Khan had enshrined in the yassa. Arriving in front of a doomed city, the Mongol commander would issue the order to surrender from a white tent: If the city complied, all would be spared. On the second day, he would use a red tent: If the city surrendered, the men would all be killed, but the rest would be spared. On the third day, he would use a black tent. After that, no quarter was given.
Genghis Khan’s achievements can hardly be overstated. By the time he died (still fighting, in northwestern China in 1227), he had transformed a haphazard patchwork of squabbling goatherds into an empire of unparalleled military strength, with a language, a constitution, and an international postal service. In Mongolia today, he is still considered a national hero.
Though he was said to have more than five hundred concubines (and untold numbers of bastards), Genghis Khan stayed loyal all his life to his original wife, Börte, and their four legitimate sons. He had appointed his third son, Ogedei, as his successor, and for fifteen years things went well. Under Ogedei’s leadership the Mongols put down a rebellion in Korea and demolished the Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, and Hungarians. By 1241 the Golden Horde had reached the gates of Vienna. It felt like the end of civilization. Then, in what seemed to be a miracle, the Mongols mysteriously melted away. They went home to Mongolia; a quiriltai had been called to choose a successor to Ogedei, who had died in a binge-drinking spree after a hunting expedition. From then on the Mongols became increasingly directionless and needlessly destructive. During the sacking of Baghdad in 1258, priceless Muslim scholarship, centuries old, was burned and thrown in the Tigris. The Mongol Empire eventually disappeared and left little trace on the cultures it had conquered, but this only bears testimony to the strength of Genghis Khan’s leadership: He was irreplaceable.
As was the custom among Mongols, he was buried in an unmarked grave. His four legitimate sons were so paranoid about keeping its location secret (to avoid its being despoiled) that their men slaughtered every single person the funeral cortege came across—Marco Polo later claimed this exceeded twenty thousand people. Leaving nothing to chance, they then got soldiers to execute the slaves who had excavated the tomb, and then had those soldiers executed in turn. To find it again themselves, they sacrificed a suckling camel in front of its mother and buried it in their father’s tomb. Camels have long memories, so once a year they released the mother camel, which unerringly returned to the precise position it had last seen its offspring. The only flaw in the plan was that when the old mother camel finally died, all knowledge of the location was lost. Despite many false claims, Genghis Khan’s grave has never been found.
As for his permanent legacy, it stretches far beyond the boundaries of Mongolia. Recent genetic studies have found that 8 percent of the current male population of central Asia are direct descendants of Genghis Khan.
Among the direct descendants of the American naval officer and polar explorer Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary (1856–1920) are Peary S. Fowler, a female county circuit judge in Florida, and several Inuit.
Robert Peary believed it was his preordained destiny to be the first man to reach the North Pole. He talked about the Arctic as though it were his own private property, treating other expeditions as infringements and becoming visibly upset when it was pointed out that he was retracing the routes of previous explorers. With astonishing willpower, superhuman powers of endurance, and a fanatical ability to ignore pain, he made eight separate attempts to reach the Pole in ten years, losing all but two of his toes to frostbite.
Peary decided from an early age that he wanted to be famous. In his twenties, when he was just beginning his career in the navy, he wrote to his mother: “Remember, mother, I must have fame, and I cannot reconcile myself to years of commonplace drudgery.” Robert’s father died suddenly when he was three, and his mother Mary’s way of coping with the tragedy was to devote her life to her son: protecting him from the world at every turn, not letting him play with other boys, telling him he was too delicate, making him wear a sun bonnet. It was a deep but suffocating bond: His mother went with him everywhere, even on his honeymoon. Robert Peary married Josephine Diebetsch in 1888. At the time, he had made only one short, failed expedition to Greenland, but that was soon to change. In twenty-three years of marriage, they would spend only three of them together. Nonetheless, Jo would be Peary’s rock, remaining his principal encourager, confidante, and public mouthpiece until his death.
In 1891 she went with him on a reconnaissance mission to Greenland, becoming the world’s first nonnative female Arctic explorer. She wrote a surprisingly cheerful journal and the following year gave birth to their first child, Robert Jr. The family lived among the Inuit, and Jo thought her hosts the “queerest, dirtiest-looking individuals” she had ever seen, reminding her “more of monkeys than human beings.” She was tough, unsentimental, and above all, on her husband’s side. Those who crossed the Pearys or let them down were cut off immediately. One young geologist, John Verhoeff, who had put his life savings into the venture, was so traumatized by the way the Pearys treated him that he effectively committed suicide. Disappearing into the snow, alone and against specific instructions, he shouted back to no one in particular: “I hate them! Her and him both!” and shortly afterward fell down a crevasse.
Peary, meanwhile, set off north. He had a hunch that Greenland was an island and, after an incredible journey, sledging a thousand miles in three months, he and his men finally reached open water, naming it Independence Bay. They believed they had found the northernmost point of Greenland and were looking at the Arctic Ocean. In fact, it was what today is called Independence Fjord, an immense inlet on the northeast coast, some 100 miles long by 15 wide. They were still about 125 miles short of where they thought they were. It was an impressive feat all the same. That part of Greenland is still called Peary Land, and Peary had gone much of the way with a broken leg, which was saved with an improvised splint by the expedition’s doctor, Frederick Cook.
Returning a hero to America in 1892, Peary threw himself into a fund-raising tour for an assault on the North Pole. He traveled the length of the country, delivering 165 lectures in 103 days—earning up to $2,000 a night (about $50,000 today). He looked every inch the bluff polar explorer: almost six feet tall with deep blue eyes, a mane of red hair, and a large handlebar mustache. He delivered his lectures in polar furs, on a stage dressed with an elaborate reconstruction of an Inuit camp, accompanied by five huskies trained to howl in unison at the end of his speech.
His public image concealed a touchy and insecure human being. He suffered all his life from a stutter. Opaque and emotionally distant with everyone, he would fly into a rage at the least hint of disloyalty. Though he was capable of being charming when he wanted something—and was always decisive out on the ice—in private he was a brooder, seeing conspiracies on every side. The wrong side of Robert Peary was a cold, dark place to be, and sooner or later everyone found themselves there—even his wife.
In 1898, leaving Jo behind to bring up their two children and manage their precarious finances, Peary returned to live among the Inuit for three years. Photographs of him standing imperiously in his sealskins help explain why he was almost a godlike figure to them. Exercising his droit de seigneur, Peary now chose an Inuit mistress. “The presence of women,” he wrote, “is an absolute necessity to keep men happy.” Aleqasina was a fourteen-year-old girl who had originally come to the house as a cleaner. She was to bear him two sons, Anaakkaq (born 1900) and Kaalipaluk (born 1906). While she was pregnant with the first of these, Jo Peary turned up unexpectedly. She had had no news of her ice-bound husband for several months and was profoundly shocked by what she found. “Had I known how things were I should not have come,” she wrote afterward. Somehow Jo reconciled herself to this unconventional ménage, returning twice more in 1902 and 1903, but her journal shows that she was often very low. In 1906 she wrote in her diary, “The Pole will never thank me for the anxiety and suffering I have endured.”
Peary’s relationship with Aleqasina was similar to his relationship with the Inuit as a whole. His attraction was genuine enough, but he never took the trouble to learn the language properly, still less to understand their culture. He considered them brave and resourceful, he admired them as “anarchistic philosophers,” but he was no more able to make an emotional connection with them than anyone else. He preferred striding around as “Pearyaksoah,” the great white God, dispensing largess and barking orders. “They value life only as does a fox, or a bear; purely by instinct,” he wrote. Their sole contribution would be to help him discover the Pole.
In fact, they did much more than merely help him. The “Peary System” for polar exploration, which he trumpeted as his great technical breakthrough, was nothing more than the application of Inuit survival techniques. Without their local knowledge and the huge numbers of their dogs (most of which died en route), his expeditions would never have happened at all. It is possible that the years he spent snuggled up with Aleqasina, waiting for a set of prosthetic toes to arrive, obsessively planning his next assault on the Pole, were the happiest in his life. But Peary was only really happy behind a sledge.
After he left the Arctic for good in 1909, he never attempted to contact Aleqasina or his two Inuit sons, nor—despite the wealth his fame had brought him—did he ever make any financial provision for them or the people who had served him so faithfully. Though in awe of him and proud of their role in his mighty project, the Inuit of northwest Greenland still remember Peary today as their “Great Tormentor.”
In 1897, in an act of spectacular vandalism, Peary stole the four sacred meteorites they had used for millennia as a source of metal flakes for knives and arrowheads, took them back to New York, and sold them to the American Museum of Natural History for $40,000 (worth more than $1 million today). None of the money found its way back to Greenland. Peary also brought six Inuit back with him, so he could show them off as part of his lecture series. Four of them died almost immediately of pneumonia. Peary cynically faked their burial and sold their physical remains to the museum. The youngest surviving Inuit was an eight-year-old boy called Minik. He was adopted by the family of the museum’s superintendent, William Wallace, and named “Minik Peary Wallace.” Shortly afterward Wallace resigned. It wasn’t until nine years later, as a teenager, that Minik visited the American Museum of Natural History for himself. There he was horrified to be confronted with the sight of his father’s bleached bones in a glass case in the ethnographic department. Minik begged to have the remains returned to him for a ritual burial, but the museum refused. Peary reluctantly agreed to pay for Minik to return home, from where Minik fought a running battle with the museum for the rest of his life. He died in 1918, aged twenty-nine, two years before Peary himself. The skeletons weren’t released and reburied in Greenland until 1993.
Though Peary made several attempts to reach the North Pole in the early part of the twentieth century, all of them ended in failure, and some in disaster. But his reputation in America continued to grow. He befriended Theodore Roosevelt, who adored adventure of all kinds and through whom he acquired a number of wealthy patrons to cover his exponentially mounting expenses. (The average cost of each expedition was more than $400,000, or $10 million in today’s terms.)
In 1909, now well into his fifties, Peary was ready to make his final assault on the North Pole. A team of 24 men with 19 sledges and 133 dogs set out, but of these only Peary and five companions went the whole way. One was Matthew Henson, the world’s first black polar explorer. This talented, self-taught man was the son of a poor farmer. His parents died when he was small, and at the age of twelve he walked the thirty miles from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore and went to sea as a cabin boy. He was a skilled navigator, carpenter, and mechanic. He had accompanied Peary on all his major expeditions since they had met twenty-five years earlier. Like Peary, Henson had married an Inuit woman and fathered a son. Peary owed much of his success to Henson’s logistical genius and his fluency in the local language. The rest of the party consisted of four Inuit who drove the sleds. They had to sledge across melting ice riven by treacherous water channels, led by a fifty-four-year-old man with no toes. Henson had an almost infallible sense of direction, but no one except Peary knew how to take the sequence of latitude readings that would indicate their arrival at the Pole. Peary never took them. Because there were no independent witnesses, there was no evidence other than Peary’s word that they had reached their destination. Given that this was the moment he had spent two decades working toward, it’s very odd that Peary’s diary was left empty on the day of their alleged arrival (he later inserted a loose leaf recording the appropriate sentiments). More damning still, to cover the distances that he claimed they had, they would have had to travel more than seventy miles a day. No polar explorer has matched this before or since. When the British adventurer Sir Wally Herbert retraced the voyage in 1969, he estimated that Peary’s “Pole” was at least fifty miles short of the real one.
Peary’s behavior on regaining the expedition’s ship was far from triumphant. He had hardly spoken to Henson on the journey back, and Henson was tight-lipped: “We had a little argument at the Pole, but that’s all I’ll ever say.” (Years later Henson intimated that the argument resulted from Peary’s resentment at having to share his moment with someone else.) The ship’s crew were eager to know if they’d reached the Pole, but even when asked directly, all Peary would say was: “I have not been altogether unsuccessful.”
When the expedition returned to New York, they found there was a rival claim. Dr. Frederick Cook, the man who had saved Peary’s leg eighteen years before, had emerged from the ice saying he had reached the Pole a whole year earlier. This stung Peary into action. All sheepishness forgotten, he set about destroying Cook’s claim (which was even less credible than his own). Peary pulled in every favor he had ever been owed. The resultant publicity savaged Cook’s moral character and previous polar experience with such ferocity that his reputation never recovered. The press didn’t give Peary the unequivocal acclamation he had hoped for, and questions continued to be asked in private, but as far as the world was concerned, it was Robert Peary who had conquered the North Pole. “I have got the North Pole out of my system after twenty-three years of effort,” he proclaimed.
Twenty-two gold medals from the world’s leading geographical societies followed, along with three honorary doctorates and the French Cross of the Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor. He was received by royalty all over Europe and promoted to the rank of rear admiral at home. His ghostwritten memoirs became bestsellers, enthralling a whole generation of armchair explorers. Peary had got all the fame he ever wanted. He withdrew from public life to Eagle Island, his retreat off the coast of Maine, to enjoy his retirement.
But he did not enjoy it in the least. His health collapsed and he suffered severe bouts of depression. His wife blamed his decline on the doubters who had subjected him to such a grilling on his return, saying that it “did more toward the breaking down of his iron constitution than anything experienced in his explorations.” After all he had done, Peary must have had a terrible sense of anticlimax and boredom—and (one can only hope) regret for the way he had treated his innocent Inuit. And perhaps, in the dark watches of the night, he turned over in his mind the guilty knowledge that he had never reached his goal, and that all the fame he’d craved and won was based upon a lie.
Peary desperately wanted the approval of the world because he had never had the approval of a father. His mother had smothered him with love and he loved her in return—his gushing letters to her are full of tenderness—but he needed to be free of her. Psychotherapists call this spousification, when the child develops guilt and anxiety because the parent is acting like a lover. Peary’s mother’s joining him on his honeymoon is a classic example. The North Pole was a long way to go to get away from her, but it was where Robert Peary felt safe and free and where he could try to prove himself a hero to the father he never knew. He died of pernicious anemia, aged only sixty-three.
The first verifiable successful land assault on the North Pole did not take place until 1968. The name we should remember is not Robert Peary but Ralph Plaisted, a high-school dropout and former insurance salesman from Bruno, Minnesota.
The Victorian explorer Mary Kingsley (1862–1900) also had difficulties with her parents, but her escape from what Peary referred to as “commonplace drudgery” could not have produced a greater contrast.
Mary’s father was Sir George Kingsley, a physician and amateur scientist. Her mother was one of his kitchen staff, whom he made pregnant by accident. They married just four days before Mary was born. Although Mary had avoided the stigma of illegitimacy, her childhood hardly differed from that of a servant. Her mother was an invalid and Sir George was rarely there: He worked for wealthy patrons who felt they needed a doctor in attendance as they toured the world. Leaving the house within weeks of Mary’s birth, he was sometimes away for years at a time, writing sporadic and alarming letters home, giving his address as “Abroad.” When Mary was fourteen, he casually wrote to say that a last minute change of plan had narrowly avoided his accompanying Custer to certain death at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
The conditions in which Mary found herself meant no school and hardly any social life—the only people she met were domestics. As a result she had a strong cockney accent and the vocabulary of a builder. Her earliest memory was of her father on one of his whistle-stop visits, carrying her downstairs to her mother and bellowing, “Where does this child get her language?” When she was old enough, Mary ran the household, nursing her mother and bringing up her brother Charley. She was fiercely intelligent, teaching herself to read and working her way through all the literature in the house, mastering Latin, German, physics, and chemistry and losing herself in the lives of renowned explorers. As she later wrote: “I had a great amusing world of my own other people did not know or care about—the books in my father’s library.” Soon she was acting as her father’s assistant, cataloging the scientific and anthropological specimens he sent back from his travels. Though physically rooted in north London, Mary’s imagination was traveling the world.
While her contemporaries went to dances and got engaged, she stayed home and studied. By 1887 her mother needed constant nursing. Mary consoled herself by learning Arabic and Syrian. Then in one six-week period in 1892 her whole life changed. Her father died suddenly of rheumatic fever and her mother followed soon afterward. Mary, at thirty years of age, found herself without any obligations for the very first time.
What she decided to do with that freedom was to go to West Africa—the most dangerous and mysterious place on earth—entirely on her own. She planned to fund her travels by trading in ivory and tobacco, eating the local food, and staying in the houses of native people. For a young Englishwoman of limited means, this was brave bordering on reckless, but Mary was determined. She sent letters of introduction to traders, government officials, and missionaries and solicited advice from everyone she could find. One old Africa hand gave it to her straight: “When you have made up your mind to go to West Africa the very best thing you can do is to get it unmade again and go to Scotland instead.”
Mary refused to be put off. The reason for her journey was “the pursuit of fish and fetish.” The fishes were for Dr. Günther of the British Museum and the fetishes were to enable her to complete her father’s study of primitive religion. Her extensive reading had prepared her well for what awaited her. One story that made a particular impression was that of the Dutch explorer Alexandrine Tinné (1835–69), who had set out twenty-five years earlier to become the first European woman to cross the Sahara—but she got drawn into a vicious tribal altercation among the Tuareg and ended up with her hands chopped off and left to die by her guides. This persuaded Mary she needed to travel light and to be properly equipped. She landed in Africa in August 1893 with one suitcase, a holdall, a large bowie knife, and a revolver.
As for attire, she made no concession to the climate: She had always worn black silk and saw no reason to change. In her voluminous, high-collared, cinch-waisted dresses and little black hat, she looked as though she was about to take a hansom to the West End rather than a dugout up the Ogooué River. This worked to her advantage: Wherever she went she was instantly recognizable. Businesslike, humorous, and unflappable in the face of danger, she would march into remote jungle villages with a cheery “It’s only me!” In a canoe on the Congo River a crocodile reared up over the boat’s stern. She whacked him on the snout with a paddle and sent him packing. Confronted by a leopard about to pounce, she coolly lobbed a large earthenware pot, which “burst on the leopard’s head like a shell.” Her friend Rudyard Kipling shook his head in wonderment. “Being human,” he said, “she must have been afraid of something, but one never found out what it was.”
Her two long journeys in 1893 and 1894 explored what are now Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Gabon. She became the first woman to climb the active volcano Mount Cameroon (4,095 meters or 13,436 feet). To her deep disgust, the summit was wreathed in thick cloud, robbing her of her main object in going up it, which was “to get a good view.” Of more than a hundred fauna samples she collected for the British Museum, there were eighteen species of reptile and sixty-five species of fish, seven of which were new to science and three of which have since been named after her. She was also one of the first Europeans to see the mythical gorilla with her own eyes. “Never have I seen anything to equal gorillas going through the bush; it is a graceful, powerful, superbly perfect hand-trapeze performance.” On the other hand, she had never seen anything so ugly. She admitted to a “feeling of horrible disgust that an old gorilla gives on account of its hideousness of appearance.”
She turned her adventures into two books, Travels in West Africa (1897) and West African Studies (1899). Models of great travel writing, they are witty, full of robust opinions, and vividly observed. If you want to know what a python tastes like, relive a locust attack, or learn how to survive a tornado, Mary Kingsley is your woman. She makes Peary’s work read like a railway timetable. Particularly appealing is her tone of voice—what one reviewer called her “light, chaffy style”—forthright, unpretentious, and delivered with jolly-hockey-sticks enthusiasm. Here she is on African insects:
Undoubtedly one of the worst things you can do in West Africa is take any notice of an insect. If you see a thing that looks like a cross between a flying lobster and the figure of Abraxis on a Gnostic gem do not pay it the least attention—just keep quiet and hope it will go away—for that is your best chance; you have none in a stand up fight with a good thorough-going African insect.
The books were bestsellers and are still in print. Apart from her gifts as a storyteller, they present a remarkably rounded view of African life. Mary’s close study of the Fang people of Gabon had led her to respect a way of life she found preferable, in many ways, to the “secondhand rubbishy white culture” of the colonial administrators and missionaries. She had learned, she said, to “think in black,” enabling her to look on the bright side of cultural practices such as polygamy, even cannibalism. Once, when staying in a Fang hut, a “violent smell” alerted her to a bag suspended from the roof. Emptying the contents into her hat, she found “a human hand, three big toes, four eyes, two ears and other portions of the human frame.” She showed no squeamishness: “I subsequently learned that the Fang will eat their fellow friendly tribesfolk, yet they like to keep a little something belonging to them as a memento.”
She saw a future for Africa that was based on developing trade, not colonial control: “Officialdom says it won’t have anything but its old toys: missionaries, stockbrokers, good intentions, ignorance and Maxim guns. We shall see.” Her refusal to accept that Africans were less intelligent or less well behaved was far ahead of its time. “You see more drunkenness in the Vauxhall Road on a Saturday night,” she pointed out, “than in the whole of West Africa in a week.” As she wrote to her friend Alice Stopford Green in 1897, “These white men who make a theory first and then go hunting travelers’ tales to support the same may say what they please of the pleasure of the process. Give me the pleasure of getting a mass of facts and watching them.”
Adding to her “mass of facts” about West Africa was to take up the rest of her short life. Africa had become her raison d’être. Surveying the damp English winter of November 1895 only confirmed her desire to get back there as soon as she could. She missed life in the forest with a passionate intensity: “If you do fall under its spell, it takes all the colour out of other kinds of living.” She tried to make up for it by turning up the heating in her brother’s Kensington flat to tropical levels and by going shopping with a monkey perched on her shoulder. Her more regular public appearances were at her lectures, which she gave, accompanied by magic-lantern slides, to a huge array of admirers—geographical societies, gatherings of academics, students, nurses, boys’ clubs in city slums—and she was the first woman ever to address the chambers of commerce at both Liverpool and Manchester. Attendances of more than two thousand were not uncommon. Tall, angular, and very thin, with her matronly black outfits and her hair pulled severely back and pinned under her cap, she looked much older than a woman of thirty-five. The combination of her old-fashioned, no-nonsense appearance and her wonderfully crafted funny stories allowed Mary to be thoughtful, controversial, and entertaining all at once, and audiences loved it. So did she, playing up to her slightly antiquated image: “I expect I remind you of a maiden aunt—long since deceased,” she began one talk.
When the Daily Telegraph reported her return from Africa under the title “The New Woman,” she reacted angrily. She was no feminist: She disparaged agitators for equal rights as “androgynes” or “men-women.” “As for encasing the more earthward extremities of my anatomy in trousers,” she wrote in Travels in West Africa, “I would rather have perished on a scaffold.” Despite this ardent assertion of her womanhood, she never came close to marrying, and her one serious crush (on Matthew Nathan, the acting governor of Sierra Leone) went unrequited. Perhaps her “maiden aunt” persona put him off. In Rudyard Kipling’s autobiography, Something of Myself (1937), he tells a revealing story. He first met Mary at one of his own aunt’s tea parties and was so entranced by her that he offered to walk her home. When the conversation strayed to cannibalism, he invited her up to his rooms “to talk it out there.” Mary at first accepted the invitation, “as a man would,” and then suddenly remembered herself: “Oh, I forgot I was a woman. ’Fraid I mustn’t.” Is there a faint hint of flirtation here? Kipling doesn’t say. It’s more likely that her time in Africa had blunted her English social radar. She once wrote to a friend that she did not go to Africa as a “tonic.” Rather, after the trauma of her parents’ deaths, she thought “having been for so many years so close to death and danger in the most dreadful form they can come to one, namely the fight for the life of one we love, that a mere English social life was, and ever will remain, an impossibility to me, so I went off to carry on the old fight, where it is at its thickest, in the Terrible Bight of Benin.” Like Peary and his Arctic, Mary had found her soul mate in a place rather than a person.
In 1899 she set out for Africa for the last time. Her objective was to collect samples of freshwater fish for the British Museum from the Orange River in South Africa, and then make her way “home” to West Africa. However, by the time she arrived, the Anglo-Boer War had broken out. Mary volunteered as a nurse and was sent to tend injured Boer prisoners of war in Simon’s Town camp near Cape Town. The conditions were dreadful and disease was rife. Mary drank wine in place of water to reduce the risk of infection but it was to no avail; within a few months she succumbed to typhoid. She died alone, asking her nurses to leave the room as she was dying. Only thirty-seven years old, she was buried at sea, as she had requested; but with full military honors, which she had not. It was not quite the end of the story. The coffin was insufficiently weighted and bobbed off over the waves. A lifeboat had to be launched in pursuit and the casket dispatched to the deep by attaching anchors to it. Mary Kingsley had never been easy to pin down.
If Genghis Khan sought power, Peary fame, and Mary Kingsley freedom, what drove the Prussian polymath Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was knowledge. Explorer, geographer, cartographer, geologist, mineralogist, botanist, sociologist, and volcanologist, he is a giant of nineteenth-century science, linking the heroic voyages of Captain Cook and the conceptual revolution of Charles Darwin. He died just six months before the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, but without him, it might never have been written. When Darwin boarded the Beagle in 1826, he had Humboldt’s Personal Narrative tucked into his knapsack, a book he was still reading and rereading (and still taking notes from) right up until his death in 1882. “He was the greatest traveling scientist who ever lived,” Darwin wrote in his diary. “I have always admired him; now I worship him.” He wasn’t the only one. Goethe claimed that he had learned more in an hour’s conversation with Humboldt than in eight days of studying books. Thomas Jefferson counted him a close friend and sought his advice on what vines to plant at his country estate in Virginia. By his early thirties, Humboldt was said to be the second-most-famous man in the world after Napoleon. When the two met briefly in 1804, the yet-to-be-crowned emperor greeted him patronizingly: “You collect plants, Monsieur?” When Humboldt modestly agreed that he did, Napoleon turned smartly on his heel with a curt “So does my wife!” He later tried to deport him as a spy.
Humboldt did a great deal more than “collect plants.” His name is in every botany and biology textbook—as well as every atlas—in the world. He has a penguin named after him, and a squid, a dolphin, a skunk, a lily, an orchid, and many other plant and animal species. The Humboldt Broncos are an ice-hockey team from Humboldt, Saskatchewan, one of a swath of North American places named for him, including Humboldt Bay, the Humboldt Sink, the Humboldt River, Humboldt Lake, Humboldt Salt Marsh, and the Humboldt Mountains. More important still, the greatest marine ecosystem on earth, the vast upwelling from the Antarctic Ocean that runs along the coasts of Chile and Peru and keeps them cool and dry, is called the Humboldt Current. Few human beings have inscribed themselves on the planet on such a scale.
Scale is a word that suits him. He invented what we now call earth science. He turned geography into an academic discipline and rewrote the history of the planet. He was the first real ecologist. The idea that the earth is a single interconnected entity had its first and most eloquent champion in Humboldt. He collected data from every possible source: animals, plants, fossils, rocks, the movements of stars, and weather patterns. He sought to combine all this information into one dynamic system, which he called harmony in nature.
Humboldt’s early life has some similarities to Peary’s. His father, a major in the Prussian army and one of Frederick the Great’s closest advisers, died when he was ten. His mother loomed large in his life as Peary’s had done, but far from smothering him with love, Maria von Humboldt drafted in a corps of private tutors to educate Alexander and his older brother, Wilhelm, to an appropriate standard. Alexander did not meet it. He was an inattentive student, preferring to spend time poring over his collections of plants, insects, and rocks, earning himself the nickname “the little apothecary.” He also had a gift for languages and could draw beautifully, particularly landscapes, but Maria was unimpressed. She wanted him to be a politician. Carted off to a succession of universities, he failed to graduate from any of them. Toiling away at finance and economics to please his mother, he quietly developed his languages and studied geology, botany, and history on the side.
At Göttingen University he made friends with Georg Forster, son of Johann Reinhold Forster, the naturalist on James Cook’s second voyage to the South Pacific. Talking with Georg, Humboldt suddenly realized what he wanted to do: Scientific exploration was to be his destiny. Sensing that geology was the quickest way to get there, he entered the Freiberg School of Mines, a new and progressive establishment with a growing international reputation. Humboldt was the star student of his year, staggering everyone with his ability to memorize immense amounts of technical information and with his capacity for hard work. Once again, he didn’t graduate, but he didn’t need to: The Prussian government offered him a job as an assessor of mines. Posted to rural Bavaria, he spent five years reorganizing a series of semiredundant gold and copper mines, reequipping them, hiring new staff, and introducing the latest mining technology. He invented a safety lamp, and using his own money, founded a technical school for young miners. The government was so taken with him they sent him on several diplomatic missions to France. Louis Philippe, king of the French, always looked forward to his visits. Then in 1796 Alexander von Humboldt’s mother died.
Like Mary Kingsley at a similar age, Humboldt all at once found himself free of family obligations. What’s more, he had been left a sizable inheritance. He began to plan, but a chance meeting with a diplomat led to an introduction to Charles IV of Spain. The Spanish empire was sitting on a vast hoard of mineral wealth in South America and Humboldt made a favorable impression on the king, talking him through the latest developments in mining. The result was an invitation to visit the Spanish colonies in South America, at that time completely closed to the rest of the world. This was the break that Humboldt had waited for, and he immediately went out and spent a fortune on scientific and astronomical instruments. He set sail from Marseilles with the French botanist Aimé Bonpland in 1799. Together they spent five years in Central and South America, covering six thousand miles on horseback, in canoes, and on foot. It was a journey that would change our understanding of the world.
The revolutionary general and liberator of South America, Simón Bolívar (1783–1830), called Humboldt the true discoverer of the continent. Before him no one had guessed that the Amazon rain forest was the planet’s richest and most diverse habitat. With Bonpland he collected more than 60,000 samples and discovered over 3,500 new species: No single trip has ever yielded as many. Humboldt’s vision went far beyond the work of his contemporaries, who were busily filling in branches on the sprouting tree of species devised by Linnaeus. He was intent on uncovering the hidden connections between apparently unconnected phenomena. He wasn’t just interested in what a plant looked like. He wanted to know why it lived where it lived, the type of rocks that produced the soil it grew in, the prevailing climatic conditions, the other species that grew near it—as well as the species that fed on it, near it, or under it and how the whole ecological cycle it was part of worked. That was why he had to travel. It was not enough to give his samples a label and a Latin name: He had to understand the context. One of the pleasures of reading Humboldt is that he never lost his childlike sense of awe: “The stars as they sparkle in the firmament fill us with delight and ecstasy,” he wrote, “and yet they all move in orbit marked out with mathematical precision.”
Humboldt was incapable of noticing anything without then asking “why?” When he observed the “brilliant fireworks” of the Leonid meteor shower in northern Venezuela, he went on to calculate when they would next return. Confronted with volcanoes, he perceived that they were lined up along subterranean fissures in the earth’s crust and was able to demonstrate the course of those faults. He proved that many mountain ranges were volcanic in origin, destroying the then fashionable theory of Neptunism, which suggested that all rocks were originally oceanic sediments. He was the first to show that the earth’s magnetic field weakens as you travel from the poles toward the equator. He covered so much ground he was able to plot lines linking places with the same temperature to map the planet’s climate, for which he coined the word “isotherm.” His discovery of the guano deposits on the Peruvian coast revolutionized agriculture in Europe and America, providing entrepreneurs with a lucrative and potent source of fertilizer.
His scientific curiosity extended to human culture, too. In South America he saw that the continent’s startling range of plant and animal species was mirrored by its ethnic diversity: “A traveler, however great his talent for languages, can never hope to learn enough to make himself understood along the navigable rivers.” On the Orinoco he found a parrot that was the last remaining speaker of a language belonging to a tribe exterminated by its neighbors, and dutifully recorded the bird’s forty-word vocabulary. Aztec and Inca ruins led him to suggest, heretically for his time, that their cultures had once rivaled the ancient civilizations of Europe and the Middle East—and he was the first to speculate that the native peoples of South America had originally come from Asia, a hypothesis now confirmed by genetics. Wherever Humboldt looked, new possibilities emerged.
He was a remarkably hands-on scientist. While still a mining inspector back in Bavaria, his fascination with Luigi Galvani’s theories of animal magnetism had led him to conduct more than four thousand experiments, many on himself, in which he attached electrodes to his skin and recorded the sometimes excruciating pain they caused. In South America he and Bonpland climbed to 19,260 feet (5,870 meters) on Chimborazo, the Ecuadorian volcano then thought to be the world’s highest mountain. Although they didn’t quite make the summit, no one had ever climbed so high before. Humboldt, his nose streaming blood, became the first person to note down the effects (and correctly guess the cause) of altitude sickness. In the jungle he reported being unable to breathe because of the dense clouds of mosquitoes. Seeing how the Orinoco Indians prepared curare, a poison from plants, he tested it on himself, then on captured monkeys, giving them gradated doses and even resorting to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to keep them alive. To penetrate the mystery of electric eels, he “imprudently” placed both his bare feet on one (“the pain and the numbness are so violent it is impossible to describe the nature of the feeling they excite”) and then asked the Indians how to collect specimens safely. They showed him how by driving a herd of thirty wild horses into an eel-infested lake. As the water crackled with electric charge, the terrified horses lunged frantically about with bulging eyes; several succumbed to the shocks and drowned, but gradually the eels ran out of battery. Once the horses were calm (or dead), Humboldt could pick up the exhausted eels (using dry lengths of wood to act as an insulator) and begin his dissections, meticulously noting down all the various shocks he received in the process.
Humboldt arrived back in Paris to find himself famous. It wasn’t altogether a surprise: He had shrewd marketing instincts. He had sent back many of his most exciting samples well in advance. He had also written letters to friends that began “By the time you receive this I will probably be dead …”—all of which helped to create a sense of anticipation.
As Bonpland embarked on cataloging the contents of the teetering stacks of sample cases, Humboldt set out to turn his notes and sketches into a book. His initial estimate of two years’ work proved hopelessly optimistic. The thirty volumes of Personal Narrative: A Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of a New Continent 1799–1804 took him almost thirty years (and almost all of his money) to complete. It is one of the great milestones of scientific literature and one of the very few that reads with the mounting excitement of an adventure story.
One of the reasons the book took so long to finish is that Humboldt had so much else to do. Over the next three decades, he climbed Vesuvius three times, went under the Thames in the diving bell used by Isambard Kingdom Brunel during the construction of the Thames Tunnel, and led a six-month expedition across Russia to the Chinese border. This didn’t quite match the South American journey for new discoveries or excitement, but it did lead to the establishment of a network of meteorological stations that stretched first across Russia and then around the world. The data they collected transformed our understanding of the weather and the operation of the earth’s magnetic field. The 1911 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica described it as “the first truly international scientific collaboration.”
Little is known of Humboldt the private man. The mask of the suave diplomat rarely slipped, although his close friend and fellow scientist François Arago hinted at a more unbuttoned Humboldt behind closed doors: “He has the most malicious tongue of any man I know and the best heart.” He never married. His close friendships with men have led many to suppose he was gay, but he destroyed all his personal papers so the evidence either way is thin. Firsthand testimonies of his participation in the lively subculture of nineteenth-century Berlin mostly consist of dark mutterings about his consorting with “obscene, dissolute youths” and tend to come from the more conservative and religious-minded of his younger colleagues. There is also the mystery of why he bequeathed his whole estate to an elderly male valet, but again that hardly offers conclusive proof of anything, especially as he had no immediate heirs. We’ll never know for sure. It may have been that, like Mary Kingsley, he suppressed whatever sexual urges he had in order to concentrate on his work. This was a man, after all, who survived for eight decades on no more than four hours’ sleep a night.
Humboldt ended his life in triumph. As he approached seventy, after most of us have retired, he conceived his crowning achievement: “I have the crazy idea to represent in one work the entire material universe.” The five volumes of Kosmos pulled together his experience of more than half a century at the front line of scientific research. The product of what he called his “improbable years,” it was a magnificent achievement, rap rously received across Europe and in America. Humboldt lived to see all but the last volume published and died quietly in his sleep just a few months short of his ninetieth birthday.
After his death, Humboldt’s reputation plummeted rapidly. His works were hardly read at all in the first half of the twentieth century and far more people today recognize the names of Linnaeus and Darwin. Given the preeminence he had enjoyed during his lifetime, this is hard to understand. It may be that Humboldt’s work, for all its density and richness of detail, lacks what his greatest disciple, Charles Darwin, could offer: a simple, organizing theory that binds it all together. Fascinating as Kosmos is to read, most of the science in it has been superseded by more recent research. Nevertheless, if the last 150 years of biology have been a series of footnotes to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, Humboldt’s time is now. Faced with the possibility of catastrophic global warming, we can see just how prescient he had been about the earth as a single system. Darwin might have helped us join the dots in the tree of life, but to comprehend the climatic and geological forces that create and sustain it, Humboldt is still the man.
His work is imbued with the spirit of liberty and freedom that had animated the revolutions in America and France. His experiences in South America left him with a strong distaste for colonialism, for much the same reason as Mary Kingsley: It demeaned both parties. And Kosmos makes his views on race plain: “While we maintain the unity of the human species, we at the same time repel the depressing assumption of superior and inferior races of men…. All are in like degree designed for freedom.”
Darwin enthusiastically endorsed this sentiment, but one of the unforeseen consequences of his evolutionary theory was that it encouraged the idea that human beings were “improvable.” In the last paragraph of The Descent of Man (1871) Darwin writes: “Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scale.” The crucial phrase here is “not through his own exertions.” Man has been “improved” by the operations of natural selection, not by the imposition of his own will. Darwin’s point is that for all man’s noble qualities and achievements, he still bears the “the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.”
At some point, this distinction became confused in the otherwise brilliantly original mind of his cousin and occasional collaborator, the statistician Francis Galton (1822–1911). Galton will forever be associated with the theory of eugenics (from the Greek for “well born”), which proposed that selective breeding could be used to create a race of fitter, stronger, and more intelligent humans. “What nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly, and kindly,” he wrote. The idea of breeding out the bad traits in humanity isn’t intrinsically immoral; it’s just based on bad science. There is no evidence that intelligence, still less virtue, is inherited. But Galton believed it and convinced many others it was true. H. G. Wells, Sylvia Pankhurst, George Bernard Shaw, and John Maynard Keynes were all eugenicists. Their motivations were honorable—they genuinely thought that “breeding out badness” would deliver a better world. But the potential applications of Galton’s ideas—most notably in Nazi Germany—have made eugenics a word that produces a shudder of disgust.
Galton’s intellectual pedigree was impeccable. He shared a grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, with his cousin Charles, and the families were closely interknit (two of Francis’s brothers were called Erasmus and Darwin). The Darwins were doctors and scientists; the Galtons were free-thinking Quaker bankers. Both families had produced members of the Royal Society and both helped found the Lunar Society, the influential think tank of industrialists, scientists, and philosophers that included James Watt, Joseph Priestley, and Josiah Wedgwood. Young Francis was an infant prodigy. He learned to read at two and a half and got extra coaching from his older sister Adele, who had a congenital spinal defect that confined her to the house. She proved to be a talented teacher, though her baby brother took most of the credit:
I am four years old and can read any English book. I can say all the Latin Substantives and Adjectives and active verbs besides 52 lines of Latin poetry. I can cast up any sum in addition and multiply by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10. I can also say the pence table. I read French a little and I know the Clock.
This conceitedness, amusingly forgivable in a precocious child, never left Galton. He was clever but socially inept. At the age of five he was sent to a small school in Birmingham. He hated it. “No one had heard of, let alone read, The Iliad,” he complained. The narrowness of the curriculum oppressed him and turned him into a disruptive influence. This carried over into his studies at medical school. Always suspicious of received wisdom, he decided to try all the drugs on himself, working his way through them alphabetically. He got as far as croton oil, a powerful purgative. He took two drops, thinking such a small amount wouldn’t have much effect, but it produced such alarmingly unpleasant results that he abandoned both the experiment and medicine altogether. He switched to mathematics, enrolling at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1840.
Galton loved the social life at Cambridge and, much like his cousin Charles, made no great impression there academically. At the end of his fourth year, he suffered a nervous breakdown. He later claimed he had a “sprained brain” from working too hard, but he left with a “pass,” the lowest level of degree awarded. Shortly after this, he was dealt a further blow by the death of his father. But like Humboldt and Mary Kingsley, once the initial grief passed, he realized he was free. What’s more, he discovered he was extremely rich. And like Humboldt and Mary Kingsley, he decided to travel.
He made his first foray to Egypt and the Sudan, crossing the Nubian Desert by camel and learning Arabic. While sailing down the Nile at night, a shore party set off to shoot a hippo, but mistaking their target in the dark, they bagged a cow that had come down to the water’s edge to drink. They had to leave in a hurry. Nor did Dalton make it to his intended destination—the Holy Land. In Damascus his faithful servant Ali died of violent dysentery. Again, Dalton had to make tracks, pursued by a horde of Ali’s “grieving relatives” with threats of legal action (or worse). He arrived back in London with two monkeys, a bad case of gonorrhea contracted from a prostitute, and a strong desire to improve his marksmanship. The monkeys perished when a friend’s landlady left them in a cold scullery overnight, but the venereal disease was treated successfully, and Galton spent a good deal of the next three years teaching himself to shoot on various Scottish estates. By 1850 he was ready to risk the tropics again. He bought a papier-mâché crown in Drury Lane, announced his intention to place it on the head of “the greatest or most distant potentate I should meet with,” and set off to unmapped South West Africa. His thousand-mile accident-prone journey produced two very successful books. The first, Tropical South Africa (1852), won him the Royal Geographical Society’s Gold Medal and a Fellowship of the Royal Society. The second, The Art of Travel (1855), a practical handbook, quickly became an essential part of any gentleman’s traveling kit, stuffed with useful tips on making your own pemmican, catching fish without a line, and managing “savages.” He advised: “A frank, joking but determined manner, joined with an air of showing more confidence in the good faith of the natives than you really feel is the best.”
In South West Africa, Galton developed the fixation for statistics that would become his lifelong trademark. Adopting the motto “Whenever you can, count,” he fastidiously measured everything he came across: horses, cats, plants, human head shapes, portraits, reaction times. He surveyed the heights of mountains by climbing them and boiling kettles at regular intervals to ascertain their altitude, and he devised a method for measuring the size of African women’s breasts and buttocks by using a sextant. When he finally reached his goal, placing his paper crown on the head of the immensely fat King Nangoro, chief of the Ovambo in northern Namibia, he passed up the chance to verify his instrumental readings at first hand. The chief offered him, by way of thanks, “temporary marriage” to his daughter. When the girl arrived in his tent, naked, smeared with red ochre and butter, Galton ejected her “with scant ceremony.” He had no intention of letting her spoil his white linen suit.
His compulsion for measurement continued on his return to England. He kept a homemade pin-and-paper device in his pocket allowing him to record data unobtrusively. A trip around the country notating the frequency of attractive women led to his publication of a “beauty map” of Britain, stating that London, proportionally speaking, had the most beauties and Aberdeen the highest concentration of the “repellent.” At one rather dreary meeting at the Royal Geographical Society he created a “boredom” chart, logging the total number of fidgets per minute. He mapped optimists and pessimists, people with blond hair and blue eyes, and scoured international court cases to come up with his “honesty” index. Britain (naturally) came out on top, while Greece was “the center of gravity for lying.” He “proved” that prayer was ineffective by noting the average ages of the British royal family (for whom, in those days, every congregation in the country dutifully prayed each Sunday) and demonstrating that they lived no longer than anyone else. He even developed a mathematical formula for a perfect cup of tea, designing and building his own thermometer to test it. (The water, according to Galton, should be 82–87 °C and sit on the leaves for precisely eight minutes—the result will be “full bodied, full tasted, and in no way bitter or flat.”)
In more than three hundred books and articles, Galton alternated between serious scientist and mad expert. For every Gumption-Reviver Machine (a mobile dripping tap positioned above the head to keep students alert) there were genuine scientific insights. His pioneering work in meteorology produced the first working weather map. His “anthropometric laboratory,” based in the South Kensington Museum in London, collated the measurements of almost ten thousand human bodies, revealing for the first time that fingerprints were unique and invariable throughout a person’s life. Galton’s two-hundred-page book Finger Prints (1890) led to the adoption of fingerprint identification by the Metropolitan Police.
Galton had always had a knack of seeing patterns in pages of dull numerical data that eluded other people. His cousin’s publication of On the Origin of Species had a galvanizing effect on him. He became fascinated by the idea of measuring the apparently random variations produced by natural selection. By plotting the height of parents against that of their offspring he noticed that exceptionally tall parents tended to have children who were shorter than they were. In fact, by drawing a line on his graph he was able to show that their offspring were only two-thirds as exceptional. Galton had uncovered a mathematical law: “regression toward the mean,” the tendency for a series of measurements over time to move closer to the average point. This was a major breakthrough, especially for a mathematician of unexceptional ability, and it was to transform statistics into a proper science. There was “scarcely anything so apt to impress the imagination as the wonderful form of cosmic order expressed by the Law,” wrote Galton with characteristic immodesty. “It would have been personified by the Greeks, and deified, if they had known of it.” Outstanding though it undoubtedly was, Galton came unstuck when he tried to apply the law to far more complex human qualities, such as intelligence.
In Hereditary Genius (1864) he became the first person to frame the “nature versus nurture” debate, and the opening sentence makes plain which side he is on: “I propose to show in this book that a man’s natural abilities are derived by inheritance.” What follows is an attempt to prove that “greatness” runs in families. It is full of powerful ideas and the statistical evidence is impressively marshaled—Darwin said that he did not “think that ever in all my life I read anything more interesting or original”—but it is also willfully selective. Geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci or Michael Faraday, whose families showed no obvious aptitude for art or science, are omitted. The argument is based on a false premise; Galton’s own experiments had shown that the expression of intelligence can be markedly different even between identical twins, and there is, in fact, no single “intelligence” gene. Worse, the work is disfigured by a casual racism that today is deeply uncomfortable to read. In the chapter “The Comparative Worth of Different Races,” Galton places human intelligence in a hierarchy with the ancient Greeks at the top, two classes above the average Anglo-Saxon, who is in turn two classes above black Africans, with Australian Aboriginals at the bottom. “The number among the negroes of those whom we should call half-witted men,” Galton blithely opined, “is very large.”
Galton was knighted in 1909 and died two years later, just a few months before he turned ninety, like Humboldt. Eccentric to the last, he experimented with controlling his bronchial problems by smoking hashish. To the very end, he was sure he knew best. Odd as he undoubtedly was—inventing ridiculous gadgets like underwater spectacles so he could read in the bath—he was also one of the most respected and influential members of the Victorian scientific establishment and feted as one of the great men of his day. The final irony is that, for all his eugenicist talk of creating a “better” world by sterilizing “those who are seriously afflicted by lunacy, feeble-mindedness, habitual criminality, and pauperism,” it was Galton himself who died childless.
William Morris (1834–96) was a decade younger than Galton. Given their respective political views it’s unlikely they ever met, although it’s perfectly possible that Galton’s elegant South Kensington home was furnished using Morris’s designs. Morris is still best known as a designer, the Terence Conran of the nineteenth century: His work has spawned a thousand tea cosies, spectacle cases, and napkins. This has tended to obscure his other achievements as a poet, painter, engraver, weaver, dyer, printer, retailer, and revolutionary. Morris elevated “busyness” to a kind of art form, so much so that when he died in 1896, his doctor attributed his demise to “his simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men.”
For Morris, “useful” work (which he distinguished from “useless” toil) was no different from play: an enjoyable occupation that engaged both the mind and the senses. Confucius had said much the same thing 2,500 years earlier: “Choose a job you love and you’ll never have to work again.” In a century when industrialization was rapidly reducing human beings to automatons, Morris’s ideas were a powerful call for change. Few people have lived their work as thoroughly.
Morris’s father was a city broker who died young, but whose shares in a Devon copper mine ensured the family enjoyed a comfortable life. As a result, Morris could afford to be generous to his friends, entertaining them royally and bankrolling their artistic joint ventures. It also left him with a devil-may-care disrespect for class distinctions that gives his prose a blunt honesty we don’t usually associate with the High Victorians. In a letter to a friend he writes: “I am a boor and the son of a boor…. How often it consoles me to think of barbarism once more flooding the world and real feelings and passions, however rudimentary, taking the place of our hypocrisies.”
His early childhood was idyllic. He grew up near Epping Forest; his father had bought him a pony and toy suit of armor, and he would ride into the forest as a miniature knight, carrying out quests and making up tales of chivalry while sketching the birds and wildflowers that would become central to his designs. He loathed formal education. At Marlborough, he recalled, “I had a hardish time of it, as chaps who have brains and feelings generally do at school.” His nickname was Crab, and he was famous for his stormy temperament, rushing after those who teased him “with his head down and his arms whirling wildly.”
This restless, impulsive quality persisted throughout his life and made him both lovable and exasperating. Before going to Oxford, he toyed with the idea of becoming a High Church Anglican clergyman, but the work of John Ruskin converted him to architecture instead. Next, he became a passionate advocate of medieval art and communal living. After he graduated, he was apprenticed to G. E. Street, the Gothic revival architect, whom he later came to despise as a “vandal.” Inspired by his best friend, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones, Morris decided that his real calling was painting. Then poetry took him over and he wrote The Earthly Paradise (1869), a kind of reinvention of the Canterbury Tales, in which a group of medieval Norwegian wanderers sets out in search of a land of eternal life. This mythic verse epic became an immediate bestseller, establishing him as one of the most popular poets in the country. From then on, most people knew him as the “author of The Earthly Paradise,” and the poem was still popular enough, more than twenty years later, for Morris to be offered the Poet Laureateship when Tennyson died in 1892. As well as poetry, novels, fantasies, and essays flowed out of him—his Collected Works comes to twenty-four large volumes. After poetry, his next preoccupation was dyeing, a complex technical process that he taught himself. Having mastered that, he learned weaving, then tapestry, then printing. On top of all this, he found time to become a political activist: first a liberal, then a socialist and the spiritual godfather of the British Labour Party. His friend Burne-Jones encapsulated the roller-coaster ride of Morris’s life: “All things he does splendidly … every minute will be alive.”
Morris never felt more alive than when he was making something. He summed up his philosophy in saying: “If a chap can’t compose an epic poem while he is weaving a tapestry, he had better shut up.” His infectious enthusiasm rubbed off on all those around him. Whether at home or in the factories and shops he built, Morris had a genius for getting everyone to join in. Much of this was due to his bonhomie and unconventional sense of fun. At Oxford, he was noted for his purple trousers and once ate dinner in a suit of chain mail he’d had made by a local blacksmith. His unruly mop of hair led his friends to nickname him “Topsy” (as in the phrase “growed like Topsy”) after the ragamuffin slave girl in the popular contemporary novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).
William Morris was a short, portly, barrel-chested, bright-eyed, tousled ball of energy: absentminded, charming, continually breaking chairs by means of what Ned Burne-Jones called “a muscular movement peculiar to himself” and capable of terrifying fits of foul-mouthed temper. When in a rage, he could crush forks with his teeth and smash holes in plaster walls with his head: One Christmas Day he threw an undercooked plum pudding through a window. In return, his friends would wind him up terribly, resewing the buttons on his waistcoat to make him seem even fatter, or refusing to answer his questions at dinner. Mostly it was with Morris’s cheery compliance. He liked being the center of attention, even when it cast him in an absurd light.
He was a man of large appetites: He “lusted for pig’s flesh” and always kept the dinner table groaning with good wine. “Why do people say it is so prosaic to be inspired by wine,” he protested. “Has it not been made by the sunlight and the sap?” He liked the grand gesture: On becoming a socialist he sat on his top hat to mark his resignation from the board of the family’s copper mine. With his shaggy beard, blue work shirt, and rolling gait, he was often mistaken for a seaman, though he sometimes seems more like a Viking who has stepped out of one of his beloved Norse sagas.
Perhaps because of his lovable, faintly batty streak, Morris’s contributions to public life are often overlooked. He has been called the father of Modernism in architecture, the most important English socialist thinker, and the first environmentalist. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and the Art Workers Guild, both of which he helped found, continue to thrive. Even in literature, where his reputation has suffered its steepest decline, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien both cited his prose romances, such as The Wood Beyond the World, as inspirational for their own work.
Considering why Morris’s poems were no longer read, G. K. Chesterton once remarked: “If his poems were too like wallpapers, it was because he really could make wallpapers.” Morris’s design has become a byword for English bourgeois good taste. It appears everywhere—often in contexts that Morris could not possibly have foreseen, still less approved of. Morris’s ideal house was a big barn, “where one ate in one corner, cooked in another corner, slept in a third corner and in the fourth, received one’s friends.” His own actual houses were, quite literally, handmade works of art. The core idea of his thought is that art begins at home, in the making and furnishing of a house. True art, for Morris, is indistinguishable from craftsmanship: It isn’t about abstract “self-expression” but practical collective labor that gives pleasure in the doing and creates beauty that everyone can share. He was extraordinarily influential in his lifetime: The social progressives who applauded Galton’s eugenics—George Bernard Shaw, the Webbs, the Pankhursts, J. M. Keynes—had homes that were veritable shrines to Morris & Co.
Morris was well aware of the contradiction of being a socialist visionary, on the one hand, and a businessman who supplied decor to the rich and famous on the other. But he was far too busy to wallow in guilt. He pointed out that he paid his staff more than most and taught them to make beautiful things that would last a lifetime. What would be the point, he asked, of his giving his money away? The poor would be just as poor. “The world would be pleased to talk to me for three days until something new caught its fancy. Even if Rothschild gave away his millions tomorrow, the same problems would confront us the day after.”
In some ways, the brand of socialism that Morris championed has fared no better than Galton’s eugenics, but he was never a hard-line party man—Engels and the other London-based communists were deeply suspicious of him. Neither he nor they could have foreseen the Gulags, any more than Galton could have predicted the Nazis. What Morris did see coming, though, with great clarity and dismay, was the consumer society. Even as a teenager he refused to go into the Great Exhibition of 1851 with the rest of his family, suspecting it would be brimful of industrial ugliness and wasteful luxury goods. “I have never been in any rich man’s house which would not have looked the better for having a bonfire made outside of it of nine-tenths of all that it held,” he wrote. Far ahead of his time, Morris saw that consumerism would come to oppress those who did the consuming: He foresaw a nation drowning in cheap tat and clutter, its people ruled by their own possessions. “Luxury,” he said, “cannot exist without slavery of some kind or other.”
He also saw how capitalism would get around the growing clamor for freedom and equality. In 1869, long before the Labour Party was founded, he predicted that the establishment would survive by adopting “quasi-socialist machinery” with “the workers better treated, better organised, helping to govern themselves, but with no more pretence to equality with the rich, nor any more hope for it than they have now.” They were prophetic words. Though the overall standard of living has improved in the 140 years since Morris was writing, inequality in British society has actually widened. The top 20 percent in Britain today now earn seven times as much as the bottom 20 percent.
As the novelist Henry James said of Morris, he is “wonderfully to the point and remarkable for clear, good sense.” He wasn’t a sophisticated political theorist; he was a problem solver, a doer, and he was the first major figure to utter the heresy that unless art is accessible to everyone it is worthless.
His personal life, friendships and merriment aside, was painful. His wife, Jane, had two long affairs, one with his friend the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (who rather cruelly called his pet wombat Topsy) and the other with the louche poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. Her infidelities wounded Morris deeply, although his own emotional inadequacies were partly to blame. His view of romantic love never developed beyond adolescent idealization and fell far short of the emotional intimacy that Jane needed. She was a depressive and Morris escaped her moods by burying himself in his work. Nevertheless, they remained together and he managed the situation over forty years with tact and kindness. By way of compensation for his failings as a husband, he was endlessly attentive to his children—particularly his daughter Jenny, who lived life as a semi-invalid because of her epilepsy. They, in turn, adored him.
In the last two years of his life his great passion was the production of a hand-printed edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in type he designed himself, with eighty-seven illustrations by Burne-Jones. A masterpiece of book design, it is the embodiment of his theory that work should be collaborative and the results both beautiful and useful. Burne-Jones called it “a pocket cathedral.”
In 1895 trouble with Morris’s lungs proved to be tubercular and he started to weaken. But, visiting a badly restored Norman church in Sussex, he still had the energy to unleash paroxysms of fury at the absent architects: “Beasts! Pigs! Damn their souls!” On hearing that John Ruskin had described him as “the ablest man of his time,” he summoned his old jollity to order up a bottle of Imperial Tokay (one of his favorite wines) from the cellar. But he knew the end was near. “I cannot believe I will be annihilated!” he fumed. His final words were defiant: “I want to get mumbo jumbo out of the world,” but his death was peaceful. Several of his friends noted how beautiful he looked lying there in repose—and being motionless, how unlike himself.
Morris’s contemporary, the tireless naturalist T. H. Huxley, had died the previous year. He wrote that “the great end of life is not knowledge but action.” Genghis Khan conquered most of the known world; Peary and Mary Kingsley explored unknown lands; Humboldt took on the cosmos; Galton and Morris designed the future. For all of them, “doing” was the only setting on their dial. Yet none had happy marriages and only Morris passed muster as a loving parent. They probably hardly noticed: The job in hand was what mattered and absorption in the task was reward enough in itself. All would have agreed for sure with that other nineteenth-century overachiever, Benjamin Jowett, master of Balliol, Oxford: “Never retreat. Never explain. Get it done and let them howl.”