Science Friday and The Lost City of Z: Further Thoughts


I was thrilled to be on Science Friday today along with host Ira Flatow, producer Annie Minoff, and space archaeologist Sarah Parcak. We were talking about the current SciFri Book Club selection The Lost City of Z by David Grann and you can listen to the show here.

I’m glad they’ve devoted several segments to The Lost City of Z over the past weeks as the book is too complex and too wide and deep for a single discussion. It details the Amazon expeditions of Percy Fawcett, one of the last Victorian explorers. The book also describes the author’s own attempt to retrace the footsteps of Fawcett, who disappeared during his last expedition in 1925. Grann also fills in the time between, during which many people went into the jungle trying to find Fawcett. Some of them could be termed professionals — professional explorers or scientists — but many were amateurs. And many of them died or disappeared in the attempt.

The ending of The City of Z turns much of the testament to human eccentricity present in the book’s first half into something profound and haunting. It is not so much a twist as a different way of seeing the landscape, and a commentary on something you see so often with early European explorers and even later anthropologists or archaeologists: the evidence is right there but they can’t see it. Either from lack of tech or lack of imagination or pre-set cultural expectations. Or through bad luck. So the book builds and builds until what’s absurd takes on a kind of quietly luminescent quality. It really is a classic.

A few things I touched on during the broadcast could do with further expansion. I just find these subjects within the book so fascinating. I also have further thoughts on ecology and the environment in the context of The Lost City of Z, but am saving those up for the presentation I’m doing for Sonic Arts’ Geologic Imagination conference in Amsterdam later this month.

Great Balance, Little Editorializing

Throughout The Lost City of Z, Grann maintains an admirable balance in the way he moves from past to present and from subject to subject. Even, whimsically enough, temperature variation is achieved in an interesting way. Grann provides the account of a polar explorer, James Murray, joining one of Fawcett’s Amazon expeditions at just the right moment. For any reader getting perhaps a little overheated and claustrophobic from the jungle descriptions will appreciate how Murray’s appearance conjures up by association barren, frozen landscapes. The resulting compare-contrast of Antarctic versus Amazon expeditions exemplifies the brilliance of the book. (Did Fawcett really believe in the City of Z or did he have to have a Z because he didn’t have a South Pole as an objective?)

Grann rarely editorializes, letting the reader connect the dots or form their own opinion. He allows Fawcett to inhabit the center of the book in an almost enigmatic fashion; I can’t say that the more we know about him the more we learn about him. But we better understand the context surrounding him.

Along the way, Grann mentions in passing events like Theodore Roosevelt’s own 1914 Amazon expedition and the grandiose shipping of a prefabricated opera house up the Amazon that that became the focus of a film by Herzog. These footnotes to Grann’s narrative have a rich and interesting history of their own that’s worth exploring. He also provides interesting detail on the commercialization of expeditions, which, after all, needed sponsorship and in Fawcett’s day were underwritten by newspapers and sometimes corporations. Perhaps the most telling detail is the would-be rescuer of Fawcett who fails but, on the basis of his notoriety, comes out of the jungle with a contract to be a spokesperson for a popular laxative.

Fawcett’s Contradictions

Early on, Fawcett goes to explorer school, presumably with other explorers. There they learn skills like how to “make pillows out of mud.” It’s a rather remarkable contradiction: a bunch of idiosyncratic, curmudgeonly explorer-types taking courses in their craft. You wonder how much of that actually translated to useful information in the jungle and how many times Fawcett was cursing his training or ignoring it. Did he ever make a pillow out of mud while in South America?

As the book progresses, Fawcett either changes or the inherent issues with his approach just become clearer. During the show, the claim was made that Fawcett changed along the way. But it could be argued that he just became more of the person he already was, accelerate by his horrific World War I experience.

He was, if I have to generalize, driven, unsympathetic to those not on board with his goals, and blind to the cost to others of his objectives. The modern explorers using fly-overs to map jungle and the accompanying philosophy began to mark Fawcett as a relic, changing Fawcett by virtue of a new context in which he and his ilk seemed distant from modern approaches of the time.

By the end of the book, I realized I didn’t have sympathy toward Fawcett or a lack of sympathy. He seemed simply to be a living embodiment of those stone formations that other explorers in the book keep mistaking for the work of human beings. He just is, and if everyone else sees El Dorado instead of something random, then they too are a little bit to blame. This is in part because of the way the mythology around a person calcifies over time and partially because Fawcett seems to have a secret center he just won’t let anyone see into.

After a certain point Fawcett’s “evidence” devolves into talismans that have no scientific value but that he holds onto and believes in to instill belief in others. Grann even reports that Fawcett may have used a Ouija board in his decision-making process. After his disappearance, wife Nina turns to spiritualism and you have a sense that it’s not just as a way of finding her husband but because it allows her to be close to the things her husband had been interested in.

 Fact/Fiction, Science and Pseudo Science

One other fascinating element is the confusion of fact and fiction that occurs as a result of the time period and the way Fawcett’s myth builds in the public eye. At beginning of The Lost City of Z, Grann makes a point of chronicling how Western fiction adventure stories speculate in wildly fantastical and science-fictional ways on the hidden mysteries of the world, including the Amazon region. Some of these stories are even written by one of Fawcett’s relatives.

But by tale’s end, as Fawcett continues to remain missing, a wealth of rumor and outrageous speculation builds up around the man that eclipses the fiction. This culminates in outrageous stories spun as fact or potential fact. In one case, there are even stories that Fawcett found Z and it turned out to be a portal to another world. In the absence of closure, the human imagination will supply an answer—and in some cases, the believers even congregate near where they think this portal exists. To them, this conclusion has been reached by a process of some sort of logic or believability. In the reality most of us live in, it’s not credible.

But also interwoven into The Lost City of Z is the link between modern science and spiritualism—including the fascinating fact that the invention of the telegraph and telephone seemed to make certain aspects of communication with the dead appear possible. In other words, advances in science allowed people to make a logical leap to mainstreaming the uncanny. And interwoven with that is a clear point about the unsound science by which Fawcett’s own culture judged the Indians who lived in the Amazon.

At the time, there was seemingly clear proof that Indians were inferior, even if Fawcett in his encounters with individual Indians admired them and find them superior to or the equals of Europeans. This in a context where Fawcett and others were engaging in a form of witchcraft in their scientific endeavors. And in the further modern context in which we can see that Indian “soft tech”—the kinds of adaptations to an environment that seek less to impose than to make use of—was far superior to European soft tech, if also embedded in similar kinds of rituals.

In short, The Lost City of Z contains as much pseudoscience used as an underpinning of action and decision-making as actual science. Systems of thought and ritual seen as forward-thinking and logical at the time come up against a context in which neither of those qualities hold up to a truthful interrogation.

The relevance of this contradiction is that it is still going on today. As much as we have made advances in science, they are asymmetrical and more fact-based in some areas than in others. In certain areas our own biases still create a dysfunction between an objective and subjective state in research. (For example, animal behavior science has, for the longest time, lagged behind, and the truest and most interesting elements of it still have a negligible effect on public policy.)

So the question becomes: What was the extent to which Fawcett was a magnificent outlier to systems of modern science and received ideas about scientific fact? And to what extent might the mix of science and pseudo-science he represents be slightly less of an outlier than it appears? And what does that mean to our philosophy of life in a period where global warming has made the future more uncertain than ever before?

Recommended Books

There wasn’t time on the show, but I’d like to recommend three books as of interest to anyone who has read The Lost City of Z and enjoyed it.

Louis Bayard’s Roosevelt’s Beast provides a harrowing account, in novel form, of Teddy Roosevelt’s expedition down the Amazon in 1914. The writing is gorgeous and the characterization first-rate.

Alastair Bonnett’s Unruly Places collects his brilliant essays on lost spaces, invisible cities, forgotten islands, and feral places. Again and again, Bonnett examines why we find the unknown fascinating, what an unexplored horizon means to the human psyche, and other topics that come up in The Lost City of Z.

James Morrow’s novel Galapagos Regained may be mad-cap expedition adventure fiction set in the Victorian era, but it’s also a sobering and fascinating exploration of the battle between science and superstition.

blog entry image