Saturday, February 16, 2013

It's a dangerous world

The world is shrinking. It used to be so much bigger than it is now. Technology connects us with events and information all over the world in the blink of an eye. But once upon a time the world was much larger, with distant corners in mysterious places full of strange people and fearsome creatures. And those intrepid explorers who braved the unknown have long been celebrated and romanticized. But sometimes, the dirty work of exploration is only half the danger.

It's unlikely you've ever heard of Paul Du Chaillu, but in 1856 he began a modest expedition into the African jungle in search of a monster. When he emerged three years later he brought an enormous collection of preserved birds and animals as well as fantastic stories of how he had faced - and killed - the beast he sought. His timing wasn't very good, however, and Americans were preoccupied with a civil war and he ended up being mostly ignored by people and universities. He was even upstaged by an enterprising P. T. Barnum. It was in London where he found an audience and soon became a celebrity, honored not only by the public but by the greatest intellectuals of the day. Suddenly everyone was taking notice of the monsters he had killed and preserved.

But the scientific world isn't immune from personal jealousies – then or now. Du Chaillu brought his real-life King Kong tale to a Victorian England that was just coming to grips with Darwin's theory, and the praise being heaped upon him even got under the skin of other explorers. Monte Reel blends all these stories together in his book Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer, the Evolution Debates, and the African Adventure that Took the Victorian World by Storm. It is primarily a biography of Du Chaillu, but is told in the more readable style of a 'popular history.' As quickly as Paul's star had risen it was dashed, as rumors of his background began to be whispered about, which was a much bigger deal among the high society of Victorian England than it would be today.

This is an interesting and fun read about the forgotten explorer who introduced the world to the gorilla; an animal that was thought to be far more dangerous than it really was and added steam to the evolution debates. In fact, for Du Chaillu, the civilized world turned out to be nearly as dangerous as anything he had faced in the jungles of Gabon. And Reel tells his story in a way that makes you sympathize with a guy who would have liked to have left his past behind him. And it would make a great summer read. (I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.)

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