If you heard only a fraction of the New Year's programming over the last week, you know that 2009 marks both the 50th anniversary of Alaska joining the United States and the 300th anniversary of Samuel Johnson’s birth. Are there any plausible connections between the two, or any connections to arctic law, science, and policy?
Johnson is believed to have had at hand the missionary Hans Egede’s Description of Greenland (1745) as he wrote his two fictive Rambler essays "Anningait and Ajutt; a Greenland tale" (Rambler Nr. 186, and its conclusion in Nr. 187) in the early 1750s.* Verlyn Klinkenborg’s apt comparison of Johnson’s dictionary research to arctic exploration notwithstanding, the Rambler essays predated and were not directly connected with Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. William C. Horne, in his 2001 essay "Samuel Johnson Discovers the Arctic,"* presents Johnson as “one major Enlightenment figure who possessed a deep interest in the natural environment and human inhabitants of the Arctic” and who offered “implicit criticisms of materialism and imperialism;” or so, at least, argue Horne’s editors in their introduction to his essay (Armbruster & Wallace, 11).
One prosaic lesson from Johnson’s arctic connection is that science, whether social or natural, depends on access to research and reporting that has gone before in order to have some basis, and baseline, for future work. Without Egede’s book, Johnson would likely not have written his Greenland tale. As tenuous as the suggested link might be, policy makers need to query: what research will not be available in the future because they have decided not to fund it? Is the work they are funding worthy and capable of supporting future scientific inquiry?
It also bears noting that, without access to Egede’s work, Johnson would not have been able to reject one of Egede’s basic conclusions. Horne argues that Johnson rejected Egede’s romantic assertion of Inuit contentment in face of want in order to imply that Inuit and European alike suffered under “the vanity of human wishes” – a favorite theme of Johnson’s (Horne, 82-83). On the other hand, Johnson hewed closely to Egede’s observations of the natural world; evidence he appears to have considered more reliable than Egede’s romantic conclusions as to the nature of the Greenlandic soul (Horne, id.).
The accuracy, and biases – known or unconscious – of those whose work we build on must also be tested and challenged, a habit in which natural scientists may be more practiced than social scientists, lawyers, or policy makers. How others use that work must also be tested and challenged in turn for its faithfulness to the original sources, its own historical biases and blind spots.
Sheer chronology makes it difficult to claim any connection between Johnson and Alaska. I will, however, in future entries, highlight notable Alaskan efforts to promote solid links between science, law and policy making.
*See, e.g., Horne, William C. “Samuel Johnson Discovers the Arctic: A Reading of a "Greenland Tale" as Arctic Literature,” in: Beyond Nature Writing: Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism. Ed. Karla Armbuster and Kathleen R Wallace. Charlottesville and London: UP of Virginia (2001), and Sarah Moss, Romanticism on Ice: Coleridge, Hogg and the Eighteenth-Century Missions to Greenland, in: Romanticism on the Net : Numéro 45, February 2007.
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