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Celebrating Captain Cook - Holidays

Captain James Cook died on this day in 1779. He was on a voyage of purely scientific exploration - the first of its kind, representing a profound shift away from diplomatic, militaristic and colonial exploration. He studied geography, contributing to the measurement of longitude and cartography; astronomy; biology; and personally pioneered ethnography.

His ethnographic studies were the first to present a non-moral and purely scientific analysis of other cultures: for example, rather than condemning polygamy as other Christian Europeans had done, when he discovered the New Zealanders undertook a cultural practice of polygamy, he sought to understand why they did, and came to conclude that it was a rational response to the particular conditions the culture was facing. Similarly, he came to study native architecture through a process of translation: in places where walls would have created an unwholesome house, he described the barriers used to create privacy as a kind of wall, because they served a similar purpose. He understood a house could be made of not only brick and wood, but grass, or even other materials. Not all people slept in "beds," but they all produced a place for the comfort of sleeping. Understanding the purpose for any particular cultural expression, he came to understand the reason for them: our human nature is neither good nor bad, but we are rational and logical, and ultimately very curious.

His very voyages, in this light, become expressions of pure humanity. Though, to be perfectly fair, Captain Cook was not without his faults, and did things which were wrong - this is a fault of his curiosity, rather than of any misguided intention away from the purpose of understanding, and reflects his all too human nature. Yet by understanding that people behaved predictably in response to environment, experience and intention, he discovered that we may improve our nature by altering our intentions, improving our experience and environment. And that we all had a responsibility to each other to not provoke barbaric behaviors by colonialism: people and cultures were not resources to become dominated and exploited, nor defended against. Cultures are expressions of environmental conditions, rather than moral expressions.

This basic understanding led to his personal acceptance of human commonality, and ultimately to respect of all the cultures he met. The shocking conclusion he presented to Europe was there was no justifiable reason to "civilize" a culture that was already civilized and well-adapted to its own environment: civilization took many forms, and the European model was not exemplifying perfection of civilization. The readiness by which cultures adopted useful technologies through trade and shared scientific inquiry lent no credence to the justification of protective and guiding dominance used for colonialism. Systematically, he presented the scientific argument for a free world.

He was even able to demonstrate there was potential to learn from and improve by exchanges with what had been previously understood as "primitive" cultures: admiring the aboriginal Australians, he was able to see how in some respects their civilization and culture exceeded his own European civilization and culture. In doing so, he presented new social and technological practices conducive to greater happiness in Europe which would shake the foundations of Empires. Captain James Cook represents how scientific method and curiosity can result in profound changes to the way we interact with each other: because we are inherently rational, we seek to make the best choices possible and are open to new ways of doing things. And that though all interactions between different cultures must inevitably result in misunderstandings and minor conflict, by persistence, forgiveness and especially tolerance of difference through respect we may build lasting friendships and gain in the sharing more than we lose - we hold much more in common than in difference, most of all our common desire for knowledge and technology required to obtain, defend and improve our lives, friendship, liberty and happiness.

Yet hundreds of years later, the most profound implication of his work is that it permits a rational examination of not only other cultures of humans, but other beings. It is impractical to conclude that "primitive" animals are any less rational than people: what they do is done out of reason, subject to the constraints of their intention, experience and environment.

If humans wish to do away with their barbarity, the study of culture, ethnography, is required. We must study music and literature, architecture, and other religious practices. We must study ourselves - and other humans, and other animals. We must explore the entire world!

Captain James Cook died on this day in 1779. He was murdered, but was not revenged - because he lived and taught against revenge. In his discoveries of new cultures, this ethnologist attempted in every way to respect indigenous customs with the same dignity as he respected his own European customs. He was one of the few people alive who possessed the skills of science and math required to study the transit of Venus and develop a theory of longitude. He cared for those under his command and ensured none died from malnutrition by providing them with fresh and nutritious foods - after taking the time to learn what foods were nutritious. He applied this same scientific inquiry to every aspect of his life. But most remarkably, he utilized this science to discover a new continent, and hypothesize the location of Antarctica. He was a critic of colonialism and conquest, and through a devotion to science made himself a friend of humanity rather than any one nation or people. By his leadership, he formed and then Captained the very first purely scientific expedition, representing a transition away from militaristic exploration: he showed it is possible to understand there are undiscovered continents, and sailing blindly into the ocean find them exactly where they should be. And to meet the people there, and learn from them something quite profound.