BILL MOYERS: Historian Joyce Appleby came to town the other day, and I was eager to meet her.
Her new book is out this very weekend, in which she ranges across 400 years of history with characters from Christopher Columbus to Charles Darwin. Shores of Knowledge explains how the curiosity of Old Europe broke free of church dogma, creating the world we inhabit today.
Her earlier books also follow threads that connect our past to our present. Read The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism, and you’ll get an interesting take on how and when capitalism and democracy do and don’t get along.
And above all, read this one, Inheriting the Revolution, in which, as one reviewer put it, she “perfectly captures the world created by the sons and daughters of the American Revolution.”
Joyce Appleby taught for years at San Diego State and UCLA, where she’s now a professor emerita. She served as president of both the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association. She still lectures, reads widely, spends time in the garden, and continues to feed the curiosity that drives every book and article she writes. Welcome.
JOYCE APPLEBY: Thank you, Bill. Pleasure to be here.
BILL MOYERS: You have had such a long and prolific life as a historian. What were you looking for? What were you after?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Oh goodness, what a question. I don't think that I ever had a long-term goal in mind. But you mentioned curiosity. I was curious about things. And I think that is the key to an historian and probably a key to all knowledge makers.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean, curiosity? What is it?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Curiosity is kind of an itching desire to have a question answered -- and an answer doesn't exist. I used to tell my students that everything they learned at the university was the answer to somebody's question. And if no one had asked a question, that answer wasn't there, that knowledge wasn't there.
So I think that's something that's fascinating about curiosity. And of course this last book is all about curiosity and its being unleashed. Because curiosity was not held in -- by respect in the Catholic Church or the Christian church. It was just seen as a lust for knowledge and asking questions that only God knew, so you weren't supposed to ask about eclipses or tides or comets or anything of that sort. And so the origin of The Shores of Knowledge was my curiosity about how curiosity was liberated.
BILL MOYERS: You describe how the foundations of our knowledge, of life, of the sciences of life began in that 400-year period from Christopher Columbus to Charles Darwin. What was the question you wanted to have answered about it?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, as I said, curiosity had been proscribed. And Europeans, hard to believe, Europeans weren't very curious. They didn't travel much, they are very secure in the knowledge that they knew everything that was needed to know. And then they encountered these two continents and a cluster of islands in between them with this exotic flora, these strange animals, and even stranger people.
And they didn't know what to think because their understanding of the cosmos was that there was Adam and Eve, there was Noah's Ark, and that contained the world's population. But where did these people come from? And this was such an insistent, it was really an imperative question. Because they had to figure out whether-- how they were going to maintain their orthodoxy or maybe move outside of it. And a lot of them did move outside of it.
BILL MOYERS: You said they had to be blindsided when they took these journeys, made these discoveries. What do you mean?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Blindsided. I mean, just smacked. "Wow, who are these people? What is this topography?" I suppose blindsided sounds sort of violent. This is more, "Oh my goodness, what a revelation. This exists?"
BILL MOYERS: But to get there, they had to overcome what you've described as this lid on curiosity that the church had kept on the natural world. And despite men like Galileo, the church succeeded in making ignorance a doctrine almost.
JOYCE APPLEBY: Right. Well, it was ignorance of doctrine, it was a dogma that had to be protected. And a dogma, for its effectiveness, had to assume that it knew everything. But I don't think curiosity drove Columbus to the New World. I think he was an adventurer and a very religious man. I think he wanted to get to the Spice Islands. He wanted to get to Asia. It was the people who came along with him and were just astounded and in particular, a group of men who wrote about what they had found, they wrote histories.
They even drew pictures because they had such trouble describing what they'd seen. And it was those men and their-- it just came back at a good time in Europe. They came back when there was a vernacular press, that is to say a press outside of Latin. And printing was getting cheaper and they wrote these books, there were a hundred publications about the New World produced in the first 20 years. So I think that's where the curiosity came in.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that burst of curiosity?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Oh, I think there are so many things to-- I mean, you know, was the puma a tiger? Was the llama a camel? Was the alpaca a lamb? You know, they tried to fit everything-- they do what we all do. We try to fit what's new into what we already know. And it just didn't work.
And the more they tried to fit, the more they had to look at this phenomenon and examine the hoofs or the tails or ears. And this led to, "Oh, well, we could find out more about this." And the more they became curious about the exotic things, the more they became curious about the things around them.
BILL MOYERS: You've said we can’t have curiosity without imagination. Why is that?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, because I think curiosity depends upon your imagining something different from what exists. I think it absolutely has this radical notion that we aren't bound by everything that we see and that we're told.
And what's astounding to me is that it's not just curiosity, but within two or three generations of the discovery of the New World, they're not only questions, but there is the capacity to invest hundreds and thousands of hours into getting the answer. That's what science takes. It can't be casual curiosity. A lot of people can have casual curiosity. But to move forward, you've got to have people with an intense persistence. And there again, imagination comes in. Imagining answers.
BILL MOYERS: Who were these people?
JOYCE APPLEBY: One of my favorites in the 17th century was van Leeuwenhoek who was in the cloth trade. And in the cloth trade, he dealt with magnifying glasses to look at the threads, the weaving threads to assess it. And then he started making what turned out to be the microscope, magnifiers with greater and greater and greater power.
And then, he wanted to put things under his microscope. He's the first one who had a microscope. So he would put a frog's leg under it or a fish fin or a grain of wheat. And then one day, he put under his microscope a drop of water. And guess what he saw? He saw what he called all these little "beasties" wandering around. He had discovered microbes. He had discovered the world of bacteria.
Well, this had the effect of creating a sense that there's a difference between appearances and reality. There is a reality that can't be seen by the naked eye. And this, of course, was a great spur for the curiosity.
BILL MOYERS: I'm taken with this sentence from the book. "Passing from amateur passions to sober investigations of biology, geology, and astronomy, [curiosity] upended the grand Christian narrative of the origins of life and the place of our planet in the universe." With what consequences?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, the consequences, I suppose, are you and me.
BILL MOYERS: A frame of reference, right?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Right. There's also a real intellectual difference. Because the enemy of curiosity is dogma. Dogma is certain, this inerrant, “this is truth.” But that's not true about science.
Scientists, inquirers, these amateurs, they know it's a process. And what they're finding is tentative. It might be replaced or returned by someone, or modified. And I think that's why today those people who are dogmatic have so much trouble with science. Because they think that science is like dogma. It's inerrant. They're saying, "Absolutely that this is true," when they're really saying, "This is as much as we know now. But we're going to know more." It's a very different intellectual approach.
BILL MOYERS: The church was trying, at its best, to protect believers and everyday people from the terrors of the unknown, from hell, from fantastic creatures that occupied the seas. They were trying to protect believers with the safety of dogma.
JOYCE APPLEBY: And that's what's so interesting about the beginning of the science is that they produced a different kind of stability. They produced the stability of, "Well, there weren't sea monsters out there, maybe there aren't sea monsters. These fish aren't going to do something I don't expect a fish to do." You know, so that there is a slow replacement of the stability of dogma to the stability of at least knowing something, of having the world friendlier.
BILL MOYERS: I remember we visited the place from which Columbus set out on his first visit--
JOYCE APPLEBY: Right.
BILL MOYERS: And being struck with the thought that, as they said, no one knew what was out there. No one knew where the oceans led or what lay in the oceans, right?
JOYCE APPLEBY: They had a lot of speculation, there were human beings with dog heads and sea monsters that were going to erupt from the ocean. I mean, there was a lot of speculation, which really made it difficult for Columbus to convince a group of men to sail with him. It's an amazing story. But it's one of intrepidity. Just intrepid. Just, you know, "We're going to do this. We're going to try it. We've got the courage and the guts to do this."
BILL MOYERS: But here's another perplexing thing. They were curious to come to this New World, to find out what it looked like, what it was made of, and they found these amazing people, the native, indigenous people. But very shortly, their discovery of these indigenous people led to their exploitation and enslavement
JOYCE APPLEBY: It's very interesting, the exploitation of the people, because the people led to a great deal of speculation, "Where did they come from?" One man went through, "Were they Phoenicians, were they Finns, were they Scythians, were they Romans, were they Greeks?" They went through all the possibilities and finally concluded that they were something new.
And I think the exploitation came with the need. Because the people who followed Columbus, most of them are adventurers. They're just out there to plunder, as we know with Pizarro and Cortés. And then they -- if they're going to exploit it, they need workers.
BILL MOYERS: I didn't know until I read your book that I think it was by 1526, 1530, some, there were more slaves imported from Africa--
JOYCE APPLEBY: Right.
BILL MOYERS: --in this area than there were Europeans.
JOYCE APPLEBY: That's right. There were six times more Africans than Europeans I think by 1565. It's just staggering.
BILL MOYERS: So in a way, the unintended consequences created an American experience, so to speak, that was founded on a vast system of slavery.
JOYCE APPLEBY: That's true. That's true. But then that's a part of capitalism, that desire to produce goods for the market and to use whatever you can to produce them. And they were busy, you know, one thing they did was create sugar plantations.
Think of a world that doesn't have any sweetness except for the occasional honey that comes their way. Think of introducing sugar. This is-- these are the richest islands in the world when they were producing sugar. Took incredibly intensive labor. Just such a cruel system.
BILL MOYERS: Your cast of characters in The Shores of Knowledge ranges from Christopher Columbus to Charles Darwin, this period of 400 years. Did you come upon one thing they all had in common?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, the great ones had genius. I mean, when we get to the 19th century and Alexander Humboldt and Charles Darwin, they have genius. They have this sense that we could understand how nature operates, what the powers of nature are.
BILL MOYERS: I confessed that I had heard almost nothing if anything about Alexander Humboldt. What did he do for us?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, he's really the world's first ecologist. He had a great desire to understand how the natural systems interacted. He was a mineralogist, he was a geographer, he was a geologist, and he traveled -- these guys traveled heavy. He came with sextants and quadrants and meters that could tell you how, what the intensity of the blue water was. And he just measured everything.
And Darwin had read all of his travel journals. And when he got to the New World, Darwin said, "I used to admire Humboldt, now I adore him."
BILL MOYERS: Darwin called him a "grand progeny of scientific travelers."
JOYCE APPLEBY: Exactly. It's amazing. You hadn't heard of him, I hadn't heard of him before I studied this. And yet in his day, he was seen as second importance only to Napoleon.
BILL MOYERS: A contemporary?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Born the same year.
BILL MOYERS: And on the centennial of his birth, it's amazing to learn in your book that one word appeared on the front page of The New York Times. One word.
JOYCE APPLEBY: "Humboldt!"
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that?
JOYCE APPLEBY: As I say, I think they were so thrilled with the man, and he wrote about 50 volumes, unlike Darwin. He just wrote books all the time.
BILL MOYERS: He, like Darwin, was stinging in his comments about slavery. I learned this from your book. But when his famous book appeared in this country, the American version of his famous book, all the references to slavery had been excised.
JOYCE APPLEBY: Isn't that astounding?
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain it?
JOYCE APPLEBY: I only know that they did that because he said they did that. The other thing is that Darwin also rejected this idea that there was a difference in the races. And this is phenomenal because in the middle of the 19th centuries, when we get these theories of racial hierarchies, they're just, you know, and--
BILL MOYERS: And we begin to get the development of eugenics, I mean, right--
JOYCE APPLEBY: Right, exactly. But even before eugenics, that white race at top and you go down with each color. And they just both, both, really the two greatest scientists in the natural sciences of the 19th century, both utterly rejected that. And what a shame that they weren't listened to.
BILL MOYERS: Humboldt, Darwin, and many others, as you write defined our modern world while loosening the hold of religious dogma over the imagination and over scientific inquiry. How then do you explain the resurgence of religious fundamentalism in our time?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, I think it was just too shocking to think of human beings as being what they are because of descent through modification. I mean, what a concept, as opposed to thinking you were created by God or that you had some essence, essence that was always there.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think this was--
JOYCE APPLEBY: Isn't that true today? Isn't evolution still the enemy?
BILL MOYERS: Well, there are several parts of this country, including my home state of Texas, where there are significant numbers of people who would like to return us to the belief system of 1492. And I'm not exaggerating--
JOYCE APPLEBY: Right.
BILL MOYERS: Where does this lead us?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, it doesn't lead us to curiosity, I'll say that. It doesn't lead us-- I mean, we do have an attack on science now, cutting back on funding, you know, we have certainly in our politics, we have the resurgence of dogmatism rather than curiosity about how programs might work out.
There's an insistence, "We know how they'll work out and if we don't like them, they shouldn't be." I mean, there's certainly an attack on Obamacare. You might just take this, "Well, let's see how it works out. This is a very important goal to offer healthcare." But no, “this is wrong, this is bad.”
BILL MOYERS: As a historian, what does that tell you? Looking back over the span of time, what is what's happening to these currents of resistance to science, to knowledge to imagination, what do you draw from that?
JOYCE APPLEBY: I don't know. That's a very difficult question, Bill. I really can't explain it.
BILL MOYERS: Can societies evolve backwards?
JOYCE APPLEBY: I don't think so. One of-- no. I don't think so. I mean, one of the fascinating things to me is that we have a political system today, probably only in the last ten years, I don't know, that seems sort of moribund and rigid.
And also, you've got to recognize the element of racist in this. This long sense of a dominant, white male authority in the country and today you have, you know, this racial diversity, you have women in positions of power. I think there's-- that’s why I don't think this is going to last.
BILL MOYERS: So you think-- what's not going to last?
JOYCE APPLEBY: This rigidity. It's not going to last. And this is a terrible thing to say, but I am old person so I can say it. I believe in reform by the grim reaper. I don't think it's going to last because I don't think there’s a rank of young people who are that frightened by the diversity, the demographic diversity and the presence of women and the changes in our society. They've come very fast, really, you have to admit.
BILL MOYERS: Last 25 years of our life.
JOYCE APPLEBY: Exactly. We didn't ask question about women or slaves or Hispanics in American culture until about 40 years ago. So we didn't know anything about them. We didn't teach anything about them. But, you know, I don't think Americans can get away from how central the issue of race is. It's pretty -- it's quite a foundation when you introduce an enslaved population and it's a significant one and with it, it's not just enslavement, it's the racial prejudice that has to exist in order to defend and accept it. That's a heavy legacy. And I think we're making amazing strides. But it--
BILL MOYERS: And yet?
JOYCE APPLEBY: But it takes time.
BILL MOYERS: So where do you see this racism playing itself out today?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, the hatred of Obama might be one place. It's not just a hatred of him. I remember, I grew up during the New Deal. People really hated Roosevelt. But they didn't delegitimize him. And I think that Obama, there is this, just, unwillingness to accept that he's president. How many people feel that way? I'm sure it's no more than 10 percent or 15 percent. But it's a very vocal group. I don't-- that's just one explanation, but I certainly see it. And there are all kinds of other places where we see racism playing out.
And I think that many people who are optimists like me want to say, "Oh, we've made such progress." And we're unwilling to see until it's brought home to us by some event. "Well, it's fluctuating progress here and there." And it's moving forward, but not in a strong phalanx moving forward.
BILL MOYERS: Put this new book, “Shores of Knowledge,” in the context of your earlier works on America, “Inheriting the Revolution and then The Relentless Revolution” -- is there a thread that connects these three books in your life and your interest and your curiosity?
JOYCE APPLEBY: I suppose there is. And it's a kind of a chauvinistic motive. I mean, I think I've always been fascinated by the freshness of the United States and the tolerance for things and just that wonderful openness to possibilities.
It was fascinating to me, curious again, that the first generation of people born between 1776 and 1800. And I thought, "Hmm, I wonder what these people who had never been subjects of King George's, never been colonists, how did they react differently?” And I was interested in how they interpreted what had been given to them, kind of encapsulated in the Declaration of Independence.
And it's kind of interesting, they didn't have the accomplishments that Europeans had. They didn't have any great art, any great architecture, any great novelists. So they celebrated what they did have, which was their initiative, their hard work, their go-getted-ness. And these are all sort of clichés. But there was a lot of truth in it when you look at how fast that nation was settled. People leaving nice, comfortable little farms and taking their sons and daughters and moving into the Ohio Valley and then beyond.
BILL MOYERS: In Inheriting the Revolution, you told how this first generation after the Revolution took the Founding Fathers' gift to them, the Revolution, and infused meaning into it. Succinctly, how did they do it?
JOYCE APPLEBY: They certainly, you know, gave all the proper vows to freedom and liberty and also equality. There was an equalizing movement among the whites. Not with black relations, but among the whites after the Revolution. And there was a tremendous admiration for ambition. And they did this in part with biographies. They had their heroes and they wrote about them.
And they also celebrated their accomplishments, but they weren't traditional ones from a highly cultured point of view. They were doing things, you know, taking medicine out to Cincinnati, Ohio, and founding a medical school. Or moving the line of settlement further and further West. They did this obviously because they had writers, they had novelists, they had newspapers. Newspapers, Americans had about four times the number of newspapers of any other country in the world, despite its small population. BILL MOYERS: And what did that mean practically?
JOYCE APPLEBY: It meant that everybody was up on the news. They were--
BILL MOYERS: On the same page, so to speak--
JOYCE APPLEBY: Right, yeah, right. And you know, America got a lot of travelers in the early 19th century. People wanted to come see this place. But they call commented on the phenomenon that people in the country were not rubes. They knew as much as people in the city. They were reading the paper. That's really different.
BILL MOYERS: But what does it say, Joyce, that Americans today, many Americans today, no longer feel as this generation of Americans did, about their capacity to shape their destinies? There's a great deal of futility and despair in the country, as you know.
JOYCE APPLEBY: I think it's because the economy is not serving them as well as it once did. I think one of the things that I discuss in “The Relentless Revolution” is the dominance of the financial services in our economy. But the financial services have changed dramatically themselves.
They used to be facilitators of enterprise. The bankers, they lent you money or they issued stock for you, or what not. But they had become players in themselves with their own goals and their own goals are often inimical to those of the country as a whole. There's very strong short-termism. I mean, we find that bankers, for instance, are playing a greater and greater role in the management of corporations and they want results for their shareholders.
Well, often quick results are antithetical to what's needed for long-term development. So that seems to be a major problem. But we have-- money brings power, but it doesn't bring responsibility with it. Now power without responsibility is pretty dangerous. And capitalism brings creative destruction. Well, creative destruction is very-- it's great for the economy, but it's hard for the society.
BILL MOYERS: Some of us believe that the defining issue of our time is the relationship between capitalism and democracy. What do you think about that?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, I think it is. And I think one of the most troubling aspects of that relationship is that they have a different-- capitalism really is amoral. But democracy is not amoral. Democracy is moral. It has a sense of the well-being of the whole. So I think there is that tension. But what has changed, through complicated processes of fundraising, one another, is that government is really no longer such a neutral player. It's kind of a patron of business now.
So I think that the government ought to be much more concerned-- well, I was mentioning the creative destruction. You know, this sounds great, "Yeah, get rid of this old method of making metal or producing wood," whatever. But it closes down factories, it shrinks towns, you have all the social problems, and it's up to democracy to protect that. The other thing is, capitalists act like they don't need government.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
JOYCE APPLEBY: They need a strong judiciary, they need to have a legal system that guarantees the contracts, they need to have clean police and clean politicians. They need all of these things that create the stability that is essential to capitalism.
BILL MOYERS: You know, all these early explorers, or many of these early explorers and discoveries you write about were state-sponsored or sponsored by the king or self-financed. And we forget that about capitalism today. It depends upon this culture.
JOYCE APPLEBY: I don't think we forget about it. I think we're bamboozled. We're told over and over again that it's a natural system, like aerodynamics, and you can't interfere with it. Well, it's not a natural system. It's a totally social system that has changed dramatically from generation to generation. Composition of the factors in capitalism, but also the changes in the way in which the government acts.
Look at the New Deal. Here you have capitalism absolutely down on its knees, and you have a program that put people to work, program invested in our infrastructure. I mean, that spending brought us out of the Depression, and --
BILL MOYERS: Well, look at the--
JOYCE APPLEBY: --and we're not having that today the way we should.
BILL MOYERS: You say in “Inheriting the Revolution,” that this generation of Americans quickly established a new identity for themselves as Americans, given the raging inequality today, given the vast diversity in this country, given the clash of opinions and values and beliefs, can we create a new identity as Americans? What is an American today?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Do we want to create a new identity? I think we want to recover what's best in us. A tremendous respect for each individual, a belief in expanded ambits for action and thinking, an admiration for innovation, a respect for the law, a belief in an independent judiciary. I know I'm sounding like a terrible chauvinist, but I do admire the best qualities in our country.
BILL MOYERS: Joyce Appleby, thank you very much for joining me. The new book is The Shores of Knowledge: New World Discoveries and the Scientific Imagination.
JOYCE APPLEBY: Been a great pleasure, Bill.