Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Under a Lucky Star: A Lifetime of Adventure by Roy Chapman Andrews

Nice work if you can get it
Though it has never been confirmed that Roy Chapman Andrews was the inspiration for Indiana Jones, there’s no denying that his autobiography Under a Lucky Star, published in 1943, delivers thrills and adventure reminiscent of films like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Andrews was born and raised in Beloit, Wisconsin, where he developed a love for nature and outdoor sport. Upon graduating from Beloit College, he decided he wanted to work for the American Museum of Natural History, so he moved to New York City uninvited and showed up on their doorstep looking for a job. He began by sweeping floors and assisting in taxidermy, but eventually he would end up as director of that prestigious institution. For much of his career, he led scientific expeditions abroad, hunting for zoological and paleontological specimens in China and Mongolia. He achieved fame when members of his expedition to the Gobi Desert were the first to discover dinosaur eggs.

Soon after starting work at the museum, Andrews was sent out to Long Island to retrieve the skeleton of a beached whale. This led to him riding along on a Japanese whaling ship in order to study whales, collect more specimens, and become an expert in cetology. Unlike biologists today, Andrews saw no problems with the whaling industry and in fact harpooned quite a few whales himself. Throughout the book he refers to himself as an explorer, rather than a scientist, but he really comes across first and foremost as a hunter. As was standard practice for natural history museums at the time, Andrews shot thousands of animals on his expeditions and shipped them back home, with no thought given to species endangerment. Though recognized as a zoologist and paleontologist, Andrews really doesn’t talk about science much at all, and one gets the idea that the specimens he collected were examined by others. 

At times I wondered whether Andrews was even qualified to do the work he was doing, but as the title of the book indicates, he was a very lucky man. What is quite evident in the book is the workings of an “old-boy network” in science—a lot of white Anglo-Saxon men eager to hand out money and careers to each other, with plenty of work and opportunity for anyone who proves himself a good chap. Business deals are done in tuxedoes over cocktails. Andrews writes more about the fund-raising parties for his expeditions than about their scientific yields. Never in the narrative does it seem like Andrews ever had to struggle for anything, and much of his “luck” can be attributed to having powerful friends like Theodore Roosevelt and J. P. Morgan. 

Andrews’s attitude toward women is also off-putting. He barely mentions his first wife, and makes it clear that he married his second wife for her looks, which is the same way he chooses secretaries, nurses, and waitresses. He devotes less ink to his wives than he does to the madam of a Japanese geisha house he frequented, and never passes up an opportunity to brag about partying with dancing girls. The only time he mentions a female scientist—one of his classmates, a “very attractive girl”—he does so with disdain. Andrews displays some racism as well, mostly directed at the Japanese, which may be attributed to the fact that this was written in the middle of World War II. Overall, however, he is respectful of Asian cultures and loved living in China for many years. 

This was a different era, so if you’re looking for political correctness, you aren’t going to find it here. If it’s adventure you want, however, this book has plenty. I wish it had more science than shooting, but it is still an entertaining read for anyone who has ever dreamt of being an explorer.
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