The Tangled Roots of U.S. Imperialism and Biodiversity Science: A Conversation with Megan Raby

Today, the concept of biodiversity plays a prominent role in conservation and many areas of ecological research. But where did this idea get its start? And why? Megan Raby examines how, through the twentieth century, the biodiversity “hotspot” of the circum-Caribbean became a “hotspot” for U.S. scientific research at permanent field stations. She traces the entwined histories of U.S. imperialism and tropical biology in her new book, American Tropics: The Caribbean Roots of Biodiversity Science.  book cover of American Tropics: The Caribbean Roots of Biodiversity Science

I spoke with Dr. Raby in Madison, Wisconsin on November 2, while she was in town for the CHE@10 Alumni Symposium, hosted by the Center for Culture, History, and Environment. Our conversation explores the surprising relationship between a sugar baron and Harvard biologists, the importance of the workers whose labor kept the field stations running, and how the forgotten legacies of empire are still written on these landscapes and in the science itself. Raby provides a fascinating account of the ways in which geography, ecology, and politics have shaped the modern concept of biodiversity as we know it.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.

Elliot Vaughan: Can we start with a brief introduction to what your recent book, American Tropics: The Caribbean Roots of Biodiversity Science, is about?

Megan Raby: What I basically look at is the history of the idea of biodiversity and the roots that it has in fieldwork in the tropics, in particular the circum-Caribbean region in the twentieth century. I look at how U.S. ecologists set up field stations in places like Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama, Jamaica, and how they use those sites to work in place over time and in that way built up an understanding of living tropical organisms. They began to ask themselves about what evolutionary and ecological causes could explain the diversity they saw in those places. But what’s also key is that they’re working in those sites for a particular reason, and that is because these are places where they can take advantage of U.S corporate landholdings or U.S. government landholdings in the case of the Panama Canal zone. We tend to think of biodiversity science as related to conservation, but in fact it’s intimately related to, historically, larger projects of exploiting tropical environments through the twentieth century.

We tend to think of biodiversity science as related to conservation, but in fact it’s intimately related to, historically, larger projects of exploiting tropical environments through the twentieth century.

EV: How did you first get interested in studying this topic?

MR: I’ve been interested in the relationship between place and science for a long time. I’m interested in how places shape science. As I began looking into U.S field science, I saw a lot more field scientists than I expected working in the tropics. I found out first about a field station called Soledad that Harvard ran in Cuba by reading Stuart McCook’s book about agricultural science in the Caribbean. I found that it wasn’t just agricultural science that was done there but also basic biological science. In fact, people like E.O. Wilson got their first experience in a tropical environment by taking a class at Harvard there at Soledad. I was interested to know: why were there all these Americans in these tropical places?

EV: Have you had a chance to visit any of these stations? And if so, how has that informed how you view them or how you write about them in your book?

MR: I haven’t been to all of them, because I do talk about a large network of stations in the book. The station that is the longest-standing tropical station in the Western Hemisphere and that remains a central site for tropical biological research is the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute at Barro Colorado Island in Panama. That dates back to 1923. Although the canal zone was transferred in the 1970s and the operation of the canal was transferred to the Panamanians in 1999, Barro Colorado Island remains part of the Smithsonian Institution. It’s intriguing to see that although there is some memory of this long history written into the landscape—for example, the trails are named after scientists and workers who worked there in the early twentieth century—the full history of the island is not really known on the island. When you go there, one problem is that English is still the main language spoken on Barro Colorado Island, whereas in the rest of Panama it is Spanish. There are legacies that remain at these research stations. In this case, the station is now successfully transferred to being a fully Smithsonian-Panamanian institution, and yet it has this history that is important to remember.

EV: One important theme that comes up several times in the book is the tension between the scientists who started these stations needing a space to do “pure science” but being reliant on the resources, funding, and access to these sites from entities with other motives. Can you explain one example where this is particularly obvious? And do you think this tension affected the science being done so that it was less “pure” than the original scientists hoped?

Graduate student Edward O. Wilson with his pet giant Cuban anole, Methuselah, at Harvard’s station, the Atkins Institution, at Soledad, Cuba, July 1953. Photograph courtesy of Edward O. Wilson.

MR: Maybe the best example is the station at Soledad near Cienfuegos, Cuba, because it was originally started shortly after the Spanish-American War as a sugar experiment station with clearly quite economic motivesthe improvement of varieties of sugar. The sugar baron who owned the Soledad plantation, who was one of the most powerful planters in Cuba, contacted Harvard botanists and zoologists to help him with this, and they had their own motives. They gradually convinced him to incorporate things like a botanical garden partly as a source of prestige for him. He could show visitors around his botanical garden and show himself to be a sponsor of science and something that’s beautiful. But botanical gardens also have an important scientific purpose as a living collection of plants. By the twenties they convinced him to add a basic biological laboratory so that visitors—mainly Harvard students but also others—could come and do work in a laboratory. Soledad also served, on the side, as a base for collecting excursions further afield. So you can see there is a great mixture here in just that example. There is never anything that is totally pure science. Some researchers got fellowships to come visit that were sponsored by the sugar baron’s money, and that money still continues at Harvard even though the Soledad station is no longer operated by Harvard but by Cubans, after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. There are legacies that are hidden of that sponsorship of science.

Does it affect the science itself? I would argue that is does, which is one of the key arguments of the book. It is not only that working in place helped ecologists develop particular field practices for monitoring, measuring, and theorizing about diversity. They also began to frame what they were doing as relevant to broader economic interests. Diversity itself is a resource. People like Thomas Barber in the early twentieth century, who was director of the Soledad station but also at Barro Colorado Island in Panama in the twenties, thirties, and forties, argued that if you’re a corporation or the U.S government you should sponsor tropical biology because you don’t know what possible economic resources could be out there. We’re quite familiar with the idea that there is a cancer cure out there in the rainforest somewhere; this is the origin of that kind of idea. Instead of sponsoring a sugar cane expert, you would sponsor people with broad tropical experience who make connections that might be able to develop new resources. This was also to get a population of biologists out there who had experience working in these environments and who might be hired for a variety of uses later on.

EV: Could you share what you hope different audiences might take from your book? Specifically, the two different audiences that come to mind are biologists who work in the tropics and historians of science. You write to them both.

MR: For ecologists who work in the tropics, and ecologists who work anywhere, I’d really hope that scientists who work in the field think more about the places where they work as having a human history. A history that also involves a politics and power. Ecologists working in the tropics who were American ecologists had connections to a certain kind of power that allowed them to work in those sites. Because biologists have long been focused on the natural part of the systems they are studying—and are only recently becoming more interested in the human aspects—sometimes those histories are erased.

Alexander Petrunkevitch (Yale), Paul D. Voth (University of Chicago), Orlando Park (Northwestern), Eliot C. Williams (Park’s graduate student), and Fernando Jaen (left to right) at Shannon Trail 1.5, 4 August 1938. The rope in the foreground was attached to a pulley to enable some access to the forest canopy. Photographer unknown. Digital reproduction provided by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, file referee no. 33869.

Alexander Petrunkevitch (Yale), Paul D. Voth (University of Chicago), Orlando Park (Northwestern), Eliot C. Williams (Park’s graduate student), and Fernando Jaen (left to right) at Shannon Trail 1.5, August 4, 1938. The rope in the foreground was attached to a pulley to enable some access to the forest canopy. Photographer unknown. Digital reproduction courtesy of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, file referee no. 33869.

For example, Barro Colorado Island is a constructed island. It was a hill that became an island when the Panama Canal was flooded. There were a handful of subsistence farmers and people growing small amounts of bananas to sell who were living on that island and who were paid to leave the island when it became a nature park and a research station. Histories like that are important for scientists to know, partly because it affects the actual landscape and the biology of the places that they are studying, but also because that could help them start to think about who they are working with in place now. When working at a research station, there are so many benefits scientifically to long-term research, to having huge data sets, to having lots of labor to help. But that can be very insulating from people who might live nearby, who maybe once had access to that site and now no longer do. It can be very hard to work against those institutional structures and try to get to know people, including scientists from the country that one is working in who may, ironically, have less access to that local site than someone from far away. It’s not very comfortable to talk about. I want to make it clear that I think the work that people do at these sites is really important, but it has a problematic history. You’re not going to get over it by forgetting it. That’s what I want ecologists to think about.

The work that people do at these sites is really important, but it has a problematic history. You’re not going to get over it by forgetting it.

Historians of science have long been interested in science and empire, but there’s a hangover of American exceptionalism. We haven’t looked as much at U.S. science and empire, especially when it comes to sciences that are not obviously economic in nature. When someone is studying monkey behavior on Barro Colorado Island, how does that connect to empire? I think that’s worth looking at. We can also get deeper into environmental and colonial histories of scientific field stations.

EV: You began to talk earlier about visiting some of these sites. I’m wondering if you can expand on that.

MR: I spent a lot more time in archives in Washington, D.C. and Cambridge, Massachusetts than, unfortunately, on the beach in the Caribbean. When I went to the Smithsonian Institution archives for the first time as an early grad student beginning this project, I was expecting to learn a lot about scientific practice on the Barro Colorado Island site. But what most of those letters and documents are about is managing labor: hiring people to clear trails, to cook, and how to keep people working at the station. Encountering that in the sources totally changed the way I was thinking about it. That was eye opening, and that was what I began to see and begin to consciously look for at other sites.

There are endless letters about how to keep a good cook on the island. Nemesia Rodriguez was one of the early Barro Colorado Island cooks. She was really very good at manipulating James Zetek, who was the station director. It’s tough to work on an island that’s forested and that’s a boat trip away from the nearest city or town, so she would leave for a while and say she was going to quit. He’d have to give her better conditions. There are stories of all these people, most of whom are largely forgotten—although Nemesia’s name is on a trail on Barro Colorado Island. Learning about these people and seeing photographs of them was one of the coolest parts of doing this project.

Featured image: Field station on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, circa 1920s. Photographer unknown. Digital reproduction courtesy of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, file referee no. 34459.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Megan Raby is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a historian of science and environment, especially interested in transnational connections of science in the United States with Latin American and European science in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her articles have appeared in the journals Environmental History and Isis, and she was awarded the History of Science Society’s Price/Webster Award for best article in 2016. She earned her Ph.D. in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Website. Contact.

Elliot Vaughan is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is an ecologist and geographer studying how human activities and environmental factors interact to control ecosystem processes. His current work in Puerto Rico focuses on how soil carbon storage is affected by past land use and projected increases in nitrogen additions. Website. Contact.

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