Review of “American Tropics: The Caribbean Roots of Biodiversity Science”

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Here, we share excerpts from a review of Megan Raby’s American Tropics: The Caribbean Roots of Biodiversity Science (2017), which was published in the Flows, Migrations, and Exchanges Series of the University of North Carolina Press. The book was reviewed by Cuban scholar Leida Fernández Prieto (Instituto de Historia, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas). [Review translated by Casey Lurtz.]

In 1995, the pioneering work of Richard Grove pointed to tropical islands as a key site for examining early Western environmental thought in the context of imperial European expansion between 1660 and 1860. Megan Raby, for her part, situates the scientific birth of the modern concept of biodiversity on US tropical research stations in the circum-Caribbean during and after the Spanish-Cuban-American War of 1898. To do so, Raby analyzes the role of North American biologists and scientists in stations created in Cuba, Jamaica, British Guiana (today Guyana), and Panama. She structures the book in five chapters, an epilogue, and appendices, all based on extensive archival research.

Raby has made a significant contribution to the study of the American tropics at the intersection of intellectual history, the history of place-based field practices, and postcolonial studies. One of her principal interventions is the clear dialogue she establishes between the study of science and empire and the study of the production and circulation of scientific knowledge and practices. In this case, the author examines biology and tropical ecology as an interdisciplinary field of knowledge within the colonial and postcolonial circum-Caribbean. Raby asserts that ideas, attitudes, and institutions forged in field sites like, for example, the tropical biological research stations founded in the circum-Caribbean were crucial to understanding the emergence of new paradigms in biology and conservation at the end of the twentieth century.

Raby underlines the role that stations played in forming a community of American biologists, whose lives and work in the region changed their vision of tropical nature as a means of explaining the biological and evolutionary reasons by which these islands came to be reservoirs of species diversity. In this manner, such islands were paradigmatic examples of “residential science,” a phrase introduced by Robert E. Kohler to characterize a common mode of intensive fieldwork. To this point, studies have drawn a subtle border between European scientific practices identified with taxonomy and collection in the long nineteenth century and American science carried out in the tropics in the early twentieth. This book suggests, instead, the need for comparative studies between imperial European science and American science that look for continuities and discontinuities in colonial and neocolonial research projects.

Likewise, Raby reminds us that biologists were interested in the diversity of tropical life but also in its potential as an economic resource. In this way, she highlights the complex conjuncture of patronage and intellectual, political, and military agendas at work in the tropics. Raby argues that tropical research stations became important spaces not only for the training of biologists but also for their introduction into a web of academics, businessmen, and actors representing national interests who shared in the formation of tropical biology. For Raby, field research sites became nodes of scientific migration that gave form to scientific communities wherein individuals shared interests regarding research, practices, and priorities, even if their ecological research is what interests her most.

Raby delves into these questions in order to study the production of knowledge within this relationship between science and empire. The association between science and business characterized more than just the work of American biologists in the twentieth century. Similar relationships were at work, for example, with regard to Cuban agronomists affiliated with fertilizer companies during earlier moments of expanding American hegemony. [. . .]

[For full review, see http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=52315; licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.]

For more information on the book, see https://www.uncpress.org/book/9781469635606/american-tropics/

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