Episode 118: The Caribbean Roots of Biodiversity

Host: Christopher Rose, Department of History
Guest: Megan Raby, Department of History

Biodiversity has been a key concept in international conservation since the 1980s, yet historians have paid little attention to its origins. Uncovering its roots in tropical fieldwork and the southward expansion of U.S. empire at the turn of the twentieth century, ecologists took advantage of growing U.S. landholdings in the circum-Caribbean by establishing permanent field stations for long-term, basic tropical research.

Megan Raby describes how, from these outposts of U.S. science, a growing community of American “tropical biologists” developed both the key scientific concepts and the values embedded in the modern discourse of biodiversity.

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Why don’t we start just sort of talking a little bit about what I mentioned in the introduction, which is the idea that there is a connection between imperialism and science before we get into the topic of your book. Can you talk a little bit more about what the connection is there?

Yeah, I think that’s a great question. If you think about it, imperialism, really, and colonial products depend on the exploitation of nature as well as people, right? So there’s a variety of ways that knowledge about nature–science–can be involved in those projects. The British Empire had things like Kew Gardens, and it sent out botanist and naturalists around the world to try to find plants with economic botany potential; so things like chocolate that we take for granted now or cinchona, the bark of a tree that produces quinine, an anti malarial drug. But also you might think about how physicians and medical scientists might be involved in colonial enterprises too. Concern for Tropical Medicine, the treatment of diseases that people from Europe or the United States might encounter when they’re in tropical environments like malaria or yellow fever. Those are things of concern to empires, right? Exploiting agriculture, concern for bodies in various kinds of colonial, often tropical environments that are concerns from a medical standpoint.

And also economic presumably, because a lot of these things can be turned into pharmaceuticals.

Yeah, exactly.

So presenting the idea of the environment itself as a resource that can be exploited–but not only the environment, but the field of ecology. You particularly talk about biodiversity, you know, comes out of this, this milieu of American involvement in the Caribbean.

Yeah. So the idea of biodiversity, right? That’s a word that scientists use. It’s a piece of biological jargon. Basically, all it means in general is the number and variety of species in a given area; its genetic and ecological kind of variation in a given area. But it’s something that, you know, everyday people used to, we talk about enjoying biodiversity and nature, things like that saving biodiversity from a conservation standpoint. But, you know, scientific ideas have particular histories and when most historians and philosophers and scientists themselves have talked about the idea of biodiversity, they often point to its you know, when it was coined as a term in 1986, right?As the title for a symposium that the Smithsonian held and the National Academy of Science which kind of alerted the world to a global biodiversity crisis of extinction in 1986.

But, you know, what I look at in the book is actually there’s a much deeper history of that idea. That idea of the number and variety of species in different parts of the world is a long standing study that naturals have been concerned about, you know, you can go back to Aristotle, but especially like 18th and 19th centuries, but what I found is that the very specific idea of biodiversity has an even more kind of recent history. And recent predecessors in concepts like species diversity that kind of came before, and were used in a smaller kind of elite group of scientists of ecologists, biologists in the 20th century. Right.

And so what I found is that that idea especially came out of ecologists work in trying to understand why that tropics had so many species. So why certain regions of the world particularly tropical rain forest, right, had more species in them than, say, a rain or a northern forest. So you might find, you know birch or oak trees and you know a handful of species of trees in a North temperate forest, but you find hundreds of species of trees and a tropical rain forest. The differences between northern environments and environments in the tropical regions were something that struck traveling naturalists for a long time, right. And this is something that I wanted to study in the book.

You specifically look at how a lot of this work was done by American scientists specifically working in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Yeah, so this is the thing is that if, say, in the 1890s when actually ecology first emerges as a scientific field, first in Europe, but American, US scientists are also interested in taking part in ecology. But if they’re going to study the relationship between plants and animals and their environments, in tropical environments, they’re going to actually have to go to the tropics, right? And so if you want to go to the tropics, and you’re from the United States in the 1890s through the turn of the 20th century, how are you going to get there?


And so what ecologists have to do is–basically there’s a relationship there, a mutualistic relationship between ecologists and growing US interests in economically exploiting environments in the circum-Caribbean. The growth of corporations like United Fruit Company that’s growing banana plantations increasingly in the through the into the early 20th century. But really there’s a turning point in the lead up to the Spanish American War in 1898. Not only is the broad US population debating, some people very much pushing to get involved in Cuba’s independence war with Spain, but ecologists, scientists are involved in that debate. They argue, yes, United States scientists need to be able to have access to tropical environments in order to do cutting edge science in this new field of ecology and so they should take advantage of not only newly informally accessible through steamship routes, etc. that begin to expand and the circum-Caribbean, but, after 1898 when the US acquires Cuba–temporarily, Puerto Rico, also the Philippines, of course. And then by 1914, when the Panama Canal is open, you have a period of time in which U.S. scientists have a lot of access to U.S. colonies, right? The Panama Canal Zone to Cuba and US landholdings by sugar corporations, for example, in Cuba.

And so U.S. scientists have a lot more access to land where they can do research, and this is what I focus on. That’s the way in which science was quite literally colonial–in the sense that they set up research stations, they set up particular sites that US scientists could go to and stay in a tropical environment, or how they characterize the environment as tropical, of course, including a lot of different kinds of diversity of different sorts of places from plantations to to forest. But they needed places where they felt they could be comfortable, be safe from tropical diseases also, where they could do long term studies, repeat visits over time and have access to what they consider to be natural or less developed vegetation and the animals that might live there that they could study. So, they wanted to be close to nature, but to do so in a place that they were not native to–they’re foreigners. And they needed particular kinds of institutions, and those institutions ended up binding them very closely to US colonial interests, right?

They got funding and land from US sugar corporations, for example, Harvard had a field station in Cuba, at the Soledad sugar plantation near Cienfuegos, run by the famous sugar baron Edwin Atkins. He was a patron of Harvard scientists there and they set up a long standing field station there, very long standing–the longest standing one until the Cuban Revolution, in which case at that point the station was transferred to Cuban administration at that point. But, so you can get the sense of how US scientists are connected–not in the same way that agricultural scientists are specifically trying to develop economic resources, not in the sense that medical researchers are specifically trying to enable so-called “White settlement” in tropical environments–but in the sense that that there’s a close kind of relationship mediated around their–the scientists’ need for access to land, and then the kinds of less direct benefits that may be knowledge of tropical environments or sponsorship, and the prestige of sponsors of, of science could give back to those sponsors, if that makes sense.

Yeah, absolutely. So as these research centers are set up, as you mentioned, they’re very long lived, you know, they’re established towards the beginning of the century. And some of them go on, you know, pass the Second World War–

Some of them are long-lived, others are short and it’s difficult for because unlike, you know, there may be a stereotype that, you know, colonial enterprises are kind of centralized from the metropole, but actually, the United States has several different scientific centers, right? New York and Washington, DC and in Boston, right? And so actually different us scientific institutions–the Smithsonian, Harvard, a variety of New York scientific and institutions, they’re really kind of competing with each other. And sometimes they actually, you know, I literally talking to each other, using joking with Imperial metaphors about dividing up the Caribbean among them and gaining their own kind of individual territories for where they’re going to collect specimens or where they’re going to actually set up these institutions.

Well, you know, and that’s actually sort of a an interesting point. Because if you’re not competing with anyone, there’s no drive to sort of further your your knowledge or to go the extra mile. And as you point out in your book, you know, they actually uncovered a great diversity and began arguing for diversity itself as a resource, right?

Yeah. So I start by talking about and showing how these fields institutions are colonial because they’re embedded in transportation and funding and networks and actually access to land itself, which is extremely important if you’re going to study the environment.


But this relationship to US interests actually does shape the rhetoric that scientists have over why the US government, or why corporations should fund them, especially given that they’re not necessarily producing direct benefits back for specific companies. They’re not studying bananas and banana diseases necessarily–although some of them might, you know, in their graduate training, go to one of these fields stations and then go on to work for a company. So that’s kind of an indirect relationship. But, no, more and more these researchers argue, beginning really in the 20s and 30s, that studying tropical nature in general is important because there may be undeveloped resources.

So, for example, Thomas Barber, who was a herpetologist, he studied lizards, and he ran the Museum of comparative zoology at Harvard, he directed Harvard’s Field Station in Cuba, but he also helped set up a field station at Barro Colorado Island. And now this is a really interesting site because this is a site in the middle of the Panama Canal, is actually within the Panama Canal Zone that was operated by the US government. It’s it’s on an artificial island, an island that was formed when the canal and Lake Gatun was flooded, and it was turned into a nature reserve through the arguments of him and some others, and a field station was place there. Not under Harvard’s operation but a kind of independent station but the idea there is not that they’re going to test out new varieties of rubber, or field test new products, new products or anything like that, but that they’re going to study nature in an undisturbed state. It sounds quite strange because it’s an artificial, right? So it’s been disturbed, it is a human human shaped environment. But Barber argues, you know, we need to understand tropical nature and how it functions, right? So that even if we’re studying monkey behavior or butterfly taxonomy here, which seemed pretty esoteric, what we’re doing is getting US scientists, a population of US scientists who have experience in the tropics, understand tropical nature. And maybe there are going to be other kinds of benefits we can’t expect yet from this kind of basic research. So, it’s a basic research argument, not a pure research that’s kind of esoteric and for theoretical ends, but an idea of basic research that ultimately we can’t necessarily know how it will be applied. But it’s important that we invest in it in case it may be applied. So there’s an argument being made there that government agencies and corporations should sponsor them so in they were always on a little bit of a shoestring budget, but it was a functional enough kind of argument and thinking you know.

United Fruit Company gave free rides for their researchers on their ships. Not not a small thing for the fact that you know, to be from like a Midwestern college and to go do your own tropical expedition like Charles Darwin or Alfred Russel Wallace would have been very expensive and very difficult. So these institutions enabled a lot of us scientists to work in tropical environments when they wouldn’t have already. But there’s a lot of other consequences to that. Right. But the main point you you had asked about was was here, you know, you’re saying, actually, it affects the intellectual arguments being made for why do tropical research in the first place.

So as the 20th century moves on, you know, you’ve brought up United Fruit Company a few times, and United Fruit Company was linked to some unsavory business, to say the least in Guatemala, you know, in the 1950s; you’ve already mentioned the Cuban Revolution. How did these institutions sort of deal with, you know, the sort of post World War Two push for autonomy, if not outright independence from US hegemony in the region?

Yeah, that’s a really key moment. You see a major shift, actually. So, one of the other important things to note about these institutions is that while they gave access to certain kinds of environments throughout the Caribbean to US researchers, and this is very important because they allow long term study, they allowed concentrated in-place studies really important for understanding ecosystems in a very understudid place, but as much as they gave access, they also excluded other people. So they would be for example, Panamanians on Barro Colorado Island, but most of them they were working as the workforce right? They are cooks and cleaners and technicians, boat drivers, people who are made really important work maintaining the station right for these US visitors, but there’s not that many Latin American scientists and they’re not outright barred or anything but there’s not much of an effort on the part of the station administrators to bring them in.

There are Latin American scientists, but most of them are working in urban areas. And there’s not a lot of communication. There are interesting exceptions, but there’s not a lot of communication. And these, these sites tend to be fairly insular; there’s a great Cuban scientific community, and there are Cuban affiliates with a solid station. But really, it’s mainly seen as a place for US scientists to get some tropical experience and not necessarily to make strong connections with their Latin American counterparts.

So again, this is where the colonial aspect–

Yeah, there’s another colonial aspect to the way these places operated on a cultural standpoint. And it’s very clear when you kind of hear the way they talk about their visits in a very romanticized way and the romanticization is of tropical nature and not necessarily of you know, Panamanian people, or Cuban people or other examples I have are from Guyana and Jamaica. But what you asked about was the key moment following the Cuban Revolution and the larger 1960s global decolonization, you have nationalist movements throughout Latin America. US ecologists call just have to respond to this because the Cuban Revolution cuts Harvard off from it’s very significant site, a site where they’re holding classes where E.O. Wilson the famous living biologist first got his taste of the tropics there. He talks about visiting there in 1953. They lose access to their site when it’s appropriated by the Cuban government by Castro in 1962 and 63. And throughout the 60s, really, there’s protests in Panama, about the Panama Canal treaties, a request–strong efforts to renegotiate those treaties, which starts to happen in the 1970s. So it’s not at all clear to the Smithsonian, which by that point is operating the station at Barro Colorado island that they’re going to be able to maintain access for sign for us scientists in Panama.

It’s a moment of time when the US scientific community is very nervous or at least the US scientific community of tropical ecologists, as they are beginning to call themselves at this point, that they’re going to be able to maintain access to these sites that they really depend on for the work that they do. So in that moment, what happens, you see a huge burst of new institutionalizing activity. A call for an Association for Tropical Biology, a professional society that’s international, that doesn’t just include United States scientists. You see the foundation of a new organization, the Organization for Tropical Studies, which is based in Costa Rica, and is meant to be a collaboration between the University of Costa Rica involving Costa Ricans, as well as a handful of universities in the United States that used to go to other stations, including Harvard, including Michigan and other places.

And so there’s an internationalist rhetoric that arises. There’s a rhetoric, finally, about conservation and international conservation of species diversity, something they’ve been studying from an intellectual standpoint for a long time, but are now framing as something to actually be saved and conserved for the global good for the good of the host countries where they’re working, rather than framing that as a potential kind of natural resource for the US for US interests. Right. So there’s an internationalizing and there’s a kind of global conservation kind of element that’s brought into this. So the the rhetoric and the justification and the connection to conservation really changes and I’d argue it really has to do with an institution, an institutional problem and a political problem that they confront what had served them so well allying with US government agencies and corporations throughout most of the 20th century suddenly became a liability in the 1960s. And so that really materially affected science.

So in terms of thinking about the overall trajectory of this story, are these still the key sites? Where are they still functional today?

Yeah, these sites remain very important sites. So the Smithsonian tropical Research Institute still maintains a an important field station at Barro Colorado Island, but it’s expanded their monies and network of sites throughout Panama–now. STRI, operates jointly with Panama, right? So it is no longer simply US institution. They negotiated their way through that moment of crisis to to become an international institution there. The Organization for Tropical Studies still exists as a collaboration between Costa Rica and other universities, you know. These are sites that are incredibly important from an environmental sciences standpoint and a conservation science standpoint point, because we know — still ecological studies still there’s a geographical bias where most ecology field work is done in the US and Europe, there’s a temperate zone bias in what we know about our planet is terms of ecosystems, right? So those institutions are still extremely important. And they’re not the only places where that work gets done now, but their long term research, so we understand long term changes over time. But at the same time, you know, I would argue that you can see a legacy that continues in that geographical bias when it is done in the tropics, that tends to be done on these near these long standing stations, except in Brazil and Mexico, which has kind of much stronger national scientific institutions, than these ones in Central America and the Caribbean that I focus on, but also there’s a bias in the demography of who’s participating. Right.

And, and I think it’s important for the scientists who are involved to recognize that there were these long standing kinds of ways that those stations were exclusive and there were a lot of missed opportunities to help build up connections and to build up local science, right? And that, you know, understanding that history might actually help build more bridges help bring more equity to that scientific field. So I do think that there’s a lot about the story that I, you know, uncovered in this work that has modern relevance for for people in that field but also, you know, for all of us who should care about about the global environment and how we know what we know about the planet, basically.

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