Research

RESEARCH AREAS

History of biology, Environmental history, History of the field sciences, American science, Cultural history, Intellectual history, Science and technology studies, US history, History of the US and the world, Latin American and Caribbean history, Nineteenth century, Twentieth century, history of tropical biology, history of tropical ecology, history of tropical research stations


PROJECTS

Current Book: American Tropics: The Caribbean Roots of Biodiversity Science. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

9781469635606

American Tropics explores the relationship between field ecology, the expansion of U.S. hegemony in the circum-Caribbean region during the twentieth century, and the emergence of the modern concept of biodiversity.

Biodiversity has been a key concept in international conservation since the 1980s, yet historians have paid little attention to its origins in tropical fieldwork. Considering U.S. fieldwork from the era of the 1898 Spanish-American War through the anti-colonial movements of the 1960s and 1970s, my book explains how ecologists took advantage of U.S. landholdings in the circum-Caribbean to establish field stations for long-term, basic tropical research. At sites in the Panama Canal Zone, Cuba, British Guiana, Jamaica, and Costa Rica, a growing community of American “tropical biologists” developed both the key scientific concepts and the values embedded in the modern discourse of biodiversity.

American Tropics combines the history of science, environmental history, and the history of U.S.–Caribbean and Latin American relations to demonstrate that working at tropical field stations shaped both how U.S. biologists worked and how they understood the diversity of tropical life. In an important shift from earlier practices of expeditionary science, permanent field stations acted as colonial outposts of U.S. science, enabling biologists from the North to access tropical organisms while living in comfort, health, and safety. These new institutions also allowed visiting researchers to access and study living tropical organisms in new ways. Studying life in place, over time helped scientists build up a deeper knowledge of the natural history, behavior, and ecology of many tropical species that had previously remained unknown to outsiders. Focused in situ research also enabled researchers to develop intensive monitoring and censusing practices that are still important today. For example, in the 1920s and 1930s, camera trapping on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, uncovered rare and hard to document species and helped to reveal population fluxes over time––an especially significant finding given assumptions that tropical forests were ancient, stable, and unchanging. By the 1950s and 1960s, tropical researchers also increasingly developed quantitative field methods to study what they called “species diversity”––the number of species in a given area––and compare the ecologies of different field sites. This concept was a direct precursor to our contemporary idea of biodiversity.

Caribbean field stations did not just transform scientific ideas about the diversity of life, however. They also shaped how we value that diversity. Maintaining support to keep stations operating was often difficult. Tropical biologists had to secure funding, transportation, local labor, and access to suitable land. This meant developing strategies to link support for basic tropical research to the interests of the U.S. government agencies and corporations that dominated regional economies and politics. Often, U.S. biologists connected basic ecology to questions of applied tropical agriculture and medicine. By mid-century, however, they also began to make a new argument: the diversity of tropical life was itself a resource. Rather than tie their professional concerns solely to a few economically significant commodity or pest species, tropical biologists began to frame the large numbers of unknown tropical species and their complex, little-studied ecologies as the most important source of untapped potential in the tropics. After all, who could say what new materials or medicines might lie undiscovered in the world’s rainforests? Today we are used to this argument as a rationale for the conservation of global biodiversity, but American Tropics demonstrates how its roots lie in tropical biologists’ efforts to secure patronage in a context of U.S. hegemony in the twentieth-century circum-Caribbean.

In fact, I show that it was only after this hegemony was challenged in the 1960s and 1970s that tropical biologists vocally tied tropical species diversity to environmental conservation. As revolution swept Cuba and protests erupted in Panama, U.S. tropical biologists confronted a sudden loss of access to their field sites. They responded by realigning themselves, creating new organizations and taking new steps toward international collaboration. They also recast their justifications for basic research at this time, de-emphasizing U.S. interests in tropical resources and focusing instead on international development and the conservation of biological diversity. This history matters today, in part, because much research on tropical environments remains concentrated at several of the stations I analyze––institutions where U.S. researchers still outnumber those from Latin America. As I explain, this geographic and demographic distribution profoundly affects both scientific equity and how we understand the diverse environments of the global tropics today.

Research for this project was completed at the following institutions:


Second Book Project: Marston Bates and the Making of the Global Environment in the American Century

My second book project draws on the life and work of biologist and environmental writer Marston Bates (1906-1974) to chart a path through a succession of attempts by U.S. actors to exert control over environments and people in the developing world through the 20th century, as well as examining an array of critiques of such projects. During the 1920s through 1940s, Bates worked as an applied entomologist. He studied crop pests, malaria, yellow fever, and mosquito ecology for the United Fruit Company and the Rockefeller Foundation––two major forces in reshaping global landscapes of agriculture and health during the twentieth century. In 1952, he became a professor of zoology at the University of Michigan and turned to writing on nature and science for general readers. Publishing over a dozen books, he helped to bring the concept of “ecology” to a broad audience. But he was not merely a popularizer of contemporary scientific ideas. Commenting on problems of economic development, conservation, and global population growth, he presented a critical vision of what would today be labelled “sustainable development.”

Thus, while Bates began his career serving U.S. government and corporate interests, during his later life as a public figure, he criticized dominant modes of development and worked to suggest alternatives that he viewed as more humane, democratic, and scientifically-informed. This work is apparent not only in his prolific writings, but also through such efforts as his role in organizing the highly influential 1955 Chicago conference on “Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth” and the 1959 Darwin Centennial, as well as consulting on post-Sputnik education reforms and population control programs. For this reason, his biography opens a window not only into significant public debates, but also into the formation of U.S. policy toward science and the global environment at mid-century––a key period of transition in both environmental thinking and the U.S. role in the world.

My research for this project has been supported by a 2017 Bordin/Gillette Fellowship at the Bentley Historical Library of the University of Michigan, a 2018-2019 Rockefeller Archive Center grant, a COLA College Research Fellowship, a Special Research Grant through the Office of the Vice President for Research, and a History Department Scholarly Activity Grant.

 

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Ongoing Project: El Yunque

My other new project in-progress is a deep environmental history of El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest system. I foresee this ongoing project as a potential third book, which will combine the methods of history of science with those of environmental history to interrogate the nature of long-term environmental knowledge. El Yunque has long been an important site of indigenous and peasant subsistence and local environmental knowledge. Seen as the island’s last wilderness and a historic region of Tainó resistance to Spanish colonization, it is a symbolic place of Puerto Rican heritage and national identity. At the same time, its history as a site of scientific research and conservation also stretches back centuries. Studied and managed by the Spanish foresters of the Inspección de Montes since 1876, El Yunque was already one of the oldest forest reserves of the Western Hemisphere when it was transferred into the U.S. forest system after the 1898 Spanish-American War. In the twentieth century, it became an internationally-recognized field area for forestry research, ecology, and military testing. Today it is also a Longterm Ecological Research (LTER) site and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and plays a major role in research on ecological disturbance and climate change. This deep, intertwined history of knowledge production and land use suggests to me how El Yunque can illuminate continuities and discontinuities in the production, maintenance, and recovery of environmental knowledge over very long timespans in human history.

 


Past Projects

Plants and their Collectors:  A  Mapping Tool for the JSTOR Plants Database and the History of Botany

Cooperating with Frederick Gibbs of the George Mason University Center for History and New Media, Hanni Jalil and Gabriela Soto Laveaga of the University of California-Santa Barbara, and Gregg Mitman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I helped to design an interactive webtool to map historical plant type specimen collections from the JSTOR Plant Science database. I used the tool to interpret nineteenth- and twentieth-century botanical collections throughout the Caribbean region. We advised JSTOR on ways to make the Plant Science database more accessible for researchers in the humanities. This project was presented at the 4th Global Plants Initiative Meeting, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panama City, Panama, January 10-14, 2011.

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