Q&A with Megan Raby, 2019 Pauly Prize Winner

Editor’s Note: The HSS Newsletter is pleased to feature an interview with Megan Raby, author of American Tropics: The Caribbean Roots of Biodiversity Science, winner of the second annual Philip J. Pauly Prize, which was established in 2018 for the best first English-language book on the history of science in the Americas. For what the prize committee had to say about the book click here; read on to see what Megan has to share.

What is the main thing you would like readers to take away from your book?

Many scholars have explored the effects of the biodiversity paradigm on conservation priorities in recent decades. In the Global South, some have critiqued biodiversity conservation as a new form of “green” imperialism for the way it has served as a rationale for U.S. involvement in tropical countries. But the starting point for these discussions is usually 1985, when the term “biodiversity” was coined. There is actually a much deeper history at work. My book traces the relationship between field ecology, the expansion of U. S. hegemony in the circum-Caribbean during the 20th century, and the emergence of the modern concept of biodiversity.

Tropical field stations are central to this story. They enabled U.S. biologists to develop place-based research practices and a deep knowledge of local ecologies that was never possible through expeditions alone. At these stations, self-styled “tropical biologists” developed a range of practices for documenting and theorizing the diversity of life that we take for granted today. At the same time, however, these stations also tied tropical biologists to U.S. colonial and neocolonial interests. These institutions depended on ongoing, long-term access to land and patronage––from U.S. plantation owners in Cuba, for example, or authorities in the Panama Canal Zone. These ties shaped how tropical biologists framed the diversity of tropical life as a potential resource to be developed.

Megan Raby, Canopy tower, Parque Nacional Soberanía, Panama. Photo by Eric Williams, 2016.

Megan Raby, Canopy tower, Parque Nacional Soberanía, Panama. Photo by Eric Williams, 2016.

Ultimately, stations made “tropical nature” accessible, but only in certain ways and only to certain classes of people. Ironically, tropical biology has been a place-based science traditionally practiced by people from outside that place––one that until recently developed largely in isolation from local and national scientific communities within the Caribbean and Latin America. The legacies of this history remain embedded in how and what we know about the global environment today.

What drew you to this project in the first place?

It was a bit of a winding road. This book grew out of my dissertation research, but it took me a long time to decide what that should be. (So, now I have a lot of patience for grad students at that stage right before writing the dissertation proposal!) I knew I wanted to work on the history of field science––that idea grew out of my original undergraduate training, not in ecology, but in paleontology and the earth sciences. While doing research for my master’s degree at Montana State University, I had become interested in the intersection of place, practice, and ideas. Working in the U.S. West, I was also concerned with the relationship between U.S. imperial expansion and science. I wanted to find a new project when I moved to the University of Wisconsin to complete my PhD, but I was still interested in similar questions.

I flailed around for a while, but then a few random encounters got me interested in tropical field stations as a sites of scientific research. Reading Stuart McCook’s States of Nature, I came across his discussion of Harvard’s station at Soledad in Cuba, which expanded from being a plant experiment station to a station for a range of biological research. McCook’s book focused on the agricultural side, but I wondered about what this other biological research had looked like––in terms of the styles of field practice, local collaborations, and research problems. It also made me realize how the literature on the history of biology in the U.S. really treated tropical research as marginal, even research by U.S. scientists in colonial territories like Puerto Rico or the Panama Canal Zone. Early on, I ran into a few very brief references to Barro Colorado Island, in Rob Kohler’s work, for example, but it seemed to me that the political context of tropical stations like this must be more significant. If place really matters in field science, then this was not just going to be the story of MBL transplanted to Panama (which, by the way, is what one NSF reviewer wrote when rejecting funding for my dissertation!). When I realized that the stations at Soledad and Barro Colorado Island had been directed by the same person, the Harvard zoologist Thomas Barbour, during the 1920s–1940s, I knew I had something. Here was not just a scattering of institutions, but a network. And it was a network connected by a community of people who came to call themselves tropical biologists.

So, I did not come to this project from a question about the origins of the idea of biodiversity. That aspect emerged much later, after tracing this network of sites and the people who visited and worked at them. Maybe I came at it backwards! Anyway, I’m glad I did, because I think a more traditional intellectual history approach would have missed these connections.

What is at stake in placing the Caribbean at the center of global environmental science and popular ecological narratives?

This is an important question. The Caribbean, and the Global South more generally, is too often assumed to be a region where science is applied rather than where it emerged and continues to take place. Although the idea of biodiversity has many different roots, the main champions of biodiversity conservation in the 1980s, including E. O. Wilson, all had very direct institutional connections to tropical stations––particularly Soledad, Barro Colorado Island, and the Organization for Tropical Studies’ stations in Costa Rica. This connection had been overlooked. Their alarm about biodiversity loss at that moment developed not only out of immediate environmental changes, but also as a response to political and institutional developments that had been in the works for the previous two decades. Including, importantly, local objections to U.S. imperialism that threatened the institutional stability of long-standing stations. Biodiversity is very flexible as a conservation ethic, as many other scholars have shown, but centering on the Caribbean makes it clear that form the start it was never neutral.

What are the main ideas about ecological science and tropical biology that emerge from the work of your historical actors in the Caribbean?

Much like field stations in the temperate United States and Europe, tropical stations played a key role both in the rise of experimental biology and in the development of place-based ecological field methods. But, in part because the researchers who visited these stations were, overwhelmingly, foreigners who traveled from the comparatively species-poor temperate zones, their experiences working at tropical stations led them to focus especially on investigations into the ecological and evolutionary causes of the great numbers and variety of species they encountered in tropical environments.

Working in situ at field stations allowed researchers from the United States to intensively study living tropical plants and animals in their natural environments for the first time during the early 20th century. Stations allowed researchers to combine lab and field practices. But in addition, focused, in situ research also enabled researchers to develop new, intensive practices for monitoring and census-taking in nature. These practices, in turn, revealed longer-term changes, such as population fluxes, which were significant because tropical forests were initially assumed to be ancient, stable, and unchanging. Place-based research also enabled very fine-scale taxonomic work; it seemed that the closer biologists looked, the more species they found––such as William Beebe’s census of hundreds of species in just four square feet of rainforest floor.

After World War II, biologists including Robert MacArthur, H. T. Odum, and Theodosius Dobzhansky  began to use species diversity as a quantitative index, comparing it with other variables in order to try to explain global patterns. These three men are famous figures in the history of biology—much more so than most of the people I wrote about. Although their ideas are not usually placed in the context of their fieldwork, they worked at long-standing U.S. tropical field stations, as well as newer stations in Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, and Brazil. This is the context out of which “species diversity”––the most direct intellectual predecessor to biodiversity––emerged as a central theoretical concern for biologists, and not just tropical biologists. Tropical studies fueled a theoretical turn in the 1960s and 1970s toward explorations of the ecological and evolutionary mechanisms driving global patterns of species diversity

Who do you see as your main audience, within the HSS community and more broadly as well?

Within the HSS community, I see this book, as first, contributing to the history of the field sciences and place-based environmental research—a literature that began just a few decades ago in reaction to our previous focus on science in laboratory settings. I’m excited about how the field of “science in the field” is really exploding, and how it brings us into conversation with work in environmental history. My other intention was also to connect the vast literature on the history of science and empire to more recent scholarship on U.S. Empire.

This book also connects with the rapidly growing field of Latin American and Caribbean environmental history, specifically by tracing the intellectual and cultural history of the relationship between environmental ideas about tropicality and the modern discourse of biodiversity.

Finally, I’ve been enormously gratified to find that ecologists and conservationists are interested in this book. I think it can give them some deeper historical context to think about their field sites and practices. This includes the colonial legacies that remain today. Where ecologists do their fieldwork, and what countries these researchers are from––there are geographic patterns and biases that we can only really understand by looking at these questions more historically. And this should matter to anyone who cares about conservation and equity.

What was the most enjoyable part of working on this project?

Despite the environmental angle, most of my research time was indoors. But when I’m working through archival material, there is a sense of tracing out connections and events, and personalities––I’m driven by curiosity and I really find it hard to stop when it is closing time! Then again, I was also lucky that my research also took me to places that were very nice outside of the reading room. It is hard to beat seeing toucans, howler monkeys, leaf cutter ants, and blue morpho butterflies in Panama! Walking in the Arnold Arboretum or the Fairchild Tropical Garden after a day of research was certainly not bad either!

What were some of the biggest challenges or hurdles that you faced while doing research for this book?

The biggest hurdles were probably organizational. Focusing on research stations was fantastic not only because of the questions they raise about the nature of scientific practice and place, but also because, as institutions, they can produce lots and lots of archival records. But that’s a double-edged sword! When I was at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, I had the luxury of really immersing myself in these records, but it is also way too easy to get drowned in details. I’m grateful for conversations with my mentor there, Pam Henson, who reminded me to start writing and organizing my thoughts early while working through the material.

But I also just want to acknowledge a challenge that wasn’t necessarily specific to this book, but to writing any book: writing is hard. I’m a pretty slow writer, and writing under the time pressure of the tenure track wasn’t easy. But slow and steady wins the race, I guess. I couldn’t have gotten through it without good mentorship, writing groups, and a supportive partner.

The Pauly Prize is awarded for a “first book,” which begs the question, what do you have in mind for your next book?

I’m currently researching the biologist and environmental writer Marston Bates. I’m considering his life and fieldwork as a way to trace the changing role of science and environment in U.S. relations with the Global South during the 20th century.

What advice would you offer to junior scholars starting projects in US-Caribbean/Latin American histories of science?

First, please do work in this area! There are so many important stories to tell! I feel like I just scratched the surface. And there were so many things I had to leave out to keep a tight narrative. The most obvious thing is that I followed U.S. biologists and ecologists who traveled to work in the region. While one of my main original goals was to examine collaboration and exchange between U.S. and Latin American scientists, the historical reality on the ground at these stations ended up making such interactions unfortunately rare. Although there were some important exceptions, these stations were, until recently, quite exclusionary. Focusing on other communities and other kinds of sites of knowledge production would illuminate different kinds of relationships and interactions.

Second, read work by historians of this region, and read well beyond the history of science. Historians of the Caribbean and Latin America have been dealing with questions about power, as well as about flows and migrations of people, ideas, and commodities for a very long time. This is work that can inform how historians of science think about how knowledge travels and how science is embedded in power structures at various scales. Work on the Caribbean and Latin America demands attention to the transnational and to asymmetries of power. I’m looking forward to the continued growth of this field and its increasing visibility within the history of science community.