MEGAN RABY is a historian of science and environment whose research and writing highlight transnational connections in science between the United States and Latin America during the twentieth century. Her book American Tropics: The Caribbean Roots of Biodiversity Science (University of North Carolina Press, 2017), winner of the History of Science Society’s Philip J. Pauly Prize, explores the development of biodiversity as a scientific concept in an era when U.S. hegemonic expansion sent ecologists to conduct tropical field research in the circum-Caribbean. In this interview with Portal editor Susanna Sharpe, she discusses her current book project and the fascinating ways in which her area of study draws from multiple disciplines.
Your field, the history of science, sounds like a fascinating way for a student or scholar to combine particular interests and disciplines. What was your path to this specialization?
I was one of those kids who loves dinosaurs, and as a teenager I just could not stop reading anything by Stephen Jay Gould. I was sure I wanted to be a paleontologist, so I headed out to Montana for my undergraduate degree in earth sciences. I loved fieldwork, but I also had to take “core” classes, and classes with titles like “history of science,” “philosophy of science,” and “science and religion” sounded most interesting to me. Montana State happened to have an amazing group of historians, with a particular strength in the history of science, technology, and the environment.
I got hooked right away: I’d had no idea “historian of science” could be a job description. The field fascinated me because it allowed me, on one hand, to think about bigger ideas in science, and on the other hand, I always loved to write, and I found writing in the humanities to be much more satisfying. In part, that is because it is about people, not disembodied ideas.
The field of the history of science is fundamentally concerned with science as a social practice—–how understandings of the natural world are shaped by politics, culture, institutions, place. Given my undergraduate background in a field science, I became particularly interested in how place shapes scientific practices and ideas. Living in the U.S. West, and taking some eye-opening Latin American history courses, understanding the history of U.S. imperialism also became important to me.
What role does curiosity about science and natural phenomena play in your historical research?
My first book, American Tropics, examined how U.S. field biologists took advantage of growing U.S. hegemony in the circum-Caribbean during the early twentieth century and established field stations to study tropical animal and plant communities. From the standpoint of the history of ideas, this was important because field stations enabled scientists to pursue long-term, in situ ecological studies in tropical environments, studies that played a crucial role in the development of the modern concept of biodiversity. Many of these U.S. scientists were drawn by curiosity about what made tropical organisms and environments different from those of the temperate zone that they, as foreigners, were more familiar with––including the question of why the diversity of species generally increases toward the equator.
This may seem like a purely abstract scientific question, but in practice the work was deeply embedded in U.S. colonialism and neocolonialism. U.S. “tropical biologists,” as they came to call themselves, needed funding and places to work. They might not have the kinds of useful knowledge that experts in medicine, agriculture, or engineering could offer to U.S. interests—such as banana and sugar companies in Cuba or Honduras, or U.S. officials in Puerto Rico or the Panama Canal Zone—but they came to argue that their basic research was worth supporting because the diversity of tropical life itself was a kind of natural resource, full of unknown and unexploited potential. After the decolonial moment of the 1960s, U.S. tropical biologists could no longer be so strident in arguing the value of their work to U.S. interests; instead, they shifted to speak of biodiversity as a global resource in need of conservation.
Biodiversity is a very flexible concept, but I think it’s important to recognize these colonial roots. Some of the field stations I wrote about are still powerful and influential institutions in how scientists conceptualize biodiversity in the tropics. Many young Latin American and U.S. ecologists today are asking how they can decolonize their field; I hope my work can be useful to them in reckoning with this history.
Your current book project is a fascinating mixture of history, biography, social inquiry, science, light espionage, and storytelling. You describe the subject, scientist Marston Bates, as a person who “traverses and transgresses boundaries of fields that are usually separate.” Please tell us a little about Bates and what you’ve learned about him.
I’ve found biography to be an incredibly fruitful and satisfying way to approach historical writing. I encountered Marston Bates while working on my first project. He was one of those biologists who did field work at several U.S.-run tropical stations. He was also, as I learned through interviews (during the pandemic, when archives shut down), a queer man. Both his field experiences and sexuality are important to this project.
Bates is no longer a household name, but in the 1950s–1970, he published a dozen popular books on natural history and ecology. During the first half of his career, he worked for two of the most powerful U.S. corporate and philanthropic forces to reshape the global landscape during the twentieth century: the United Fruit Company and the Rockefeller Foundation. As an entomologist, Bates chased agricultural pests and the mosquito vectors of human diseases in Latin America and the Mediterranean during the 1920s through the 1940s. You can think of him as a frontline worker in various schemes to develop the rural world.
I first became interested in him not only because of the way he often centered his environmental writing on his field experiences, especially in Latin America, but in particular because of the way he became a critic of neocolonialism and the sorts of international development efforts he himself had once taken part in. Basically, he became very skeptical of Northern countries’ efforts to tell the Global South how to live. Where did this shift come from? Partly, I think it was from his field experiences. Just one example: In the late 1920s, United Fruit posted him to Guatemala as a kind of agricultural extension agent for coffee growers there. Bates found himself in something of an absurd position. This was his first job straight out of college, and he was supposed to be advising experienced growers about how to run their fincas. He was out of his depth, and he knew it––his journals provide a fascinating and unusual look at the role of science within this notorious company.
Gradually it dawned on him that the company had placed him there primarily for political reasons. On one hand, it was good PR to appear to be giving general agricultural assistance. On the other hand, Bates had to report back to his bosses about farmers’ general sentiments toward the company. United Fruit was pushing for approval of a new Pacific port, and many finqueros were opposed; Bates was there not just as a scientific adviser, but something of a spy. He ultimately became disillusioned with his employer and resigned. I think this also relates in part to his sense of identity and struggles with belonging. Reading his journals, there is a growing sense of alienation from the ideal of white North American masculinity that pervaded the company.
Bates lived his life as both an insider and outsider––an American living abroad, a married bisexual man, a scientist and popular writer. Throughout his career, he moved promiscuously across the natural sciences, human sciences, and humanities, as well as between academic and vernacular science. He has appeared as a marginal figure in a wide range of historical works: histories of science education, disease ecology, corporate colonialism, the Darwin Centennial, the Cold War and population control, and environmentalism. My hope is that Bates’s life can act as a connecting thread, linking places kept separate by nation-centered histories, and integrating lines of thought that scholars have usually treated as rigidly distinct.
Intellectual histories of biology rarely center on the expansion of industrial agriculture, for example, yet it was through encountering United Fruit’s vast monocultures of bananas in Honduras that Bates really came to appreciate the value of ecological diversity. Throughout the course of his wide-ranging career, Bates witnessed the global countryside transformed––you could say he was on the leading edge of the accelerating Anthropocene. His public and private writing provides a unique critical perspective on these transformations. In fact, I think his life opens up questions about how queerness might inform a scientist’s questioning of dominant cultural narratives and ideologies. He certainly wrestled throughout his life and work with questions that remain pressing today: What is humanity’s place within the natural world? What is human nature? If we are cultural animals, can we change ourselves? It is a challenging project that is taking me into all sorts of new areas, which is what makes it so much fun.
You teach a graduate course on environmental history where you discuss the agency of nature and non-human actors. Please say a little bit about that.
The graduate course on environmental history is one of my favorite things to teach because it gets to the core of some of the thorniest methodological problems of historical research and writing. Environmental historians take history “from below” very seriously, asking what the role of the land, the soil, animals, plants, fungi, climate, and other non-human entities has been in human history. Fundamentally, they are historians who approach the environment not as a stage for the drama of human history, but as a fellow actor. But how can a historian go about telling the history of entities that can’t speak for themselves––that don’t leave written records? Environmental historians are a heterogenous bunch, and not all would answer this question in the same way.
In my grad class, we explore how environmental historians have navigated sources, from more traditional written records and images, to “natural archives” like tree ring or ice core data, or even “reading” landscapes themselves. Environmental history is quite interdisciplinary, drawing from social and cultural history and the broader humanities, as well as the sciences. One of the biggest challenges for environmental historians is balancing a critical stance toward scientific knowledge while not being afraid to use science as a tool. The conversations are also fun because the course tends to draw students with interests in many different global regions, and not just from the History Department but from all over campus.
You also teach undergraduates, including a course called Climate Change Is History. What do you hope your students take away from your classes, or from the study of history in general?
Although my own research is not on the history of climate change or climate science, I challenged myself a few years ago to develop a course that addressed the climate crisis. I created Climate Change Is History, a UGS 302 Signature Course that introduces students to a range of historical and humanistic approaches to climate change.
Students today are extremely worried about climate change, and rightfully so. We are all feeling it. We need to confront the fact that our students will face at least 1.5°C and perhaps as much as 5°C of global warming within their lifetime. This is a climate regime never before experienced within the span of human history. But I don’t think that means there’s no place for historical perspectives. As I tell my students, we need to draw on all the resources of past human experience and wisdom available to us.
The most gratifying thing about this course for me has been at the end of the semester when students have told me that they used to see climate change as just a topic for scientists, or as a controversy to avoid because they didn’t want get into political arguments. By the end of the course, they see that there is room for engagement no matter what their major, future career, or central values might be. It is definitely a class in which I do not have all the answers. ✹