How Scientists Think; about 'Natives', for Example. A Problem of Taxonomy among Biologists of Alien Species in Hawaii

By Helmreich, Stefan | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, March 2005 | Go to article overview

How Scientists Think; about 'Natives', for Example. A Problem of Taxonomy among Biologists of Alien Species in Hawaii


Helmreich, Stefan, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


Descending the escalator into the Honolulu airport baggage claim one day in June 2003, I found myself gliding toward a Hawaii Department of Agriculture poster reading 'HELP PROTECT HAWAII. Undeclared fruits, vegetables, plants, and animals can cause damage to Hawaii's fragile environment'. Later that evening, at a store stocked with damp, dog-eared books near the University of Hawaii at Manoa, I happened upon a 2001 volume entitled Hawai'i's invasive species, in which I read that the Hawaiian archipelago, the most isolated in the world, has been the location most 'invaded' by organisms introduced by humans (Staples & Cowie 2001). (1) Hawaii is a poster island chain for 'invasion biology', a life-sciences specialty that takes as its object species out-of-place, organisms often called 'alien species'--or, sometimes, 'introduced species', to highlight the role of human agency in moving living things between ecosystems (Van Driesche & Van Driesche 2000). Non-human organisms have long been transported across widely separated localities, but invasion biologists argue that rates of travel increased steeply in the twentieth century (Pimentel 2002). Aeroplanes like the 757 on which I flew in are relatively minor 'vectors', to use the vaguely medical language employed in this field. Of greater concern to biologists of island zones like Hawaii are less monitored paths of transfer associated with the ocean: boat hulls and ballast water have hosted organisms--molluscs, seaweeds, crabs--across distant ports, with a variety of deleterious effects (Cox 1999).

Weeks after my arrival in Hawaii, where I travelled to conduct anthropological research on the politics of 'marine bioprospecting' (the search in oceangoing organisms for properties of pharmaceutical and industrial application) (Helmreich 2003), the State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources released a draft of an Aquatic Invasive Species Management Plan. The plan detailed dangers of aquatic alien species and extolled virtues of native species, offering:

  Aquatic invasive species (AIS) include species in marine, freshwater,
  brackish water, and estuarine environments, whose introductions cause
  or are likely to cause economic or environmental harm, and/or harm to
  human health. AIS are a serious problem in Hawai'i, posing a
  significant threat to Hawai'i's native plants and animals, as well as
  their associated ecosystems. (2)

In Alien invasion: America's battle with non-native animals and plants, journalist Robert Devine, writing of non-human flora and fauna, suggests, 'Hawaii's natives are vulnerable because of the rapid change brought on by modern civilization' (1998: 262).

How do biologists define 'native'? Far from being a straightforward matter of biological classification, this is a taxing taxonomic question, especially in Hawaii, where the word native resonates with descriptors used by and for the indigenous people of Hawaii, known as 'Native Hawaiians' (though, also, inspired by Hawaiian sovereignty movements, as 'Kanaka Maoli' [Merry 2000: xiii]). This article, based on interviews I conducted in summer 2003 with scientists at the Hawaii Biological Survey of the Bishop State Museum of Natural and Cultural History, at the University of Hawaii, and at the Waikiki Aquarium, maps the ways in which biologists sort these things out, especially in the aquatic realm. Classificatory issues become particularly vexed when sited in the sea that weaves in and out of this part of what Europeans have called Polynesia. The categorization of native and alien species in the politically charged geography of Hawaii and, more, in the epistemologically ambiguous zone of Hawaiian waters is instructive, I argue, for meditating on how scientists think: about 'natives', for example.

In How 'natives' think: about Captain Cook, for example, Marshall Sahlins (1995) maintains that eighteenth-century Native Hawaiian cosmological categories were capacious enough to consider Captain Cook an instantiation of the chiefly Akua, (3) Lono. …

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