American Tropics: The Caribbean Roots of Biodiversity Science

American Tropics: The Caribbean Roots of Biodiversity Science

American Tropics: The Caribbean Roots of Biodiversity Science

American Tropics: The Caribbean Roots of Biodiversity Science


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, Megan Raby details how ecologists took advantage of growing U.S. landholdings in the circum-Caribbean by establishing permanent field stations for long-term, basic tropical research. 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.

Considering U.S. biological fieldwork from the era of the Spanish-American War through the anticolonial movements of the 1960s and 1970s, this study combines the history of science, environmental history, and the history of U.S.-Caribbean and Latin American relations. In doing so, Raby sheds new light on the origins of contemporary scientific and environmentalist thought and brings to the forefront a surprisingly neglected history of twentieth-century U.S. science and empire.


The problems of human beings in the tropics are primarily biological in origin:
overpopulation, habitat destruction, soil deterioration, malnutrition, disease, and
even, for hundreds of millions, the uncertainty of food and shelter from one day
to the next. These problems can be solved in part by making biological diversity a
source of economic wealth.

—Edward O. Wilson, 1988

In September 1986, sixty scientists and policy makers convened for the “National Forum on BioDiversity” in Washington, dc. the conference, organized under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution and the National Academies of Science, included some of the biggest names in the U.S. science and conservation communities, Edward O. Wilson, Thomas Lovejoy, Paul Ehrlich, Peter Raven, Stephen Jay Gould, and Michael Soulé among them. Although it was a U.S. “national” forum, its ambitions were decidedly global. As each speaker came to the podium, a picture of a worldwide extinction crisis emerged. Together, they made a forceful, and very public, case for the need for more scientific research in support of conservation around the globe. Species were being lost, they warned, before they could even be discovered.

To articulate their cause, the conference organizers coined the term biodiversity, which quickly became the rallying cry of the emerging field of conservation biology. As the forum was telecast and participants interviewed by news agencies nationwide, it even became a household word. in a narrow sense, biodiversity refers to the number and variety of species in a given area. Although most definitions also include variation within species (genetic diversity) and at the level of ecosystems, the term is often used as a synonym for species diversity—the number and relative abundance of species in an area. As a scientific measure, biodiversity offered an important tool for making conservation priorities. the discourse surrounding the term biodiversity, however, also helped reinforce the global nature of the conservation problem at hand. At stake, conservationists argued, was not just particular wild places or even individual endangered species; the threat was to the diversity of life on Earth itself.

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