Guest post: ecology done and being done in Latin America

Note from Brian: This is a guest post from Catherine Hulshof, a professor in Puerto Rico. A while back we had an ask us anything question on perceptions of ecology coming out of developing countries followed by several first person accounts. Catherine had a very different perspective from anything we’ve heard so far on the topic that I thought was important to express. She has a blog here.

There are two perspectives of science in developing countries. The first perspective provides examples of scientists who ‘did science correctly’ to demonstrate that these regions contribute to global knowledge. The second perspective considers science a product of social, cultural, and political values of a particular place and time and, because of this, is subject to fashion.

Unwrapping these two perspectives requires a history of a people who long ago catalogued all living species, their varied uses and ecological interactions in some of the most biodiverse places in the world.

It’s easy to forget this because the oral tradition is dead or dying and the biodiversity catalogues preserved in stone codices, paintings, or stelae were systematically destroyed. The famous 1552 ethnobotanical herbarium from Mexico was kept secret in the Vatican for 400 years (Domínguez et al. 2015).

What was substituted were descriptions of the natural world written by priests, monks, and other colonists sent from Spain, France, and England to inventory resources for the empire. These explorations gave rise to the first universities in the Americas, like the Universidad Santo Tomás de Aquino, established in 1538, 150 years before Harvard.

During the 18th and 19th centuries the success of mining and agriculture in Latin America was married to rapid scientific growth. This success funded the construction of botanical gardens, natural history museums, universities and other specialized laboratories like the Real Seminario de Mineria in Mexico (where Alexander von Humboldt visited and taught for several months).

How easily forgotten are the scientists who accompanied our von Humboldt, Bates, and Darwin.

The booming mining, agriculture and scientific sectors demonstrated the strength of the Spanish colonies and independence followed. In many ways, scientists (who were already among the Creole elite) led the independence movement, becoming congressmen and writing constitutions. The Mexican Constitution, for example, makes reference to scientists like Rousseau, Newton, and Benjamin Franklin, reflecting the prominent role science played in shaping these nations.

The 19th century was another major period of growth for science in Latin America. Immigration of scientists fleeing Europe during wartime, international funding from institutions like the Rockefeller and Kellogg Foundations, combined with the adoption of more inclusive education policies, were major instruments for strengthening the scientific sector.

Today, many of the same institutions that were founded before and after independence still support modern science and have produced generations of scientists, Nobel Prizes, and scientific literature, predominantly in Spanish.

That’s the differentiating factor between the two perspectives of science in developing countries. English is the dominant language of science. It wasn’t always English. It may not always be English. At times it was Latin, others German, further back Arabic. We live in the Information Age but access to information is not equal. This is one of the greatest tragedies of science.

Multilingual scientists have a major advantage because they can connect different narratives. Narratives that are too easily lost if not written in the modern science vernacular.

Narratives like that of Hipólito Unanue y Pavón a naturalist who wrote detailed botanical accounts of the Peruvian flora. Or Hipólito Ruiz López, considered the Peruvian Linnaeus. And José Celestino Mutis whose botanical collection was only rivaled by Joseph Banks’ in London and who collaborated with Alexander von Humboldt. Or José Antonio Alzate y Ramirez who published the first scientific journals in Mexico. Or what about Francisco José de Caldas who invented the hypsometer and measured altitude with von Humboldt. Or botanists José Mariano Mociño and Jose Longinos Martinez who promoted the natural sciences in Guatemala. Or Agustín Stahl, the famous Puerto Rican naturalist. And Costa Rica’s Clodomiro Picado Twight who pioneered snake research and antivenin development and whose work on molds predated Alexander Fleming’s. Or Cuba’s naturalist Felipe Poey y Aloy. Or Carlos Chagas of Brazil’s Instituto Oswaldo Cruz who discovered the parasite and insect responsible for Chagas disease. And Cuban Carlos Juan Finlay who identified the yellow fever vector decades before U.S. scientists. And of course the Peruvian physiologist Carlos Monge who studied the effects of high altitude on humans and animals and created the Institute of Andean Biology. Or Ynes Mexia, a Mexican-American botanist who discovered 500 new plant species. Or Miguel Álvarez del Toro a famous ornithologist from Mexico who founded the Instituto de Historia Natural in Chiapas. Or more contemporary scientists like Mario Molina who received a Nobel Prize for his work relating the environmental effects of CFCs, Rosalina Berazaín Iturralde a leading botanist in Cuba, Cleofé Calderón a grass and bamboo specialist from Argentina, Colombia’s Juan Posada a leading plant ecologist or Susana Caballero a marine biologist, or Ariel Lugo from Puerto Rico who popularized the idea of novel ecosystems, or Carla Restrepo a tropical ecologist with a charismatic path to science or Sandra Díaz in Argentina, recognized globally for her foundational work by a long list of awards (including a Peace Nobel Prize).

The list is endless.

The contributions of ecologists from developing countries are not periphery to or separate from those of developed countries. On the contrary, collaboration between scientists gave rise to entire branches of science, ignited independence and the development of new nations, and is pioneering our understanding of biodiversity and global change in the 21st century.

We’ve heard accounts of doing science in the midst of political and financial instability (from Brazil here, here, here; from South Africa here; from Puerto Rico keep an eye out here). Despite interruptions and reduced funding, institutions like Colombia’s Instituto de Investigación de Recursos Biológicos Alexander von Humboldt represent the next generation of science in Latin America.

During the Dark Ages, science declined in Europe and flourished in Islam. During the last half of this century, science investment declined in the United States and is flourishing elsewhere. Developing countries are perfectly positioned to lead some of the world’s most challenging ecological questions in some of the world’s most biodiverse regions. Indeed, these regions are most affected by the fashions of the developed world.

For more detailed accounts of the history of science in Latin America check out:

  1. Glick, T.P. (1992) History of Science in Latin America. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Latin America and the Caribbean, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
  2. Quipu, Revista Latinoamericana de Historia de las Ciencias y la Tecnología
  3. Domínguez, F., Alonso-Castro, A. J., Anaya, M., González-Trujano, M. E., Salgado-Ceballos, H., & Orozco-Suárez, S. (2015). Mexican Traditional Medicine: Traditions of yesterday and Phytomedicines for Tomorrow. In Therapeutic Medicinal Plants: From Lab to the Market, 1.
  4. A great interactive teaching resource from the Smithsonian Institution highlighting Latino Natural History

Thanks to Maga Gei for feedback on these ideas!

14 thoughts on “Guest post: ecology done and being done in Latin America

  1. A very enjoyable post. I will have to look into the lit cited and find out more. Thank you for taking the time to do this and thanks DE for providing a forum.

  2. Important to remind us how science poles shift with time and will shift again (as currently), and the oral histories that have been ignored or lost, with the embedded science. Thanks for this text and all the references to explore.

    • I agree that the shifting poles of science is an important point. Most people don’t think about how recent the Anglo-Saxon (Britain/US/English-language) centrality in science is. Just 50 to 100 years ago the center was more in continental Europe and French and German were the dominant languages with strong contributions from Russia and Japan. And of course before that Latin and Arabic.

      As I highlighted in my original post, the trend of fraction of articles published is already clearly shifting away. Brazil, China and generally most of the world is increasing while the US, Britain, Germany, Scandinavia their portion is shrinking.

      I certainly wouldn’t want to bet much that English will be “the language of science” 100 years from now.

      • Well said. We are in the midst of another major shift in the pole of science. A good bit of history puts things in perspective. It’s exciting to think what/where ecology will look like in 100+ years.

      • Just thought of an interesting personal anecdote on this. I come from an academic family.

        My grandfather who got his PhD in the 1940s in the US and had to demonstrate proficiency in both French and German to get his PhD (part of being a PhD is being a scholar and there was a lot of literature in the sciences in those languages).

        My father who got his PhD in the 1960s in the US had to demonstrate proficiency in just one of French or German to get a PhD.

        I got my PhD ~2000 in the US and had to demonstrate proficiency in Spanish, French or another language (I forget which, probably German).

        My PhD students in the 2010s only have to demonstrate proficiency in a computer language.

        My bet is in the 2050s in a reversal PhD students will have to demonstrate proficiency in Chinese or Spanish or Portuguese.

        For myself, I chose Spanish as it was obviously more relevant to ecologists at the present time (and aside from using it right now on my sabbatical in the neotropics, I have been glad to be able to read articles in say Revista Chilena de Historia Natural). I still wish I could read some of the early German ecology (Schimper, Haeckel) and there is some amazing early ecology in Russian too.

      • I have to confess that when I was picking a grad program in 1995, I ruled out every program with a second language requirement. I struggled in my 2 years of high school Spanish and couldn’t imagine becoming proficient enough.

        Just relating my own example. I wouldn’t draw any larger conclusions from it.

    • Totally agree – I mentioned him in my original post. That was a transformative book. And that book was only a small part of his contribution.

  3. Pingback: Ask us anything: how can ecologists from developing countries be competitive on the international academic job market? | Dynamic Ecology

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