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.
"American Tropics is not only the best book we have on the scientific reinvention of 'the tropics' across the twentieth century, but it is also a tour de force demonstration of how the ideal of biodiversity emerged from place-based field practices. This is a history that matters to the future of tropical science and conservation."
– Paul Sutter, University of Colorado Boulder
"The first book to situate the rise of the scientific concept of biodiversity within its larger circum-Caribbean context, American Tropics is a sophisticated and compelling journey through the research practices at field stations outside the U.S. mainland in Cuba, Jamaica, Guyana, and Panama. Using these stations as launching points, Raby skillfully shows the strategic and serendipitous ways these encounters mapped onto political and economic imperial pursuits. Such insights will echo through our understandings of tropical life as a resource for generations to come."
– Emily Wakild, author of Revolutionary Parks
"Blending intellectual, institutional, social, environmental, and political history, Raby reveals that the now-abstract, theoretical concept of 'biodiversity' was rooted in the ideas and ambitions of several generations of U.S. biologists. Built on a truly impressive archival foundation, this study offers a rich, nuanced understanding of the personal and institutional relations that drove this scientific work."
– Stuart McCook, University of Guelph