Latin America Science: The Long View

September 25, 2007

Until recently, Latin American science has been dismissed as the underdeveloped and dependent poor cousin of science in the developed world.[1] But Latin American scientists have long made important contributions, and the history of science in Latin America provides a sharp lens for viewing the history of the region’s relations with the rest of world.

Before the European conquest of the sixteenth century, indigenous civilizations in the Americas had developed very sophisticated knowledge of their surrounding natural and physical worlds.[2] Knowledge of agriculture, medical botany, astronomy and metallurgy was particularly well developed in the Andes and in what is now Mexico and Central America. Unfortunately, though we know the broad outlines of many of these accomplishments, few of the details have been recovered and even less is known about how these systems of knowledge were preserved and adapted in the wake of European colonization. Indigenous knowledge was lost in part because it had been inextricably woven into indigenous religions. The European conquerors persecuted practitioners of these religions and the learned indigenous elite readily embraced Hispanic acculturation. Most indigenous knowledge had been transmitted orally, and this transmission became precarious when indigenous societies came under colonial control.

During the first two and a half centuries of colonization—that is, until about 1750—the Spaniards and Portuguese brought to the New World their own forms of "Western" science and made little effort to assimilate local learned traditions. An exception was the effort to incorporate plants used by Indian shamans into the colonists’ therapeutic arsenal. This effort was considered legitimate because Europeans thought that God distributed the plants of the world to match each region’s endemic diseases. In addition, during the sixteenth century the Spanish crown sought to map the New World and its rich botanical resources. In the 1570s, an official expedition led by Franciso Hernández collected valuable medical botanical information in Mexico. Among Hernández’s main sources of information were Indian medical experts.

Recent studies suggest that Western scientific ideas, institutions, and practices played a significant and often overlooked role in the process of Iberian colonization by identifying the mining and natural resources fit for transatlantic export and by simply allowing the new rulers to make sense of the new natural and social worlds around them. Science became central to imperial policies of economic control and exploitation. The Spanish Crown had colonial authorities fill out questionnaires, known as the Relaciones Geográficas, which provided information about local geography, plants and other resources. At the end of the colonial period scientists and scientific expeditions contributed significantly to the creation of discourses of both imperial reform and national identity among local learned elites.

From the fifteenth century on, Western modes and styles of understanding the natural world became dominant and influenced all learned elite institutions in the region. Scholars have often argued that although imperial authorities in the Americas instituted vigorous colonial cultural policies that included the early creation of universities in the main capital cities (which opened some 100 years before Harvard did in North America), the same authorities were also religiously intolerant, persecuting freethinkers and dissenters through the Inquisition. Moreover, it is often thought that Spain was committed to a medieval system of learning that in the long run stifled scientific institutions and methods. This interpretation is clearly a secular-liberal reading of the colonial past made popular during the early nineteenth century.

Colonial universities did train theologians, lawyers and a few physicians in early-modern paradigms in order to sustain a society based on social and racial hierarchies and "corporate" rights (different rights for different groups), a society very unlike the modern nation-state based on the principle of equality before the law. But as universities and courts mushroomed in the colonies, various European scientific traditions began to thrive. Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque discourses and practices often overlapped and coexisted. Colonial courts, bookstores, pharmacies, nunneries and cloisters became alternative institutional channels to the universities and helped spawn new scientific practices. In the Baroque era, the learned kept cabinets of curiosities, alchemical laboratories, microscopes, telescopes, and astrolabes and were summoned by the state to cast horoscopes and produce maps, machines and courtly mechanical toys.

Political and scientific changes occurred during the second half of the eighteenth century when Iberia and its colonies underwent dramatic economic and cultural changes. The Scientific Revolution that emerged in northern Europe during the seventeenth century arrived in Latin America along with programs for economic and cultural renewal launched by Charles III in Spain and the Marquis of Pombal in Portugal. Reform largely took place outside the purview of the universities, which no longer fell under Jesuit control after the religious order’s expulsion from Latin America in the 1770s. Universities refused to embrace the new mechanical philosophies of Galileo and Newton, but alternative imperial institutions usually led by the army made the new paradigms widely available.

As Spain launched economic reforms to turn its colonies into dependent, specialized mining and agro-export producers, the state financed numerous new expeditions to chart, catalog and map the still untapped botanical and geological resources of the New World. Spain also eagerly promoted technical reform in mining in Mexico and Peru, and in the early nineteenth century undertook one of the first world-wide efforts to control smallpox using a vaccine.

The local colonial elites—Creoles—felt discriminated against by the new Spanish reforms and they set out to invent "American" identities separate from Spain. Science became one element of this identity creation. In Europe, the French naturalist Buffon had declared that the American continent was a humid and degenerating land. Creole scientists like Hipólito Unanue in Peru and Antonio de Alzate in Mexico opposed the Count of Buffon’s views by exalting the natural wonders of the colonies and creating a patriotic science built on the premise that America did not abide by the natural laws discovered in Europe. The learned also crafted patriotic epistemologies that called into question the ability of transient foreign visitors to comprehend local experiences, thus foreshadowing many insights of contemporary postcolonial scholarship.[3]

During the early nineteenth century science did not develop in an autonomous public sphere but under the shadow of the emergent nation-states of the republics of Latin America. Scientific institutions and practices declined after independence, which occurred in most Latin American countries during the second and third decade of the nineteenth century. This was in part the result of the destruction brought about by independence and post-independence wars. Nevertheless, medical doctors, naturalists, military engineers and intellectuals assumed important sociopolitical roles in the newly independent nations of Latin America. They became leading figures in the state bureaucracies, identified raw materials of possible commercial value for the new national export economies, and used scientific rhetoric to settle political debates. Hipólito Unanue of Peru, Andrés Bello of Venezuela, and the Brazilian emperor Pedro II are just a few examples of this new type of political figures steeped in the new sciences of the age.

As the new nation-states began slowly to consolidate themselves, scientific institutions and practices recovered their prominent role. Many European scientists, particularly naturalists, arrived in Latin America in the second half of the nineteenth century, and along with local scientific communities they helped to map national resources and spur the development of railroads, telegraphs, mining, export agriculture and public health systems. This in turn helped create the technical and financial conditions to consolidate the reach of the state.

Nineteenth century European intellectual trends such as Darwinism had some influence in Latin America. With few exceptions Darwinism was brought to Latin America by physicians, politicians and social scientists as a new ideological resource to settle debates over social order, theorize about ethnic differences and establish the goals of material progress.[4] By the second half of the nineteenth century, the system of thought known as Positivism had become the leading elite ideology in most Latin American countries. Positivism held that science was the linchpin of the progress and social order to which Latin American nations aspired.[5] Technocratic and pragmatic management, Positivists believed, should take precedent over abstract principles and unrealistic (often radical) political utopias.

As European scientists advanced ever more comprehensive scientific theories, new levels of international scientific cooperation developed, and the number and scope of international scientific expeditions to Latin America increased. These new international scientific networks lent their support to local political leaders and intellectuals seeking to implant scientific and technical education; their efforts led in turn to the formation or reorganization of professional universities that followed the French model of higher education, one in which the professional practice of both professors (who taught part time) and students took precedence over research. But local scientific traditions emerged in different Latin American cities around botanical gardens, specialized libraries, museums of natural history, physiology laboratories and scientific chairs in medical schools.

Despite some important efforts in the development of geosciences, mathematics and physics (especially in Argentina), "pure" science failed to attract large numbers of devotees and patrons in Latin America, whereas rich scientific traditions emerged in "applied" fields such as natural history, medicine (including public health) and engineering. Towards the turn of the twentieth century, a number of countries created laboratories and scientific institutions where cadres of local scientists began to do original experimental work that was recognized by the international scientific community and made important contributions to the world’s store of knowledge.[6] A few examples bear this out: Carlos Chagas of Brazil’s Instituto Oswaldo Cruz discovered the disease that now bears his name along with the parasite and the insect responsible for causing and transmitting it.[7] In the 1880s, the Cuban Carlos Finlay identified the means by which yellow fever is spread, some twenty years earlier than a U.S. medical commission in Havana. The Peruvian physiologist Carlos Monge spearheaded the study of the effects of high altitude on human beings and animals and created the Institute of Andean Biology at Lima’s University of San Marcos.

To be sure, nationalistic concerns colored the content of Latin American science during this period. Peruvian physiologists were reacting against the belief held by Anglo-Saxon researchers that the lack of oxygen at high altitudes produced an Indian "race" in Peru that was inferior to Europeans. The Peruvian researchers drew upon a cultural movement, indigenismo, that sought to give positive value to the contributions of indigenous peoples, and they therefore proposed that indigenous mountain dwellers had developed alternative physiological mechanisms as an adaptation to high altitudes.

During the early twentieth century, Latin Americans also appropriated to their own ends eugenics, a European biological and medical doctrine that was an outgrowth of Darwinism. European eugenicists policed miscegenation and enforced physical controls on reproduction in the belief that "races" could be "improved" if individuals with characteristics deemed undesirable were kept from having offspring. By contrast, Latin American eugenicists encouraged education and health reforms that would be enforced by "enlightened" politicians, physicians and scientists. This was in accord with their view that "improvements" acquired in the course of an individual’s lifetime could be passed on to her offspring.

As Latin America became fully integrated into the global capitalist economy, the United States made it a matter of policy to influence the cultural values of the local elites. Over the course of the twentieth century, the United States influenced Latin American learned communities through the medical and scientific practices brought by its occupying armies and by the private companies in the region. More lasting and subtle was the work of North American philanthropic agencies, such as the Rockefeller and Kellogg Foundations, and other private and public institutions.

Since the 1920s, for instance, the Rockefeller Foundation has played a major role in the organization of scientific and technical knowledge in Latin America and in the development of public health campaigns against hookworm, yellow fever and malaria. In addition it reorganized medical education by the creation of science chairs, departments and institutes.

In the mid 1940s, however, the Rockefeller Foundation lost interest in public health and medical science and launched a major agricultural program, first in Mexico and later in other Latin American countries. This program sought to improve food crops of maize, wheat and rice and to broaden agricultural graduate training, and regrettably discouraged the use of traditional forms of agriculture that in the long run have proven more suitable for certain ecological habitats and environmental conditions. [See "Agriculture that Doesn’t Get Rid of Farmers," p. 29]

In any case, the relationship between American philanthropy and Latin American science was not a case of unilateral diffusion. Latin Americans did not assume passive roles; rather they reacted to and adapted the models of organization of science and higher education being exported from the United States. But Latin American scientists were not the only ones who sought to accommodate the new models to local circumstances: U.S. scientists (including field officers of the Rockefeller Foundation) proved often more flexible than their Latin American counterparts. Locals and foreigners engaged in negotiations over how best to replicate institutions across space and culture and over whether changes came primarily from domestic influences or from external stimuli.

Between the mid 1940s and the early 1960s the governments of major Latin American countries supported local journals and research centers through grants, fellowships, and donations; and many of these governments created national councils of science and technology. During a period when protectionism and the economic theory of import substitution industrialization were considered the keys to national development and the growth of national industries, scientific communities relied on the power of national government to acquire a measure of autonomy, visibility and power.

The especially intense nationalistic feelings of segments of the intellectual elites as well as government support for the promotion and reorganization of cultural and higher education activities encouraged a particular style of doing science characterized by imaginative adaptations to scarce resources and adverse conditions including low salaries, lack of equipment, small libraries, inadequate supplies, "brain drain" and political instability. Despite such conditions, a number of countries have demonstrated that science can have a local impact and even achieve international standards of excellence. Argentina, for example, assembled a remarkable group of researchers in the biomedical sciences for most of the twentieth century. The Argentine physiologist Bernardo Houssay received the Nobel Prize in 1947 for his work on the role of the pituitary gland in diabetes mellitus. Houssay created an outstanding institute of physiological research in Buenos Aires using a low-technology, labor-intensive, assembly-line system of experimentation. Houssay praised working with small budgets and little equipment because he considered wealth and excessive instrumentation unpropitious for the development of intellectual prowess. In 1970 Luis Leloir, one of Houssay´s disciples, won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, and in 1980 a third Argentine, Cesar Milstein, received the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology. Milstein, who spent most of his career abroad, shared the Prize for his contributions to immunology, which laid the basis for advances in cancer treatment and the identification of AIDS.

These advances, however, were constantly interrupted by economic crisis and dictatorships. The authoritarian regimes of Argentina and other Latin American countries forced many talented young scientists into exile. Military dictatorships tried to bolster the prestige of the army by encouraging the pursuit of certain fields of inquiry, as the cases of nuclear energy in Argentina and computer technology in Brazil seem to suggest.

Today, most scientific communities and institutions in Latin America still struggle to achieve continuity and to survive under conditions of adversity.[8] However, they are part of a rich and complex tradition that harks back to the pre-colonial past. Latin American nationalism and the search for pragmatic solutions in nations with marked social and educational differences have led to creative responses and important contributions to both the Latin American and international communities.

Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra is the author of How to Write the History of the New World: Histories, Epistemologies and Identities in the 18th Century Atlantic World (Stanford University Press, 2001). Marcos Cueto is a professor at the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia and a researcher at the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, in Lima. He is the author of The Return of Epidemics in 20th century Peru (Ashgate, 2001).

1. Two journals devoted to the region’s history of science, medicine and technology are: Historia, Ciencias, Saúde-Manguinhos, address: Casa Oswaldo Cruz, Av. Brasil 4365, Rio de Janeiro, RJ Brasil 21040-360; Quipu, Revista Latinoamericana de Historia de las Ciencias y la Tecnología address: Apartado postal 21-873, 04000 Mexico D.F., Mexico.

2. See Brian S. Bauer and David S. Dearborn, Astronomy and empire in the ancient Andes (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995); Constance Classen, Inca Cosmology and the Human Body (University of Utah Press, 1993); Bernard Ortíz de Montellano, Aztec medicine, health, and nutrition (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press,1990).

3. Robert R. Steele, Flowers for the King (Durham: Duke University Press, 1982); Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, How to Write the History of the New World (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2001); John Tate Lanning, The Eighteenth-Century Enlightenment in the University of San Carlos Guatemala (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1956); Thomas Glick, "Science and Independence in Latin America." Hispanic American Historical Review 71 (1991): 307-334.

4. For Darwinism and eugenics, see Thomas Glick, et al. eds. The Reception of Darwinism in the Iberian World (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001) and Nancy Leys Stepan, The Hour of Eugenics: Race, Gender and Nation in Latin America (Ithaca: Cornell University. Press, 1991). For the nineteenth century, see Frank Safford, The Ideal of the Practical: Colombia’s Struggle to Form a Technical Elite (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976); Julyan Peard. Race, Place and Medicine, the Idea of the Tropics in Nineteenth-century Brazilian Medicine. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999); Lucille Brockway, Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens (New York: Academic Press, 1979).

5. The phrase "ordem e progreso"—order and progress—on the Brazilian flag is an abbreviation of a Positivist slogan. The flag was adopted when Brazil declared itself a republic in 1889.

6. For this period, see Nancy Leys Stepan, The Beginnings of Brazilian Science (New York Science History Publications, 1976); Francois Delaporte, The History of Yellow Fever: An Essay on the Birth of Tropical Medicine (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1991). Marcos Cueto (ed.) Missionaries of Science: the Rockefeller Foundation and Latin America (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University, 1994).

7. Jaime L. Benchimol and Luiz A. Teixeira, Cobras, lagartos & outros bichos: Uma história comparada dos institutos Oswaldo Cruz e Butantan (Rio de Janeiro, 1993).

8. Simon Schwartzman, A Space for Science: The Development of the Scientific Community in Brazil (State College: Penn State University Press, 1991); Jacqueline Fortes and Larissa Lomnitz, Becoming a Scientist in Mexico (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994); Emanuel Adler, The Power of Ideology: The Quest for Technological Autonomy in Argentina and Brazil (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987); Julie M. Feinsilver, Healing the Masses: Cuban Health Policies at Home and Abroad (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

Tags: science, technology, colonial era, research, universities

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