Saturday, February 24, 2007

Book Review: "Nature, Empire, and Nation"

University of Texas-Austin Professor of History Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra has collected a few of his recent published pieces in Nature, Empire, and Nation: Explorations of the History of Science in the Iberian World (2007, Stanford University Press). Blurbed as "revisionist history at its best" by Johns Hopkins' Richard Kagan, this book reexamines some of the traditional conceptions of science as practiced in the American colonies of Spain (and to a lesser extent, Portugal). While the book's nature doesn't allow for a particularly cohesive narrative to develop, each essay stands alone very well.

Cañizares-Esguerra argues, primarily, that we must seek to understand what was happening in the scientific and natural history milieu of the Spanish colonies in order to achieve a broad understanding of the impact made by the colonies on the "Scientific Revolution" and the "Enlightenment" as they are traditionally defined. He claims that English and French hostility to Spain (as well as Spanish secrecy) has colored the historiography of the Scientific Revolution and marginalized to a large degree the important contributions to cartography, natural history and other sciences made in the early empire.

It was fascinating to me to read of the many institutions established very early in the colonial period to foster learning, investigation and science in the early colonies: twenty universities by the early eighteenth century, a network of pharmaceutical "labs" to identify profitable remedies from the native plants, and government-sponsored expeditions for various purposes. Clearly - and most particularly after a series of reforms instituted by the Bourbons - the colonies were not stagnated, backwards places, but rather were playing an important role in expanding human knowledge of the natural world.

In the fourth chapter, Cañizares-Esguerra discusses his hypothesis that 'modern' conceptions of race (as innate bodily and mental differences) emerged in seventeenth-century Spanish America, where creole (that is, American-born descendants of Europeans) consciouness developed a line of thinking which blamed inborn differences for the perceived deficiencies of the native peoples. By rejecting the idea that climate and astrology govern human nature (and thus that the American climate was responsible for the "backwardness" of the Amerindians ... and by extension the creoles themselves, eventually), it was necessary to find a more suitable explanation - that the Amerindians were descendants of Noah's cursed son Ham, and thus blighted no matter where they lived. Interestingly, Cañizares-Esguerra notes that this theory, while adopted willingly by the creoles themselves, never gained much credence in Europe, where it was ignored as just more colonial rambling. Nonetheless, this would seem an important precursor to the later conceptions of scientific racism that emerged.

Another chapter I found particularly intriguing concerned the influences of Latin American thinking and study on Alexander von Humbolt; Cañizares-Esguerra maintains that the idea of biodistribution theory that Humboldt would publicize had its roots in colonial thinking.

Quite an interesting take on things in these essays, all of which I enjoyed very much. We're seeing more and more with recent historiography that as much as we like to think we know, there's still a whole lot we haven't examined or wrapped our heads around just yet. Cañizares-Esguerra has done a good job in elucidating just a few of the many potential areas of new scholarship that colonial Latin America has to offer.

1 comment:

Ed said...


You should group all of your reviews and make an archive for them on the blog. I'm assuming blogger gives you an option for tags or subject groupings?