- Picturing Tropical Nature by Nancy Leys Stepan
Nancy Leys Stepan is well known among historians of science for her studies both of British theories of race and of Latin American (especially Brazilian) eugenics. In ‘The Hour of Eugenics’: Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America (1991), she portrayed a eugenics that was markedly different in character from the Anglo-Saxon variants promoted in Britain, the United States, Scandinavia, and, most notoriously, Nazi Germany. Ably situating the theorists and practitioners of Brazilian eugenics in their social, cultural, and political contexts, Stepan’s work made clear for historians of eugenics just how much of a difference “place” can make. In Picturing Tropical Nature, matters of place are once again essential to Stepan’s enterprise. Here, however, situating “the tropics” both geographically and historically is not a simple matter, for, as the author insists, “the tropics” represented “imaginary” or “constructed” space as much as physical location.
Stepan frames her study by posing the question (p. 14): “How did nature, people and diseases come to be seen and represented as tropical, and with what consequences?” She proceeds to tackle these three themes —“nature, people, and diseases” — in successive pairs of chapters. The naturalists Alexander von Humboldt and Alfred Russel Wallace feature in chapters one and two, the first as the European traveler who set the nineteenth-century model for writing about the tropics, the second as the mid-century British naturalist whose radical social views and evolutionism were implicated in his ambivalent views of tropical nature and his concerns about environmental degradation. On the theme of tropical peoples, Stepan devotes a chapter to Louis Agassiz’s efforts to record photographically what he understood as the degenerative consequences of race mixing in Brazil. She follows this with a contrasting chapter on local, Brazilian views of the benefits of race mixing. Her chapters on tropical medicine addresses first the British physician Patrick Manson’s development of the discipline of tropical medicine (with special attention to his clinical pictures of elephantiasis) and then the Brazilian physician’s Carlos Chagas’s identification of what came to be called “Chagas’s disease.” A final chapter returns to the general theme of tropical nature through an interpretation of the gardens and parks designed in the mid-twentieth century by Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx.
Each of these chapters reads clearly, is well informed by the scholarly literature, and tells an intriguing (if often unsettling) story. Each also involves the presentation and analysis of a number of images and is furthermore alive with a wealth of ideas, though readers may find occasion to question the author’s framing of them.
The chapter on Agassiz, the famous Swiss-born American zoologist, is a case in point. Agassiz caused a stir in the United States by maintaining that the world’s different human races were separate primordial types, placed originally by the Creator in distinct geographical regions. Though opposed to slavery, Agassiz was convinced that blacks were an inferior race and that race mixing caused degeneration. He welcomed the new technology of photography because he felt it could bring scientific precision to the identification and representation of racial characters. In 1865 he traveled to Brazil, attracted by the prospect of restoring his health and seeing not only the zoological riches of the country but also, Stepan says, “a tropical experiment in race mixture on a grand scale” (p. 99).
Stepan offers a thoughtful, critical assessment of photographs Agassiz arranged to have taken of naked men and (more often) naked women in order to show the characters of racial hybrids. She discusses these images in terms of representations of “the Other” and also situates them in terms of evolving conventions of scientific representation. She concludes, happily enough, that Agassiz’s project failed: his pictures did not support his ideas of the persistence of permanent racial types but showed instead a whole spectrum of characters grading into each other. This and American views of propriety, Stepan suggests, were why Agassiz’s pictures remained unpublished. But the story thus told is perhaps too tidy. Nothing Agassiz says...