- Protection des cultures, construction de la nature: Agriculture, foresterie et entomologie au Canada, 1884-1959
In Protection des cultures, Stéphane Castonguay presents an ode to governmental scientific research. He chronicles the evolution of economic entomology during its formative years in Canada and argues that, contrary to the prevailing conception, it made profound contributions to the development of scientific research and the training of researchers – two functions normally attributed only to those in our universities. His appeal will stimulate an enthusiastic response from fans of the history of science, but a much meeker one from those whose interests are more general.
Castonguay provides a comprehensive institutional history of Canada's entomological service based on a careful reading of primary (mostly Department of Agriculture records) and secondary sources. Starting from the appointment of James Fletcher as the country's first entomologist in the Dominion Department of Agriculture in 1884, Castonguay divides the service's evolution over the next seven decades into two eras during which the entomologists' main focus shifted dramatically. Prior to 1938, [End Page 118] these insect specialists – many of whom were self-taught – were engaged primarily in developing control methods against infestations that were wreaking havoc in the country's most important orchards, fields, and forests.
Castonguay asserts that the turning point for the federal insect specialists was the creation of the Division of Entomology in the Department of Agriculture's Science Service just before the Second World War. Henceforth their focus became fundamental scientific research, exploring realms such as the physiology and ecology of insects, and borrowing increasingly from the life sciences to explain entomological phenomena. A radical transformation was the result. Insects like the grey worm morphed from representing strictly noxious insects in the field to biological models in complex laboratory studies. Moreover, the service enjoyed exponential growth in the buoyant era of postwar reconstruction. The Canadian government established a string of labs across the country and hired an extensive corps of highly trained scientists whose impressive postgraduate credentials dwarfed those of their pioneering predecessors. Furthermore, Castonguay contends that, in carrying out their work, the entomologists enjoyed a remarkable degree of autonomy, as they were essentially free to pursue their own research interests. This point was central to what Castonguay describes as the process of 'fondamentalisation' of this applied science.
While his account of the rise of the entomological bureaucracy is thorough, this quality is a source of strength and weakness. Castonguay's desire to fill the lacuna left by science historians who have generally ignored le laboratoire publique and pay homage to the federal scientific bureaucracy causes him to surfeit the book with detail. For example, the author devotes significant space to chronicling everything from the names of the persons whom the government hired as entomologists to the titles of their graduate theses in an apparent attempt to validate their contributions. A few poignant examples would have made this point more effectively.
Castonguay also tends to exaggerate the autonomy the entomologists enjoyed in their research work (although he recognizes the limitations of his argument in the conclusion). The raison d'être for the entomological bureaucracy was the fact that commercial farming and forestry were the mainstay of the Canadian economy during the period being examined. Scientists in the laboratories in places like Sault Ste Marie were 'free' to pursue their own research interests, but only as long as their projects related – however tangentially – to some aspect of Canadian economic entomology. Castonguay's treatment of this issue compels the reader to consider it in terms of the classic conundrum involving the chicken and [End Page 119] the egg, or in this case, the adult and the larva: Did the entomologists really have the freedom to pursue their interests, which just happened to deal with the most pressing entomological issues of the day, or did the Canadian government simply hire entomologists because they were experts in a field that was germane to a pressing issue involving agricultural or forest production?
This is a minutely detailed account...