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  • Measuring the New World: Enlightenment Science and South America
  • David A. Reid
Measuring the New World: Enlightenment Science and South America. By Neil Safier. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. 428 pp. $45.00 (cloth).

In 1735, ten French and two Spanish naturalists began a ten-year expedition to equatorial Ecuador to measure the curvature of the earth and hence help settle a long-running dispute about the shape of the earth. Done in conjunction with the Lapland expedition of Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, the expedition to South America hoped to demonstrate that the earth was oblong, as predicted by Descartes, rather than flattened at the poles, as predicted by Newton. The team [End Page 150] returned to France in 1745, having made their measurements while also mapping the Amazon basin and recording extensive observations of Amazonian fauna, flora, and people. But while the expedition itself was full of human drama, it was only the start of a far-ranging intellectual adventure that began as the participants saw the published accounts of their travels through the European press. It is this latter adventure that Neil Safier focuses on in Measuring the New World: Enlightenment Science and South America, an absorbing study of how knowledge was transformed as it moved from its places of origin (what philosophers and historians of science have called the "context of discovery") into the public sphere of the trans-Atlantic Enlightenment (what in this analysis becomes the "context of justification").

Safier's argument targets three phases of the research and publishing process. With respect to the first, Safier argues that the conducting of experiments and the collection of data in the colonies was by necessity a cooperative affair involving European naturalists, indigenous peoples, and Creole and Mestizo participants. This combination created complex social relationships that sometimes aided and sometimes hindered the naturalists in their mission. Politics, suspicion, and misunderstandings were endemic to their social environment, especially since the naturalists were working in an international context fraught with imperial ambitions and competition, particularly in the years after the War of Spanish Succession. But the goals of the naturalists also turn out to have been multilayered. While measuring the curvature of the earth at the equator was the principal goal of the expedition, one of the expedition's most ambitious members, Charles-Marie de la Condamine, also spent years mapping the confusing twists and turns of the Amazon River, collecting plants, and observing the customs of Amazonian natives, hoping in the long run to sight ever elusive Amazonian women. In effect, Safier argues, data collecting became a series of dramatic performances, which were commemorated in a number of ways, including the erecting of ritual markers used for official measurements.

In the second phase, European travelers turned their experiences into published works, including maps and travel narratives. With so many different authors involved, however, it was inevitable that the multiple accounts published would frequently disagree or, at the very least, work toward cross-purposes. Safier sees the French and Spanish explorers, in particular, as engaged in a race to publish first, the Spanish naturalists Antonio de Ulloa and Jorge Juan wanting to demonstrate the contributions that Bourbon Spain could make to philosophical knowledge and, more extensively, the international Republic of Letters. Safier also analyzes the process of writing, drawing, and editing to [End Page 151] show how the presentation of knowledge was the product of extensive negotiations. In the revealing analysis of chapter 4, we see how maps could be drawn and redrawn to emphasize different political commitments, including the desire to hide exploitable resources.

The third phase of the process takes us into the public sphere, where the naturalists' published work became subject to interpretation, review, and criticism. Safier explores first how eighteenth-century critics questioned the veracity of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century travel narratives and hence began to define the identity of the "philosophical traveler," someone who used the methods of empirical science to make accurate and precise observations of geography, artifacts, and foreign peoples. As might be expected, however, the new travel narratives were also criticized, especially by Creole intellectuals who argued that in order to sustain European prejudices regarding their own superiority...