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  • From Man to Ape: Darwinism in Argentina, 1870–1920
  • Andres H. Reggiani
From Man to Ape: Darwinism in Argentina, 1870–1920. By Adriana Novoa and Alex Levine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. Pp. xi, 328. Notes. Works Cited. Index.

Adriana Novoa and Alex Levine’s study of the reception of Darwinism in Argentina is an important contribution to the history of peripheral science and more specifically to the role played by what the authors label “science-constitutive analogies” in the construction of modern knowledge. The book traces the efforts made by Argentina’s intellectual elites in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to reconcile the philosophical implications of Darwinian evolutionary theory with their own assumptions regarding the country’s future as a civilized nation.

Novoa and Levine begin their story when the first major paleontological discoveries (the giant ground sloth called megatherium, the glyptodon, and the mylodon) of the late colonial and early independence eras were made. By placing the Pampas “on the scientific map,” these discoveries stimulated the interest of European scientists in Argentina’s natural history and lay the grounds for a lively yet unequal process of cultural exchange with their local counterparts. Despite the civil war that ravaged the country for decades after Independence (ca. 1816), professional and amateur scientists continued collecting remains, exchanging correspondence, publishing, and setting up the first museums of natural history. Darwin himself spent three years in the country (1833–1836).

The abundance of paleontological deposits in the Pampas and Patagonia gave science a new meaning as it reinforced in the eyes of the Argentine cultural elite the special relationship between the pursuit of universal knowledge and the country’s path to modernity. Thus, the book is rightly placed within current trends that argue for a strong connection between science, modernization, and nation-building in Latin America. Taken from this perspective, the study of biology, and especially of Darwinian evolutionary theory, acquired a special relevance in a country whose historical consciousness and future expectations were, ever since Alberdi and Sarmiento, so much fraught with the question of “who we are” and “who we want to be.”

Darwin’s The Origin of Species wrecked one of the fundamental articles of faith of Argentina’s cultural elites: contrary to the Enlightenment and the Humboldtian belief in the unity of mankind and its irreversible progress towards universal harmony, [End Page 154] Darwin posited a bleak reality of struggle, adaptation, and extinction as the main features of a process dictated not by necessity but by contingency. Darwinian ideas became problematic also because they rooted themselves in a cultural milieu that was already accustomed to thinking about the organism and society in analogical terms. If species evolved according not to preset pattern (or design) but to their capacity to engage in a merciless competition whose outcome was not foreordained, then it followed that there was no necessary connection between the will to become civilized and the ability to survive.

Although the book pays detailed (sometimes excessive) attention to the analogies drawn between scientific and political developments (well-expressed in the “culture of extinction” that permeated discussions over the fate of Argentina’s native population), it leaves the reader wondering about the actual implications of Darwinism as far as social policy was concerned. The authors touch on this point when they discuss the “vanishing” of the native population—the result of the military occupation of Patagonia during the Desert Campaign of 1879–1884—and the concomitant need to resort to European immigration. They justify the decision to close their study in 1920 on the grounds that by the end of World War I Darwinian theories were losing ground to new anti-positivistic trends. However, in doing so they leave out the period when some of the ideas discussed in the book came very close to becoming official state policy. Expanding the time frame into the 1930s would have made clear the extent to which the “synthetic imperative” between “nature” and “culture” inspired the search for solutions to the demographic dilemma created by the decline in the birthrate and the closing of European immigration.

Interestingly enough, while the diagnoses of Argentina’s population problem were often phrased...


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