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Reviewed by:
  • El desierto en una vitrina: Museos e historia natural en la Argentina, 1810-1890, and: From Man to Ape: Darwinism in Argentina, 1870-1920
  • Lewis Pyenson
El desierto en una vitrina: Museos e historia natural en la Argentina, 1810-1890. By Irina Podgorny and Maria Margaret Lopes (Mexico City, Limusa, 2008) 279 pp. N.P.
From Man to Ape: Darwinism in Argentina, 1870-1920. By Adriana Novoa and Alex Levine (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2009) 281 pp. $49.00

From the social point of view, disciplines and institutions—not scientists—were scientific Kulturträger, or the bearers of civilization, in modernity. They maintained a particular culture of learning. But how and to what extent? How did the Museum of Natural History in Paris relate to Georges Cuvier's comparative anatomy, and how did the institution and the discipline situate themselves in Old Regime, Revolutionary, and Restoration France? The two books under review address the question for Argentina. El desierto en una vitrina focuses on a class of institution. From Man to Ape is an intellectual history about the repercussions of disciplinary thought.

In their fine treatment of natural-history museums, Podgorny and Lopes explore an epoch when people began to see biota as more than objects of pillage and wonder. The title of their book calls to mind the expansion of Argentina beyond the port city of Buenos Aires, notably through the conquest of the Patagonian Desert from 1876 to 1878, commemorated on the current 100-peso banknote. Following independence, Argentina defined its extension by bravado and war, and it reached for a distinct identity as a nation. Western Europe and the northeastern United States provided inspiration and examples for erecting national structures of commerce and culture, but local conditions determined the form of institutions, as, indeed, local conditions determined Argentine polity.

Podgorny and Lopes disentangle the many museological initiatives [End Page 487] in Argentina throughout the nineteenth century, from the early years of independence to Argentina's dramatic rise as an economic and intellectual beacon. Museums were at the center of national aspirations from 1854, when the government of the Argentine Confederation authorized one for Paraná, their seat of authority, at a time when the province of Buenos Aires maintained a form of independence (51). The Paraná museum expired after Buenos Aires became the federal capital.

Subsequently, naturalists began to contend for authority, just as provincial leaders contested for leadership of the nation. The enterprising naturalist Francisco Pascasio Moreno and his colleague Estanislao Zeballos, for example, negotiated with the indigenous peoples of Patagonia under the auspices of the private Sociedad Científica Argentina at just the time when the Córdoba Academy of Sciences contributed a scientific commission to accompany the army in its war against the indigenes (138-139, 164-165). Francisco Moreno—a rival of Hermann (Germán) Burmeister, who controlled the Córdoba Academy—established an anthropologically oriented museum in Buenos Aires, which in the 1880s moved to La Plata, the new capital of the Province of Buenos Aires. Thanks to the sometimes fractious collaboration of talented naturalists like Florentino Ameghino, the museum became the finest natural-history operation in Latin America (174-178, 215-217). In Argentina, scientific egos fed on questions about paleontological interpretation and museum function (231-236), much in the way of the contemporaneous rivalry between paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences and Othniel Charles Marsh of Yale University's Peabody Museum. Natural-history museums in the New World generally followed a cometary trajectory—ascent, brilliance, descent, and eventual restoration in a new form.

The La Plata museum was a cathedral of natural history, a monument to the accomplishments of Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin. A vast enterprise, it encompassed botany, zoology, comparative anatomy, geology, mineralogy, anthropology, ethnography, and even meteorology.

From Man to Ape reviews how Argentine writers dealt with the great discovery of natural history—natural selection. Darwin knew the country first-hand from the Beagle expedition, and he corresponded with Argentine naturalists such as Francisco Javier Muñiz (From Man to Ape, 34-37; Desierto, 45-49). Because he avoided mathematics and jargon, Darwin reached an extraordinarily wide readership and invited...


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