- The Sociable Sciences: Darwin and His Contemporaries in Chile by Patience A. Schell
In the nineteenth century, natural history was undoubtedly driven by imperialist interests and contributed to shaping national identities. Yet it can be argued that without the passion of the men who dared to embark on journeys of adventure and uncertainty, the wealth of knowledge gained in that period would not have been achieved. In their explorations of far-off places and their expeditions through poorly mapped regions, many of these men found themselves tested by myriad unpredictable circumstances and hardships. While they certainly sought the recognition of European scientific institutions, they were also motivated by genuine curiosity, like fascinated children gathering rocks, bugs, flowers, and leaves as they set about discovering the world. They took on missions that demanded patience, intelligence, keen observation, resolve, and hearty physical disposition. Their travel experiences were a kind of rite of passage through which they could prove themselves and earn the respect of their peers. Although their quest for success in their personal careers was individualistic, these naturalists were participants in a collective endeavor, wherein sociability and the bonds of friendship played a decisive role. This is the key supposition in Patience A. Schell’s book on Chilean natural history.
In the period of these explorations, Chile was largely an uncharted country, its borders blurred and information on its peoples and resources scant. Naturalists were drawn to Chile by these factors and by the variety of its natural phenomena and landscapes. Their observations of volcanoes and earthquakes fueled geological debates, while the varied fauna and flora born of the country’s diverse climates inspired reflection and held the promise of rewarding collection efforts. Many naturalists, like Charles Darwin, were simply passing through; others settled for years or even whole lifetimes, invited or supported by the Chilean government. Men like Andrés Bello, Claudio Gay, Ignacio Domeyko, and Rodulfo Philippi played an important part in constructing the new nation’s identity, either through their research findings or by encouraging new generations to learn more about Chile’s natural world.
In her painstaking analysis of these naturalists’ travel accounts and especially of their fruitful exchange of correspondence, Schell shows how they collaborated extensively with each other in their investigations and how their openness to friendship and generosity were determinant factors in their scientific careers. Blending facets of the naturalists’ public and private lives, the author argues that matters of emotion and affect accounted for a number of events. Darwin’s social skills, for instance, were decisive in [End Page 354] his voyage aboard the Beagle and in his relations with Fitz-Roy and the rest of the crew. Friendships also proved vital for Gay, commissioned by the Chilean government to tackle the truly Herculean task of conducting a sweeping survey of natural phenomena in Chile. The very institutionalization of natural history, then, depended on relations of both friendship and competition between the naturalists devoted to its study. It is noteworthy that the wives and sisters of these naturalists were often key assistants and interlocutors, and the work of servants can also be glimpsed between the lines of naturalist discourse. Schell’s exploration of aspects of the naturalists’ personal lives allows her to address gender and class and race issues.
However, the author wholly neglects the existence of any form of knowledge about Chile other than what these foreign naturalists produced, as if no one had ever attempted to learn about the country’s fauna, flora, and territory before. Any possible use of indigenous knowledge remains unexplored, even though natives often served as guides. On occasion, the author reinforces statements by the naturalists portraying the locals as completely ignorant; furthermore, she offers virtual support and strong praise to Europeans for their labors in teaching a love of Chilean nature to the country’s intellectuals, until then considered to be interested in nothing but the study of law. Granted, glory has always gone exclusively to those who...