With this translation of Regina Horta Duarte’s 2010 book, Anglophone readers can now access an important study of the role of biological knowledge in the construction of Brazilian society from the 1920s through the 1940s. Activist Biology follows the careers of three scientists working in the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro: Cândido de Mello Leitão (an arachnologist), Alberto José de Sampaio (a botanist), and Edgard Roquette-Pinot (an anthropologist). Although none were biologists by training, all three embraced biology, an emerging field in Brazil at the time, as a tool for establishing scientific knowledge as a national resource. Challenging the view of natural history as simply the collecting and displaying of exotic flora and fauna, Mello Leitão, Sampaio, and Roquette-Pinot sought to transform the National Museum into a hub of nation building. With support from the populist-authoritarian government of Getúlio Vargas, the scientists blended biological practices with civic engagement to elevate the National Museum’s outreach initiatives into political efforts in their own right. Along with their influence on federal policies concerning the management of hunting and fishing and the protection of natural landscapes, these men oversaw the development of radio programs, exhibitions, workshops, educational magazines, and films, all of which were intended to expand the museum’s presence and responsibility beyond its walls. At a time when politicians, intellectuals, and military leaders debated how, if at all, Brazil could create a centralized state and a united citizenry, scientists at the National Museum relied on biology to advocate their own vision for the future. The period of Vargas’s “Estado Novo” regime (1930–45) is among the more researched topics in Brazilian historiography, yet Horta Duarte’s focus on biologists—and on biology as both a field and a political instrument—offers original insights into the interactions between the newly expanding central state and a broad array of civil society actors. Activist Biology is equal parts intellectual history, history of science, and political history. Horta Duarte’s writing (and the translation by Diane Grosklaus Whitty) is lively and engaging, and with only three body chapters, the book is particularly well suited for undergraduate courses. Horta Duarte makes her most significant arguments by exploring how the ideological tenets of biology suited the political realities of the period. In the author’s assessment, scientists like Mello Leitão, Sampaio, and Roquette-Pinot were able to do their work not simply because they were adroit thinkers and researchers, but because they deployed forms of scientific knowledge that aligned with the policy and social goals of the Vargas regime. Pushing back against the idea of conflict and struggle as an inherent part of life (all three men were staunch anti-Darwinists), the scientists advocated an evolutionary theory that envisioned nature, and by extension society, as a web of life: “The notion of an organic whole was a consensual cultural allegory of the nation, state, and land, where the social classes were represented as interconnected organs working together homogenously and harmoniously” (p. 55). This belief meshed well with the corporatist populist government and elevated the political profile of the National Museum. If natural history and the museums it produced had once helped prop up colonial empires, biology, according to these scientists, could now help build nations. While Horta Duarte persuasively shows how the three biologists turned the National Museum into a scientific and political space where Brazil could be rediscovered and reconstructed, the book falls a bit short in terms of assessing the actual impact of their efforts. The goals of the scientists, and their faith in biology, is well chronicled, but the reception of their efforts among the general public remains unclear. Mello Leitão, Sampaio, and Roquette-Pinot wanted to popularize science for all Brazilians, but Activist Biology provides few indications of how average citizens participated in, or thought of, the programs of the National Museum. This is especially true for regions beyond Rio de Janeiro and within Brazil’s interior, where notions of backwardness determined (as they still do) which populations were considered worthy of national inclusion. Despite the potential need for a deeper reflection on the regionalist/racialist blinders and the long-term impact of the National Museum, Activist Biology remains a welcomed and important contribution to the history of science and politics in Latin America. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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