Are Western biologists imperialistic?

January 24, 2011 • 9:57 am

A few days ago I posted a photo of an über-cute monkey, a juvenile snub-nosed golden monkey (Rhinopithecus roxellana). The species lives in the mountains of central China and is endangered because of habitat loss.

Fig. 1.  A male golden snub-nosed monkey (from NYT article, photo by George Wong/European Pressphoto Agency).

Curiously, in today’s New York Times’s Opinionator column, Richard Conniff details a tiny controversy about this very beast.  The question is who gets credit for “discovering” the species.  Conniff says:

Not long ago, for instance, I wrote that a 19th-century French missionary and naturalist in China, Pére Armand David, had “discovered” the snub-nosed golden monkey. A reader sent me this somewhat testy comment: “The answer to the question ‘who discovered it’ is actually the Chinese.” Père David had merely “observed it and introduced it (and many other animals) to the West and into the Western zoological system.”

There has increasingly been talk, in these postmodern times, about who gets credit for “discovering” stuff.  And there is a point: it now rankles a bit to hear that Columbus “discovered” America when, after all, people had been living there for over ten thousand years.  How far does this apply to “discovering” species?

Conniff continues:

David himself may never actually have seen these mountain-dwelling monkeys in the wild. Instead, his Chinese hunters brought him six specimens in the course of a long and productive expedition into western Sichuan province. David shipped the specimens back to Paris, along with more than 100 other mammal species. There, in an act of blithe cultural hodgepodgery, a French naturalist described the golden monkey in a scientific journal and gave it the species name roxellana to commemorate the Ukrainian wife of an Ottoman Turkish sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, because monkey and wife both had distinctive up-turned noses. You can see how this might leave people in China feeling a little left out.

Indeed. Some countries, such as Brazil, wary of “biological imperialism,” have passed strict regulations about what kind of material can be taken out of the country by foreign biologists.  The species of a country are not simply a resource to be plundered by—or used to advance the careers of—biologists from other places.  And we’re becoming more sensitive to this: scientists from more biologically-savvy nations are involving locals (who, after all, often help them find the species, and know an enormous amount of natural history) in the scientific descriptions of new discoveries. You will often see strange one-word names, for example, on papers describing new species from New Guinea or Indonesia: those are the locals who helped find the species or made other contributions to its discovery. I rarely saw that when I was in graduate school thirty years ago.

Do read Conniff’s column, for he describes a nearly forgotten chapter in the history of zoology:  how skilled but amateur naturalists, such as the missionary Pére David, made significant contributions to natural history. You may have heard of another species he discovered, the rare and eponymous Pére David’s deer, Elaphurus davidianus:

(Pére David’s deer is another interesting story. It has been extinct in the wild for a thousand years due to overhunting, and was discovered by Pére David in one place: The Emperor’s hunting park near Beijing.  It was exported to Europe, where it was bred in zoos, and subsequently disappeared completely from China. It was reintroduced to China in the 1960s.)

Conniff concludes that we shouldn’t stigmatize early Western naturalists as imperialistic, because their work

. .  continues to save lives and protect resources today. The best evidence of its value is that every country from China to Gabon to Colombia now employs this scientific system of discovery and classification as a better way to understand not just our world, but theirs.

Well, I’m not sure whether the use of Linnaean taxonomy is the greatest contribution of these naturalists.  After all, research has shown that indigenous peoples generally recognize the same species (although, of course, giving them different names) as do Western taxonomists.  In Speciation, Allen Orr and I describe Ernst Mayr’s observation (made in the 1920s) that the tribesmen of the Arfak Mountains of New Guinea had 136 vernacular names for the 137 Linnaean species of birds they encountered, so even before Western taxonomists “invaded” the country, the distinct forms of bird life had already been correctly distinguished.  The names are just a way of formalizing new species and placing them in relationship to others already described.

It’s not so much the nomenclature that Western biologists contributed to the countries they explored, then, but the calling of the world’s scientific attention to new species (their description does involve nomenclature, of course).  This immerses them into mainstream biological research—and, when species are endangered like Pére David’s deer, helps bring them to the attention of people who can save them.

28 thoughts on “Are Western biologists imperialistic?

  1. Good that there’s at least increased sensitivity to the issue.

    In re. Columbus, three words: L’anse aux Meadows. If anything’s on my bucket list, visiting that is.

      1. I visited there years ago, and it’s definitely bucket-list-worthy. Wonderful! (The icebergs drifting off shore were the icing on the cake…)

  2. Interestingly there is also a tendency for researchers to patent genes (and the functions of that gene product) they have discovered. How can someone own the patent on a gene that has existed in one form or another for millenia and everyone on the planet is walking around with it inside them right now, using it constantly. It is one thing to be the authors of a paper describing a “new” species. It is another thing again to patent that discovery with the intent of somehow making a profit from it.

    1. Fortunately, this has been successfully challenged recently (IIRC – I can’t recall the gene that was the basis for the legal challenge), and looks to be less likely going forward than it was in the early heady days of molecular cloning.

  3. The nice thing about the Linnaeus system is that while you are perfectly welcome to have a local name, there is always a defined species name to use. Local names can change, or just produce a similar name to another species (how many blackbirds are their, for instance).

    Another point is that, while the local hunters recognized a species, and caught it for the zoologist, it is the zoologist that had the expertise to look at it and say that it was indeed distinct from all other previously described species. Certainly a local hunter isn’t always going to recognize the difference between the bird in his neighborhood is found no where else in the world and the bird that has a range across the whole continent.

  4. I had a colleague in South Africa who once demanded that the whole binomial system be overhauled to reflect local black African language names for animals. He wasn’t a biologist.

  5. Despite a whole bunch of embarrassments, there are a few things that make me proud of being Brazilian. [2]

    I think Brazil has enough biologists to do what the foreign people want to do here, we just need a bigger investment from the politicians

    1. I appreciate the sentiment but science should be borderless surely? I see no reason why Brazilian scientists should not go to other countries & study their flora & fauna, any more than any non-Brazilian scientist should not be free to study in Brazil. However when it comes to the biological properties of certain plants for example, I think that you have a point in protecting potential revenue & knowledge from external expolitation.

  6. True, it is easy enough for larger animals – mammals, birds & reptiles for example – to be named by ordinary people, but I wonder how true that would be of the smaller creatures – insects and so on. Has anyone any idea?

  7. Meriweather Lewis named dozens and dozens of plants and animals on his trip with Clark.

    The locals knew those plants and animals existed, but were totally unconcerned about telling others about them.

    I say it’s the person who brings species to the attention of the world at large who deserves the credit.

    Else it’s all Gork the Caveman.

  8. After all, research has shown that indigenous peoples generally recognize the same species (although, of course, giving them different names) as do Western taxonomists.

    Is that true for fruit flies, beetles and sedges? Probably not.

    1. I have given research material to a Brazilian colleague, and understood it was a one way street. I am seeing much more publication of new species by South Americans (some of whom I know personality, from working in South America) and Asiatics, where 30 years ago, in the same journals, it was almost exclusively North Americans and Europeans.

      I’ve had conversations with tribal Indians who used species names, for small fishes, derived from the aquarium collecting industry.

      I had some recent discussion about who “discovered” a species I decribed as new. Some were collected in @1940’s, but were included among the paratypes of a species in the next genus over. I didn’t think this merited “discovered”. I claimed that I discovered them in 1969. On the other hand, I first identified them as their sister species, and did not realize they were a new species until in the mid-1970’s. I sort of gave up on the discussion. Both “discovered by” statements would be more accurate as “collected by, and misidentified”, I think.

  9. ‘otherwise, it’s all Gork the caveman…’: actually, it’s not, as experience of living in or visiting other cultures, or a small acquaintance with anthropology, shows you. And why the readiness to look down on Gork, who would have known a great many things? I think it is all to the good when scientists have the courtesy to acknowledge those who have helped them. Science is, after all, supposed to open minds.

  10. History is an important topic.Witness the contortions of creationists calling evolution only an “historic” science.The zietgeist in Darwins time is much different than now.(in some quarters anyway)Every civilization so far has some imperialistic aspects to it.You cannot separate the culture from the man.You(we) are a product of our acculturation.We can be “imperialistic” without even meaning to.or realize it.Are we?The longer I live the more questions,and less answers I have.

  11. Countries like Brazil are busy destroying their own biodiversity on a massive scale. They are probably keeping foreign researchers out as much to avoid being exposed for this, as out of concern for their natural heritage. It is not that Brazil has enough taxonomists to describe even a moderate fraction of the still undescribed species in their dwindling forests.

  12. Huh? The imperialists are the ones who claim sovereignty over nature and declare that foreign biologists can’t name species endemic to an area. The biologists are doing what they’ve done for over 200 years – looking for species which hadn’t been described or named yet and giving them names. I think it’s ridiculous to assume, for example, that the Chinese hunters in the story would have cared about being associated with giving an animal a latinized name. I think the problem only exists in the minds of some delusional individuals who think that they somehow have some god-given right over nature.

  13. I think I pretty much agree with #5 above, but…
    I was recently exposed (via a podcast about Jefferson) to the struggle to keep the Lakota language alive, and also of the huge diversity of language that existed in America when Lewis & Clark ventured out. They had an interesting project assigned to them by Jefferson to record a set of words (29 I think) in every language they encounter (of course, it was all tragically lost later). With all the languages that overlap the flora and fauna in the world, who can even say what was the first word to ever be used to describe something? I would think in many cases it’s from a language no one speaks today. Of course scientists should be sensitive to native people who have helped them find things and should credit where credit is due. It seems impossible to go all the way back to “Gork the caveman” even if we wanted to, but to not acknowledge the culture that helped the biologist seems just… imperialistic.

    1. Gork the caveman was of course responsible for the marvellously observed animals that decorate the walls of a number of caves in Europe…

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