American Tropics

The Caribbean Roots of Biodiversity Science

By Megan Raby

336 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 29 halftones, 2 maps, 1 table, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-3560-6
    Published: November 2017
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-3561-3
    Published: October 2017
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5254-0
    Published: October 2017
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-3559-0
    Published: November 2017

Flows, Migrations, and Exchanges

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Awards & distinctions

Philip J. Pauly Prize, History of Science Society

Biodiversity has been a key concept in international conservation since the 1980s, yet historians have paid little attention to its origins. Uncovering its roots in tropical fieldwork and the southward expansion of U.S. empire at the turn of the twentieth century, Megan Raby details how ecologists took advantage of growing U.S. landholdings in the circum-Caribbean by establishing permanent field stations for long-term, basic tropical research. From these outposts of U.S. science, a growing community of American "tropical biologists" developed both the key scientific concepts and the values embedded in the modern discourse of biodiversity.

Considering U.S. biological fieldwork from the era of the Spanish-American War through the anticolonial movements of the 1960s and 1970s, this study combines the history of science, environmental history, and the history of U.S.–Caribbean and Latin American relations. In doing so, Raby sheds new light on the origins of contemporary scientific and environmentalist thought and brings to the forefront a surprisingly neglected history of twentieth-century U.S. science and empire.

About the Author

Megan Raby is associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.
For more information about Megan Raby, visit the Author Page.


"Skillfully shows the strategic and serendipitous ways field science coincided with political and economic imperial pursuits in the twentieth century. This enlarged context greatly expands how we can look at both the process and knowledge of science as products of social contingencies."--Edge Effects

“This book is eminently recommendable. Raby has given us needed insight into the history of tropical American science within the context of imperial expansion and the construction of Caribbean hegemony.”--H-Net Reviews

“Raby’s study contributes a crucial and expansive narrative of biological connections and a politically informed evolution of ideas. Like the best histories, her work opens avenues for further research on an important and timely subject.”--Environmental History

“Thorough and ground-breaking . . . . Raby marshals a breathtaking amount of evidence.”--American Historical Review

“A remarkably persuasive genealogy of ideas. . . . An important contribution to our understanding of science in the Caribbean, and of the way supposedly universal knowledge is always a local hybrid.”--Brill Journals

American Tropics is not only the best book we have on the scientific reinvention of ‘the tropics’ across the twentieth century, but it is also a tour de force demonstration of how the ideal of biodiversity emerged from place-based field practices. This is a history that matters to the future of tropical science and conservation.”--Paul Sutter, University of Colorado Boulder

Multimedia & Links

Listen: Audio interview with the New Books Network.(9/18/2018)