Darwin in the Cold War: Controlling “foreign scientists” at a field station in the Galapagos Islands, 1950-1980

Susan Lindee

University of Pennsylvania

Monday, September 27, 2021 3:30 pm EDT

Cohen Hall 337
249 S 36th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

The dedication of the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) in the Galapagos reflected the efforts of a network of jet-setting scientists and diplomats who were negotiating the post-1945 management of nature around the world. While most studies of the establishment of the Galapagos National Park (by Ecuador in 1959) and of the field station (with Ecuadorian approval, but funded through the Belgium-based Charles Darwin Foundation, in 1964) have emphasized their status as part of an international “land grab,” I here track the everyday, even mundane, labor of the research station itself. Outward facing texts produced by the station and its fund-raising entity, the mostly-on-paper Charles Darwin Foundation, commonly sought support by describing problems posed by the growing number of residents in the islands, the fishing industry, and the goats, rats, cats, and other invasive species that threatened local flora and fauna. But in practice, these issues were not central to the daily work of the station. Managing the local residents was the job of the government of Ecuador, and eliminating invasive species involved the wardens of the Galapagos National Park. The real work of the research station was to control “foreign scientists.” Before the CDRS, the historical record suggests, visiting scientists could take whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. The station, however, required permits, set rules, and established limits on access and collecting. Maybe in some ways this is an obvious and even trivial observation—of course the research station had to control the scientists! But I hope my account can make this obviousness at least informative, and in the process raise some different questions about the history of conservation, and about the symbolic, almost sacralized, meanings of the Galapagos Islands at the height of the Cold War. British biologist Julian Huxley and his peers after 1945 did indeed extend colonial practices of controlling nature to places around the world that seemed less “civilized” to European thinkers (Huxley said such things in print). This thread of “uncivilized” places needing guidance is definitely present. But the labor at the station, in practice, controlled people taken to represent “civilization” in its highest form—European and American scientists. Is conservation at least partly about shielding nature from scientific excess, and about reining in and disciplining experts? At the CDRS, European and American (but not Ecuadorian) scientists were the focus of a delicate choreography of control and acquiescence, as scientists were courted and refused, welcomed and limited, chastised and supported, while the station managed access to a biological field site built around a soaring, emotive, and false historical narrative of Darwin’s experiences there. Briefly considered as a possible nuclear testing ground—before US officials settled on the Marshall Islands—the islands were cast repeatedly in the 1950s and 1960s with references to the Biblical story of “Noah’s Ark.” In this paper, I explore how the Galapagos Islands became sites of tightly managed scientific and touristic pilgrimage in a Cold War context of global nuclear risk.