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Colonialism in Entomology: How a Historical Problem Persists Today

Gavin Campbell

Historical and ongoing practices by scientists in the Global North have extracted scientific knowledge and resources from communities in the Global South, leaving scientists there at a great disadvantage to pursue their work—and their valuable perspectives absent from professional scientific discourse. Gavin Campbell is a Ph.D. student in ecology at the University of West Indies, in Kingston, Jamaica and is among entomologists working to raise awareness of how colonialism impacts entomology and the actions that could work to more equitably distribute access to insect science. (Photo courtesy of Gavin Campbell)

By Gavin Campbell, Rhema Uche-Dike, Kehinde Kemabonta, Ph.D., Sylvester Ogbogu, Ph.D., and Jessica Ware, Ph.D.

Colonialism in Entomology: A Historical Perspective

Gavin Campbell, Rhema Uche-Dike, Kehinde Kemabonta, Ph.D., Sylvester Ogbogu, Ph.D., and Jessica Ware, Ph.D.

Top, left to right: Gavin Campbell, Rhema Uche-Dike, and Kehinde Kemabonta, Ph.D.
Bottom, left to right: Sylvester Ogbogu, Ph.D., and Jessica Ware, Ph.D.

Entomology is an ancient discipline. Humans globally have been exploiting insects for food over millennia and have interacted with insects at different capacities (e.g., as pests or as items of beauty). People interacting with local biodiversity has led to rich, focused indigenous knowledge on shifting ranges, insect behaviour, and biodiversity. (See, for example, Enawene-Nawe tribal knowledge of stingless bees, Black American sharecropper knowledge of insect pest management, or Aboriginal Australian use of insects for food and medicine).

Despite this rich history of global entomological pursuits, professional entomology” is often considered to be a field that began with European scientists interested in insects. Linnaeus described many insects in the 10th edition of Systema Naturae  in 1758 and Reverend William Kirby FRS FLS, who is often considered the father” of entomology, published the first popular English language entomology book, Introduction to Entomology, which was first published in 1815.

As European colonies were settled,” European entomologists documented the insects present in these locations that were new to them, often ignoring existing knowledge about species held by indigenous people. Further, during the colonial period, many European scientists traveled to the Global South to collect specimens and natural history data. Natural history museums are rich with samples from expeditions to collect examples of the diversity from such regions, like the Archbold expeditions (funded by the wealthy father of American Richard Archbold), which sampled Madagascar (1929-1931) and the Philippines in the 1930s. This practice often resulted in great numbers of species being described, with types deposited in museums north of the equator.

More broadly, colonial powers gained wealth, enriched by the exploitation of land and labour in their colonies. Colonized regions, meanwhile, often remained impoverished, as wealth was inequitably distributed; funds flowed to the colonizers, leaving native and formerly enslaved people disenfranchised and often violently prevented from accumulating wealth (e.g., the Tulsa massacre, USA, 1921). Countries that fought for freedom and independence, like Haiti, were saddled with debt: France required Haiti to pay a debt of 150 million francs in 1825 to be declared a sovereign republic. This was ostensibly to pay France back for income lost when enslaved people were freed; it proved to be an insurmountable burden for generations to come.

In North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, economic inequalities grew after the emancipation of enslaved and indigenous people, and systemic practices privileged descendants of colonizers for education and jobs. Racialization and minoritization of Americans who are Black, indigenous, or persons of color, for example, led to inequitable education systems, extreme economic divisions, and barriers to participation in decision-making processes.

How Does Colonialism Affect Scientific Capacity Building?

As one example, the advent of PCR and Sanger sequencing and the development of computerized tomography techniques for morphological data collection has led to resolution of the evolutionary histories of numerous insect groups, but who has been able to participate in this vital work? As scientific advances were made, the knowledge and training in these areas, such as Sanger sequencing genetic techniques, were focused in the regions where they were developed, largely in the Global North. Today, a huge number of specimens and data collected from the Global South are stored in museums and on servers located in the Global North, where they stay almost inaccessible by researchers from the Global South.

Indeed, researchers outside of the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and North America are often working without access to elite academic networks, without substantial funding, and without high-speed internet. Training and capacity building for new methodologies and techniques have largely remained in the Global North, with resources for these techniques greatly limited and even unavailable in the Global South, leading to a skewed general belief that “expert knowledge” can only be found in the Global North.

It is current practice for entomologists studying systematics to travel to the Global South, where the bulk of insect diversity is found, and collect specimens; however, most processing, description, analyzing, and publishing takes place in the Global North, with scientists from the biodiversity hotspot regions at a serious disadvantage for working on these taxa due to historical and current inequities in resource distribution. Whereas the Global North is equipped with the information and resources to best understand and protect local ecosystems, such information is lacking in the Global South. Development decisions in the Global South thus may risk the loss of native species and ecosystem services. Meanwhile, to compete with international researchers, many of the scientists in the Global South migrate to the Global North, further enriching the North and depriving the Global South.

How Does Colonialism Affect the Content of Insect Science?

The history of colonialism has led to inequities in access and capacity building, but it also has limited how we conduct our science. Researchers from the Global South wishing to study the biodiversity of their local taxa, for example, often struggle to get access to type material located in museums in the Global North. Scientists from the Global North far too often continue to lead field expeditions in tropical locations, for example, without including local collaborators and indigenous scientists in either onsite work or ensuing publication.

Further, much of the framing of science has been done from a Northern perspective. As entomology has been centered in the Global North, the majority of information on insects addresses northern conditions with little to no mention of conditions in the Global South such as weather and seasons. It is commonplace to see references of insects overwintering in different stages, changing behaviour (migration), or altering community assemblages in response to a cold winter. However, seasons in the tropics are more structured by rainfall rather than significant changes in temperature, and yet information on insect dynamics in relation to wet and dry seasons is limited, hindering understanding the dynamics of these tropical ecosystems.

General trends (e.g., tropics warmer) are insufficient in accurately quantifying parameters of insects such as life history, number of generations annually, dispersal, competition, fecundity, pathology, and more. As the tropics experience dry and wet seasons annually, understanding of the adaptations of species to these conditions can provide means of adapting societies and ecosystems to the intensified effects of climate change.

Where Do We Go From Here?

What does this mean for entomology? Colonialism has set up a system where entomologists in the Global North are rewarded for work on cutting-edge, often expensive projects.  Entomologists from the Global South are working with limited access to resources such as genomic sequencing, CT scanning, and museum collections due to historical and present-day inequities. Northern hemisphere collections house invaluable specimens, but these are largely inaccessible to researchers living outside of the Global North. What can we do to equitably address colonialist history in entomology? There is lots of work to be done, but to start we suggest:

  1. Digitize specimens and label information in our collections; make these data publicly accessible.
  2. Reassess and change rubrics for graduate admissions, research awards, and student competitions that have too often favoured expensive and exclusive methods; such rubrics are biased against scientists from the Global South.
  3. Increase collaborative networks to build true partnerships when doing field work; consequently, acknowledgement should be accorded where due.
  4. Assess language and writing for biased content that frames research in terms of the northern and western hemispheres.
  5. Educate yourself and your lab about the history of colonialism and its impacts on science.

Diversifying entomology and addressing historical and neocolonial science practices will take time, and the time to join forces to tackle these issues is long overdue. Let’s work together to make systemic change in entomology, biology, and across the sciences.

In February 2021, the authors participated in a panel discussion on scientific colonialism during Black in Entomology Week. For more, see the full playlist of recorded events from Black in Entomology Week.

Gavin Campbell is a Ph.D. student in ecology at the University of West Indies, in Kingston, Jamaica. Rhema Uche-Dike is a research assistant at University of Lagos in Lagos, Nigeria, and an incoming Ph.D. student at The City University of New York in New York, New York, USA. Kehinde Kemabonta, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Lagos, in Lagos, Nigeria. Sylvester Ogbogu, Ph.D., is a professor at Obafemi Awolowo University, in Ile-Ife, Nigeria. Jessica Ware, Ph.D., is associate curator of invertebrate zoology at the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, New York, USA, and current vice president of the Entomological Society of America. Email Jessica Ware at jware@amnh.org.

2 Comments »

  1. Excellent, eye opening, and tragic. So glad you posted this. We can’t fix what needs to be fixed if we don’t know about it. Thank you.

  2. This is a very good reality of what happens also in South America, where most researchers go to Northern Countries for graduate studies in Entomology, proposing back home, in tropical countries, researches with the same criteria as in the northern countries.
    Alex E. Bustillo, Cenipalma, Colombia, Emeritus Researcher.

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