Naturalist Spies!

Richard Conniff just published a fascinating piece for his New York Times series on Specimens.  It’s about the relationship between natural history and espionage and makes a historical link between the two, showing how many spies (both real and fictional) frequently donned the mantle of a naturalist as cover for their political activities.  For example, late in life the British secret agent Sir Robert Baden Powell (of Boy Scouts fame) freely admitted he used to pose as “one of the exceedingly stupid Englishmen who wandered about foreign countries sketching cathedrals, or catching butterflies.”  
Sylvanus Morley, US Navy Spy
According to Conniff, this was primarily a one-way relationship: spies often disguised themselves as naturalists but scientists rarely gathered intelligence.  “[I]nstances of naturalists using their work as a cover for espionage are scarce,” we are told.  In actual fact, nothing could be further from the truth!  As it turns out, rather than having a spy dress up as a lepidopterist it often made more sense simply to hire the real thing.  This should not come as a surprise.  After all, the truth is the hardest lie to detect.  Or: the best cover is one that fits perfectly because it just so happens to be true.  Corniff himself mentions Maxwell Knight, a British spy who wrote popular books on natural history and even had his own show on the BBC.  But there were plenty of bona fide academic scientists engaged in these duplicitous affairs too.  One of the most well documented examples is Sylvanus Morley, an American archeologist who studied the civilization of ancient Mayans for the Carnegie Institution.  During the First World War he devoted most of his time to espionage work for the Office of Naval Intelligence, gathering all manner of intelligence in South America under the guise of conducting fieldwork.

In my own research on the history of vertebrate paleontology I have found that spying was, if not quite the rule, then at least a common practice among field naturalists at the time.  At the American Museum of Natural History alone, at least two field naturalists actively worked for the United States’ government.  For example, Barnum Brown, who is probably the most famous dinosaur hunter of all time, did reconnaissance work for the Office of Strategic Services on the Greek island of Samos and eventually helped plan an invasion route during the Second World War.  He also routinely lent a hand interpreting aerial photographs of enemy territory.

Another example from the AMNH is even more compelling.  During WWI the famous explorer Roy Chapman Andrews worked under deep cover in Mongolia for the Office of Naval Intelligence.  He was paid $4 a day to gather strategic information while exploring the highland plateaus of central Asia in search of the origins of modern man.  When hostilities had officially come to an end, Andrews’ wife Yvette almost blew his cover when she informed a relative that the letterhead of her stationary—which read “The Second Asiatic Zoological Expedition of the American Museum of Natural History”—was “mere camouflage” and that they had spent the past several years on a secret mission for the United States Government.  His wife’s indiscretion caught the attention of a government censor and resulted in the issuance of an order that called Andrews back home.  But it was not long before he was back in China planning another trip to Mongolia.  Indeed he spent the rest of the 1920s under cover for the Military Intelligence Division as leader of the American Museum’s Third Asiatic Expedition, which employed a number of clandestine army officers as mechanics and other support personnel.

Camel Caravan from Andrews’ Central Asiatic Expedition
Why aren’t these stories more widely known among the public (and contributors to the New York Times)?  There are a number of reasons.  One of them is obvious: the clandestine lives of naturalists were, well, clandestine.  Indeed most of the historical documentation was long locked under the official seal of classification.  That is, we still don’t know because at least initially we weren’t supposed to know!  But there are also some subtler and ultimately more interesting reasons.

First, due in part to the success of spy fiction as a narrative genre we tend to have an unrealistic understanding of what it is that secret government agents actually do.  My sense is that what occupies most your average government spy’s time and attention is actually rather routine and involves gathering fairly mundane facts about a region’s culture, politics, physical geography, and so on.  This must have been especially true before the era of satellites.  So the popular image of James Bond type figures racing cars, administering poison, and dodging bullets is rarely if ever a very accurate one.  Its dubious historical merits notwithstanding, I suspect that it nonetheless serves to downplay and obscure the true involvement of naturalists in intelligence work.  As far as I can tell, the bulk of Andrews’ responsibilities at the Office of Naval Intelligence involved making geological and topographical maps, gathering information on local politics and sizing up a region’s natural resources.  Not as exciting as James Bond perhaps, but nonetheless worth taking seriously!

Second, espionage work runs counter to widely held, deep-seated beliefs of who scientists are and what kind of work they are doing.  Scientific research is supposed to be open and transparent, not secretive.  And scientists are supposed to be motivated by a universalist zeal, working for the good of all mankind rather than a single nation’s government.  Of course, this is a naïve and idealized picture, but still an incredibly powerful one, as the Anthropologist Franz Boas discovered.

During World War One, the Columbia University Anthropologist Franz Boas serendipitously learned that Sylvanus Morley and a number of other archeologists were gathering intelligence for the United States Government.  After the war, he wrote a strongly worded letter  denouncing their actions to The Nation that was published in December, 1919.  In it, he argued that espionage work and scientific research were fundamentally at odds, because “the very essence of [a scientist’s] life is in the service of truth.”  As such, anyone “who uses science as a cover for political spying … prostitutes science in an unpardonable way and forfeits the right to be classed as a scientist.”  As a result of their unconscionable actions, he concluded, “every nation will look with distrust upon the visiting foreign investigator who wants to do hones work,” thus making it all but impossible to conduct serious natural history research.  Rather than having it’s intended effect, though, the publication of this letter led to an official censure of Boas by the American Anthropological Association and led to his resignation from the National Research Council.


4 thoughts on “Naturalist Spies!

  1. Hank

    Lukas: Does Boas comment on the involvement of scientists in WWI more generally? That is, is it just espionage that runs counter to the ethos of science, or is it also the employ of a state at war that endangers the latter enterprise? I'd be curious to know (and can't be bothered to look it up), so help.


  2. Hank

    Oops – I also have a question: do you think Conniff presents the arrow between spies and naturalists as largely one-way (and, it would seem to you, the wrong way) on purpose? If you look back at some of his other columns in the series, you see (I think) a firm emphasis on the beauty, value, or just plain *virtue* of scientific work, even in the face of critique.

    If you look back at his post on naturalists and imperialism, for example, you see the sort of rescue operation I'm referring to. While “Specimens” (his column in the NYT) is ostensibly, though perhaps not actually, as I suggested earlier, about “how species discovery has transformed our lives,” might it actually be about defending natural history (and science in general) from charges as various as irrelevance and malefaction?


  3. Kent

    Re: Boas' letter: as if gathering intelligence is not part of a search for truth. The only question is with whom it will be shared and under what conditions.


  4. Lukas

    Hi Hank —

    I'm afraid I don't know enough about Boas to answer your question conclusively, or with any real authority. Maybe someone else knows?

    For what it's worth, my sense is that Boas was sympathetic with pacifism and opposed the United States' entry into the First World War. It is interesting to note that esp. after the publication of his letter to the editor of The Nation he was widely denounced as pro-Germany, owing to the fact that he was born and trained in Germany.

    As far as Conniff's NYT blog goes: I also have the sense that a defense of natural history is one of its unifying elements. In the face of e.g. irrelevance I'm totally on board, but in this case –international intrigue– I'm afraid I beg to differ.



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