With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Will the Sun Ever Set on the Colony?

Coral polyps in Honolulu, 2015. Photograph by Narrissa Spies. Wikimedia Commons.

Pull up the mission statement for any scientific organization, and there’s a good chance you’ll see some version of the word “objectivity” on its list of values. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, for example, cite “Independence, Objectivity, Rigor, Integrity, Inclusivity, Truth” as their guiding principles; the American Institute of Biological Sciences champions “scientific rigor and integrity, transparency, honesty, and objectivity.” Modern science earns significant cultural cachet from its claim to be an impartial arbiter of facts. But the very words scientists use to describe the world are not value neutral.

“Colony” stands out as one curious scientific term of art. Biologists today describe bacteria, ants, corals, bryozoans, certain birds, and other close-knit organismal groupings as colonies (who in turn “colonize”) without batting an eye. Whole phenomena, like the dreaded colony collapse disorder devastating honeybee populations across North America, incorporate this language. A survey of scientific papers published in this century alone yields titles such as “Deadly Competition Between Sibling Bacterial Colonies,” “Population Census of a Large Common Tern Colony with a Small Unmanned Aircraft,” and “Life in the Colonies: Learning the Alien Ways of Colonial Organisms.” Even researcher Cat Bohannon’s brilliant 2023 book Eve: How the Female Body Drove 200 Million Years of Human Evolution — which on the whole is a much-needed corrective to some implicit biases of modern science — uses the term without a second thought. “Friendly bacteria … rapidly colonize a newborn’s intestines,” she writes.


And yet to call groups of creatures colonies or colonizers — rather than tribes or countries, communes or battalions, collectives or amalgamations — is not an obvious choice. Bats have never exported cash crops. Cormorants hold no joint stock. Hydroids are not known for missionizing to other hydroids. Honeybees may have a “queen” supported by “workers” and “drones,” a stratified society in miniature. But then their hives might just as well be called monarchies or empires.


The colonization terminology has been entrenched for centuries, and took hold as Europeans began traveling and claiming the globe. During the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries — a period marked by both scientific flourishing and political reimaginings — naturalists began to regularly use “colony” to describe bunched organisms and their behavior. Sometimes they deployed it with little fanfare, much as scientists do today. In 1770, British entomologist Dru Drury wrote matter-of-factly of ants “dwelling in colonies or hills.” But personifying flora and fauna was commonplace. Quite often, these writers laced their descriptions with overtones of conquest. John Ellis, a London-based naturalist who helped prove that corals are animals, wrote in 1755 that shellfish, “when they grow impotent and old, become the Basis of new Colonies of Animals, from whose Attacks they can no longer defend themselves.” He likewise claimed that corals, once their polyps died, would “yield to superior Force, and become the Basis of some more powerful, fortunate Successors.”


It is unsurprising that these authors had such bellicose language on the brain; their work was part and parcel of European statecraft. When these early scientists looked at the natural world, they saw an image of themselves reflected back, and responded by endowing animals with the imperial impulses that drove their own research. The observations naturalists made about the animals, plants, minerals, environments — and people — of far-flung colonies helped imperial administrators rule from afar while also maximizing the commercial potential of those lands. To be exploited, natural resources had to be known. And they were usually only known to naturalists through reliance on the longstanding expertise of Native experts — people frequently dispossessed by these very colonial ventures, though not without resistance. 


In turn, naturalists also depended on their respective empires for access to the resources needed to conduct scientific research. They traveled to colonial outposts on state-sponsored voyages, on commercial vessels, and on slave ships. Some leveraged colonial networks to have data brought directly to them: apothecary James Petiver amassed a vast collection of curiosities without having to leave the comfort of London. As historian of science Kathleen S. Murphy has shown, Petiver received his specimens — things like shells, butterflies, three-toed sloths, and human fetuses — largely from the surgeons and captains of slave ships. Other naturalists worked in colonial affairs in a more formal capacity. Ellis served as royal agent for British West Florida in 1764, and subsequently as colonial agent for the island of Dominica — administering both posts from the imperial center. Or take Hans Sloane, who profited handsomely from the wealth his wife accumulated from Jamaican sugar plantations — and thus from slave labor — and would go on to lead London’s esteemed Royal Society as its president. Sloane gathered many of his specimens and observations of Jamaican nature while serving as a personal physician to the colony’s governor. It was in this tumultuous context of empirical study alongside dispossession that the word "colony" began to creep into accounts of the natural world, where it has remained ever since.


Modern science often tries to distance itself from bias or present itself as apolitical, though it, like early natural history, both relies on state funding to operate and expressly informs public policy. But Enlightenment-era thinkers moved fluidly between science and politics, nature and the state. In the early modern period, one could be both politician and natural philosopher; look no further than Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson. It wasn’t odd to incorporate imperialism into scientific reasoning, or vice versa. These scholars could quite effortlessly see nature and politics as symbiotic. In fact, the first word in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, a foundational work of political theory published in 1651, is nature (which he defined as “the art whereby God hath made and governes the world”). Hobbes went on to describe the state or commonwealth as an elaborately fabricated organism: specifically, an artificial man.  


Drawing from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, 1651. Wikimedia Commons.

Drawing of the frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, 1651. Wikimedia Commons.

The ways we now think about science and the state, science and politics, and science and society depart greatly from how people conceived of these relationships when the language of colonization gained a foothold in scientific terminology. And yet, we’re hardly insulated from metaphorical thinking or able to use language neutrally, even in the hard sciences. Think of neural networks, the genetic code, or messenger RNA, which still inject biological processes with all-too-human associations. Linguistically, we will always be prisoners to our own era. (This paragraph alone brims with figurative tics.) And metaphorical language does a lot of good. It can help pin down phenomena in an accessible way, for example, and make nature more intelligible. What matters is learning how we got here: recognizing how certain terms came into being and seeing their historical residue for what it is, especially when it comes to something as violent and all-encompassing as colonialism. 


The words we use to describe nature also merit attention — and at times rethinking — due to the unending variety and surprises of the nonhuman world. And the word “colony” tends to flatten the strangeness of existence. Some groupings that scientists call colonies are masses of clones, such as bacterial colonies, which are conglomerations of genetically identical cells derived from a single “mother” cell, along with some corals. Bee and ant colonies, with individuals filling designated roles, are structured very differently — though clones can be present here, too. A colony of the marine creature Physalia physalis contains four types of differently specialized but genetically identical zooids; some catch prey, some feed and digest, some reproduce, and one is a floater, a big balloon on top that acts as a sail. None can survive independently, but together they function as a superorganism, giving the illusion of a jellyfish. But you probably know this being as a Portuguese man-of-war — nicknamed so in the early modern period for the animals’ resemblance to military vessels of the same title. Compare that arrangement to a bat or bird colony, where individuals are distinct but form a group, and often live and travel in close quarters (not too unlike a nudist colony — there it is again — in the human realm). Organisms need not be organized into what scientists would call “colonies” in order for scientists to say that they “colonize” — a term used when a creature occupies a new region or niche, heard often in the fraught discourse surrounding so-called invasive species.


Portuguese man-of-war, by John White, sixteenth century. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Portuguese man-of-war, by John White, 16th century. The British Museum.

Human colonialism is also a varied lot. The historian Nancy Shoemaker identifies at least twelve forms in her 2015 article “A Typology of Colonialism.” Take settler colonialism, which generally works to supplant a colony’s original inhabitants with citizens from the motherland, creating satellite communities for the empire. (See what happened in much of the present-day United States in the early modern period.) Settler colonialism looks different from the kind of colonialism that actively subjugates colonized peoples, as with the so-called Scramble for Africa, when European powers carved up the continent’s interior among themselves in the 19th and 20th centuries. Settlers dispersed across Africa, but generally remained a numerical minority. This is all to say nothing of the colonies of classical antiquity. Just as there has historically been more than one form of colonialism, there have been many ways to be a “colonial” organism. Some organisms are adept at displacing other species. Even certain corals, typically hailed as gentle cooperatives, can aggressively wipe out preexisting corals to expand their range in the mold of settler colonialism. (That’s why calling corals collectives or communes instead of colonies would fall short of the truth, too.) Other organisms, like honeybees, have spread hand in hand with human colonists, in what historians often call ecological imperialism. But the dynamics of both nonhuman beings and human colonization are messy.


Uncritical scientific use of the word “colony” also risks naturalizing the history behind it. In 2012, education scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang published an influential essay titled “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor.” They took aim at the proliferation of calls for “decolonization” — applied as of late to school curricula, museum collections, and even scientific procedure. As Tuck and Yang argue, these calls make “decolonization” synonymous with any liberatory or social justice work. In doing so, they ignore the actual history of Native communities, sidestepping any discussion of Indigenous sovereignty — and thus ignoring decolonization as a movement to redress past harm and restore Indigenous land. Colonization, likewise, is not just a metaphor, mere scientific shorthand. Nor is it some historical relic that can now be safely applied to any context. It was a devastating historical process that supported — and benefited from — scientific study, at the continued expense of Indigenous people around the world. Millions are still reeling from colonialism’s historical impact or from its ongoing and even new manifestations. Perhaps the language of the colony has never gone away because colonialism never did.


Ultimately, the actual group dynamics of these organisms evoke more expansive and exciting models of being than colonization language suggests. Some, like bacteria, swap their genes. Some, like coral polyps, share resources with one another along a highway of connected tissue. Certain bat species form what scientists call “maternity colonies”: females will split off from the main group to form a warm new roost of only mothers, where they give birth and nurse their pups, hanging wing to wing. What unites these incredibly diverse creatures is that they do things together.


Colonies, highways, men-of-war, the animal kingdom: scientific language would be hard-pressed to escape subjectivity, and hard-pressed to escape history. The trouble lies in thinking science has already accomplished that.