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Maria Merian: The Princess Bubblegum of 17th Century Biology

Biology took a while to figure itself out.  For centuries, it was a mish-mash of Aristotelian sentiments and cabinets of Unnatural Curiosities whose only organizing principle was a Ripleyish sense of the weird.  One of the great turning points came in 1735, with the publication of Carl Linneaus’s Systema Naturae, a work which systematized the chaos and provided a baseline for all further biological research.  Unfortunately, the rise of Linnaean taxonomy came at a cost, namely in that it all but obliterated the struggling ecosystem approach to biological study originated by one of the most fantastic figures in scientific history, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717).

Merian was raised in Frankfurt which, in the middle of the 17th century, was an international center of publishing and hotbed of progressive religious and scientific ideas.  Her father was a famous publisher known for immaculate illustrated volumes, and as she grew up, he taught her the secrets of his trade: how to etch copper for engravings, what natural resources made for the most vibrant pigments, and how to frame an image in its proper perspective.  In short, all of the things she would need later to produce her own lush and genre-defining works of natural field history.

She was interested in insects from an early age, and felt instinctually that something was not being done justice in their representation so far.  Flipping through old volumes of natural history, one can see why.  What you’ll find there are many gorgeous representation of animals on either blank pages or thrown randomly together into an exotic-seeming setting.  Caterpillars are on one page, butterflies on another, and their natural habitat is nowhere to be found.  This was the approach Linnaeus would solidify and continue – instead of thinking about the interrelationships of animals in a given ecosystem, he was interested in cataloguing structural similarities.  What an insect ate didn’t matter a whit next to the shape of its proboscis.

Merian’s first books were a daring reversal of this trend.  After painstaking field and home research, she had managed to chart the pathways of many species, and link those species with their preferred environment.  The pages of her caterpillar books, then, show the typical food source and all known life stages of a given insect on the same page, providing a full sense of the species and its surroundings.  It was an ecological approach two and a half centuries before Ecology was a word.

And then pietism happened.  The “scientist experiences religious moment and renounces his ego-driven exploration of the universe” story happened a number of times in the religiously charged seventeenth century.  The most famous example, of course, is Blaise Pascal, who was a mathematical genius whose eventual embracing of Jansenism caused him to entirely abandon scientific pursuits, his body trembling with shame every time he gave into the urge to work on an interesting problem instead of spending every last moment in prayer.  But there were others, including Jan Swammerdam, perhaps the most famous entomologist in the era just before Merian, who also renounced his science as sinful in later life.


Merian’s episode was less extreme.  Lured by the example of the brilliant but tragic Anna-Maria van Schurman, and wanting to escape from her joyless marriage, she moved with her two daughters to live at a pietist compound run by Labadists.  There, her work slowed to a trickle as she attempted to fit in with the rigorous asceticism of the community.  Fortunately for us, she thought better of her decision and, after a couple of years, left the Labadists to move to the great center of European free-thought, Amsterdam.

There, some of the most influential artists were women, and scientific curiosity ran rampant.  Merian’s skills as a collector and illustrator of nature were respected, and she soon entered into a free and open discussion of metamorphosis and insect life with the intellectual elite of the city.  It was a dizzying, mentally exciting place to be, but the local wildlife was severely limited, and most of the insects Maria saw were in the curiosity cabinets of the wealthy, far from their native environment.  So, after finalizing her divorce with her husband, who had not been permitted to drag her from the Labadist collective, she sold her paintings in order to raise enough money for a grand expedition, to the jungles of South America.

This was a thing unheard of for a male scientist to do – they generally hired people who were heading into exotic country to collect wildlife samples and ship them back.  But for a female scientist to up and decide that she was going to, on her own, at the age of 52, travel halfway across the world to slice through native jungles in search of the answers to the great mystery of how metamorphosis works was positive madness.  And yet, she did it, arriving in Surinam in 1599 and staying there for two years, speaking with the native population to learn what she could of the life cycles of the specimens she found, and standing in mute awe before the explosion of life all around her.

It was (and is) the sort of place you could spend a lifetime cataloguing and still only scratch the barest surface of the teeming insect world – thousands of species of caterpillar where Europe offered perhaps a hundred, many of them only to be found in the tops of towering trees that she would order chopped down in order to investigate that hidden world above.  She hoped to stay and record insect life cycles for five years, but illness brought her back to Europe after only two, but when she returned she had a treasure trove of observations unparalleled in the history of field biology.

Her field sketches and memories became the basis for one of the most ambitious volumes in the history of entomology, a massive book featuring sixty illustrated, color plates.  Keep in mind this is a time when you had to hire a squad of engravers to hew each line drawing from copper, and then hand paint each individual copy of the book to render the colors.  The expense was immense, but the resulting volumes set a standard for artistic merit and ecological sensibility unmatched for centuries.

Alas, it was both crescendo and coda.  After she passed, later editors snuck in extra plates by other artists to boost sales, mixed up the images, and used colors not faithful to the original, so that later entomologists reading these jumbled editions took their errors as Merian’s, and her reputation as a careful observer suffered a decline just as Linnaeus was achieving wonders with his system of organization that had a vastly different, and much easier to accomplish, agenda.  To organize on the basis of structure required no knowledge of life cycles or environment, just a steady stream of bodies in cabinets, and Europe had far more of those than it had dedicated field biologists.

But it’s hard to feel too bad for Maria Merian.  In spite of an uninspiring marriage, a few years thrown away on a religious experiment, and a lot of lost time trying to wrangle funds for her publishing ventures, she lived a life more full and exciting than anybody, male or female, could have reasonably expected in seventeenth century Europe.  She was born in the freest city of Germany and died in the freest of all Europe, her artistic accomplishments lauded and her intellectual rigor respected, memories of distant adventure jostling in her head with excitement about the pupae in her studio about to burst forth into perhaps never before recorded species.  She was that rarest of things – a person of all talents with the opportunity to exercise them.

Like Princess Bubblegum.

We should all be so lucky.

FURTHER READING: Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis by Kim Todd is a wonderful book for so many reasons.  The entomology enthusiast, art lover, and intellectual historian all will find bits of things to love, and if you’re all three, then you need to own it now!  For more on Blaise Pascal, I’ve always liked his write-up in Bell’s Men of Mathematics.  It shows you how brilliant he was mathematically while at the same time lamenting properly how crazy he got with his self-denial.

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  1. January 16, 2014 at 1:06 am

    Wow, this was so inspiring and beautiful. Dale, you are a genius story teller!

  2. January 21, 2014 at 11:14 pm

    Badass jungle-crawling 17th century woman scientist who painted groundbreaking natural history illustrations? I’m down with that.

    Great write up!

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