Maria Sibylla Merian

Keywords: caterpillars, butterflies, women’s studies, women scientists, scientific method

I first became aware of Maria Sibylla Merian decades ago at an exhibit of her artwork (in L.A.) She made meticulous and beautiful drawings of insects in their different life stages. I was more interested in her artwork at the time than her other accomplishments, but I remember that she was credited with discovering that caterpillars turn into butterflies. (A recent search on her name returned a confirming article, Maria Sibylla Merian proved caterpillars become butterflies. Then history forgot her.) Add to this the fact that she lived in the 1600s as an independent woman and she earned a place in my memory.

I thought of her recently. I’ve also recently been learning about fiber arts. In particular, I’ve started spinning silk. Since silk has been around a long time (about 6000 years), it struck me that ancient silk farmers probably understood the basic life cycle of caterpillars. With a little research I found that simply saying Merian “discovered” or “proved” the relationship between caterpillars and butterflies makes for a good sound bite (or way of storing her in my memory), but there is more to the story.

The part of the story that leads to the sound bite is that the common belief at the time was that insects were “born of mud” by spontaneous generation. Think about that. Something that is commonly taught to school children now was only recognized about 400 years ago. This is a nice reminder that science as we know it today is really not that old. Merian was born 17 years after Johannes Kepler died and was a contemporary of Isaac Newton. She lived when the scientific method was just starting to be formulated and implemented. This is also a nice reminder of the success of the scientific method. After tens of thousands of years of human existence, in only 400 years we’ve gone from thinking that insects pop out of the mud fully formed to whole-genome synthesis which allowed recreation of the coronavirus from an electronic description of its genetic code.

Merian’s contribution was that she meticulously observed and recorded insect life cycles. There were a few others that had published on the butterfly’s life cycle before her (and, of course, there were silk farmers), but the level of documentation she provided is the basis of saying that she “proved” what the life cycle is. This was done by documenting the life cycle of 186 insect species. This is the essence of the scientific method: collect meticulous data and derive general conclusions from it.

When I think about this and other examples of the history of discovering things, I sometimes feel that science can be a little arrogant. Silk farmers certainly didn’t need Merian to “prove” the connection. But, at the same time, there is a distinction between knowing something in practice (like farming) and having documented and published scientific conclusions. Meticulous analyses also weed out untruth. Just because a practitioner thinks something works a certain way, doesn’t mean it does. By putting something into the scientific record, it allows anyone to access it and question it. It allows non-experts (not everyone farms silk) to gain knowledge. This is how science progresses; how one scientist can stand on the shoulders of another.

On top of her scientific and artistic acumen, Merian is also remarkable in that she did her work at a time when woman were not exactly encouraged to engage in intellectual activities; indeed were often thought not to even be capable of such. She was also financially independent – something else that was rare for women at the time. Recognition of women’s intelligence and basic rights have come a long way since that time (albeit with a long way still to go.) But by being the accomplished person she was, Merian represents the loss to knowledge that millennia of woman’s repression has caused. This is both in the sense of women in general and her in particular since her work was forgotten. Think about how much further along we would be if the ability to advance knowledge hadn’t been limited to half the population. Perhaps we would have been prepared to fight pandemics by now.

Merian was intelligent, scientific and independent at a time when those attributes were not desired in women (and artistic to boot). She didn’t let the attitudes of her time keep her from doing great work. That’s awesome.

(There are many influential people in history that are not as well-known as they could be. Many such can arguably be said to have changed history because they doubted something and acted on that doubt. Merian is someone I put in these categories.)

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