Explorer, artist, entomologist and activist
contributed by Zoe Getman-Pickering @Herbivory1
Animals, Biodiversity, Consumption, Ecology, Europe, Field, Forest, Fundamental research, Grassland, Historical figure, Natural history, Observational, Plants, Rainforest, Social justice, South America, Species richness, Systematics, Terrestrial, Woman
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Maria was an entomologist and scientific illustrator from the late sixteen hundreds who focused on the interactions between plants and insects.
Biography in brief
Merian was born into a family of artists in Germany in 1647. She spent her life observing, rearing, and illustrating insects and their interactions with plants. She traveled with her daughter to South America to continue her work. Through her work she independently disproved spontaneous generation. She also contributed key scientific concepts such as phenotypic plasticity, and specialist and generalist herbivores. She discovered many new insect species including parasitoids and bird-eating spiders, and linked different life stages of insects together and identified that they were a single organism. After her death, much of her research was discredited due to her gender, people’s inability to believe in some of her discoveries such as the aforementioned bird-eating spiders, and false ‘discoveries’ that were incorrectly linked to her.
Axes of identity & underrepresentation
Francesco Redi and Lazzaro Spallanzani are both credited with disproving spontaneous generation, but Merian was not, likely due to her gender.
Take home message of study
Maria Sibylla Merian was one of the first to disprove the theory of spontaneous generation, she also described host specificity in herbivores and phenotypic plasticity. She described many new insect species and their interactions with their host plants.
Maria Sibylla Merian was a brilliant scientist and artist who first discovered and described foundational concepts of modern entomology and ecology.
A detailed drawing by Maria Sibylla Merian of insects that she reared, showcasing both her artistic and scientific tallent.
Key Research Points
This illustration showcases Maria’s artistic talent and attention to scientific accuracy. Maria described and illustrated many new species of insects and their host plants. In her rearing and observation of insects she described numerous ecological and entomological principals that are the basis of research today.
Merian used her privileged position to write moving articles on the injustice of slavery and how horribly native people and African slaves were treated in the Americas. She also noted how they would use seeds to abort children, both as proof of the horrible conditions and to suggest that women could control their own reproduction.
So… as tempting as it is to hail Merian as a feminist researcher… she was also a slaveowner despite her facade of being an activist. Check out this article: https://portside.org/2019-06-30/breeding-insects-and-reproducing-white-supremacy-maria-sibylla-merians-ecology
Maria Sybilla Merian is a phenomenal example, but she is a more problematic example (or at least a more complicated one) than currently portrayed. Using her in this project makes sense, both because of what she was able to do, and why (though not in a good way — privilege, owning slaves, etc.). See: https://www.ladyscience.com/breeding-insects-and-reproducing-white-supremacy/no57.
Yes! Glad I’m not the only one here who did a little more research.