The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Ants, the Bees, and the Blind Spots of the Human Mind: How Entomologist Charles Henry Turner Revolutionized Our Understanding of the Evolution of Intelligence and Emotion

“The handicaps under which Dr. Turner’s work was accomplished were many, and were modestly and bravely met.”

The son of a nurse and a church janitor, entomologist Charles Henry Turner (February 3, 1867–February 14, 1923) died with a personal library of a thousand books, having published more than fifty scientific papers, having named his youngest son Darwin, and having revolutionized our understanding of the most abundant non-human animals on Earth by pioneering a psychological approach to insect learning, devoting his life to discovering “stubborn facts that should not be ignored.”

Charles Henry Turner

Without a proper laboratory, without access to research libraries and university facilities, he became the first human being to prove that insects can hear and distinguish pitch, and the first scientist to achieve Pavlovian conditioning in insects, training moths to beat their wings whenever they heard his whistle and concluding that “there is much evidence that the responses of moths to stimuli are expressions of emotion.”

Moths by the Australian teenage sisters Helena and Harriet Scott, 1864. (Available as a print, benefitting the Nature Conservancy.)

He studied the brains of birds, the web-making habits of spiders, the growth of grape-vine leaves, and why antlions feign death. He volunteered at the Cincinnati Observatory. He discovered new species of aquatic invertebrates. But insects were his great love. He constructed elaborate apparatuses and painstakingly painted tiny cardboard discs to conduct the first controlled studies of color vision and pattern recognition in honeybees, dismantling the scientific dogma of his day by proving that bees see color and create “memory pictures” of their environment. He illuminated sex differences in ant intelligence, musing that “the males seem unable to solve even the simplest problems.” Kneeling patiently for hours, he built intricate obstacle courses and mazes to study how twelve different species of ants navigate space. Two generations before E.O. Wilson, he concluded:

Ants are much more than mere reflex machines; they are self-acting creatures guided by memories of past individual (ontogenetic) experience.

Through a multitude of exquisitely designed experiments, he discovered that ants, bees, and wasps learn, remember, and recognize landmarks to get home rather than move by mindless instinct as previously thought. Observing and testing how gallery spiders weave and reweave their webs when destroyed, he challenged centuries of assumption about instinct versus intelligence by concluding that “an instinctive impulse prompts gallery spiders to weave gallery webs, but details of construction are the products of intelligent action.”

Spiders by the trailblazing 18th-century artist Sarah Stone. (Available as a print.)

Radiating from his vast body of work is revolutionary evidence against the prior belief that insects are insentient machines operating solely by kinesis and reflex — evidence that these simple-seeming animals are endowed with memory, problem-solving ability, learning, and even feeling, intimating a whole new way of thinking about the evolution of intelligence, emotion, and cognition.

Between experiments and observations, Turner became a prominent Civil Rights leader in St. Louis, developing the first social services for African Americans in the area. Bridging his scientific and humanistic work, he wrote:

Prejudice is older than this age. A comparative study of animal psychology teaches that all animals are prejudiced against animals unlike themselves, and the more unlike they are the greater the prejudice… Among men, however, dissimilarity of minds is a more potent factor in causing prejudice than unlikeness in physiognomy.

Dr. Turner in his later years.

Despite his groundbreaking research, despite being the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and to publish a paper in the esteemed journal Science, Turner was turned away from every university post he applied to on account of his race. With the bittersweet recognition that his life was at the mercy of his time, he decided to shape the landscape of possibility for the next generation and became a science teacher in the first black high school west of Mississippi, all the while continuing his rigorous independent research. Upon his death in 1923, a colleague reflected:

The handicaps under which Dr. Turner’s work was accomplished were many, and were modestly and bravely met.

Complement with the kindred story of how Turner’s contemporary Edmonia Lewis blazed the way for women of color in art, then revisit the fascinating science of how nonhuman animals perceive and navigate the world.

BP

The Remarkable Story of the Dawn Redwood: How a Living Fossil Brought Humanity Together in the Middle of a World War

How an ancient survivor of the unsurvivable became a triumph of the human spirit in a divided world.

Sixty million years ago, when tropical climes covered the Arctic, a small redwood species developed an unusual adaptation that shaped its destiny: Despite being a conifer — needle-leaved trees that are usually evergreen — it became deciduous, losing all of its needles during the months-long lightless winter to conserve energy, then growing vigorously in the bright summer months — the fastest-growing of the redwoods. With this uncommon competitive edge, it conquered large swaths of the globe, spreading the seeds of its handsome cones across North America and Eurasia. But when the global climate plunged into the Ice Age, its victory march came to an abrupt halt.

We know this because, at the peak of WWII, Japanese paleobotanist Shigeru Miki discovered fossils of this small, mighty redwood species. Nothing like it had ever been described in the botanical literature, so he deemed it extinct, naming it Metasequoia after its kinship to Earth’s most majestic tree.

Metasequoia in winter. (Photograph: Arnold Arboretum)

The World War was still raging when a Chinese forester traveling through Central China in the winter of 1941 came upon a majestic old tree of a kind he had never seen before. There was a small shrine at its foot, where locals had been lighting votives and leaving offerings for decades. They called it, he learned, shui-sa, or “water fir,” for its love of moist soil — a name he had never heard before. Because the tree was already denuded of needles for its seasonal hibernation, he was unable to collect a proper specimen for identification — but he told other foresters and botanists of it, until word reached Zhan Wang, director of China’s Central Bureau of Forest Research.

Intrigued by this unheard of species, Wang set out to see it for himself and to collect specimens, which he shared with colleagues. One of them was Hsen Hsu Hu. A diligent paleobotanist, he had read of Miki’s fossil discovery five years earlier. As soon as he saw the peculiar needle pattern, Hu recognized the “water fir” as a Metasequoia.

Metasequoia needles and bark. (Photograph: Arnold Arboretum)

Here was a living fossil — a lovely ghost of evolution that had somehow survived the unsurvivable.

Across the flaming divide that placed China and Japan on opposite sides of the World War, a small group of scientists had transcended the deadly artifice of borders and the ugliness of weapons to remind the world that the human longing for truth and beauty is greater than our foibles.

The first Chinese person to be awarded a Ph.D. in botany from Harvard University, Hu still maintained a relationship with Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum — one of the world’s largest living museums of trees. As news of this ancient tree began making international headlines, lauded by journalists as a “living vestige of younger world,” “as remarkable as discovering a living dinosaur,” the director of the Harvard arboretum cobbled together funds for a collecting expedition in China across the ashen world — one of the last collaborations between Chinese and Western scientists before the Chinese Revolution dropped its leaden wall for decades.

Metasequoia cones. (Photograph: Arnold Arboretum)

As soon as the samples arrived at Harvard, the arborists planted several trees on Massachusetts soil — the first to grow in North America in more than two million years — and began distributing a kilogram of precious seeds to universities and botanical gardens across the globe. Hundreds of human hands from different nations and different creeds pressed them into moist soil, until this global effort to reanimate a ghost of evolution populated parks all over the world with Metasequoia.

Perhaps due to the rich orange color its feathery needles turn before falling, perhaps in homage to its improbable chance at a new day in the epochal calendar of existence, it became known as dawn redwood.

Metasequoia needles in autumn. (Photograph: Arnold Arboretum)

In the 1950s, a retired forester planted eight in Oregon; the fire chief of a California county planted one at the fire department headquarters; eventually, many more were seeded across California and the Pacific Northwest. In the 1970s, New York City community garden patron saint Liz Christy planted one at the iconic Bowery community farm-garden now bearing her name. Today, dawn redwoods rise from the heart of London and thrive in Istanbul’s arboretum. Three stand sentinel over Strawberry Fields — the John Lennon memorial in Central Park. In the final years of the twentieth century, it was declared “the tree of the century.”

The year of the living fossil’s discovery, Einstein’s voice unspooled from the British radio waves, passionate and accented, to make a case for “the common language of science” as the only impartial understanding that can save humanity from itself. Each dawn redwood rising from a patch of spacetime somewhere on this divided and indivisible world is a living monument to what is truest and most beautiful in the human spirit.

BP

The Two Objects of the Good Life: Mary Shelley’s Father on the Relationship Between Personal Happiness, Imagination, and Social Harmony

“The true object of education, like that of every other moral process, is the generation of happiness. Happiness to the individual in the first place. If individuals were universally happy, the species would be happy.”

The Two Objects of the Good Life: Mary Shelley’s Father on the Relationship Between Personal Happiness, Imagination, and Social Harmony

“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge,” the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote as he reflected on how to stop limiting your happiness. “Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love can produce a good life.”

A century and a half before him, the radical and far-seeing political philosopher and novelist William Godwin (March 3, 1756–April 7, 1836) — father of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley — examined the building blocks of the good life in The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature (public library) — the book he began writing when his wife, the radical and far-seeing political philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, was pregnant with the daughter whose birth would kill her.

William Godwin. Portrait by James Northcote. (National Portrait Gallery, London.)

In a sentiment David Foster Wallace would echo in his own radical reflection on the true value of education, Godwin writes:

The true object of education, like that of every other moral process, is the generation of happiness. Happiness to the individual in the first place. If individuals were universally happy, the species would be happy.

A century and a half before Martin Luther King, Jr. incited us to see our “inescapable network of mutuality,” Godwin insists:

In society the interests of individuals are intertwisted with each other, and cannot be separated. Men should be taught to assist each other. The first object should be to train a man* to be happy; the second to train him to be useful, that is, to be virtuous.

But he also acknowledges the inescapable contradictions of human nature and considers the soundest strategy for their reconciliation:

All virtue is a compromise between opposite motives and inducements. The man of genuine virtue, is a man of vigorous comprehension and long views. He who would be eminently useful, must be eminently instructed. He must be endowed with a sagacious judgement, and an ardent zeal.

One of artist Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

In Bible Stories — a series for children he wrote under a pseudonym when his radical philosophy rendered him a pariah — Godwin considered the common variable beneath the twin pillars of the good life, central to both morality and love:

Imagination is the ground-plot upon which the edifice of a sound morality must be erected. Without imagination we may have a certain cold and arid circle of principles, but we cannot have sentiments: we may learn by rote a catalogue of rules, and repeat our lessons with the exactness of a parrot, or play over our tricks with the docility of a monkey; but we can neither ourselves love, nor be fitted to excite the love of others.

Pair with Nietzsche on how to find yourself and the true value of education, then revisit Godwin on how to raise an intelligent child and his advice to activists.

BP

Audre Lorde on What to Do When Difference Ruptures Society

Living into the risk and responsibility of the multiple identities we carry.

Audre Lorde on What to Do When Difference Ruptures Society

“If you don’t understand yourself you don’t understand anybody else,” the young poet Nikki Giovanni told the elder James Baldwin in their historic intergenerational conversation. Perhaps it is because we are such strangers to ourselves — so opaque in our own motives and vulnerabilities, so haunted by confusion and self-contradiction — that we so bruisingly misunderstand and mistreat others, so readily seize on their otherness, lashing our confusions at them, so readily forget that diversity and difference are the reason life exists.

The antidote to that reflex is what Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) considers in an interview found in Black Women Writers at Work (public library) — the superb collection that also gave us Maya Angelou on writing and our responsibility to our creative gifts.

Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde

A generation after Hannah Arendt’s insight into the power and opportunity of the outsider position, and an epoch before the term intersectionality existed, Lorde considers the challenge of the multiple identities we each inhabit, which further alienate us from each other for as long as they remain unreconciled and unintegrated within us:

When you are a member of an out-group, and you challenge others with whom you share this outsider position to examine some aspect of their lives that distorts differences between you, then there can be a great deal of pain. In other words, when people of a group share an oppression, there are certain strengths that they build together. But there are also certain vulnerabilities. For instance, talking about racism to the women’s movement results in “Huh, don’t bother us with that. Look, we’re all sisters, please don’t rock the boat.” Talking to the black community about sexism results in pretty much the same thing. You get a “Wait, wait… wait a minute: we’re all black together. Don’t rock the boat.” In our work and in our living, we must recognize that difference is a reason for celebration and growth, rather than a reason for destruction.

Considering her own responsibility to that recognition and that reconciliation, she adds:

My responsibility is to speak the truth as I feel it, and to attempt to speak it with as much precision and beauty as possible.

Complement with Lorde on kinship across difference, feeling as an antidote to fearing, and turning fear into creative fire, then revisit Bear and Wolf — a tender illustrated fable about walking side by side in otherness.

BP

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