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.”
By Maria Popova
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.