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Analysis of Maria Sibylla Merian’s "Preface to the Reader"

Who is Maria Sibylla Merian? Today, she is recognized as a skilled natural historian and an eminent early figure in the field of entomology, yet her accomplishments were largely discounted and unmentioned due to prevailing sexism in science. Merian’s work embraced the interaction model of scientific knowledge, in which knowledge is aggregated and reshaped through the interactions of different people and their contexts. As such, gendered criticisms of Merian are indicative of the scientific community’s adherence to the diffusion model, in which white men have been deemed the sole purveyors and sources of scientific knowledge. Despite sexist and racist attacks on her reputation, Merian’s magnum opus, The Metamorphosis of Insects in Surinam, proves her to be a true natural historian who epitomized the values outlined by the Royal Society of London.


According to Thomas Sprat, the Royal Society believed that natural history pursuits should be free from commercial interests. Merian embodied this central value by funding her independent research without reliance on wealthy patrons. In The History of the Royal Society of London, Sprat argues that the ideal natural historian is a wealthy gentleman "free and unconfined" from commercial interests because the pursuit of profit leads to merely convenient, surface-level knowledge.[1] Although Merian was not a gentleman, she recognized and embraced this idea of separation between money and natural history. Though many Dutch natural historians of the early 18th century relied on wealthy patrons, Merian did something highly remarkable, both as a natural historian and a woman of her time, by funding her own research. As a trained artist and engraver, Merian raised money for her trip to Surinam in 1699 by selling painted fabrics, illustrations, and paints.[2] In her "Preface to the Reader" in The Metamorphosis of Insects in Surinam, Merian writes that she "spared nothing in making the engravings nor in paper quality" of her volume.[3]Notably, Merian emphasized her desire to make her work accessible to all who wished to study insects and plants; she did not seek to profit from her book and only sought to cover her expenses. Merian notes that if she were to sell her work, they would bring her huge profit but then would only be available to one person. She consulted with other scholars and collectors about how she could publish her work without making it exclusive and eventually decided to offer subscriptions and advance payments — in addition to selling artwork and specimens — to fund the volume.[4]


Another value Sprat emphasized was egalitarianism, a turn from elitist scholastic philosophy traditions to a more public and equal body of knowledge. The Royal Society valued objective observations grounded in a "natural way of speaking," found in Merian’s extensive observations and detailed illustrations of insects and their natural surroundings.[5] Merian’s adherence to pure observation was a deliberate choice: she writes, "I could have easily extended the descriptions…[but] kept to describing only what I had actually observed."[6] Furthermore, Merian embraced the Royal Society’s ethos of equality in the pursuit of knowledge by exerting initiative over her academic interests. In her preface, Merian writes that she was allowed to view the "curious cabinets" of several wealthy, esteemed men[7] well established in commerce and academia. Although she was awestruck by the insects she saw in these collections, Merian was curious about their life cycles, not merely their static states.[8] Rather than "submit with silence" to what was presented to her by figures of authority, Merian decided to embark on her own research trip to Surinam. [9] During her two years there, Merian drew from the knowledge of the native Surinamese, sketching from the "testimonials of the Indians" and even retaining their botanical nomenclature. Merian’s technical training as an artisan and her knowledge of European natural history traditions and the native Surinam people were "braided" together to contribute valuable entomological knowledge, a clear example of the interaction model.


Why then, if Merian embraced Royal Society values and was one of the "vulgar hands" that helped build scientific knowledge, is she not credited as one of the great natural historians? [10] Upon publication in 1704, The Metamorphosis of Insects in Surinam was lauded by learning circles as a groundbreaking work of natural history. Peter I of Russia even hung a portrait of Merian in his study and was an avid collector of her volumes.[11] Though she was praised in her lifetime, criticisms of Merian emerged in the 19th century, coinciding with the time that natural history was becoming an institutionalized academic discipline.[12] In particular, Reverend Lansdown Guilding’s criticisms in 1834 were incredibly sexist and racist, attacking Merian’s collaboration with the native Surinamese and attributing errors in her work to her sex.[13] He claimed that she was duped by "some cunning negroes" and that any "boy entomologist" would not have made the errors she did.[14] In 1854, German naturalist Hermann Burmeister disparaged her "showy" illustrations, suggesting that Merian was only popular because of her aesthetic. These critiques represented a refusal to acknowledge Merian’s crucial role in entomology and contributed to her erasure from the hollowed annals of natural history. Men like Guilding and Burmeister's efforts to discredit Merian reflect natural history’s reverence of the diffusion model, claiming that scientific knowledge was created in Western Europe and subsequently diffused to the world through colonialism and trade. Gendered and racist attacks on Merian draw from this tradition of hailing white men as the sole purveyors of knowledge while excluding and diminishing the contributions of women and people of color.



References [1] Thomas Sprat, The History of the Royal Society of London For the Improving of Natural Knowledge (Cambridge: HS100 Editions, 2015), 3. [2] Megan Baumhammer and Claire Kennedy, “Merian and the Pineapple: Visual Representation of the Senses,” in Empire of the Senses: Sensory Practices of Colonialism in Early America, ed. Daniela Hacke and Paul Musselwhite (Leiden: Koninkljke Brill, 2018), 208 and 211. [3] Maria Sibylla Merian, "Preface to the Reader," The Metamorphosis of Insects in Surinam (Cambridge: HS100 Editions, 2015), 2. [4] Maria Sibylla Merian, 5. [5] Thomas Sprat, 11. [6] Maria Sibylla Merian, 3. [7] These men included Nicolas Witsen, mayor of Amsterdam and director of the Dutch East India Company, and Fréderic Ruisch, distinguished professor of anatomy and botany. [8] Londa Schiebinger, The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 74. [9] Thomas Sprat, 3. [10] Thomas Sprat, 16. [11] Londa Schiebinger, 77. [12] Sharon Valiant, "Maria Sibylla Merian: Recovering an Eighteenth-Century Legend," Eighteenth-Century Studies 26, no. 3 (1993): 467-79. [13] Some of these errors could be attributed to the fact that Merian left early for Amsterdam dueto malaria and thus completed some of her images away from Surinam based on memory and notes. [14] Lansdown Guilding, "Observations on the Work of Maria Sibilla Merian on the Insects, etc., of Surinam." Magazine of Natural History, 7 (1834): 272-273.

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