Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis

Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis

Kim Todd

Language: English

Pages: 352

ISBN: 0156032996

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


Today, an entomologist in a laboratory can gaze at a butterfly pupa with a microscope so powerful that the swirling cells on the pupa’s skin look like a galaxy. She can activate a single gene or knock it out. What she can’t do is discover how the insect behaves in its natural habitat—which means she doesn’t know what steps to take to preserve it from extinction, nor how any particular gene may interact with the environment. Four hundred years ago, a fifty-year-old Dutch woman set sail on a solo scientific expedition to study insect metamorphosis. She could not have imagined the routine magic that scientists perform today—but her absolute insistence on studying insects in their natural habitats was so far ahead of its time that it is only now coming back into favor. Chrysalis restores Maria Sibylla Merian to her rightful place in the history of science, taking us from golden-age Amsterdam to the Surinam tropics to modern laboratories where Merian’s insights fuel new approaches to both ecology and genetics.

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tentatively before inking them. She also learned how to engrave, carving pictures into a plate to be run through the printing press. Since her stepfather was a painter, not a printer, her deft touch as an engraver argues for a continued relationship with her half brothers, Matthaus the Younger and Caspar, who ran the Merian publishing house after her father died. Matthaus the Younger had been traveling Europe for more than a decade—Amsterdam, Paris, Venice—honing his oil painting ability on

therein.” Because of its fame, Merian may have asked the Amerindians about this legendary spider specifically. Once again, she based her descriptions on what they told her. Whether or not she witnessed a tarantula feeding, she didn’t catch a spider to use as a model. The sketch pasted in the study book is apparently by her stepfather. Merian labeled it with Marrel’s name and indicated he painted it in 1645. As she plotted the scene, she took several stabs at the spider lurking over the bird, one

palette knives—worn and bent after a lifetime of use. But no dust would settle in their folds and hollows. In a few years, the items in these rooms would be flung across the globe, coming to rest in places that Merian never thought of visiting. And the ideas? Tracing their influence should be like following the neat circles left by a rock thrown in a lake, rings floating outward. But it’s more like tracking the dust-fine seeds of some canopy orchid, blown from the stem in a gust of wind, each

authors who may be consulted in reference to the subjects treated in this work” in his 1856 book Principles of Zoology. Wallace called her a “distinguished entomologist.” But as the nineteenth century progressed, her contributions were increasingly ignored. Bates’s discovery was only a brief halt in her slip into obscurity. In light of the claims about her fabrications, it might be helpful to look at how wrong she actually was. Here are several things she got wrong, mysteriously wrong, flagrantly

Merian, letter to Clara Regine Imhoff, July 25, 1682, reprod. in Wettengl (1998), 262. [>] it gives me boundless Merian, letter to Clara Regine Imhoff, May 24, 1683, reprod. in Wettengl (1998), 263. CHAPTER THREE [>] That which is found in the fens and heath Merian (1705), introduction. [>] I felt truly consoled Petersen (1990), 66. [>] An in-depth discussion of this fascinating female-authored prayerbook appears in Aikin (2003). [>] We lose ourselves Jean de Labadie, qtd. in Saxby (1987),

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