For Knowable Magazine, Alla Katsnelson wrote about Black American zoologist Charles Henry Turner and his insights into animal behaviour. Turner specialised in entomology, particularly the behaviour of bees and ants was not only the first African American to receive a graduate degree from the University of Cincinnati but he is also believed to be the first African American to earn a PhD from the University of Chicago.
Most of Turner’s contemporaries believed that “lowly” critters such as insects and spiders were tiny automatons, preprogrammed to perform well-defined functions. “Turner was one of the first, and you might say should be given the lion’s share of credit, for changing that perception,” says Charles Abramson, a comparative psychologist at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater who has done extensive biographical research on Turner and has been petitioning the US Postal Service for years to issue a stamp commemorating him. Turner also challenged the views that animals lacked the capacity for intelligent problem-solving and that they behaved based on instinct or, at best, learned associations, and that individual differences were just noisy data.
But just as the scientific establishment of the time lacked the imagination to believe that animals other than human beings can have complex intelligence and subjectivity of experience, it also lacked the collective imagination to envision Turner, a Black scientist, as an equal among them. The hundredth anniversary of Turner’s death offers an opportunity to consider what we may have missed out on by their oversight.