Turner had no laboratory & no lab animals for most of his career, but proved Charles Darwin was right about animal sentience
CINCINNATI, Ohio––Why is there still no buzz about pioneering animal intelligence researcher Charles Henry Turner’s discoveries, even in Black History Month?
100 years after Turner died, on Valentine’s Day 1923, at only 56 years of age, science, law, and animal advocacy have at last begun paying serious attention to what Charles Henry Turner wrote about animal intelligence and sentience––but usually without crediting Turner.
Born on February 3, 1867, only two years after the end of the U.S. Civil War, Turner was widely noted in passage by the then extensive African-American press.
Over the past century Turner has often been mentioned in passing as a great African-American scientist––especially during February, designated Black History Month in 1976 by U.S. President Gerald Ford.
Science is just now catching up
But recognition of Turner’s insights as a great scientist, whatever his ethnicity, has rarely gone farther than the discussion in Bug Watching With Charles Henry Turner, a 1997 book for children by Michael Elsohn Ross.
And the significance of what Turner learned through Bug Watching seems to have eluded almost everyone.
Summarized Zaria Gorvett for BBC Future on November 28, 2021, citing four eminent contemporary entomologists, “There is mounting evidence that insects can experience a remarkable range of feelings. They can be literally buzzing with delight at pleasant surprises, or sink into depression when bad things happen that are out of their control. They can be optimistic, cynical, or frightened, and respond to pain just like any mammal would.
“And though no one has yet identified a nostalgic mosquito, mortified ant, or sardonic cockroach, the apparent complexity of their feelings,” the precursor to intelligence and flexibility of behavior, “is growing every year.”
Charlie D. was right. Turner furnished the evidence.
This, Gorvett mentioned, is exactly as Charles Darwin anticipated would eventually be discovered in his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published 13 years after his much better known volume On The Origin of Species.
What Gorvett did not mention, and probably did not know, is that it was Charles Henry Turner who first demonstrated the veracity of many of Darwin’s intuitive insights, at a time when even other scientists who endorsed Darwin’s theory of evolution thought the old man had gone bugs in likening the range of insect emotions to our own.
Summarized Science journal contributors Hiruni Samadi, Galpayage Dona, and Lars Chittka in the Science edition of October 30, 2020, “Charles Henry Turner (1867–1923) established a research program that was in sharp contrast to prevailing ideas regarding animal behavior and cognition.
“Despite facing almost insurmountable barriers because of his African American ethnicity, he published more than 70 papers, including several in Science, on comparative brain anatomy in birds and invertebrates, individual variation of behavior and learning competences, and intelligent problem-solving in a large variety of animals, at a time when the dominant ideas only credited animals with the simplest of learning abilities.”
“Discoveries & conceptual advances”
Unfortunately, continued Samadi, Dona, and Chittka, Charles Henry Turner’s “discoveries and conceptual advances failed to gain the recognition they deserved, and his works were later all but forgotten—indeed, some recent animal cognition research has reinvented wheels that had already been fashioned by Turner.
“Charles Darwin (1809–1882) and George Romanes (1848–1894) were famously generous in attributing intelligent behavior and mental abilities to animals,” Samadi, Dona, and Chittka continued, “but their musings were largely based on observation and inference. The predominant experimentalist theories of animal behavior in the early 20th century largely rejected notions of advanced animal intelligence or insight.”
Despite some breakthroughs on behalf of mammals and birds, based on ethological studies, this remains largely true in the early 21st century.
E.O. Wilson & Thomas Lovejoy
E.O. Wilson and Thomas Lovejoy, for instance, credited with inventing the field of conservation biology, both based their hugely influential theories chiefly on insect studies done in their youth in the Amazon region of Brazil.
Wilson and Lovejoy both believed that insect intelligence is almost wholly genetically determined, and that insects and other invertebrates therefore lack the flexibility of choice necessary to survive in changing habitats, or even to find similar habitat in new places.
Extinction hypothesis based on misreading bugs
Instead of having feelings about their environment, which lead to choice and adaptation, insects according to Wilson and Lovejoy merely react to stimulus in limited and wholly predictable ways.
This means, according to the widely accepted Wilson/Lovejoy hypothesis, that when habitats abruptly change, whether directly due to human activity, competition and predation from other introduced species, or climate change, mass extinctions inevitably follow, since insects and other invertebrates are unable to adapt to the changes.
Then, as invertebrates die out, birds, insectivorous mammals and reptiles, their predators and parasites, and plants dependent upon insects for pollination follow the invertebrates to extinction.
(See Cats, mice, & even octopi sacrificed to false gods of conservation.)
Wilson and Lovejoy, however, were apparently oblivious to investigations published by Charles Henry Turner in prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journals before the two of them were born.
Bees & bottle caps
Explained Samadi, Dona, and Chittka, “Every student of animal behavior knows Nikolaas Tinbergen’s study from 1932 on spatial learning, in which the later Nobel laureate first marked a beewolf’s nest entrance with pine cones, then moved them to demonstrate that the insect was guided by a memory of the landmarks.
“But it is mostly unknown that Turner had already published similar findings in 1908, observing a solitary burrowing bee whose nest entrance was close to a discarded Coca Cola bottle cap. When the cap was moved to a nearby location next to an artificial burrow that Turner had made, the bee crawled into that burrow without hesitation—indicating, just as in Tinbergen’s experiments, that the insect had a memory for landmarks rather than, for example, being guided by an instinct to follow the scent of the nest.”
Rebutted eugenicist Thorndyke
Eugenicist and educational psychologist Edward Lee Thorndyke (1874-1949) argued––as influentially in the early twentieth century as Wilson and Lovejoy did later––that animals, including women and “lower” races, are biologically predisposed to respond to change in specific and limited ways.
Recounted Samadi, Dona, and Chittka, “In 1912, in a study that explored how a prey-carrying walking wasp finds its way home around obstacles in the path, Turner explicitly confronted Thorndike, affirming that the wasp’s behavior is not explicable by trial-and-error learning, and is instead consistent with a form of intentionality and an awareness of the desired outcome of the wasp’s actions.
“Moreover, Turner found that an ant stuck on a small island began assembling a bridge to the ‘mainland,’ using three different materials . The ant’s behavior could not easily be explained by then-popular notions of instinct or trial-and-error learning; instead, the ant appeared to appreciate the nature of the problem, imagined a solution, and then worked toward this goal.
“It is remarkable,” Samadi, Dona, and Chittka assessed, “that Turner’s views on animal intentionality preceded present-day explorations of the same topic by a century.”
Free will in cockroaches
However, Samadi, Dona, and Chittka noted, “Even though his experimental work was known to contemporary giants such as John Watson and Thorndike, and across the Atlantic by later Nobel laureate Karl von Frisch, Turner’s visionary ideas about animal intelligence did not resonate in the field; perhaps they were simply too far ahead of the time. Accordingly, they are almost completely unrecognized in the current literature.”
Turner went on to report in 1913 on the effects of age and gender among cockroaches trained to navigate mazes.
“Turner found that individuals placed an emphasis on either speed or accuracy,” summarized Samadi, Dona, and Chittka. “Older cockroaches choose slowly but more precisely.”
This caused Turner to suggest that the cockroaches were evaluating their options in a manner indicating conscious will, “a facet of consciousness,” explained Samadi, Dona, and Chittka.
“Went against the leading paradigms of his time”
“The question of whether humans and other animals exhibit free will continues to generate controversy among neuroscientists and philosophers,” Samadi, Dona, and Chittka continued.
“That insights from insect behavior could contribute to this debate has only recently been suggested again by neuroscientist Martin Heisenberg,” who in a 2009 article published by the journal Nature “proposed that insects display an awareness of the consequences of their actions and evidence of free will in deciding between options.”
Concluded Samadi, Dona, and Chittka, “Charles Henry Turner made important observations about animal cognition, which went against the leading paradigms of the time. His ideas have stood the test of history, but Turner’s work has largely been forgotten, likely because his ethnicity prevented him from becoming a research team leader” at a leading university, “so he could not train scientists who might have continued his approach.”
“Morphology of the avian brain”
Charles Henry Turner was the son of church custodian Thomas Turner, from Alberta province, Canada, and practical nurse Addie Campbell, from Lexington, Kentucky.
Graduating as valedictorian of his high school class at Woodard High School in Cincinnati, Charles Henry Turner entered the University of Cincinnati at age 20, completing his bachelor of science degree in biology in 1891.
His graduation thesis, “Morphology of the avian brain,” became his first published scientific paper.
Wrote Charles Henry Turner in that study, “When we compare the brain of a crow or a titmouse with the brain of a snake or a turtle, it is no longer a marvel that birds bear towards their reptilian cousins the relation of intellectual giants to intellectual dwarfs.”
What Charles Henry Turner observed, that eluded most other investigators until at least the latter half of the 20th century, is that reptilian brains have evolved for life on the ground, where size and weight are advantageous in discouraging predators, but the opportunity to observe a variety of surroundings is limited.
Birds, by contrast, have evolved their intelligence in response to the almost endless opportunity to see the world from the air, an environment in which size and weight are severely disadvantageous. Birds’ brains, accordingly, have developed to favor hyper-efficiency.
“Psychological notes upon the gallery spider”
In 1887, the same year in which Charles Henry Turner began his university studies, he married a Cincinnati schoolteacher named Leontine Troy. The daughter of a local African American banker, Leontine Troy had survived swallowing chloroform in an apparent accident in October 1885.
Charles Henry Turner embarked on his long teaching career in 1892-1893 as an assistant instructor in the University of Cincinnati biological laboratory.
Wrote Charles I. Abramson in a chronology of Charles Henry Turner’s life posted by the Oklahoma State Psychology Museum & Resource Center, “There is some suggestion that he was the only African American instructor at the University of Cincinnati during that time.”
During that time, continued Abramson, Charles Henry Turner published his second scientific paper, “Psychological notes upon the gallery spider.”
Spiders understand geometry
Explained Abramson, “Contrary to the still-popular view that spider web construction is a prime example of invertebrates’ robotic, repetitive action patterns, Turner reported variation between individuals in adapting their construction to the geometry of available space and the functionality in capturing prey.”
Concluded Turner, “We may safely conclude that an instinctive impulse prompts gallery spiders to weave gallery webs, but the details of the construction are the products of intelligent action.”
Moving on to Clark University in Atlanta, founded in 1869 by the Freedmen’s Aid Society of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charles Henry Turner spent a dozen years there, teaching biology and eventually chairing the science department.
Wife died, leaving three toddlers
Wife Leontine Troy Turner meanwhile birthed son Henry Owen Turner in 1892, daughter Louisa Mae Turner circa 1893, and a second son, Darwin Romanes Turner, in 1894.
Leontine Troy Turner died abruptly in 1895, however, leaving the three children at ages 1, 2, and 3.
“There is a suggestion that she suffered from a mental illness several months before her death,” wrote Abramson. “Occasionally it is suggested that,” following Leontine Troy Turner’s death, Charles Henry Turner “left [Atlanta] in 1895/1896 and taught in the public school systems of Evansville, Indiana and Cincinnati, Ohio,” before returning to Atlanta.
Charles Henry Turner spent the 1905-1906 school year as principal at College Hill High School in Cleveland, Tennessee, a segregated institution of historical note that was destroyed by fire in 1966. He earned his Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Chicago magna cum laude in 1907, the first African American to obtain a Ph.D. there.
Tuskegee couldn’t afford salary
Elected secretary of the animal behavior section at the Seventh International Zoological Congress in Boston that summer, Charles Henry Turner was either denied or declined a University of Chicago teaching post for reasons obscure.
Abramson recounted that Charles Henry Turner was also “turned down for an appointment by Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee Institute, because Washington could not afford to pay the salaries of both Turner and George Washington Carver.”
Therefore Charles Henry Turner spent the 1907-1908 academic year as professor of biology and chemistry for the segregated Haynes Normal & Industrial Institute, in Augusta, Georgia.
Marrying his second wife, Lillian Porter, Charles Henry Turner taught for the next fourteen years at yet another segregated institution, Sumner High School in St. Louis, Missouri.
Showed that bees see color
During those years Charles Henry Turner published papers demonstrating in 1910 that bees have color vision, in 1911 that bees can recognize patters, and in 1914 that insects hear airborne sounds.
Also in 1914 Charles Henry Turner in “An experimental study of the auditory powers of the giant silkworm moths, Saturniidae” described what Abramson calls “the first classical conditioning experiment with insects.”
Illness forced Charles Henry Turner to retire at age 55. His last published paper, “A new field method of investigating the hydrotropisms of fresh-water invertebrates,” appeared a year after his death.
Added Abramson, “Turner was a leader in the civil rights movement in St. Louis, and was instrumental in developing social services for African-Americans in the St. Louis area.”
East St. Louis massacre
Elaborated Samadi, Dona, and Chittka, “During his time there, he and his pupils would have witnessed the East St. Louis massacre in 1917, during which white mobs murdered more than 100 African Americans; another 6,000 lost their homes as a result of arson attacks on their neighborhoods.”
“Years before coming to St. Louis,” according to Abramson, Charles Henry Turner “wrote that an emphasis on high-quality education and a conscious effort to abandon prejudices might eliminate barriers between blacks and whites within a few decades.”
Open Air School for Crippled Children
Among the legacies for which Charles Henry Turner has been remembered before the recent rediscovery of the value of his work on animal sentience was the 1925 opening of the Charles Henry Turner Open Air School for Crippled Children.
Originally segregated, the school and building in 1954 became the multi-racial Charles Henry Turner Middle Branch, and is now the Charles Henry Turner Middle School within the Charles Henry Turner MEGA Magnet Middle School complex.
A less noted legacy was the academic success of Charles Henry Turner’s descendants.
Son & grandson named after Charles Darwin
Sons Henry Owen Turner and Darwin Romanes Turner became partners in a Chicago pharmacy. While Henry Owen Turner died at age 64 in 1956, Darwin Romanes Turner lived to age 89, dying in 1983.
Daughter Louisa Mae Turner, whose birth and death dates are unknown, was also a university graduate who had a long career as a teacher.
Darwin Romanes Turner’s wife, the former Laura C. Knight, entered the University of Cincinnati at age 15, earning her first of four degree at age 18.
Their son, Darwin T. Turner, at age 13 in 1944 became the youngest University of Cincinnati student ever, earning a B.A. in English and making Phi Beta Kappa at age 15, adding a master’s degree at 18, and a Ph.D. at 26.
Darwin T. Turner went on to become dean of the graduate school at North Carolina A&T University, a historically African American institution, was president of the College Language Association, founded a community theatre, authored two widely used composition textbooks and many works on African American literature, and was active in the civil rights movement.
Heading the Afro-American Studies Department at the University of Iowa from 1972 to 1991, Darwin T. Turner died on February 11, 1991 from a sudden heart attack.
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Mark Caponigro says
Thanks very much for this fascinating narrative of the life and career of Charles Henry Turner, about whom I had never heard (and I doubt I’m alone). BTW, in connexion with racial issues, Edward Lee Thorndike, whom you rightly refer to as “eugenicist and educational psychologist,” was long associated with Teachers’ College, the graduate school specializing in education that is part of Columbia University. A part of the complex of buildings at TC had been named Thorndike Hall, until two years ago, when everyone in the community learned of how unfitting it was to honor Thorndike, and Columbia with great ceremony removed the name. Ongoing is a movement to rename the tallest tower of the complex, Thorndike Tower, after a prominent African-American educator.
The issue of the sentience of different taxa of animals, including their mentality, the complexity of their behavior, and their capacity to suffer, is a complicated one in animal protection ethics. Do animals deserve greater moral regard from us, according to how highly their sentience is measured? This strikes many of us as a misdirection, as important as these traits undoubtedly are in our appreciation and love of animals. The sympathetic attention given by many of us to a small number of animals such as chimps, orcas, and elephants, with impressive mentality, is understandable; but does that mean the less obviously brilliant, such as Turner’s examples, snakes and turtles, may be consigned to whatever neglect or mistreatment might be in store? This is in part why I prefer the consideration of mortality to be preferable to sentience as a basis, a starting point, for developing our sense of moral regard. This is a big topic, but enough for now.
Jamaka Petzak says
One of many questions I’ve had throughout my life is how anyone could possibly think they are “better,” “more intelligent,” and “more deserving” of recognition and reward due to their superficial characteristics, “race,” gender, age, or even species. Having grown up in a multi-ethnic family in a multi-ethnic neighborhood and being educated by my parents to the fact that each and every one of us has talents and gifts, this seems absurd to me. Whether or not every living being shares the same level of intelligence, sentience, and “deservedness” is moot. Perhaps in time, those who believe they are the apex will come to understand, and even acknowledge, the fact that they are not. That would be a very good start, and may even save life, in all its diversity, on this planet.