Antoinette Brown Blackwell, first female evolutionary biologist

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Antoinette Brown Blackwell (1825-1921)

Antoinette Brown Blackwell (18 May 1825 – 05 November 1921) became the first woman in the United States ordained by a congregation in a major Christian denomination, although she resigned only one year later seeing her position not in line with the expectation of her congregation. She was a well-versed public speaker on the paramount issues of her time, and distinguished herself from her contemporaries with her use of religious faith in her efforts to expand women’s rights. Antoinette Brown Blackwell lived long enough to vote in the presidential election of November 1920, woman suffrage having taken effect earlier that year.

She was fascinated by Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and implemented the evolutionary viewpoint into her philosophical and theological thinking, mainly in her book “Studies in General Science”. Some researchers like Asa Gray easily slipped into the intelligent design argumentation, much to Darwin’s chagrin. Not so Antoinette Brown Blackwell: she sees a Creator, but not in the beautiful design here and there, but in the whole connectivity and economy in nature:

“If there is no rational cause manifested in the vegetable and animal economy of this earth, no design shown in the growth of new vegetation from the decayed tissues of the old, and of the higher animal tissues from the low, then there can be no design indicated in anything, for there is no evidence more conclusive of anything in nature! … I claim, therefore, immediately to perceive that Creation had, and must have had, a rational Creator. But rational powers, as we have already seen, can only pertain to a personal mind; and if God is a rational being, then He is a real and true person. He thinks, feels, and acts; possessing a living, sentient nature of his own and however different may be his type of mind from ours, however above and beyond us, and therefore to us incomprehensible, yet his nature like ours must be indivisible and indestructible.“ [1]

She was rather not pleased, though, with Charles Darwin’s “Descent of Man”, and the inferior role he assigned to the female sex. In her book “The sexes throughout nature”, she drawed attention to male fish who helped their female partners build nests and gestate eggs and to female insect rulers who took charge over the organization of their communities. Blackwell offered authoritative proof direct from the natural world that female inferiority – as claimed by Darwin and Spencer – was neither inevitable nor natural.

She concluded from her investigations that the behavior of peacocks or deers should not be regarded as role models for human behavior. Especially in species with shared responsibility and intensive, longer care for the offspring between the sexes, establishing partnerships can also be a success model for evolution. She thus was also a still unrecognized precursor of the “Parental Investment”-theory described by Robert Trivers that made his mark in evolutionary biology only in the 1970ies [2].

In 1856, she married Samuel Charles Blackwell who shared his wife’s beliefs in reform, including women’s rights. They had seven children, two of whom died in infancy. Of the remaining five daughters, Edith and Ethel became doctors, while Agnes became an artist and an art teacher.

[1] Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Studies in General Science, Chapter “The Nature of the Creator Inferred from the Creation”, New York: G.P. Putnam and Son, 1869.

[2] Michael Blume, Antoinette Brown Blackwell – Die erste Evolutionsforscherin, Sciebooks, 2013. (The book was THE inspiration for this blog post)

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