Part 2 out of 5
relations to agriculture. Impressed with the importance of this little
world, he suggested valuable remedies, means of preservation; which were
all the more logical in that the destruction of insects, if it is to be
efficacious, must be based not upon a gross empiricism, but on a previous
study of their social life and their habits.
With what patience he observed the terribly destructive weevils, and those
formidable moths with downy wings, which fly without sound of a night, and
whose depredations have often been valued at millions of francs! How
meticulously he has recorded the conditions which favour or check the
development of those parasitic fungi whose mortal blemishes are seen on
buds and flowers, on the green shoots and clusters that promise a
But then he became anxious. Was it all worth the sacrifice of his liberty?
"Would he not suffer a thousand annoyances from pretentious nobodies?" for
as things were, all ideas of again "enregimenting" himself "filled him with
Slowly, however, the first instalment of the work which he had spent nearly
twenty-five years in planning, creating, and polishing, began to take
shape. At the end of the year 1878 he was able to assemble a sufficient
number of studies to form material for what was to be the first volume of
his "Souvenirs entomologiques." (A selection of which forms "Social Life in
the Insect World" (T. Fisher Unwin, 1912).)
Let us stop for a moment to consider this first book, whose publication
constitutes a truly historical date, not only in the career of Fabre, but
in the annals of universal science. It was at once the foundation and the
keystone of the marvellous edifice which we shall watch unfolding and
increasing, but to which the future was in reality to add nothing
essential. The cardinal ideas as to instinct and evolution, the necessity
of experimenting in the psychology of animals, and the harmonic laws of the
conservation of the individual, are here already expounded in their final
and definite form. This fruitful and decisive year brought Fabre a great
grief. He lost his son Jules, that one of all his children whom he seems
most ardently to have loved.
He was a youth of great promise, "all fire, all flame"; of a serious
nature; an exquisite being, of a precocious intelligence, whose rare
aptitudes both for science and literature were truly extraordinary. Such
too was the subtlety of his senses that by handling no matter what plant,
with his eyes closed, he could recognize and define it merely by the sense
of touch. This delightful companion of his father's studies had scarcely
passed his fifteenth year when death removed him. A terrible void was left
in his heart, which was never filled. Thirty years later the least allusion
to this child, however tactful, which recalled this dear memory to his
mind, would still wring his heart, and his whole body would be shaken by
his sobs. As always, work was his refuge and consolation; but this terrible
blow shattered his health, until then so robust. In the midst of this
disastrous winter he fell seriously ill. He was stricken with pneumonia,
which all but carried him off, and every one gave him up for lost. However,
he recovered, and issued from his convalescence as though regenerated, and
with strength renewed he attacked the next stage of his labours.
But what are the most fruitful resolutions, and what poor playthings are we
in the hands of the unexpected! A vulgar incident of every-day life had
sufficed to make Fabre decide to break openly with the University, and to
leave Avignon. The secret motive of his departure from Orange was scarcely
more solid. His new landlord concluded one day, either from cupidity or
stupidity, to lop most ferociously the two magnificent rows of plane-trees
which formed a shady avenue before his house, in which the birds piped and
warbled in the spring, and the cicadae chorused in the summer. Fabre could
not endure this massacre, this barbarous mutilation, this crime against
nature. Hungry for peace and quiet, the enjoyment of a dwelling-place could
no longer content him; at all costs he must own his own home.
So, having won the modest ransom of his deliverance, he waited no longer,
but quitted the cities for ever; retiring to Sérignan, to the peaceful
obscurity of a tiny hamlet, and this quiet corner of the earth had
henceforth all his heart and soul in keeping.
CHAPTER 6. THE HERMITAGE.
Goethe has somewhere written: Whosoever would understand the poet and his
work should visit the poet's country.
Let us, then, the latest of many, make the pilgrimage which all those who
are fascinated by the enigma of nature will accomplish later, with the same
piety that has led so many and so fervent admirers to the dwelling of
Mistral at Maillane.
Starting from Orange and crossing the Aygues, a torrent whose muddy waters
are lost in the Rhône, but whose bed is dried by the July and August suns,
leaving only a desert of pebbles, where the Mason-bee builds her pretty
turrets of rock-work, we come presently to the Sérignaise country; an arid,
stony tract, planted with vines and olives, coloured a rusty red, or
touched here and there with almost a hue of blood; and here and there a
grove of cypress makes a sombre blot. To the north runs a long black line
of hills, covered with box and ilex and the giant heather of the south. Far
in the distance, to the east, the immense plain is closed in by the wall of
Saint-Amant and the ridge of the Dentelle, behind which the lofty Ventoux
rears its rocky, cloven bosom abruptly to the clouds. At the end of a few
miles of dusty road, swept by the powerful breath of the mistral, we
suddenly reach a little village. It is a curious little community, with its
central street adorned by a double row of plane-trees, its leaping
fountains, and its almost Italian air. The houses are lime-washed, with
flat roofs; and sometimes, at the side of some small or decrepit dwelling,
we see the unexpected curves of a loggia. At a distance the facade of the
church has the harmonious lines of a little antique temple; close at hand
is the graceful campanile, an old octagonal tower surmounted by a narrow
mitre wrought in hammered iron, in the midst of which are seen the black
profiles of the bells.
I shall never forget my first visit. It was in the month of August; and the
whole countryside was ringing with the song of the cicadae. I had applied
to a job-master of Orange, counting on him to take me thither; but he had
never driven any one to Sérignan, had hardly heard of Fabre, and did not
know where his house was. At length, however, we contrived to find it. At
the entrance of the little market-town, in a solitary corner, in the centre
of an enclosure of lofty walls, which were taller than the crests of the
pines and cypresses, his dwelling was hidden away. No sound proceeded from
it; but for the baying of the faithful Tom I do not think I should have
dared to knock on the great door, which turned slowly on its hinges. A pink
house with green shutters, half-hidden amid the sombre foliage, appears at
the end of an alley of lilacs, "which sway in the spring under the weight
of their balmy thyrsi." Before the house are the shady plane-trees, where
during the burning hours of August the cicada of the flowering ash, the
deafening cacan, concealed beneath the leaves, fills the hot atmosphere
with its eager cries, the only sound that disturbs the profound silence of
Before us, beyond a little wall of a height to lean upon, on an isolated
lawn, beneath the shade of great trees with interwoven boughs, a circular
basin displays its still surface, across which the skating Hydrometra
traces its wide circles. Then, suddenly, we see an opening into the most
extraordinary and unexpected of gardens; a wild park, full of strenuous
vegetation, which hides the pebbly soil in all directions; a chaos of
plants and bushes, created throughout especially to attract the insects of
Thickets of wild laurel and dense clumps of lavender encroach upon the
paths, alternating with great bushes of coronilla, which bar the flight of
the butterfly with their yellow-winged flowers, and whose searching
fragrance embalms all the air about them.
It is as though the neighbouring mountain had one day departed, leaving
here its thistles, its dogberry-trees, its brooms, its rushes, its juniper-
bushes, its laburnums, and its spurges. There too grows the "strawberry
tree," whose red fruits wear so familiar an appearance; and tall pines, the
giants of this "pigmy forest." There the Japanese privet ripens its black
berries, mingled with the Paulownia and the Cratoegus with their tender
green foliage. Coltsfoot mingles with violets; clumps of sage and thyme mix
their fragrance with the scent of rosemary and a host of balsamic plants.
Amid the cacti, their fleshy leaves bristling with prickles, the periwinkle
opens its scattered blossoms, while in a corner the serpent arum raises its
cornucopia, in which those insects that love putrescence fall engulfed,
deceived by the horrible savour of its exhalations.
It is in the spring above all that one should see this torrent of verdure,
when the whole enclosure awakens in its festival attire, decked with all
the flowers of May, and the warm air, full of the hum of insects, is
perfumed with a thousand intoxicating scents. It is in the spring that one
should see the "Harmas," the open-air observatory, "the laboratory of
living entomology" (6/1.); a name and a spot which Fabre has made famous
throughout the world.
I enter the dining-room, whose wide, half-closed shutters allow only a
half-light to enter between the printed curtains. Rush-bottomed chairs, a
great table, about which seven persons daily take their places, a few poor
pieces of furniture, and a simple bookcase; such are all the contents. On
the mantel, a clock in black marble, a precious souvenir, the only present
which Fabre received at the time of his exodus from Avignon; it was given
by his old pupils, the young girls who used to attend the free lectures at
There, every afternoon, half lying on a little sofa, the naturalist has the
habit of taking a short siesta. This light repose, even without sleep, was
of old enough to restore his energies, exhausted by hours of labour.
Thenceforth he was once more alert, and ready for the remainder of the day.
But already he is on his feet, bareheaded, in his waistcoat, his silk
necktie carelessly fastened under the soft turned-down collar of his half-
open shirt, his gesture, in the shadowy chamber, full of welcome.
François Sicard, in his faultless medal and his admirable bust, has
succeeded with rare felicity in reproducing for posterity this rugged,
shaven face, full of laborious years; a peasant face, stamped with
originality, under the wide felt hat of Provence; touched with geniality
and benevolence, yet reflecting a world of energy. Sicard has fixed for
ever this strange mask; the thin cheeks, ploughed into deep furrows, the
strained nose, the pendent wrinkles of the throat, the thin, shrivelled
lips, with an indescribable fold of bitterness at the corners of the mouth.
The hair, tossed back, falls in fine curls over the ears, revealing a high,
rounded forehead, obstinate and full of thought. But what chisel, what
graver could reproduce the surprising shrewdness of that gaze, eclipsed
from time to time by a convulsive tremor of the eyelids! What Holbein, what
Chardin could render the almost extraordinary brilliance of those black
eyes, those dilated pupils: the eyes of a prophet, a seer; singularly wide
and deeply set, as though gazing always upon the mystery of things, as
though made expressly to scrutinize Nature and decipher her enigmas? Above
the orbits, two short, bristling eyebrows seem set there to guide the
vision; one, by dint of knitting itself above the magnifying-glass, has
retained an indelible fold of continual attention; the other, on the
contrary, always updrawn, has the look of defying the interlocutor, of
foreseeing his objections, of waiting with an ever-ready return-thrust.
Such is this striking physiognomy, which one who has seen it cannot forget.
There, in this "hermit's retreat," as he himself has defined it, the sage
is voluntarily sequestered; a true saint of science, an ascetic living only
on fruits, vegetables, and a little wine; so in love with retirement that
even in the village he was for a long time almost unknown, so careful was
he to go round instead of through it on his way to the neighbouring
mountain, where he would often spend whole days alone with wild nature.
It is in this silent Thebaïd, so far from the atmosphere of cities, the
vain agitations and storms of the world, that his life has been passed, in
unchanging uniformity; and here he has been able to pursue, with resolute
labour and incredible patience, that prodigious series of marvellous
observations which for nearly fifty years he has never ceased to
Let us indeed remember how much time has been required and what effort has
been expended to complete the long and patient inquiries which he had
hitherto accomplished; obliged, as he was, to allow himself to be
interrupted at any moment, and to postpone his observations often at the
most interesting moment, in order to undertake some enervating labour, or
the disagreeable and mechanical duties of his profession. Remember that his
first labours already dated from twenty-five years earlier, and at the
moment when we observe him in his solitude at Sérignan he had only just
painfully gathered together the material for his first book. What a
contrast to the thirty fruitful years that were to follow! Now nearly ten
volumes, no less overflowing with the richest material, were to succeed one
another at almost regular intervals--about one in every three years.
To be sure, he would have gathered his harvest in no matter what corner of
the world, provided he had found within his reach, in whatever sphere of
life he had been placed, any subject of inquiry whatever; such was
Rousseau, botanizing over the bunch of chickweed provided for his canary;
such was Bernardin Saint-Pierre, discovering a world in a strawberry-plant
which had sprouted by chance at the corner of his window. (6/2.) But the
field in which he had hitherto been able to glean was indeed barren. That
he was able, later on, to narrate the wonderful history of the Pelopaeus,
whose habits he had observed at Avignon, was due to the fact that this
curious insect had come to lodge with him, having chosen Fabre's chamber
for its dwelling. None the less he threw himself eagerly upon all such
scraps of information as happened to come under his notice; witness the
observations which he embodied in a memoir touching the phosphorescence of
certain earth-worms which, abounding in a little courtyard near his
dwelling, were so rare elsewhere that he was never again able to find them.
(6/3.) It was therefore fortunate, if not for himself, at least for his
genius, that he did not become, as he had wished, a professor in a faculty;
there, to be sure, he would have found a theatre worthy of his efforts, in
which he might even have demonstrated, in all its magnificence, his
incomparable gift of teaching; but it is probable too that he would have
been stranded in shoal waters; that in the official atmosphere of a city
his still more marvellous gifts of observation would scarcely have found
It was only by belonging fully to himself that he could fruitfully exercise
his talents. Necessary to every scholar, to every inquirer, to an open-air
observer like Fabre liberty and leisure were more than usually essential;
failing these he might never have accomplished his mission. How many lives
are wasted, how many minds expended in sheer loss, in default of this
sufficiency of leisure! How many scholars tied to the soil, how many
physicians absorbed by an exigent practice, who perhaps had somewhat to
say, have succeeded only in devising plans, for ever postponing their
realization to some miraculous tomorrow, which always recedes!
But we must not fall into illusions. How many might be tempted to imitate
him, hoping to see some unknown talent awaken or expand within them, only
to find themselves incapable of producing anything, and to consume
themselves in an insurmountable and barren ennui! One must be rich in one's
own nature, rich in will and in ability, to live apart and seek new paths
in solitude, and it is not without reason that the majority prefer the
turmoil of cities and the murmur of men to the silence of the country.
The atmosphere of a great capital, for instance, is singularly conducive to
work. Living constantly within the circle of light shed by the masters,
within reach of the laboratories and the great libraries, we are less
likely to go astray; we are stimulated by the contact of others; we profit
by their advice and experience; and it is easy to borrow ideas if we lack
them. Then there is the stimulant of self-respect, the sense of rivalry,
the eager desire to advance, to distinguish oneself, to shine, to attract
attention, to become in one's turn an arbiter, an object of wonder and
envy, without which stimulus many would merely have existed, and would
never have become what they are.
On the other hand, a man needs an intrinsic radio-activity, and a real
talent; and the aid, moreover, of exceptional circumstances, if fame is to
consent to come to him and take him by the hand in the depths of some
unknown Maillane, some obscure Sérignan; even, as in the case of Fabre, at
the end only of a long life.
But he, by a kind of fatality inherent in his nature, loved "to
circumscribe himself," according to the happy expression of Rousseau; and
he profited, rather than otherwise, by living entirely to himself; for he
had long been, indeed he always was, the man who, at twenty-five, writing
to his brother, had said, in speaking of his native countryside:
"For a impassioned botanist, it is a delightful country, in which I could
pass a month, two months, three months, a year even, alone, quite alone,
with no other companion than the crows and the jays which gossip among the
oak-trees; without being weary for a moment; there would be so many
beautiful fungi, orange, rosy, and white, among the mosses, and so many
flowers in the fields." (6/4.)
His work having brought him at last just enough to enable him to give
himself the pleasure of becoming, in his turn, a proprietor, he had
acquired, for a modest sum, this dilapidated dwelling and this deserted
spot of ground; barren land, given over to couch-grass, thistles, and
brambles; a sort of "accursed spot, to which no one would have confided
even a pinch of turnip-seed." A piece of water in front of the house
attracted all the frogs in the neighbourhood; the screech-owl mewed from
the tops of the plane-trees, and numerous birds, no longer disturbed by the
presence of man, had domiciled themselves in the lilacs and the cypresses.
A host of insects had seized upon the dwelling, which had long been
He restored the house, and to some extent reduced confusion to order. In
the uncultivated and pebbly plain where the plough had been long a stranger
he established plants of a thousand varieties, and, the better to hide
himself, he had walls built to shut himself in.
Why was he drawn by preference to this village of Sérignan?--for he did not
go thither without making some inquiries as to the possibility of obtaining
shelter elsewhere, and the Carpentras cemetery had tempted him also; but
what had particularly seduced and drawn him thither was the nearness of the
mountain with its Mediterranean flora, so rich that it recalled the
Corsican maquis; full of beautiful fungi and varied insects, where, under
the flat stones exposed to the burning sun, the centipede burrowed and the
scorpion slept; where a special fauna abounded--of curious dung-beetles,
scarabaei, the Copris, the Minotaur, etc.--which only a little farther
north grow rapidly scarcer and then altogether disappear.
He had thus at last arrived in port; he had found his "Eden."
He had realized, "after forty years of desperate struggles," the dearest,
the most ardent, the longest cherished of all his desires. He could observe
at leisure "every day, every hour," his beloved insects; "under the blue
sky, to the music of the cigales." He had only to open his eyes and to see;
to lend an ear and hear; to enjoy the great blessing of leisure to his
Doffing the professor's frock-coat for the peasant's blouse, planting a
root of sweet basil in his "topper," and finally kicking it to pieces, he
snapped his fingers at his past life.
Liberated at last, far from all that could irritate or disturb him or make
him feel dependent, satisfied with his modest earnings, reassured by the
ever-increasing popularity of his little books, he had obtained entire
possession of his own body and mind, and could give himself without reserve
to his favourite subjects.
So, with Nature and her inexhaustible book before him, he truly commenced a
But would this life have been possible without the support and comfort of
those intimate feelings which are at the root of human nature? Man is
seldom the master of these feelings, and they, with reason or despite
reason, force themselves on his notice as the question of questions.
This delicate problem Fabre had to resolve after suffering a fresh grief.
Hardly had he commenced to enjoy the benefits of this profound peace, when
he lost his wife. At this moment his children were already grown up; some
were married and some ready to leave him; and he could not hope much longer
to keep his old father, the ex-café-keeper of Pierrelatte, who had come to
rejoin him; and who might be seen, even in his extreme old age, going forth
in all weathers and dragging his aged limbs along all the roads of
Sérignan. (6/5.) The son, moreover, had inherited from his father his
profound inaptitude for the practical business of life, and was equally
incapable of managing his interests and the economics of the house. This is
why, after two years of widowerhood, having already passed his sixtieth
year, although still physically quite youthful, he remarried. Careless of
opinion, obeying only the dictates of his own heart and mind, and following
also the intuitions of unerring instinct, which was superior to the
understanding of those who thought it their duty to oppose him, he married,
as Boaz married Ruth, a young woman, industrious, full of freshness and
life, already completely devoted to his service, and admirably fitted to
satisfy that craving for order, peace, quiet, and moral tranquillity, which
to him were above all things indispensable.
His new companion, moreover, was in all things faithful to her mission, and
it was thanks to the benefits of this union, as the future was to show,
that Fabre was in a position to pursue his long-delayed inquiries.
Three children, a son and two daughters, were born in swift succession, and
reconstituted "the family," which was very soon increased by the youngest
of his daughters by his first wife, who had not married; this was that
Aglaë, who so often helped her father with her childlike attentions, and,
"her cheek blooming with animation," collaborated in some of his most
famous observations (6/6.); an unobtrusive figure, a soul full of devotion
and resignation, heroic and tender. Having in vain ventured into the world,
she had returned to the beloved roof at Sérignan, unable to part from the
father she so admired and adored.
Later, when the shadow of age grew denser and heavier, the young wife and
the younger children of the famous poet-entomologist took part in his
labours also; they gave him their material assistance, their hands, their
eyes, their hearing, their feet; he in the midst of them was the
conceiving, reasoning, interpreting, and directing brain.
>From this time forward the biography of Fabre becomes simplified, and
remains a statement of his inner life. For thirty years he never emerged
from his horizon of mountains and his garden of shingle; he lived wholly
absorbed in domestic affections and the tasks of a naturalist. None the
less, he still exercised his vocation as teacher, for neither pure science
nor poetry was sufficient to nourish his mind, and he was still Professor
Fabre, untiringly pursuing his programme of education, although no longer
applying himself thereto exclusively.
This long active period was also the most silent period of his life,
although not an hour, not a minute of his many days was left unoccupied.
In the first few months at his new home he resumed his hymn to labour.
"You will learn in your turn," he writes to his son Émile, "you will learn,
I hope, that we are never so happy as when work does not leave us a
moment's repose. To act is to live." (6/7.)
The better to belong to himself, he eluded all invitations, even those from
his nearest or most intimate friends; he hated to go away even for a few
hours, preferring to enjoy in his own house their presence amidst his
habitual and delightful surroundings. Everything in this still unexplored
country was new to him. What would he do elsewhere, even in his beloved
Carpentras, whither his faithful friend and pupil Devillario, who had
formerly followed him in his walks around Avignon, would endeavour from
time to time to draw him? Devillario was a magistrate, a collector and
palaeontologist; his simple tastes, his wide culture, and his passion for
natural history would surely have decided Fabre to accept his invitations,
but that he forbade himself the pleasure. "I am afraid the hospitable
cutlet that awaits me at your table will have time to grow cold; I am up to
the neck in my work (6/8.)...But you, when you can, escape from your
courts, and we will philosophize at random, as is our custom when we can
manage to pass a few hours together. As for me, it is very doubtful whether
the temptation will seize me to come to Carpentras. A hermit of the Thebaïd
was no more diligent in his cell than I in my village home." (6/9.)
CHAPTER 7. THE INTERPRETATION OF NATURE.
Was there not indeed a sufficiency of captivating matters all about him,
and beneath his very feet?
In his deep, sunny garden a thousand insects fly, creep, crawl, and hum,
and each relates its history to him. A golden gardener-beetle trots along
the path. Rose-beetles pass, in snoring flight, on every hand, the gold and
emerald of their elytra gleaming; now and again one of them alights for a
moment on the flowering head of a thistle; he seizes it carefully with the
tips of his nervous, pointed fingers, seems to caress it, speaks to it, and
then suddenly restores it to freedom.
Wasps are pillaging the centauries. On the blossoms of the camomile the
larvae of the Meloë are waiting for the Anthophorae to carry them off to
their cells, while around them roam the Cicindelae, their green bodies
"spotted with points of amaranth." At the bottom of the walls "the chilly
Psyche creeps slowly along under her cloak of tiny twigs." In the dead
bough of a lilac-tree the dark-hued Xylocopa, the wood-boring bee, is busy
tunnelling her gallery. In the shade of the rushes the Praying Mantis,
rustling the floating robe of her long tender green wings, "gazes alertly,
on the watch, her arms folded on her breast, her appearance that of one
praying," and paralyses the great grey locust, nailed to its place by fear.
Nothing here is insignificant; what the world would smile at or deride will
provide the sage with food for thought and reflection. "Nothing is trivial
in the majestic problem of nature; our laboratory acquaria are of less
value than the imprint which the shoe of a mule has left in the clay, when
the rain has filled the primitive basin, and life has peopled it with
marvels"; and the least fact offered us by chance on the most thoroughly
beaten track may possibly open prospects as vast as all the starry sky.
Tell yourself that everything in nature is a symbol of something like a
specimen of an abstruse cryptogram, all the characters of which conceal
some meaning. But when we have succeeded in deciphering these living texts,
and have grasped the allusion; when, beside the symbol, we have succeeded
in finding the commentary, then the most desolate corner of the earth
appears to the solitary seeker as a gallery full of the masterpieces of an
unsuspected art. Fabre puts into our hands the golden key which opens the
doors of this marvellous museum.
Let us consider the terebinth louse; it is just a little yellow mite; but
is it nothing else? Its genealogical history teaches us "by what amazing
essays of passion and variety the universal law which rules the
transmission of life is evolved. Here is neither father nor eggs; all these
mites are mothers; and the young are born living, just like their mothers."
To this end "almost the whole of the maternal substance is disintegrated
and renewed and conglobated to form the ovarium...the whole creature has
become an egg, which has, for its shell, the dry skin of the tiny creature,
and the microscope will show a whole world in formation...a nebulosity as
of white of egg, in which fresh centres of life are forming, as the suns
are condensed in the nebulae of the heavens." (7/1.)
What is this fleck of foam, like a drop of saliva, which we see in
springtime on the weeds of the meadows; among others on the spurge, when
its stems begin to shoot, and its sombre flowers open in the sunlight? "It
is the work of an insect. It is the shelter in which the Cicadellina
deposits her eggs. What a miraculous chemist! Her stiletto excels the
finest craft of the botanical anatomist" by its sovereign art of separating
the acrid poison which flows with the sap in the veins of the most venomous
plants, and extracting therefrom only an inoffensive fluid. (7/2.)
At every step the insects set us problems equally varied. The other
creatures are nearer to us; they resemble us in many respects. But insects,
almost the first-born of creation, form a world apart, and contain, in
their tiny bodies, as Réaumur has admirably said, "more parts than the most
gigantic animals." They have senses and faculties of their own, which
enable them to accomplish actions, which are doubtless very simply related
in reality, but which seem, to our minds, as extraordinary as the habits of
the inhabitants of Mars might, if by chance they were to descend in our
midst. We do not know how they hear, nor how they see through their
compound eyes, and our ignorance concerning the majority of their senses
still further increases the difficulty, which so often arrests us, of
interpreting their actions.
The tubercled Cerceris "finds by the hundred" and almost immediately a
species of weevil, the Cleona ophthalmica, on which it feeds its larvae,
and which the human eye, though it searches for hours, can scarcely find
anywhere. The eyes of the Cerceris are like magnifying glasses, veritable
microscopes, which immediately distinguish, in the vast field of nature, an
object that human vision is powerless to discover. (7/3.)
How does the Ammophila, hovering over the turf and investigating it far and
wide, in its search for a grey grub, contrive to discern the precise point
in the depth of the subsoil where the larva is slumbering in immobility?
"Neither touch nor sight can come into play, for the grub is sealed up in
its burrow at a depth of several inches; nor the scent, since it is
absolutely inodorous; nor the hearing, since its immobility is absolute
during the daytime." (7/4.)
The Processional caterpillar of the pine-trees, "endowed with an exquisite
hygrometric sensibility," is a barometer more infallible than that of the
physicists. "It foresees the tempests preparing afar, at enormous
distances, almost in the other hemisphere," and announces them several days
before the least sign of them appears on the horizon. (7/5.)
A wild bee, the Chalicodoma, and a wasp, the Cerceris, carried in the dark
far from their familiar pastures, to a distance of several miles, and
released in spots which they have never seen, cross vast and unknown spaces
with absolute certainty, and regain their nests; even after long absence,
and in spite of contrary winds and the most unexpected obstacles. It is not
memory that guides them, but a special faculty whose astonishing results we
must admit without attempting to explain them, so far removed are they from
our own psychology. (7/6.) But here is another example:
The Greater Peacock moths cross hills and valleys in the darkness, with a
heavy flight of wings spotted with inexplicable hieroglyphics. They hasten
from the remotest depths of the horizon to find their "sleeping beauties,"
drawn thereto by unknown odours, inappreciable by our senses, yet so
penetrating that the branch of almond on which the female has perched, and
which she has impregnated with her effluvium, exerts the same extraordinary
Considering these creatures, we end by discovering more things than are
contained in all the philosophies...if we know how to look for them.
Among so many unimaginable phenomena, which bewilder us, "because there is
nothing analogous in us," we succeed in perceiving, here and there, a few
glimpses of day, which suddenly throw a singular light upon this black
labyrinth, in which the least secret we can surprise "enters perhaps more
directly into the profound enigma of our ends and our origins than the
secret of the most urgent and most closely studied of our passions." (7/8.)
Fabre explains by hypnosis one of those curious facts which have hitherto
been so poorly interpreted. When surprised by abnormal conditions, we see
insects suddenly fall over, drop to the ground, and lie as though struck by
lightning, gathering their limbs under their bodies. A shock, an unexpected
odour, a loud noise, plunges them instantly into a sort of lethargy, more
or less prolonged. The insect "feigns death," not because it simulates
death, but in reality because this MAGNETIC condition resembles that of
death. (7/9.) Now the Odynerus, the Anthidium, the Eucera, the Ammophila,
and all the hymenoptera which Fabre has observed sleeping at the fall of
night, "suspended in space solely by the strength of their mandibles, their
bodies tense, their limbs retracted, without exhaustion or collapse"; and
the larva of the Empusa, "which for some ten months hangs to a twig by its
limbs, head downwards": do not these present a surprising analogy with
those hypnotized persons who possess the faculty of remaining fixed in the
most painful poses, and of supporting the most unusual attitudes, for an
extremely long time; for instance, with one arm extended, or one foot
raised from the ground, without appearing to experience the least fatigue,
and with a persevering and unfaltering energy? (7/10.)
That the ex-schoolmaster was able to penetrate so far into this new world,
and that he has been able to interest us in so many fascinating problems,
was due to the fact that he had also "taken a wide bird's-eye view through
all the windows of creation." His universal capabilities, his immense
culture and almost encyclopaedic science have enabled him to utilize,
thanks to his studies, all the knowledge allied to his subject. He is not
one of those who understand only their speciality and who, knowing nothing
outside their own province and their particular labours, refuse to grasp at
anything beyond the narrow limits within which they stand installed.
All plants are to him so familiar that the flowers, for him, assume the
airs of living persons. But without a profound knowledge of botany, who
would hope to grasp the profound, perpetual, and intimate relations of the
plant and the insect?
He has turned over strata and interrogated the schistous deposits, whose
archives preserve the forms of vanished organizations, but "keep silence as
to the origin of the instincts." Bending over his reagents, he has sought
to discover, according to the phrase of a philosopher, those secret
retreats in which Nature is seated before her furnaces, in the depths of
her laboratory; following up the metamorphoses of matter even to the wings
of the Scarabaei, and observing how life, returning to her crucible the
debris and ashes of the organism, combines the elements anew, and from the
elements of the urine can derive, for example, by a simple displacement of
molecules, "all this dazzling magic of colours of innumerable shades: the
amethystine violet of Geotrupes, the emerald of the rose-beetle, the gilded
green of the Cantharides, the metallic lustre of the gardener-beetles, and
all the pomp of the Buprestes and the dung-beetles." (7/11.)
His books are steeped in all the ideas of modern physics. The highest
mathematical knowledge has been referred to with profit in his marvellous
description of the hunting-net of the Epeïra. Whose "terribly scientific"
combinations realize "the spiral logarithm of the geometers, so curious in
its properties" (7/12.); a splendid observation, in which Fabre makes us
admire, in the humble web of a spider, a masterpiece as astonishing and
incomprehensible as and even more sublime than the honeycomb.
This explains why Fabre has always energetically denied that he is properly
speaking an entomologist; and indeed the term appears often wrongly to
describe him. He loves, on the contrary, to call himself a naturalist; that
is, a biologist; biology being, by definition, the study of living
creatures considered as a whole and from every point of view. And as
nothing in life is isolated, as all things hold together, and as each part,
in all its relations, presents itself to the gaze of the observer under
innumerable aspects, one cannot be a true naturalist without being at the
same time a philosopher.
But it is not enough to know and to observe.
To be admitted to the spectacle of these tiny creatures, to become familiar
with their habits, to grasp the mysterious threads which connect them one
with another and with the vast universe: for this the cold and deliberate
vision of the specialist would often be insufficient. There is an art of
observation, and the gift of observation is a true function of that
constantly alert intelligence, continually dominated by the need of delving
untiringly down to the ultimate truth accessible, "allowing ourselves to
pass over nothing without seeking its reason, and habitually following up
every response with another question, until we come to the granite wall of
the Unknowable." Above all we need an ardent and interested sympathy, for
"we penetrate farther into the secret of things by the heart than by the
reason," as Toussenel has said; and "it is only by intuition that we can
know what life truly is," adds Bergson profoundly. (7/13.) Now Fabre loves
these little peoples and knows how to make us love them. How tenderly he
speaks of them; with what solicitude he observes them; with what love he
follows the progress of their nurslings; the young grubs wriggling in his
test-tubes, with doddering heads, are happy; and he himself is happy to see
them "well-fed and shining with health." He pities the bee stabbed by the
Philanthus "in the holy joys of labour." He sympathizes with the sufferings
of these little creatures and their hard labours. If, in his search for
ideas, he has to overturn their dwellings, "he repents of subjecting
maternal love to such tribulations," and if he is constrained to put them
to the question, to torment them in order to extract their secrets, he is
grieved to have provoked "such miseries!" (7/14.) Having provided for their
needs, and satisfied with the secrets which they have revealed to him, it
is not without regret and difficulty that he parts from them and restores
them "to the delights of liberty."
He is thoroughly convinced, moreover, that all the creatures that share the
face of the earth with us are accomplishing an august and appointed task.
He welcomes the swallows to his dwelling, even surrendering his workroom to
them, at the risk of jeopardizing his notes and books. He pleads for the
frog, and applies himself to setting forth his unknown qualities; he
rehabilitates the bat, the hedgehog, and the screech-owl, persecuted,
defamed, crushed, stoned, and crucified! (7/15.)
So intimate is the life which he leads among them all that he makes himself
truly their companion, and relates his own history in narrating theirs;
pleased to discover in their joys and sorrows his own trials and delights;
mingling in their annals his memories and his impressions; delightful
fragments of a childlike autobiography, encrusted in his learned work;
moving and delightful pages in which all the ingenuity of this noble mind
reveals itself with a touching sincerity, in which all the freshness of
this charming and so profoundly unworldly nature is seen as through a pure
There is no real communion with nature without sentiment, without an
illuminating passion: often the sole and effectual grace which enables its
true meaning to appear. Neither taste, nor intelligence, nor logic, nor all
the science of the schools can suffice alone. To see further there is
needed something like a gift of correspondence, surpassing the limits of
observation and experience, which enables us to foresee and to divine the
profound secrets of life which lie beneath appearances. Those who are so
gifted have often only to open their eyes in order to grasp matters in
their true light.
A great observer is in reality a poet who imagines and creates. The
microscope, the magnifying glass, the scalpel, are as it were the strings
of a lyre. "The felicitous and fruitful hypothesis which constitutes
scientific invention is a gift of sentiment" in the words of Claude
Bernard; and of this king of physiology, who commenced by proving himself
in works of pure imagination, and whose genius finally took for its theme
the manifold variations of living flesh, of him too may we not say that he
has explored the labyrinths of life with "the torch of poetry in his hand"?
Similarly, do not the harmonious sequences which run through all the
admirable discoveries of Pasteur give us the sensation of a veritable and
In Fabre also it seems that the passion which he brings to all his patient
observations is in itself truly creative: "his heart beats with emotion,
the sweat drips from his brow to the soil, making mortar of the dust"; he
forgets food and drink, and "thus passes hours of oblivion in the happiness
of learning." I have seen him in his laboratory studying the spawning of
the bluebottle, when I, at his side, could scarcely support the horrible
stench which rose from the putrefying adders and lumps of meat; he,
however, was oblivious of the frightful odour, and his face was inundated
with smiles of delight.
Intelligence, then, must here be the servant of feeling and intuition; a
kind of primitive faculty, mysterious and instinctive, which alone makes a
great naturalist like Fabre, a great historian like Michelet, a great
physician like Boherhaave or Bretonneau.
These last are not always the most scholarly nor the most learned nor the
most patient, but they are those who possess in a high degree that special
vision, that gift, properly speaking poetic, which is known as the clinical
eye, which at the first glance perceives and confirms the diagnosis in all
Fabre has a mind propitious to such processes; and if, by chance,
circumstances had directed his attention to medicine, that science which is
based upon an abundant provision of facts, but in which good sense and a
kind of divination play a still wider part, there is no doubt that he would
have been capable of becoming a shining light in this new arena.
He was full of admiration for that other illustrious Vauclusian, François
Raspail (7/16.), whose medical genius anticipated Pasteur and all the
conceptions of modern medicine. It would seem that he found in him his own
temper, his own fashion of seeing and representing things. He loved
Raspail's books and his prescriptions, full of reason and a most judicious
good sense, distrusting for himself and for his family the complicated
formulae and cunning remedies of an art too considered and still unproved.
At Carpentras, while his first-born, Émile, was hovering between life and
death, and the physician who came to see him, "being at the end of his
resources," did nothing more for him and soon ceased to come, thinking that
the child would not last till the morrow, Fabre flew to the works of
"I searched to discover what his malady was. I found it, and he was treated
day and night accordingly. To-day he is convalescent; and his appetite has
returned. I believe he is saved, and I shall say, like Ambroise Paré, 'I
have nursed him; God has cured him.'" (7/17.)
The episode which he relates, when, at the primary school of Avignon, a
retort had just burst, "spurting in all directions its contents of
vitriol," right in the midst of the suddenly interrupted chemistry lesson,
and when, thanks to his prompt action, he saved the sight of one of his
comrades, does honour to his initiative and presence of mind. (7/18.)
While "all physicians should bow before the facts which he excels in
discovering" (7/19.), he has also been able to make direct application of
the marvels of entomology to some of the problems of hygiene and medicine.
He has shown that the irritant poison secreted by certain caterpillars,
"which sets the fingers which handle them on fire," is nothing but a waste
product of the organism, a derivative of uric acid; he does not hesitate to
perform painful experiments on himself in order to furnish the proof of his
theory; and he explains thus the curious cases of dermatitis which are
often observed among silkworm-breeders. (7/20.) He proves the uselessness
of our meat-safes of metallic gauze, intended to preserve meat against
contamination, and the efficacy of a mere envelope of paper, not only to
preserve meat from flies, but also our garments from the clothes-moth.
(7/21.) He recommends the curious Provençal recipe, which consists in
boiling suspected mushrooms in salt and water before eating them. Finally
he suggests to members of the medical profession that they might perhaps
extract heroic remedies from these treacherous vegetables. (7/22.)
He had need of that indefinite leisure which had hitherto been so wholly
lacking, for the events of ephemeral lives occur at indeterminate hours, at
unexpected moments, and are of brief duration.
So, attentive to their least movements, Fabre goes forth to observe them at
the earliest break of day, in the red dawn, when the bee "pops her head out
of her attic window to see what the weather is," and the spiders of the
thickets lie in wait under the whorls of their nets, "which the tears of
night have changed into chaplets of dewdrops, whose magic jewellery,
sparkling in the sun," is already attracting moths and midges.
Seated for hours before a sprig of terebinth, his eye, armed with the
magnifying glass, follows the slow manoeuvres of the terebinth louse, whose
proboscis "cunningly distils the venom which causes the leaf to swell and
produces those enormous tumours, those misshapen and monstrous galls, in
which the young pass their period of slumber."
He watches at night, by the dim light of a lantern, to copy the Scolopendra
at her task, seeking to surprise the secret of her eggs (7/23.); to observe
the Cione constructing her capsule of goldbeater's skin, or the
Processional caterpillars travelling head to tail along their satin trail,
extinguishing his candle only when sleep at last sets his eyelids blinking.
He will wake early to witness the fairy-like resurrection of the silkworm
moth (7/24.); "in order not to lose the moment when the nymph bursts her
swaddling-bands," or when the wing of the locust issues from its sheath and
"commences to sprout"; no spectacle in the world is more wonderful than the
sight of "this extraordinary anatomy in process of formation," the
unrolling of these "bundles of tissue, cunningly folded and reduced to the
smallest possible compass" in the insignificant alar stumps, which
gradually unfold "like an immense set of sails," like the "body-linen of
the princess" of the fairy-tale, which was contained in one single hemp-
In his Harmas he is like a stranger discovering an unknown world; "like a
kindly giant from Sirius, holding a magnifying glass to his eye, retaining
his breath, lest it should overturn and sweep away the pigmies which he is
His passion for interrogating the Sphinx of life, everywhere and at all
moments, sufficed to fill his days from one end of the year to the other.
When some distant subject interested him, even on the most scorching days,
he would put "his lunch in his pocket, an apple and a crust of bread," and
sit out in the hot sunlight, accompanied by his dog, Vasco, Tom, or Rabbit;
fearing only that some importunate third person might come between nature
When he walked in his garden he would let nothing escape him; witness those
precise notes of an eclipse of the sun, and of the effects which that
phenomenon produces upon animal life as a whole.
While his children followed the progress of the moon across the sun through
a pane of smoked glass, he attentively observed all that occurred in the
"It is four; the day grows pale; the temperature is fresher; the cocks
crow, surprised by this kind of twilight which comes before the hour. A few
dogs are baying...The swallows, numerous before, have all disappeared...a
couple have taken refuge in my study, one window of which is open...when
the normal light returns they will come outdoors once more...The
nightingale, which had so long importuned me by his interminable song, is
silent at last (7/26.); the black-capped skylarks, which were warbling
continually, are suddenly still...only the young house-sparrows under the
tiles of the roof are mournfully chirping...Peace and silence, the daylight
more than half gone...In the Harmas I can no longer see the insects flying;
I find only one bee pillaging the rosemary; all life has disappeared.
"Only a weevil, the Lixus," which he is observing in a cage, "continues,
step by step, without the slightest emotion, his amorous by-play, as though
nothing unusual were happening...The nightingale and the skylark may be
silent, oppressed by fear; the bee may re-enter her hive; but is a weevil
to be upset because the sun threatens to go out?" (7/27.)
He was no less curious concerning the resurrection of the sun, and every
time he made an excursion to the Ventoux he was careful not to miss this
spectacle; setting out at an early hour from the foot of the mountain, so
that he might see the dawn grow bright from the summit of its rocky mass;
then the sun, suddenly rising in the morning breeze, and setting fire,
little by little, to the Alps of Dauphiné and the hills of Comtat; and the
Rhône, far below, slender as a silver thread.
He took infinite pleasure too in drinking his fill of the sublime terrors
of the thunderstorm, which he regarded as one of the most magnificent
spectacles which nature can offer; not content with observing it through
glass, he would open wide the windows at night the better to enjoy the
phosphorescence of the atmosphere, the conflagration of the clouds, the
bursts of thunder, and all the solemn pomp with which the great purifying
phenomenon manifests itself.
But pure observation, as practised by his predecessors, Réaumur and Huber,
is often insufficient, or "furnishes only a glimpse of matters."
He had recourse, therefore, to artificial observation of the kind known as
experimentation, and we may say that Fabre was really the first to employ
the experimental method in the study of the minds of animals.
Near the field of observation, therefore, is the naturalist's workshop,
"the animal laboratory," in which such inductions as may be suggested by
the doings and the movements of the insects "which roam at liberty amidst
the thyme and lavender" are subjected to the test of experiment. It is a
great, silent, isolated room, brilliantly lighted by two windows facing
south, upon the garden, one at least of which is always kept open that the
insects may come and go at liberty.
In the glass-topped boxes of pine which occupy almost the entire height of
the whitewashed walls are carefully arranged the collections so patiently
amassed; all the entomological fauna of the South of France, and the sea-
shells of the Mediterranean; an abundant wealth also of divers rarities;
numismatical treasures and fragments of pottery and other prehistorical
documents, of which the numerous ossuaries in the neighbourhood of
Sérignan, scattered here and there upon the hills, contain many specimens.
At the top, crowning the facade of glass-topped cases like an immense
frieze, is the colossal herbarium, the first volumes of which go back to
the early youth of their owner; all the flora, both of the Midi and the
North, those of the plains and those of the mountains, and all the algae of
fresh and salt water.
But it must not be supposed that Fabre attaches any great value to these
collections, enormous though the sum of labour which they represent. To him
they have been a means of education, a means of organizing and arranging
his knowledge, and not of satisfying an idle curiosity; not the amusement
of one content with the rind of things. In order to identify at first sight
such specimens as one encounters and proposes to examine, one must first of
all learn to observe and to see thoroughly, and to school the eyes in the
colours and forms peculiar to each individual species.
One may fairly complain of Réaumur, for example, that his knowledge was
uncertain and incomplete. Too often he leaves his readers undecided as to
the nature of the species whose habits he describes. Fabre himself, by dint
of criticizing with so much humour the abuse of classifications, has
sometimes allowed himself to fall into the same fault. (7/28.) He has taken
good care, however, not to neglect the systematic study of species; witness
his "Flora of the Vaucluse" and that careful catalogue of Avignon which he
has not disdained to republish. (7/29.) The truth is that "if we do not
know their names the knowledge of the things escapes us" (7/30.), and he
was profoundly conscious of the truth of this precept of the great
The middle of the room is entirely occupied by a great table of walnut-
wood, on which are arranged bottles, test-tubes, and old sardine-boxes,
which Fabre employs in order to watch the evolution of a thousand nameless
or doubtful eggs, to observe the labours of their larvae, the creation and
the hatching of cocoons, and the little miracles of metamorphosis, "after a
germination more wonderful than that of the acorn which makes the oak."
Covers of metallic gauze resting on earthenware saucers full of sand, a few
carboys and flower-pots or sweetmeat jars closed with a square of glass;
these serve as observation or experimental cages in which the progress and
the actions of "these tiny living machines" can be examined.
Fabre has revealed himself as a psychologist without rival, of a consummate
skill in the difficult and delicate art of experimentation; the art of
making the insect speak, of putting questions to it, of forcing it to
betray its secrets; for experiment is "the only method which can throw any
light upon the nature of instincts."
His resources being slender and his mind inventive, he has ingeniously
supplemented the poverty of his equipment, and has discovered less costly
and less complex means of conducting his experiments; knowing the secret of
extracting the sublimest truth from clumsy combinations of "trivial,
He has succeeded, in his rustic laboratory, in applying the rigorous rules
of investigation and experimentation established by the great biologists.
He has therefore been able to establish his beautiful observations in a
manner so indisputable that those who come after him and are tempted to
study the same things can but arrive at the same results, and derive
inspiration from his researches.
To note with care all the details of a phenomenon is the first essential,
so that others may afterwards refer to them and profit by them; the
difficult thing is to interpret them, to discover the circumstances, the
whys and wherefores, the consequences, and the connecting links.
But a single fact observed by chance at the wayside, and which would not
even attract the attention of another, will be instantly luminous to this
searching understanding, it will suggest questions unforeseen, and will
evoke, by anticipation, preconceived ideas and sudden flashes of intuition,
which will necessitate the test of experiment.
Why, for example, does the Philanthus, that slender wasp, which captures
the honey-bee upon the blossoms in order to feed her larvae; why, before
she carries her prey to her offspring, does she "outrage the dying insect,"
by squeezing its crop in order to empty it of honey, in which she appears
to delight, and does indeed actually delight?
"The bandit greedily takes in her mouth the extended and sugared tongue of
the dead insect; then once more she presses the neck and the thorax, and
once more applies the pressure of her abdomen to the honey-sac of the bee.
The honey oozes forth and is instantly licked up. Thus the bee is gradually
compelled to disgorge the contents of the crop. This atrocious meal lasts
often half an hour and longer, until the last trace of honey has
The detailed answer is obtained by experiment, which perfectly explains
this "odious feast," the excuse for which is simply maternity. The
Philanthus knows, instinctively, without having learned it, that honey,
which is her ordinary fare, is, by a very singular "inversion," a mortal
poison to her larvae. (7/31.)
As an accomplished physiologist, Fabre conducts all kinds of experiments.
Behind the wires of his cages, he provokes the moving spectacle of the
scorpion at grip with the whole entomological fauna, in order to test the
effects of its terrible venom upon various species; and thus he discovers
the strange immunity of larvae; the virus, "the reagent of a transcendent
chemistry, distinguishes the flesh of the larva from that of the adult; it
is harmless to the former, but mortal to the latter"; a fresh proof that
"metamorphosis modifies the substance of the organism to the point of
changing its most intimate properties." (7/32.)
You may judge from this that he knows through and through the history of
the creatures which form the subjects of his faithful narratives. He is
informed of the smallest events of their lives. He possesses a calendar of
their births; he records their chronology and the succession of
generations; he has noted their methods of work, examined their diet, and
recorded their meals. He discovers the motives which dictate their
peculiarities of choice; why the Cerceris, for instance, among all the
victims at its disposal, never selects anything but the Buprestis and the
weevils. He is familiar too with their tactics of warfare and their methods
His gaze has penetrated even the most hidden dwellings; those in which the
Halictus "varnishes her cells and makes the round loaf which is to receive
the egg"; in which, under the cover of cocoons, murderous grubs devour
slumbering nymphs; even the depths of the soil are not hidden from him, for
there, thanks to his artifices, he has surprised the astonishing secret of
He sifts all doubtful stories; anecdotes, statements of supposed habits;
all that is incoherent, or ill observed, or misinterpreted; all the cliches
which the makers of books pass from hand to hand.
In place of repetition he gives us laws, constant facts, fixed rules.
With incomparable skill, he repeats and tests the ancient experiments of
He is not content to show us that Erasmus Darwin is mistaken; he points out
how it is that he has fallen into error. (7/33.)
He sets himself to decipher the meaning of old tales, skilfully disengaging
the little parcel of truth which usually lies beneath a mass of incorrect
or even false statements. He criticises La Fontaine, and questions the
statements of Horus Apollo and Pliny. From a mass of undigested knowledge
he has created the living science of entomology, which had received from
Réaumur a first breath of vitality, in such wise that each individual
creature is presented in his work with its precise expression and the
absolute truth of its character and attitudes; the inhabitants of the woods
and fields, whether those which feed upon the crops or those which live in
the crevices of the rocks, or the obscure workers that crawl upon the
earth; all those which have a secret to tell or something to teach us; the
Cigale, so different from the insect of the Fable; and above all that
beetle whose name had hitherto been encountered arrayed in the most
fantastic legends, the famous Scarabaeus sacer of the tombs, which Fabre
preferred to place at the head of his epic as an agreeable prologue,
although the inquiry relative to his amazing feats belongs chronologically
to a comparatively recent period of his career.
How moderate he is in such suppositions as he ventures; how cautious when
his persistent patience has at last struck against "the inaccessible wall
of the Unknowable"! Then, with admirable frankness, tranquil and sincere,
he simply owns that "he does not know," unlike so many others, whose
uncritical minds are contented with a fragmentary vision, and run so far
ahead of the facts that they can only promote indefinite illusion and
One is surprised indeed to remark how few even of the most learned and
well-informed of men have a real aptitude for observation, and a highly
instructive book might be written concerning the discrepancies and the weak
points in our knowledge. If they were subjected to a sufficiently severe
test, how threadbare would appear many of those problems which nature and
the world present, and which are regarded as resolved!
How long, for instance, was needed to destroy the legend of the cuckoo,
incessantly repeated down to the days of Xavier Raspail, and to us so
familiar; to elucidate its history, and to set it in its true light!
It is by means of such data as these that a science is founded, for
theories decay, and only well-observed facts remain irrefragable. With
stones such as these, which are hewn by the great artisan, the structures
of the future will be built, and our own science, perhaps, will one day be
For this reason Fabre's books are an education for all those who wish to
devote themselves to observation; a manual of mental discipline, a true
"essay upon method," which should be read by every naturalist, and the most
interesting, instructive, familiar and delightful course of training that
has ever been known.
On the other hand, it is impossible to conceive what labour this delicate
work demands; what perseverance Fabre has required painfully to extract one
grain of gold; to glean and unite the definite factors, the positive
documents, which served as foundations for each of his essays; lucid,
limpid, and captivating as the most delightful of fairy-tales. We are
charmed, fascinated, and astonished; we see nothing of the groping advance,
the checks, and all the toil and the patience demanded. We do not suspect
the long waiting, the hesitation, the desperate length of the inquiries.
For example, to establish the curious relations which exist between the
wasps and the Volucellae, what long and repeated experiments were needful!
His notebooks, in which he records, from day to day, all that he sees, are
evidence of this. What watches in the alley of lilacs, year after year, to
decipher the mechanism and the mode of construction of the hunting-net of
the Epeïra! Some of these histories, like that of the hyper-metamorphosis
of the Meloë, were only completed as the result of twenty-five years of
assiduous inquiry, while forty years were required to complete that of the
Scarabaeus sacer, for his observation of it was always partial; it is
almost always impossible to divine what one cannot see from the little that
one does see; and as a rule one must return to the same point over and over
again in order to fill up lacunae.
The majority of the insects which Fabre has studied are solitary, and are
only to be encountered singly, scattered over wide areas of country. Some
live only in determined spots, and not elsewhere, such as the famous
Cerceris, or the yellow-winged Sphex, of which no trace is to be found
beyond the limits of the Carpentras countryside.
The proper season must be watched for; one must be ready at any moment to
profit by a lucky chance, and resign oneself to interminable watches at the
bottom of a ravine, or keep on the alert for hours under a fiery sun. Often
the chance goes by, or the trail followed proves false; but the season is
over, and one must wait for the return of another spring. The trade of
observer in many cases resembles the exhausting labours of the Sisyphus
beetle, painfully pushing his pellet up a rough and stony path; so that the
team halts and staggers at every moment, the load spills over and rolls
away, and all has to be commenced over again.
We can now cast back, in order to consider at leisure the immortal study
which marked the beginning of his fame, with the greater interest and
profit in that Fabre has been able, during his retirement, to generalize
and extend his discovery. (7/35.)
Let us first of all note how the observation which Dufour had made of the
nest of the Cerceris was transformed in his hands, and what developments he
was able to evolve therefrom.
Since they have been definitely established by Fabre these curious facts
have been well-known. They form perhaps the greatest prodigy presented by
entomology, that science so full of marvels.
These wasps nourish themselves only on the nectar of flowers; but their
larvae, which they will never behold, must have fresh and succulent flesh
still palpitating with life.
The insect digs a tunnel in the soil, in which she places her eggs, and
having provisioned the cell with selected game--cricket, spider,
caterpillar, or beetle--she finally closes the entrance, which she does not
Like nearly all insects, the young wasp is born in the larval state, and
from the moment of its hatching to the end of its growth--that is to say,
for a period of many days--the grub enclosed in its cell can look for no
help from without.
Here then is a fascinating problem: either the victims deposited by the
mother are dead, and desiccation or putrefaction attacks them promptly, or
else they are living, as indeed the larvae require; but then "what will
become of this fragile creature, which a mere nothing will destroy, shut in
the narrow chamber of the burrow among vigorous beetles, for weeks on end
working their long spurred legs; or at grips with a monstrous caterpillar
making play with its flanks and mandibles, rolling and unrolling its
Such is the thrilling mystery of which Fabre discovered the key.
With inconceivable ingenuity, the victim is seized and thrown to the
ground, and the wasp plunges her sting, not at random into the body, which
would involve the risk of death, but at determined points, exactly into the
seat of those invisible nervous ganglions whose mechanism commands the
various movements of the creature.
Immediately after these subtle wounds the prey is paralysed throughout its
body; its members appear to be disarticulated, "as though all the springs
were broken"; the true corpse is not more motionless.
But the wound is not mortal; not only does the insect continue to live, but
it has acquired the strange prerogative of being able to live for a very
long period without taking any nourishment, thanks precisely to the
condition of immobility, in some sort vegetative, which paralysis confers
When the hour strikes the hungry larva will find its favourite meat served
to its liking; and it will attack this defenceless prey with all the
circumspection of a refined eater; "with an exquisitely delicate art,
nibbling the viscera of its victim little by little, with an infallible
method; the less essential parts first of all, and only in the last
instance those which are necessary to life. Here then is an
incomprehensible spectacle; the spectacle of an animal which, eaten alive,
mouthful by mouthful, during nearly a fortnight, is hollowed out, grows
less and less, and finally collapses," while retaining to the end its
succulence and its freshness.
The fact is that the mother has taken care to deposit her egg "at a point
always the same" in the region which her sting has rendered insensible, so
that the first mouthfuls are only feebly resented. But as the enemy goes
deeper and deeper "it sometimes happens that the cricket, bitten to the
quick, attempts to retaliate; but it only succeeds in opening and closing
the pincers of its mandibles on the empty air, or in uselessly waving its
antennae." Vain efforts: "for now the voracious beast has bitten deep into
the spot, and can with impunity ransack the entrails." What a slow and
horrible agony for the paralysed victim, should some glimmer of
consciousness still linger in its puny brain! What a terrible nightmare for
the little field-cricket, suddenly plunged into the den of the Sphex, so
far from the sunlit tuft of thyme which sheltered its retreat!
To paralyse without killing, "to deliver the prey to the larvae inert but
living": that is the end to be attained; only the method varies according
to the species of the hunter and the structure of the prey; thus the
Cerceris, which attacks the coleoptera, and the Scolia, which preys upon
the larvae of the rose-beetle, sting them only once and in a single place,
because there is concentrated the mass of the motor ganglions.
The Pompilus, which selects a spider for its victim, no less than the
redoubtable Tarantula, knows that its quarry "has two nervous centres which
animate respectively the movements of the limbs and those of the terrible
fangs; hence the two stabs of the sting." (7/36.)
The Sphex plunges her dagger three times into the breast of the cricket,
because she knows, by an intuition that we cannot comprehend, that the
locomotor innervation of the cricket is actuated by three nervous centres,
which lie wide apart. (7/37.)
Finally, the Ammophila, "the highest manifestation of the logic of
instinct, whose profound knowledge leaves us confounded, stabs the
caterpillar in nine places, because the body of the victim with which it
feeds its larvae is a series of rings, set end to end, each of which
possesses its little independent nervous centre." (7/38.)
This is not all; the genius of the Sphex is not yet at the end of its
foresight. You have doubtless heard of the comatose state into which the
wounded fall when, after a fracture of the skull, the brain is compressed
by a violent haemorrhage or a bony splinter. The physiologists imitate this
process of nature when they wish, for example, to obtain, in animals under
experiment, a state of complete immobility. But did the first surgeon who
thought of trepanning the skull in order to exert on the brain, by means of
a sponge, a certain degree of compression, ever imagine that an analogous
procedure had long been employed in the insect world, and that these clumsy
methods were merely child's play beside the astonishing feats of the
For the stab in the thoracic ganglions, however efficacious, is often
insufficient. Although the six limbs are paralysed, although the victim
cannot move, its mandibles, "pointed, sharp, serrated, which close like a
pair of scissors, still remain a menace to the tyrant; they might at least,
by gripping the surrounding grasses, oppose a more or less effectual
resistance to the process of carrying off." So the preceding manoeuvres are
consummated by a kind of garrotting; that is, the insect "takes care to
compress the brain of its victim, but so as to avoid wounding it; producing
only a stupor, a simple torpor, a passing lethargy." Is not the ingenious
observer justified in concluding that "this is alarmingly scientific"?
Between the dry statements of Dufour, which served Fabre as his original
theme, and the unaccustomed wealth of this vast physiological poetry, what
a distance has been covered!
How far have we outstripped this barren matter, these shapeless sketches!
Dufour, another solitary, who retired to his province, in the depth of the
Landes, was above all a descriptive anatomist, and he limited himself to an
inventory of the nest of a Cerceris.
For him the Buprestes were dead, and their state of preservation was
explained simply as a kind of embalming, due to some special action of the
venom of the Hymenoptera.
These facts, therefore, were stated as simple curiosities.
Fabre proved that these victims possessed all the attributes of life
excepting movement, by provoking contractions in their members under the
influence of various stimulants, and by keeping them alive artificially for
an indefinite period.
On the other hand, he demonstrated the comparative innocuousness of the
venom of these wasps, some of which, like the great Cerceris or the
beautiful and formidable Scolia, alarm by their enormous size and their
terrifying aspect; so that the conservation of the prey could not be due to
any occult quality, to some more or less active antiseptic virtue of the
venomous fluid, but simply to the precision of the stab and the miraculous
deftness of the "surgeon."
He also pointed out the fact that the sting of the insect is able
immediately to dissociate the nervous system of the vegetative life from
that of the correlative life, sparing the former, and taking care not to
wound the abdomen, which contains the ganglions of the great sympathetic
nerve, while it annihilates the latter, which is more or less concentrated
along the ventral face of the thoracic region.
He completed this splendid demonstration, not only by provoking under his
own eyes the "murderous manoeuvres, the intimate and passionate drama," but
also by reproducing experimentally all these astonishing phenomena;
expounding their mechanism and their variations with a logic and lucidity,
an art and sagacity which raise this marvellous observation, one of the
most beautiful known to science, to the height of the most immortal
discoveries of physiology. Claude Bernard, in his celebrated experiments,
certainly exhibited no greater invention, no truer genius.
CHAPTER 8. THE MIRACLE OF INSTINCT.
"The Spirit Bloweth Whither it Listeth."
What is this instinct, which guides the insect to such marvellous results?
Is it merely a degree of intelligence, or some absolutely different form of
Is it possible, by studying the habits of animals, to discover some of
those elementary springs of action whose knowledge would enable us to dive
more deeply into our own natures?
Fabre has presented us to his Sphex, the "infallible paralyser." Are we to
credit her not only with memory, but also with the faculty of associating
ideas, of judgment, and of pursuing a train of reasoning in respect of her
astonishingly co-ordinated actions?
Put to the question by the malice of the operator, the "transcendent"
anatomist trips over a mere trifle, and the slightest novelty confounds
Without the circle of her ordinary habits, what stupidity, "what darkness
wraps her round"! She retreats; she refuses to understand; "she washes her
eyes, first passing her hands across her mouth; she assumes a dreamy,
meditative air." What can she be pondering? Under what form of thought,
illusion, or mirage does the unfamiliar problem which has obtruded itself
into her customary life present itself behind those faceted eyes? (8/1.)
How can we tell? We can only attain to knowledge of ourselves by direct
intuition. It is only the idea of our ego which enables us to conjecture
what is passing in the brains of our fellows. Between the insect and
ourselves no understanding is possible, so remote are the analogies between
its organization and our own; and we can only form idle hypotheses as to
its states of consciousness and the real motive of its actions.
Consider only that unknown and mysterious energy which the insects display
in their operations and their labours, as it is in itself, and let us
content ourselves, first of all, with comparing it to our own intelligence,
such as we conceive it to be.
In seeking to appreciate whereby it differs perhaps we shall gain more than
by vainly seeking points of resemblance. We shall discover, in fact, behind
the insect and its prodigious instincts, a vast and remote horizon, a
region at once more profound, more extensive, and more fruitful than that
of the intelligence; and if Fabre is able to help us to decipher a few
pages of "the most difficult of all volumes, the book of ourselves," it is
precisely, as a philosopher told him, because "man has remained instinctive
in process of becoming intelligent." (8/2.)
The work of Fabre is from this point of view an invaluable treasury of
observations and experiments, and the richest contribution which has ever
been made to the study of these fascinating problems.
"The function of the intelligence is to reflect, to be conscious; that is,
to relate the effect to its cause, to add a "because" to a "why"; to remedy
the accidental; to adapt a new course of conduct to new circumstances."
In relation to the human intelligence thus defined Fabre has considered
these nervous aptitudes, so well adjusted, according to the evolutionists,
by ancient habit, that they have finally become impulsive and unconscious,
and, properly speaking, innate. He has demonstrated, with an abundance of
proof and a power of argument that we must admire, the blind mechanism
which determines all the manifestations, even the most extraordinary, of
that which we call instinct, and which heredity has fixed in a species of
unchangeable automatism, like the rhythm of the heart and the lungs. (8/3.)
Let us, from this wealth of material, from among the most suggestive
examples, select some of his most striking demonstrations, which are
classics of their kind.
Fabre has not attempted to define instinct, for it is indefinable; nor to
probe its essential nature, which is impenetrable. But to recognize the
order of nature is in itself a sufficiently fascinating study, without
striving to crack an unbreakable bone or wasting time in pondering
insoluble enigmas. The important matter is to avoid the introduction of
illusions, to beware of exceeding the data of observation and experiment,
of substituting our own inferences for the facts, of outstripping reality
and amplifying the marvellous.
Let us listen to the scrupulous analysis whose lessons, scattered through
four thousand pages, teach us more concerning instinct and its innumerable
variations than all the most learned treatises and speculations of the
Nothing in the world perplexes the mind of the observer like the spectacle
of the birth and growth of the instincts.
At precisely the right moment, just as failure or disaster seems
foreordained by the previously established circumstances, Fabre shows us
his insects as suddenly mastered by an irresistible force.
"At the right moment" they invincibly obey some sort of mysterious and
inflexible prescription. Without apprenticeship, they perform the very
actions required, and blindly accomplish their destiny.
Then, the moment having passed, the instincts "disappear and do not
reawaken. A few days more or less modify the talents, and what the young
insect knew the adult has often forgotten." (8/4.)
Among the Lycosae, at the moment of exodus, a sudden instinct is evolved
which a few hours later disappears never to return. It is the climbing
instinct, unknown to the adult spider, and soon forgotten by the
emancipated young, who are destined to roam upon the face of the earth. But
the young Lycosae, anxious to leave the maternal home and to travel, become
suddenly ardent climbers and aeronauts, each releasing a long, light thread
which serves it as parachute. The voyage accomplished, no trace of this
ingenuity is left. Suddenly acquired, the climbing instinct no less
suddenly disappears. (8/5.)
The great historiographer of instinct has thrown a wonderful light, by his
beautiful experiments relating to the nidification of the mason-bee, upon
the indissoluble succession of its different phases; the lineal
concatenation, the inevitable and necessary order which presides over each
of these nervous discharges of which the total series constitutes, properly
speaking, a mode of action.
The mason-bee continues to build upon the ready-completed nest presented to
her. She obstinately insists upon provisioning a cell already duly filled
with the quantity of honey required by the larva, because, in this case as
in the other, the impulse which incites her to build or to provision the
nest has not yet been exhausted.
On the other hand, if we empty the little cup of its contents when she has
filled it she will not recommence her labours. "The process of provisioning
being complete, the secret impulse which urged her to collect her honey is
no longer active. The insect therefore ceases to store her honey, and, in
spite of this accident, lays her egg in the empty cell, thus leaving the
future nursling without nourishment." (8/6.)
In the case of the Pelopaeus, Fabre calls our attention to one of the most
instructive physiological spectacles that can be imagined.
While the mason-bee does not notice that her cell has been emptied, the
Pelopaeus cannot perceive that the tricks of the experimenter have resulted
in the disappearance of her progeny; and she "continues to store away
spiders for a germ that no longer exists; she perseveres untiringly in her
useless hunting, as though the future of her larva depended on it; she
amasses provisions which will feed no one; more, she pushes aberration to
the extent of plastering even the place where her nest was if we remove it,
giving the last strokes of the trowel to an imaginary building, and putting
her seals upon empty nothing." (8/7.)
>From these facts, and others, no less celebrated, which show "the inability
of insects to escape from the routine of their customs and their habitual
labours," Fabre derives so many proofs of their lack of intelligence.
The Epeïra fasciata is incapable of replacing a single radial thread in the
geometrical structure of its web, when broken; it recommences the entire
web every evening, and weaves it at one stretch with the most beautiful
mastery, as though merely amusing itself.
The caterpillar of the Greater Peacock moth teaches us the same lesson;
when occupied in weaving its cocoon it does not know how to repair an
artificial rent; and "in spite of the certainty of its death, or rather
that of the future butterfly, it quietly continues to spin, without
troubling to cover the rent; devoting itself to a superfluous task, and
ignoring the treacherous breach, which leaves the cocoon and its inhabitant
at the mercy of the first thief that finds it." (8/8.)
Thus "because one action has just been performed, another must inevitably
be performed to complete the first; what is done is done, and is never
repeated. Like the watercourse, which cannot climb the hills and return to
its source, the insect does not retrace its steps or repeat its actions,
which follow one another invariably, and are inevitably connected in a
necessary order, like a series of echoes, one of which awakens
another...The insect knows nothing of its marvellous talents, just as the
stomach knows nothing of its cunning chemistry. It builds like a
bricklayer, weaves, hunts, stabs, and paralyses, as it secretes the venom
of its weapons, the silk of its cocoon, the wax of its comb, or the threads
of its web; always without the slightest knowledge of the means and the
Thus instinct is one thing and intelligence is another; and for Fabre there
is no transition which can transform the one into the other.
But how profound and abundant, how infinite is the source from which this
manifold activity derives, distributed as it is throughout the entire
animal kingdom; and which in ourselves commands the profoundest part of our
nature; unconscious, or even in opposition to our wonderful intelligence,
which it often silences or altogether overwhelms.
Although the insect "has no need of lessons from its elders" in order to
accomplish its beautiful masterpieces, the comprehensive concept of the
genius which rises spontaneously and at a single step to the loftiest
conceptions is not always a product of pure reason.
Compare the sublime logic of animal maternity, the impeccable dictates of
instinct, with the hesitations, the gropings, the uncertainties, the errors
and tragic failures of human maternity, when it seeks to replace the
unerring commands of instinct by the clumsy efforts of the intelligence!
If all is darkness to the animal, apart from its habitual paths, how feeble
and hesitating, how faltering and unequal is reason when it seeks to oppose
its laborious inductions to the infallible wisdom of the unconscious!
It is, in fact, to this concatenation of actions, narrowly connected by a
mutual dependence, that we owe this inexhaustible series of cunning
industries and wonderful arts. To Fabre they are so many feats of a learned
"See the nest, the accustomed masterpiece of mothers; it is more often than
otherwise an animal fruit, a coffer full of germs, containing eggs in place
The satin bag of the Epeïra fasciata, in which her eggs are enclosed,
"breaks at the caress of the sun, like the skin of an over-ripe
The Dorthesia, the louse inhabiting the euphorbia, "trebles the length of
her body, prolonging its hinder part into a pouch, comparable to that of
the opossum, into which the eggs are dropped, and in which the young are
hatched, to leave it afterwards at will." (8/10.)
The Chermes of the ilex "hardens into a rampart of ebony, whence an
innumerable legion of vermin bursts forth one day without changing their
The capsule of gold-beater's skin, in which the grubs of the Cione are
enclosed, divides itself, at the moment of liberation, into two hemispheres
"of a regularity so perfect that they recall exactly the bursting of the
pyxidium when the seed is distributed." (8/11.)
Here and there, however, we catch a glimpse of a rudiment of what we
understand by consciousness, in the shape of a "vague discrimination."
Each plant has its lover, drawn to it by a kind of elective affinity and
invariable tendency. The Larra makes for the thistle, the Vanessa for the
nettle, the Clytus for the ilex, and the Crioceris for the lily. "The
weevil knows nothing but its peas and beans, the golden Rhynchites only the
sloe, and the Balaninus only the nut or acorn."
But the Pieris, which haunts the cabbage, frequents the nasturtium also,
and the golden rose-beetle, which "intoxicates itself at the clusters of
the hawthorn," is no less addicted to the nectar of the rose.
The Xylocopa, which burrows in the trunks of trees and old rafters, forming
little round corridors in which to lodge her offspring, "will utilize
artificial galleries which she has not herself bored."
The Chalicodoma "also is aware of the economic advantages of an old
abandoned nest"; the Anthophora is careful to establish her family "at the
least expense," and profits on occasion by galleries which have been mined
by previous generations; adapting herself to these new conditions, she
repairs the tunnels which she did not construct "and economizes her
It would seem, therefore, that these tiny minds are created and shaped by
means of experience; they recognize "that which is most fitting"; they
learn, they compare; may we not also say that they judge?
Does not the Mason-bee, "which rakes the roads for a dry powdery dust and
mixes it with saliva to convert it into a hard cement," foresee that this
mud will harden?
Is the Pelopaeus devoid of judgment when she seeks the interior of
dwelling-houses in order to shelter her nest of dried clay, which the least
drop of rain would reduce to its original state of mud?
Is it without knowledge of the effects that the sloe-weevil builds a
ventilating chimney to prevent the asphyxiation of her larva? that the
Scarabaeus sacer contrives a filter at the smaller end of its pear-shaped
ball, by means of which the grub is able to breathe? or that Arachne
labyrintha "introduces in her silk-work a rampart of compressed earth to
protect her eggs from the probe of the Ichneumon"?
May we not also see a masterpiece of the highest logic in the house of the
trap-door spider, Arachne clotho, which is furnished with a door, a true
door "which she throws open with a push of the leg, and carefully bolts
behind her on returning by means of a little silk"? (8/13.)
What a miracle of invention too is the prodigious nest of the Eumenes,
"with its egg suspended by a thread from the roof, like a pendulum,
oscillating at the lightest breath in order to save it from contact with
the caterpillars, which, incompletely paralysed, are wriggling and writhing
below"! Later, when the egg is hatched, "the filament is transformed into a
tube, a place of refuge, up which the grub clambers backwards. At the least
sign of danger from the mass of caterpillars the larva retreats into its
sheath and ascends to the roof, where the wriggling swarm cannot reach it."
Let us refer also to the remarkable history of the Copris. We cannot deny
that the valiant dung-beetle is capable of "evading the accidental" (which
to Fabre constitutes one of the distinctive characteristics of the
intelligence), since it immediately intervenes if with the point of a
penknife we open the roof of its nest and lay bare its egg. "The fragments
raised by the knife are immediately brought together and soldered, so that
no trace is left of the injury, and all is once more in order." We may read
also with what incredible address the mother Copris was able to use and to
profit by the ready-made pellets of cow-dung which it occurred to Fabre to
offer her. (8/15.)
But their scope is limited, and encroaches very little, in the eyes of the
great observer, on the domain of intelligence. This he demonstrates to
satiety, and his astonishing Necrophori, which adapt themselves so
admirably to circumstances and triumph over the experimental difficulties
to which he subjects them, seem scarcely to exceed the limits of those
actions which at bottom are merely unconscious. (8/16.)
With the spawning of the Osmia, Fabre throws a fresh and unexpected light
on the intuitive knowledge of instinct.
We are still groping our way among the causes which rule the determination
of the sexes. Biology has only been able to throw a few scattered lights on
the subject, and we possess only a few approximate data; which nevertheless
are turned to account by the breeders of insects. We are still in the
region of illusion and imperfect prognostics.
But the Osmia knows what we do not. She is deeply versed in all
physiological and anatomical knowledge, and in the faculty of creating
children of either sex at will.
These pretty bees, "with coppery skin and fleece of ruddy velvet," which
establish their progeny in the hollow of a bramble stump, the cavity of a
reed, or the winding staircase of an empty snail-shell, know the fixed and
immutable genetic laws which we can only guess at, and are never mistaken.
This marvellous prerogative the Osmia shares with a host of apiaries, in
which the unequal development of the males and females requires an unequal
provision of space and of nourishment for the future larvae. For the
females, who exceed in point of size, huge cells and abundant provision;
for the more puny males, narrow cells and a smaller ration of pollen and
Now the circumstances which are encountered by the Osmia, when, pressed by
the necessities of spawning, she searches for a dwelling, are often
fortuitous and incapable of modification; and in order to give each set of
larvae the necessary space "she lays at will a male or a female egg,
according to the conditions of space."
In this marvellous study, which constitutes, with the history of the
Cerceris, the finest masterpiece of experimental entomology, Fabre
brilliantly establishes all the details of that curious law which in the
Hymenoptera rules both the distribution and the succession of the sexes. In
his artificial hives, in glass cylinders, he forces the Osmia to commence
her spawning with the males, instead of beginning with the females as
nature requires, since the insect is primarily preoccupied with the more
important sex, that which ensures par excellence the perpetuation of the
species. He even forces the whole swarm which buzzes about his work-tables,
his books, his bottles, and apparatus, completely to change the order of
its spawning. He shows finally that in the heart of the ovaries the egg of
the Osmia has as yet no determined sex, and that it is only at the precise
moment when the egg is on the point of emerging from the oviduct that it
receives, AT THE WILL OF THE MOTHER, the mysterious, final, and inevitable
But whence does the Osmia derive this, "distinct idea of the invisible"?
Here again is one of those riddles of nature which Fabre declares himself
quite incapable of solving. (8/17.)
Is this all? No; we are far from having made the tour of this miraculous
and incommensurable kingdom through which this admirable master leads us,
and I should never be done were I to attempt to exhaust all the spectacles
which he offers us. Let us descend yet another step, among creatures yet
smaller and humbler. We shall find tendencies, impulses, preferences,
efforts, intentions, "Machiavellic ruses and unheard-of stratagems."
Certain miserable black mites, living specks, the larvae of a beetle, one
of the Meloidae, the Sitaris, are parasites of the solitary bee, the
Anthophora. They wait patiently all the winter at the entrance of her
tunnel, on the slope of a sunny bank, for the springtime emergence of the
young bees, as yet imprisoned in their cells of clay. A male Anthophora,
hatched a little earlier than the females, appears in the entrance of the
tunnel; these mites, which are armed with robust talons, rouse themselves,
hasten to and fro, hook themselves to his fleece, and accompany him in all
his peregrinations; but they quickly recognize their error; for these
animated specks are well aware that the males, occupied all day long in
scouring the country and pillaging the flowers, live exclusively out of
doors, and would in no wise serve their end. But the moment comes when the
Anthophora pays court to the fair sex, and the imperceptible creature
immediately profits by the amorous encounter to change its winged courser.
"These pigmies therefore have a memory, an experience of facts" (and how
one is tempted to add, a glimmering of intelligence!). Grappled now to the
female bee, the grub of the Sitaris "conceals itself, and allows itself to
be carried by her" to the end of the gallery in which she is now contriving
her cradle, "watches the precise moment when the egg is laid, installs
itself upon it, and allows itself to fall therewith upon the surface of the
honey, in order to substitute itself for the future offspring of the
Anthophora, and possess itself of house and victuals." (8/18.)
Another "little gelatinous speck," "a shadow of a creature," the larva of a
Chalcidian, the Leucopsis, one of the parasites of the Mason-bee, knows
that in the cell of the mason there is food for one only. Scarcely has it
entered the tiny dwelling but we see this "nameless shape" for several days
"anxiously wandering; it visits the top and bottom, the back, the front,
the sides"; it makes the tour of its domain; "it searches in the darkness,
palpitating, seemingly with an object in view." What does this "animated
globule" want? why is this atom so excited? It is searching to discover if
there is not in some corner hitherto unexplored another larva, a rival,
that it may exterminate it! (8/19.)
What then intrinsically is instinct? And what intrinsically is
How can we propose to draw up the inexhaustible inventory of all the
manifestations of life, and why attempt to include all its species and
their unknown varieties in narrow classes? Why say that there are only two
modes of life, instinct on the one hand and intelligence on the other,
"when we know how subtle and illusive is this Proteus, and that there are
not two things only, but a thousand dissimilar things" (8/20.): or rather
is it not always the same thing, everywhere present and acting in living
matter, and susceptible of infinite degrees, under forms and disguises
This is why it escapes the "scalpel of the masters" and the apparatus of
the chemists. We may dissect, we may scrutinize organs under the magnifying
glass, examine wing-cases, count the nervures of the wings, the number of
articulations in the limbs; we may reckon every point, like Réaumur
forgetting not a line, not a hair; we may compare and measure every portion
of the mouth, and define the class; and we shall not find a single point in
all this physical architecture which will positively inform us of the
habits of the insect. Of what account are a few slight differences? It is
in the physical far more than in the anatomical differences that the
inviolable demarcation between two species exists. Instincts dominate
forms; the tool does not make the artisan; "and none of these various
structures, however well adapted they may appear to us, bears within it its
reason or its finality."
Thus whatever opinion we may hold as to the nature of instinct, the
accomplishments and habits of insects are not, properly speaking, connected
with the external and visible form of their organs, and their acts do not
necessarily presuppose the instruments which would be appropriate to them.
We know that with most organisms, and particularly with plants, an almost
imperceptible variation in material circumstances is often enough to modify
their character and to produce fresh aptitudes. Nevertheless, we can but
wonder, with Fabre, that physical modifications, which, when they do exist,
are so slight always as to have escaped the most perfect observation,
should have sufficed to determine the appearance of profoundly dissimilar
faculties. Inexplicable abilities, unexpected habits, unforeseen physical
aptitudes, and unheard-of industries are exercised by means of organs which
are here and there practically identical. "The same tools are equally good
for any purpose. Talent alone is able to adapt them to manifold ends."
The Anthidia have two particular industries; "those which felt cotton and
card the soft down of hairy plants have the same claws, the same mandibles,
composed of the same portions as those which knead resin and mix it with
fine gravel." (8/21.)
The sloe-weevil "bores the hard stone of the sloe with the same rostrum as
that which its congeners, so like it in conformation, employ to roll the
leaves of the vine and the poplar into tiny cigars."
The implement of the Megachile, the rose-fly, is by no means appropriate to
its industry; "yet the perfectly circular fragments of leaves have the
precise perfection of form that a punch would give."
The Xylocopa, in order to pierce wood and to bore its galleries in an old
rafter, employs "the same utensils which in others are transformed into
picks and mattocks to attack clay and gravel, and it is only a
predisposition of talent that holds each worker to his speciality."
Moreover, have not the superior animals the same senses and the same
structure, yet what inequality there is among them, in the matter of
aptitudes and degrees of intelligence!
Habits are no more determined by anatomical peculiarities than are
aptitudes or industries.
The two Goat-moth caterpillars, of similar structure, have entirely
different stomachic aptitudes; "the exclusive portion of the one is the oak
and of the other the hawthorn or the cherry-laurel."
"Whence does the Mantis derive its excessive hunger, its pugnacity, its
cannibalism, and the Empusa its sobriety, its peaceableness, when their
almost identical organization would seem to indicate an identity of needs,
instincts, and habits?"
In the same way the black scorpion appears to present none of the
interesting peculiarities which we observe in the habits of its congener,
the white scorpion of Languedoc. (8/22.)
Structure, therefore, tells us nothing of aptitude; the organ does not
explain its function. Let the specialists hypnotize themselves over their
lenses and microscopes; they may accumulate at leisure masses of details
relating to this or that family or genus or individual; they may undertake
the most subtle inquiries, may write thousands and thousands of pages in
order to detail a few slight variations, without even succeeding in
exhausting the matter: they will not even have seen what is most wonderful.
When the little insect has for the last time cleaned its claws, the secret
of the little mind has fled for ever, with all the feelings that animated
it and gave it life. That which is crystallized in death cannot explain
what was life. This is the thought which the Provençal singer, with that
intuition which is the privilege of genius, has expressed in these
"Oh! pau de sèn qu'emé l'escaupre
Furnant la mort, creson de saupre,
La vertu de l'abiho e lou secrèt doù méu."
(O men of little sense, who seek,
Scalpel in hand, to make Death tell
The virtue of the bee, the secret of her cell!) (8/23.)
CHAPTER 9. EVOLUTION OR "TRANSFORMISM."
"How did a miserable grub acquire its marvellous knowledge? Are its habits,
its aptitudes, and its industries the integration of the infinitely little,
acquired by successive experiences on the limitless path of time?"
It is in these words that Fabre presents the problem of evolution.
Difficult though it may be to follow the sequence of forms which have
endlessly succeeded and replaced one another on the face of the earth,
since the beginning of the world, it is certain that all living creatures
are closely related; and the magnificent and fertile hypothesis of
evolution, which seeks to explain how extant forms are derived from
extinct, has the immense advantage of giving a plausible reason for the
majority of the facts which at least cease to be completely unintelligible.
Otherwise we can certainly never imagine how so many instincts, and these
so complex and perfect, could have issued suddenly "from the urn of
But Fabre will suppose nothing; he will only record the facts. Instead of
wandering in the region of probabilities, he prefers to confine himself to
the reality, and for the rest to reply simply that "we do not know."
This stern, positive, rigorous, independent, and observant mind, nourished
upon geometry and the exact sciences, which has never been able to content
itself with approximations and probabilities, could but distrust the
seductions of hypotheses.
His robust common sense, which was always his protection against
precipitate conclusions, too clearly comprehends the limits of science and
the necessity of accumulating facts "upon the thorny path of observation
and experiment" to indulge in generalization. He feels that life has
secrets which our minds are powerless to probe, and that "human knowledge
will be erased from the archives of the world before we know the last word
concerning the smallest fly."
This is why he was regarded as "suspect" by the company of official
scientists, to whom he was a dissenter, almost a traitor, especially at a
moment when the theories of evolution, then in the first flush of their
novelty, were everywhere the cause of a general elation.
No one as yet was capable of divining the man of the future in this modest
thinker who would not accept the word of the masters interested, but in
opposing the theory of transformation, far from being reactionary, Fabre
revealed himself, at least in the domain of animal psychology, as an
innovator, a true precursor.
Moreover, his observations, always so direct and personal, often revealed
the contrary of what was asserted or foreseen by the magic formulae
suggested by the mind.
To the ingenious mechanism invented by the transformists he preferred to
oppose, not contrary argument, but the naked undeniable fact, the obvious
testimony, the certain and irrefragable example. "Is it," he would ask
them, "to repulse their enemies that certain caterpillars smear themselves
with a corrosive product? But the larva of the Calosoma sycophanta, which
feeds on the Processional caterpillar of the oak-tree, pays no heed to it,
neither does the Dermestes, which feeds on the entrails of the Processional
caterpillar of the pine-tree."
And consider mimicry. According to the theory of evolution, certain insects
would utilize their resemblance to certain others in order to conceal
themselves, and to introduce themselves into the dwellings of the latter as
parasites living at their expense. Such would be the case with the
Volucella, a large fly whose costume, striped with brown and yellow bands,
gives it a rude resemblance to the wasp. Obliged, if not for its own sake
at least for that of its family, to force itself into the wasp's dwelling
as a parasite, it deceitfully dresses itself, we are told, in the livery of
its victim, thus affording the most curious and striking example of
mimicry; and naturalists insufficiently informed would regard it as one of
the greatest triumphs of evolution.
Now what does the Volucella do? It is true that it lays its eggs without
being disturbed in the nest of the wasp. But, as the rigorous observer will
tell you, it is a precious auxiliary and not an enemy of the community. Its
grubs, far from disguising or concealing themselves, "come and go openly
upon the combs, although every stranger is immediately massacred and thrown
out." Moreover, "they watch the hygiene of the city by clearing the nest of
its dead and ridding the larvae of the wasps of their excretory products."
Plunging successively into each chamber of the dormitory the forepart of
their bodies, "they provoke the emission of that fluid excrement of which
the larvae, owing to their cloistration, contain an extreme reserve." In a
word, the grubs of the Volucella "are the nurses of the larvae," performing
the most intimate duties." (9/1.)
What an astonishing conclusion! What a disconcerting and unexpected reply
to the "theories in vogue"!
Fabre, however, with his poetic temperament and ardent imagination, seemed
admirably prepared to grasp all that vast network of relations by which all
creatures are connected; but what proves the solidity of his imperishable
work is that all theories, all doctrines, and all systems may resort to it
in turn and profit by his proofs and arguments.
And he himself, although he boasts with so much reason of putting forward
no pretensions, no theories, no systems, has he not even so yielded
somewhat to the suggestions of the prevailing school of thought, and have
not his verdicts against evolution often been the more excessive in that he
has paid so notable a tribute to the evolutionary progress of creation?
In the first place, he is far from excluding the undeniable influence of
environing causes; the immense role of those myriad external circumstances
on which Lamarck so strongly insisted; but the work of these factors is, in
his eyes, only accessory and wholly secondary in the economy of nature; and
in any case it is far from explaining the definite direction and the
transcendent harmony which characterize evolution, both in its totality and
in its most infinitesimal details.
In one of his admirable little textbooks, intended to teach and to
popularize science, he complacently enumerates the happy modifications
effected by that "sublime magician," selection as understood by Darwin. He
evokes the metamorphoses of the potato, which, on the mountains of Chili,
is merely a wretched venomous tubercle, and those of the cabbage, which on
the rocky face of oceanic precipices is nothing but a weed, "with a tall
stem and scanty disordered leaves of a crude green, an acrid savour, and a
rank smell"; he speaks of wheat, formerly a poor unknown grass; the
primitive pear-tree "an ugly intractable thorny bush, with detestable
bitter fruit"; the wild celery, which grows beside ponds, "green all over,
hard, with a repulsive flavour, and which gradually becomes tenderer,
sweeter, whiter," and "ceases to distil its poison." (9/2.)
With profound exactitude this great biologist has also perceived the degree
to which size may be modified; may dwindle to dwarfness when a niggardly
soil refuses to furnish beast and plant alike with a sufficient
Without any communication with the other scientists who were occupied by
the same questions, knowing nothing of the results which these
experimenters had attained in the case of small mammiferous animals, and
which prove that dwarfness has often no other cause than physiological
poverty, he confirmed and expanded their ideas from an entomological point
of view. (9/3.)
Scarcely ever, indeed, was he first inspired by the doings of others in
this or that direction; he read scarcely anything, and nature was his sole
teacher. He considered that the knowledge to be obtained from books is but
so much vapour compared with the realities; he borrowed only from himself,
and resorted directly to the facts as nature presented them. One has only
to see his scanty library of odd volumes to be convinced how little he owes
to others, whether writers or workers.
A true naturalist philosopher, this profound observer has also thrown a
light upon certain singular anomalies which, in the insect world, seem to
constitute an exception, at all events in our Europe, to the general rules.
It is not only to the curiosity and for the amusement of entomologists that
he proposes these curious anatomical problems, but also, and chiefly, to
the Darwinian wisdom of the evolutionists.
Why, for example, is the Scarabaeus sacer born and why does it remain
maimed all its life; that is to say, deprived of all the digits on the
"If it is true that every change in the form of an appendage is only the
sign of a habit, a special instinct, or a modification in the conditions of
life, the theory of evolution should endeavour to account for this
mutilation, for these creatures are, like all others, constructed on the
same plan and provided with absolutely the same appendages."
The posterior limbs of the Geotrupes stercorarius, "perfectly developed in
the adult, are atrophied in the larvae, reduced to mere specks."
The general history of the species, of its migrations and its changes, will
doubtless one day throw light upon these strange infirmities, here
temporary and there permanent, which may perhaps be explained by unforeseen
encounters with undiscovered specimens, strayed perhaps into distant
What invaluable documents for the entomologist and the historian of the
evolution of the species are those multiple and fabulous metamorphoses of
the Sitares and the Meloïdae which this indefatigable inquirer has revealed
in all their astonishing phases!
One of the finest examples of scientific investigation is the pursuit,
through a period of twenty-five years, with a sagacity which seems to
border on divination, of this problem of HYPER-METAMORPHOSIS. The larvae of
those coleoptera which we have seen introduced, with infernal cunning, into
the cells of the Anthophora (See Chapter 8 above.), suffer no less than
four moults before they become nymphs.
These merely external transformations, which involve only the envelope, and
respect the internal structure, correspond each with a change of
environment and of diet. Each time the organism adapts itself to its new
mode of existence, "as perfectly as when it becomes adult"; and we see the
insect, which was clear-sighted, become blind; it loses its feet, to
recover them later; its slender body becomes ventripotent; hard, it grows
soft; its mandibles, at first steely, become hollowed out spoonwise, each
modification of conformation having its motive in a fresh modification of
the conditions of the creature's life.
How explain this strange evolution of a fourfold larval existence, these
successive appearances of organs, which become entirely unlike what they
were, to serve functions each time different?
What is the reason, the intention, the high law which presides over these
visible changes, these successive envelopments of creatures one within the
other, these multiple transfigurations?
By what bygone adaptations has the Sitaris successively acquired these
diverse extraordinary phases of life, indicating possibly for each
corresponding age some ancient and remote heredity? (9/5.)
How many other arguments might evolution derive from his books, and what
illustrations of the Darwinian philosophy has he unconsciously furnished!
Does he not even allow the admission to escape him that "the spirit of
cunning and deception is transmitted"? He sees in the persecutions of the
Dytiscus, the "pirate of the ponds," the origin of the faculty which the
Phryganea has of refashioning its shield when demanded of it. "To evade the
assault of the brigand, the Phryganea must hastily abandon its mantle; it
allows itself to sink to the bottom, and promptly removes itself; necessity
is the mother of invention." (9/6.)
Returning to the lacunae which it so amazes Fabre to discover in our
organization, even in the most perfect of us, are they fundamentally very
real? These mysterious and unknown senses which he has so greatly
contributed to elucidate in the case of the inferior species: why, he asks,
have we not inherited them, if we are truly the final term and the supreme
goal of creation?
But in cultivating our intuition, as Bergson invites us to do, would it be
impossible to re-awaken, deep within us, these strange faculties, which
perhaps are only slumbering? What of that species of indefinable memory
which permits the red ant, the Bembex, the Cerceris, the Pompilus, the
Chalicodoma and so many others to "find themselves," to orientate
themselves with infallible certainty and incredible accuracy? Is it not to
be found, according to travellers, in those men who have remained close to
nature and accustomed from their remotest origins to listen to the silence
of the great deserts?
Finally, the evolutionists, who "reconstruct the world in imagination," and
who see in the relationship of neighbouring species a proof of descent or
derivation, and a whole ideal series, will not fail to perceive throughout
his work, in the elementary operations of the Eumenes and the Odynerus,
cousins of the Cerceris, which sting their prey in places as yet ill
determined, not indeed so many isolated attempts, but an incomplete process
of invention, an attempt at procedures still in the fact of formation: in a
word, the birth of that marvellous instinct which ends in the transcendent
art of the Sphex and the Ammophila.
Although they have acquired such prodigious deftness, these master
paralysers are not, in fact, always infallible. Occasionally the Sphex
blunders and gropes, "operates clumsily"; the cricket revives, gets upon
its feet, turns round and round, and tries to walk. But, inquires Fabre, do
you say that having profited by a fortuitous act, which has turned out to
be favourable to them, they have perfected themselves by contact with their
elders, "thanks to the imitation of example," and that they have thus
crystallized their experiences, which have been transmitted by heredity--
thereby fixed in the race? (9/7.)
How much we should prefer that it were so! How much more comprehensible and
interesting their life would become!