by Jean-Henri FabreMay 19th, 2023
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To rear a caterpillar-eater on a skewerful of Spiders is a very innocent thing, unlikely to compromise the security of the State; it is also a very childish thing, as I hasten to confess, and worthy of the schoolboy who, in the mysteries of his desk, seeks as best he may some diversion from the fascinations of his exercise in composition. And I should not have undertaken these investigations, still less should I have spoken them, not without some satisfaction, if I had not discerned, in the results obtained in my refectory, a certain philosophic import, involving, so it seemed to me, the evolutionary theory.
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More Hunting Wasps by Jean-Henri Fabre, is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. A DIG AT THE EVOLUTIONISTS


To rear a caterpillar-eater on a skewerful of Spiders is a very innocent thing, unlikely to compromise the security of the State; it is also a very childish thing, as I hasten to confess, and worthy of the schoolboy who, in the mysteries of his desk, seeks as best he may some diversion from the fascinations of his exercise in composition. And I should not have undertaken these investigations, still less should I have spoken them, not without some satisfaction, if I had not discerned, in the results obtained in my refectory, a certain philosophic import, involving, so it seemed to me, the evolutionary theory.

It is assuredly a majestic enterprise, commensurate with man's immense ambitions, to seek to pour the universe into the mould of a formula and submit every reality to the standard of reason. The geometrician proceeds in this manner: he defines the cone, an ideal conception; then he intersects it by a plane. The conic section is submitted to algebra, an obstetrical appliance which brings forth the equation; and behold, entreated now in one direction, now in another, the womb of the formula gives birth to the ellipse, the hyperbola, the parabola, their foci, their radius vectors, their tangents, their normals, their conjugate axes, their asymptotes and the rest. It is magnificent, so much so that you are overcome by enthusiasm, even when you are twenty years old, an age hardly adapted to the austerities of mathematics. It is superb. You feel as if you were witnessing the creation of a world.

As a matter of fact, you are merely observing the same idea from different points of view, which are illumined by the successive phases of the transformed formula. All that algebra unfolds for our benefit was contained in the definition of the cone, but it was contained as a germ, under latent forms which the magic of the calculus converts into explicit forms. The gross value which our mind confided to the equation it returns to us, without loss or gain, in coins stamped with every sort of effigy. And here precisely is that which constitutes the inflexible rigour of the calculus, the luminous certainty before which every cultivated mind is forced to bow. Algebra is the oracle of the absolute truth, because it reveals nothing but what the mind had hidden in it under an amalgam of symbols. We put 2 and 2 into the machine; the rollers work and show us 4. That is all.

But to this calculus, all-powerful so long as it does not leave the domain of the ideal, let us submit a very modest reality: the fall of a grain of sand, the pendular movement of a hanging body. The machine no longer works, or does so only by suppressing almost everything that is real. It must have an ideal material point, an ideal rigid thread, an ideal point of suspension; and then the pendular movement is translated by a formula. But the problem defies all the artifices of analysis if the oscillating body is a real body, endowed with volume and friction; if the suspensory thread is a real thread, endowed with weight and flexibility; if the point of support is a real point, endowed with resistance and capable of deflection. So with other problems, however simple. The exact reality escapes the formula.

Yes, it would be a fine thing to put the world into an equation, to assume as the first principle a cell filled with albumen and by transformation after transformation to discover life under its thousand aspects as the geometrician discovers the ellipse and the other curves by examining his conic section. Yes, it would be magnificent and enough to add a cubit to our stature. Alas, how greatly must we abate our pretensions! The reality is beyond our reach when it is only a matter of following a grain of dust in its fall; and we would undertake to ascend the river of life and trace it to its source! The problem is a more arduous one than that which algebra declines to solve. There are formidable unknown quantities here, more difficult to decipher than the resistances, the deflections and the frictions of the pendulum. Let us eliminate them, that we may more easily propound the theory.

Very well; but then my confidence in this natural history which repudiates nature and gives ideal conceptions precedence over real facts is shaken. So, without seeking the opportunity, which is not my business, I take it when it presents itself; I examine the theory of evolution from every side; and, as that which I have been assured is the majestic dome of a monument capable of defying the ages appears to me to be no more than a bladder, I irreverently dig my pin into it.

Here is the latest dig. Adaptability to a varied diet is an element of well-being in the animal, a factor of prime importance for the extension and predominance of its race in the bitter struggle for life. The most unfortunate species would be that which depended for its existence on a diet so exclusive that no other could replace it. What would become of the Swallow if he required, in order to live, one particular Gnat, a single Gnat, always the same? When once this Gnat had disappeared—and the life of the Mosquito is not a long one—the bird would die of starvation. Fortunately for himself and for the happiness of our homes, the Swallow gulps them all down indiscriminately, together with a host of other insects that perform aerial ballets. What would become of the Lark were his gizzard able to digest only one seed, invariably the same? When the season for this seed was over—and the season is always a short one—the haunter of the furrows would perish.

Is not man's complaisant stomach, adapted to the largest variety of nourishment, one of his great zoological privileges? He is thus rendered independent of climates, seasons and latitudes. And the Dog: how is it that of all the domestic animals he alone is able to accompany us everywhere, even on the most arduous expeditions? The Dog again is omnivorous and therefore a cosmopolitan.

The discovery of a new dish, said Brillat-Savarin, is of greater importance to humanity than the discovery of a new planet. The aphorism is nearer to the truth than it appears to be in its humorous form. Certainly the man who was the first to think of crushing wheat, kneading flour and cooking the paste between two hot stones was more deserving than the discoverer of the two-hundredth asteroid. The invention of the potato is certainly as valuable as that of Neptune, glorious as the latter was. All that increases our alimentary resources is a discovery of the first merit. And what is true of man cannot be other than true of animals. The world belongs to the stomach which is independent of specialities. This truth is of the kind that has only to be stated to be proved.

Let us now return to our insects. If I am to believe the evolutionists, the various game-hunting Wasps are descended from a small number of types, which are themselves derived, by an incalculable number of concatenations, from a few amoebae, a few monera and lastly from the first clot of protoplasm which was casually condensed. Let us not go back as far as that; let us not plunge into the fogs where illusion and error too easily find a lurking-place. Let us consider a subject with exact limits to it; this is the only way to understand one another.

The Sphegidae are descended from a single type, which itself was already a highly-developed descendant and, like its successors, fed its family on prey. The close similarity in form, in colouring and, above all, in habits seem to refer the Tachytes to the same origin. This is ample; let us be satisfied with it. And now please tell me, what did this prototype of the Sphegidae hunt? Was its diet varied or uniform? If we cannot decide, let us examine the two cases.

The diet was varied. I heartily congratulate the first born of the Sphex-wasps. She enjoyed the most favourable conditions for leaving a prosperous offspring. Accommodating herself to any kind of prey not disproportionate to her strength, she avoided the dearth of a given species of game at this or that time and in this or that place; she always found the wherewithal to endow her family magnificently, they being, for that matter, fairly indifferent to the nature of the victuals, provided that these consisted of fresh insect-flesh, as the tastes of their cousins many times removed prove to this day. This matriarch of the Sphex clan bore within herself the best chances of assuring victory to her offspring in that pitiless fight for existence which eliminates the weakly and incapable and allows none but the strong and industrious to survive; she possessed an aptitude of great value which atavism could not fail to hand down and which her descendants, who are greatly interested in preserving this magnificent inheritance, must have permanently adopted and even accentuated from one generation to the next, from one branch, one offshoot, to another.

Instead of this unscrupulously omnivorous race, levying booty upon every kind of game, to its very great advantage, what do we see to-day? Each Sphex is stupidly limited to an unvarying diet; she hunts only one kind of prey, though her larva accepts them all. One will have nothing but the Ephippiger and must have a female at that; another will have nothing but the Cricket. This one hunts the Locust and nothing else; that one the Mantis and the Empusa. Yet another is addicted to the Grey Worm and another to the Looper.

Fools! How great was your mistake in allowing the wise eclecticism of your ancestress, whose relics now repose in the hard mud of some lacustrian stratum, to become obsolete! How much better would things be for you and yours! Abundance is assured; painful and often fruitless searches are avoided; the larder is crammed without being subject to the accidents of time, place and climate. When Ephippigers run short, you fall back upon Crickets; when there are no Crickets, you capture Grasshoppers. But no, my beautiful Sphex-wasps, you were not such fools as that. If in our days you are each confined to a standing family-dish, it is because your ancestress of the lacustrian schists never taught you variety.

Could she have taught you uniformity? Let us suppose that the Sphex of antiquity, a novice in the gastronomic art, prepared her potted meats with a single kind of game, no matter what. It was then her descendants who, subdivided into groups and constituted into so many distinct species by the slow travail of the centuries, realized that in addition to the ancestral fare there existed a host of other foods. Tradition being abandoned, there was nothing to guide their choice. They therefore tried a bit of everything in the way of insect game, at hap-hazard; and each time the larva, whose tastes alone had to be consulted, was satisfied with the food supplied, as it is to-day in the refectory provisioned by my care.

Every attempt led to the invention of a new dish, an important event, according to the masters, an inestimable resource for the family, who were thereby delivered from the menace of death and enabled to thrive over large areas whence the absence or rarity of a uniform game would have excluded it. And, after making use of a host of different viands in order to attain the culinary variety which is to-day adopted by the whole of the Sphex nation, lo and behold, each species confines itself to a single sort of game, outside which every specimen is obstinately refused, not at table, of course, but in the hunting-field! By your experiments, from age to age, to have discovered variety in diet; to have practised it, to the great advantage of your race, and to end up with uniformity, the cause of decadence; to have known the excellent and to repudiate it for the middling: oh, my Sphex-wasps, it would be stupid if the theory of evolution were correct!

To avoid insulting you and also from respect for common sense, I prefer therefore to believe that, if in our days you confine your hunting to a single kind of game, it is because you have never known any other. I prefer to believe that your common ancestress, your precursor, whether her tastes were simple or complex, is a pure chimera, for, if they were any relationship between you, having tested everything in order to arrive at the actual food of each species, having eaten everything and found it grateful to the stomach, you would now, from first to last, be unprejudiced consumers, omnivorous progressives. I prefer to believe, in short, that the theory of evolution is powerless to explain your diet. This is the conclusion drawn from the dining-room installed in my old sardine-box.

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This book is part of the public domain. Jean-Henri Fabre (2002). More Hunting Wasps. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved October

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