by Jean-Henri FabreMay 25th, 2023
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This is the moment to recapitulate the Minotaur’s merits. When the severe cold is over, he sets forth in quest of a mate, buries himself with her and thenceforth remains faithful to her, despite his frequent trips out of doors and the meetings to which these are likely to lead. With indefatigable zeal, he assists the burrower, herself destined never to leave her home until the emancipation of the family. For a month and longer, he loads the rubbish of the excavation on his forked hod; he carries it up outside and remains ever patient, never disheartened by his arduous feats of climbing. He leaves the easy work of the excavating rake to the mother and reserves for himself the more troublesome task, the exhausting transport through a narrow, perpendicular shaft of great depth.
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More Beetles by Jean-Henri Fabre, is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. MINOTAURUS TYPHŒUS: MORALITY


This is the moment to recapitulate the Minotaur’s merits. When the severe cold is over, he sets forth in quest of a mate, buries himself with her and thenceforth remains faithful to her, despite his frequent trips out of doors and the meetings to which these are likely to lead. With indefatigable zeal, he assists the burrower, herself destined never to leave her home until the emancipation of the family. For a month and longer, he loads the rubbish of the excavation on his forked hod; he carries it up outside and remains ever patient, never disheartened by his arduous feats of climbing. He leaves the easy work of the excavating rake to the mother and reserves for himself the more troublesome task, the exhausting transport through a narrow, perpendicular shaft of great depth.

Next, the navvy becomes a collector of foodstuffs; he goes catering and gathers the wherewithal for his children to live upon. To ease the work of his mate, who shreds and compresses the preserved foodstuffs, packing it away in layers, he once more changes his trade and becomes a miller. At some distance from the bottom, he bruises and crumbles the materials found hardened by the sun; he makes them into a meal and flour which gradually pour down into the maternal bake-house. Lastly, worn out by his efforts, he leaves the home and goes out to die at a distance, in the open air. He has gallantly performed his duty as the head of a family; he has spent himself without stint to secure the prosperity of his offspring.

The mother, on her side, allows nothing to divert her from her housekeeping. Throughout her working life, she never goes out: domi mansit, as the ancients used to say of their model matrons: she stays at home, kneading her cylindrical loaves, filling them with an egg, watching them until the exodus arrives. When the time comes for the autumnal merry-making, she at last returns to the surface, accompanied by her youngsters, who disperse at will to feast in places frequented by the Sheep. Thereupon, having nothing left to do, the devoted creature perishes.

Yes, amid the general indifference of the fathers towards their offspring, Minotaurus displays a most remarkable zeal where his family is concerned. Forgetful of himself, refusing to be led away by the rapturous delights of spring, at a time when it would be so pleasant to see a little of the country, to feast among his fellows, to tease and flirt with his fair neighbours, he sticks to his work underground and wears himself out to leave a fortune to his family. Here is one who, when his limbs stiffen in death, is well entitled to say:

“I have done my duty; I have worked.”

Now whence did this industrious labourer derive his self-abnegation and his ardour for the welfare of his young? Men tell us that he acquired them by a slow progress from middling to good, from good to excellent. Fortuitous circumstances, hostile one day, favourable the next, have taught him what he knows. He has learnt, as man does, by experience: he too develops, progresses and improves himself.

In his little Dung-beetle brain, the lessons of the past leave lasting impressions which, matured by time, ripen into more considered actions. Necessity is the supreme inspirer of the instincts. Spurred by necessity, the animal is its own artisan; by its own energies it has made itself as we know it, with its implements and its trade. Its habits, its capacity and dexterity are integrals of infinite minuteness acquired on the illimitable path of time.

Such is the argument of the theorists, an argument sufficiently imposing to allure any independent mind, did not the empty resonance of words usurp the full sonority of reality. Let us question the Minotaur about all this. To be sure, he will not reveal to us the origin of instinct; he will leave the problem as obscure as ever; but he will at least be able to cast a glimmer into some little corner; and any light, however faint, even the flickering light of a taper, must be welcome in the dark tavern into which the animal leads us.

The Minotaur works exclusively with Sheep-droppings; for the purposes of his family, he needs them dry, toughened to the consistency of horn by long exposure to the sun. This choice seems very strange, when we remember that other stercoral collectors insist upon fresh products. The Sacred Beetle, the Copris, the Onthophagus:1 not one of these, nor any of the others, cares for this sort of provender. All, whether large or small, whether modellers of pears or manufacturers of sausages, absolutely require plastic materials, retaining their full flavour.

The trident-bearer needs the pastoral olive, the Sheep’s sugar-plum drained of all its juices. There is room in this world for tastes of every kind; the wisest thing is not to discuss them. Nevertheless, one would like to know why, when he is surrounded by such abundance of tender and succulent victuals, deriving from the Sheep or elsewhere, the three-pronged Dung-beetle selects what the others scornfully refuse. If he has not an innate predilection for this diet, how did he come to throw over the excellent, in which he had the right to share with the rest, and adopt the inferior, which is not employed elsewhere?

We will not labour the point. It amounts to this, that somehow the dry pellets have fallen to the Minotaur’s share. This detail admitted, the rest unfolds itself with insistent logic. Necessity, the instigator of progress, seems to have gradually trained the male Minotaur in his functions as a collaborator. The father of yore, an idler, as is the rule among insects, has become an ardent worker because, what with one experiment after another, the race has benefited.

What does he do with his harvest? He soberly feeds on it, when the moisture in the burrow has somewhat softened the thankless morsels; he cards great quantities of them into a felt in which he buries himself in the winter to shield himself against the cold. But these are the lesser uses of his plunder; the main thing is the future of the family.

Now the grub, whose stomach is at first so squeamish, would never bite into such snacks as these, if they were left untouched. If they are to be accepted and relished, they must be subjected to a refining which will give them tenderness and flavour. In what laboratory is the cooking to be done? Obviously underground, the only place where an equable moisture prevails, free from the unwholesome excess of humidity. Thus the quality of the food gives rise to the burrow.

And this burrow has to be deep, very deep, in order that the scorching heat of summer may never reach them and render them useless by drying them up. The grub develops slowly; it will not attain the adult form until September. In its underground home, it has to brave with impunity the hottest and driest period of the year, without running the risk of finding its bread too stale. A depth of five feet is not too much to save the grub and its food from the fiery floods of sunlight in the dog-days.

The mother has the strength to dig a pit of this kind by herself, however deep it may be. No one will come to her assistance in her untiring work of excavation; but at the same time the rubbish has to be shot outside, so that the shaft may be always clear. This is needed first for the going and coming during the storage of victuals and later for the easy emergence of the offspring.

Boring and carrying would be too much for a single worker: the warm season would be too short for such a task. Thus, thereupon, long prepared by the events of each successive year, a flash of light penetrates the Dung-beetle’s brain. The father says to himself:

“Let’s lend a hand. It will make things go faster and better. I have three horns which I will use as a hod. I propose to offer my services to the digger and to hoist the loosened soil to the surface.”

Working in double harness is invented; the household is founded. Other cares, no less urgent, confirm the agreement. The Minotaur’s victuals, those compact morsels, have first to be broken up, bruised and reduced to particles which will lend themselves better to the elaboration of the final cake. After passing through the mill, the material must be carefully compressed into a cylinder, in which fermentation will complete the development of the requisite qualities. The whole business is a slow and meticulous work.

To shorten it, therefore, and to make the most of the fine weather, they set up in couples. The father collects the raw materials outside. On the upper floor, he turns his harvest into meal. On the lower floor, the mother receives the grist, sifts it and packs it into a column, gently patting down each layer. She kneads the dough for which her mate furnishes the flour. She works at the kneading-trough, he at the mill. Thus, by sharing the labour, they hasten the result and make the very utmost of the brief time at their disposal.

So far, all is well. Had they learnt their trade in the school of the centuries, through experiments of their own devising which proved successful from time to time, they would behave no differently. But now things begin to go awry. There is a reverse to the medal which proclaims the contrary of what we read on the obverse.

The cake that has just been prepared is the ration of one grub, absolutely of one alone. The prosperity of the race calls for more. Well, what happens? This, that the father leaves the house as soon as the first ration is prepared; the assistant deserts the baker and goes off to die at a distance. The excavations made in the meadows at the beginning of April always give me the two sexes: the father at the top of the house, engaged in shaping the pellets; the mother down at the bottom, working on the stacked provisions. A little later, the mother, is always alone: the father has disappeared.

As the laying is not over, the survivor has to continue the work unaided. True, the deep burrow, which cost so much time and trouble, is ready; so is the cell of the first-born of the family; but the others have to be provided for and it would be advantageous to rear as many of them as possible. The installation of each demands that the female, who until now has led a sedentary life, should often venture abroad. The stay-at-home becomes an out-of-doors collector; she gathers the pellets in the neighbourhood, brings them to the pit, stores them, breaks them up, kneads them and packs them into cylinders.

And it is at this moment of maternal activity that the father abandons the home! He excuses himself on the score of his decrepitude. He lacks not good-will but life itself. Reluctantly he retires, worn out with years.

We might reply:

“Considering that the successive stages of evolution have made you invent first housekeeping in common, a sublime discovery, and then the deep cellar, tending to keep the preserves in good condition during the summer; the grinding-process which gives plasticity and prevents dryness; and the packing into sausages, in which the materials ferment and improve: considering all this, could not that same evolution teach you to prolong your life for a few weeks? With the aid of a most carefully conducted selection, the affair does not strike me as impracticable. In one of my appliances, the male held out until June, after placing a treasure-house of pellets at his mate’s disposal.”

He in like manner would be entitled to say:

“The Sheep is not always very generous. The crops are lean around the burrow; and, when I have rolled the few available victuals into the burrow, I soon pine away, worn out by unemployment. If my colleague survived till June in a scientific apparatus, it was because he was surrounded by inexhaustible riches. The power of storing as much as he pleased made life sweet to him; the certainty of work lengthened his days. I am not as well-provided for as he and I allow myself to die of boredom when I have finished gathering the poor harvest in my neighbourhood.”

“Very well; but you have wings, you are able to fly. Why do you not go some distance away? You would find enough to satisfy your passion for hoarding. But you don’t do this. Why? Because time has not taught you the fruitful device of making excursions a few steps from your home. How is it that, in order to assist your mate till the end of her labours, you have not yet learnt to keep up your courage for a few days longer and glean a little farther all around your home?… If evolution which, as they say, has instructed you in your difficult trade, has nevertheless allowed you to remain in ignorance of these highly important details, which are easy to carry out after a short apprenticeship, the reason is because it has taught you nothing at all, whether housekeeping, burrowing or baking. Your evolution is a permanent affair. You move about within a circle with a fixed radius; you are and always will be what you were when the first pellet was lowered into the cellar.”

All this explains nothing. True; but to know how not to know at least gives a stable equilibrium and repose to our restless curiosity. We are very near the precipice of the unknowable. That precipice should be engraved with what Dante inscribes on the gate of his Inferno:

“Lasciate ogni speranza.”

Yes, let all of us who, when we take the atom by assault, imagine that we are storming the universe: let us abandon all hope here. The sanctuary of origin will not be opened for us. In vain do we seek to fathom the riddle of life: we shall never attain the exact truth. The hook of theory catches nothing but illusions, acclaimed to-day as the last word of knowledge, rejected as false to-morrow and replaced by others which are sooner or later seen to be erroneous in their turn. Where then is this truth? Does it, like the asymptote of the geometricians, recede into infinity, pursued by our curiosity, which always draws nearer to it without ever reaching it?

This comparison would be suitable were our knowledge a curve of uniform development; but it goes forwards and backwards, up and down, twists and turns, approaches its asymptote and then suddenly runs away from it. It may chance to cross it, but only unconsciously. The full knowledge of the truth escapes it.

Be this as it may, the Minotaur couple, in so far as our casual observations enable us to see, are remarkably zealous where the family is concerned. We should have to go high indeed in the animal series to find similar instances. Furred and feathered life will afford us hardly any equivalents.

If such things occurred, not in the Dung-beetle world but in our own, we should speak of them as pertaining to a very fine morality. The expression would be out of place here. Animals have no morality. It is known to man alone, who formulates it and improves upon it gradually in the light of his conscience, that sensitive mirror in which is concentrated all that is best within us.

The advance of this improvement, the loftiest of all, is extremely slow. Cain, the first murderer, after slaying his brother, reflected a little, we are told. Was this remorse on his part? Apparently not, but rather apprehension of a hand stronger than his own. The fear of punishment to reward the crime was the beginning of wisdom.

And this fear was justified, for Cain’s successors were singularly skilled in the art of constructing homicidal engines. After the fist came the stick, the club, the stone thrown by the sling. Progress brought the flint arrow-head and ax and later the bronze sword, the iron pike, the steel blade. Chemistry took a hand in the business and must be awarded the palm for extermination. In our own day, the wolves of Manchuria could tell us what orgies of human flesh they owe to improved explosives.

What has the future in store for us? One dares not think of it. Piling at the roots of our mountains, picrate on dynamite, panclactite on fulminate and other explosives a thousand times more powerful, which science, ever in progress, will not fail to invent, shall we end by blowing up the planet? Thrown into confusion by the shock, will the ragged splinters of the terrestrial clod whirl away in vortices like that of the asteroids, the apparent ruins of a vanished world? This would be the end of all great and noble things, but it would be the end also of much that is ugly and much that is pitiful.

In our day, with materialism in full sway, we have physics working precisely at demolishing matter. It pulverizes the atom, subtilizing it until it disappears, transformed into energy. The tangible and visible mass is only appearance; in reality all is force. If the knowledge of the future succeeded in harking back on a large scale to the primordial origins of matter, a few slabs of rock, suddenly disintegrated into energy, would dislocate the glove into a chaos of forces. Then Gilbert’s2 great word-picture would be realized:

“Et d’ailes et de faux dépouillé désormais,

Sur les mondes detruits le temps dort, immobile.”3

But do not rely overmuch on these heroic remedies. Let us take Candide’s4 advice and cultivate our garden; let us water our cabbage-patch and accept things as they are.

Nature, a ruthless wet-nurse, knows nothing of pity. After pampering her charges, she takes them by the foot, whirls them round her head and dashes them to pieces against a rock. This is her way of diminishing the burden of her excessive fertility.

Death, well and good; but of what use is pain? When a mad Dog endangers the public safety, do we speak of inflicting atrocious sufferings upon him? We put a bullet into him; we do not torture him: we defend our own lives. In the old days, however, the law, with a great parade of ermine and red gowns, used to draw and quarter criminals, to break them on the wheel, to roast them at the stake, to burn them in a brimstone shirt: it pretended to expiate the crime by the horror of the torture. Morality has made great strides since then; in our time, a more enlightened conscience compels us to treat the wrong-doer with the same clemency that we show to the mad Dog. We put an end to his existence without any stupid refinements of cruelty.

It even seems as though a day would come when legal murder will disappear from our codes: instead of killing the criminal, we shall strive to cure his infirmity. We shall fight the virus of crime as we fight that of yellow fever or of the plague. But when may we expect to see this absolute respect for human life? Will it take hundreds and thousands of years to come into being? Possibly. Conscience is so slow in emerging from its slough.

Ever since there have been men on this earth, morality has been far from saying its last word even on the subject of the family, that pre-eminently hallowed group. The ancient paterfamilias is a despot in his own house. He rules over his household as over the herd in his demesne; he has rights of life and death over his children, disposes of them at will, barters them in exchange for others, sells them into slavery, brings them up for his own sake and not for theirs. Primitive legislation displays a revolting brutality in this respect.

Things have improved considerably since then, though the ancient barbarism has not been wholly abolished. Is there any lack of people among ourselves to whom morality is reduced to a fear of the police? Could we not find many who rear their children, as we breed Rabbits, to make a profit out of them? It has been necessary to formulate the promptings of conscience into a strict law in order to save the child, up to the age of thirteen, from the hell of the factories where the poor little fellow’s future was destroyed for a few halfpence a day.

Though animals have no morality, which is a thing troublesome to acquire and always undergoing improvement in the brains of the philosophers, they have their commandments, laid down in the beginning, immutable, imperious and as deeply imprinted in their being as the need to breathe and eat. At the head of the commandments stands maternal solicitude. Since life’s primary object is the continuation of life, it is also essential that the fragile beginnings of existence should be made possible. It is the mother’s duty to see to this.

No mother neglects this duty. The dullest at least lay their germs in propitious places, where the new-born offspring will of themselves find the wherewithal to live. The best-endowed suckle, spoon-feed or store food for their children, build nests, cells or nurseries, often masterpieces of exquisite delicacy. But as a rule, especially in the insect class, the fathers become indifferent to their progeny. We, who have not yet laid aside all our old savagery, do the same to a small extent.

The decalogue orders us to honour our father and mother. This would be perfect, if it were not silent as to the duties of the father towards his sons. It speaks as once the tyrant of the family clan used to speak, the paterfamilias, referring everything to himself and caring but little for others. It took a long time to make people understand that the present owes itself to the future and that the father’s first duty is to prepare the sons for the harsh struggles of life.

Others, among the humblest, have outstripped it. Prompted by an unconscious inspiration, they straightway resolved the paternal problem, which among us is still obscure. The Minotaur father in particular, if he had a vote in these grave matters, would amend our decalogue. He would move to add, in simple lines imitated from our catechism:

“Bring up your children in the way they should do.”

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This book is part of the public domain. Jean-Henri Fabre (2022). More Beetles. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved October

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