The Illustrated Insectopedia - Hugh Raffles (2010)



“The maggot is a power in this world,” wrote Jean-Henri Fabre, the Insect Poet, in a moment of characteristic awe. He was philosophizing about flies—bluebottles, greenbottles, bumblebee flies, gray flesh flies—and their capacity “to purge the earth of death’s impurities and cause deceased animal matter to be once more numbered among the treasures of life.”1 He was pondering the rhythm of the seasons and the cycles of mortality, and he was exploring the grounds of his new house in Sérignan du Comtat, a small village in Provence close to Orange where he was unearthing his own treasures: decaying bird corpses, fetid sewer ducts, ruined wasps’ nests—secret refuges of nature’s alchemy.

Fabre had called this house, with its large garden, l’Harmas (“the name given, in this district, to an untilled, pebbly expanse abandoned to the vegetation of the thyme”), and it is now a national museum, recently reopened after six years’ renovation.2

It is a beautiful house, large and imposing, glowing pink in the summer sunshine, thick walled to keep out the mistral, pale-green shutters. A handsome house that was known locally as le château.3 Fabre was fifty-six when he moved here. Almost immediately he had a two-story addition built onto the main residence: on the first floor, a greenhouse where he and his gardener grew plants for the grounds and for his botanical studies; above, a naturalist’s laboratory, in which he spent the greatest part of his time. The property is on the outskirts of Sérignan, and one of Fabre’s first acts was to surround its nearly two and a half acres with a stone wall six feet high, isolating it still further. Indeed, Anne-Marie Slézec, the director of the museum, told me, in his thirty-six years here, Fabre never once ventured the few hundred yards into the village.

Mme. Slézec had been assigned to l’Harmas from her position as a research mycologist at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, and now, after six years in the provinces, her task complete, she was eagerly anticipating her return to Paris.

There was a good reason to select a mycologist for this posting: among the chief treasures of l’Harmas are 600 luminous aquarelles of local fungi, delicate portraits that Fabre painted in an effort to preserve the colors and substance of objects that, once collected, rapidly lost all relation to their living form. The paintings are justly famous, and they seem in some way to distill Fabre’s entire life’s work. Powerfully descriptive and immediately accessible, they strive to capture the ecological whole and, in doing so, to convey the beauty and what he saw as the mysterious perfection of nature. They are the product of exceptional observational skills. They utilize a talent that was largely self-taught. And they reveal a profound intimacy with their subject.

But Mme. Slézec’s task was to be less mycological than antiquarian. She rapidly turned detective. To reconstruct Fabre’s study, she hunted down old photographs, securing the crucial lead from a librarian in Avignon who found a contemporary image, which the director set out to reproduce in every respect. Somehow she turned up the very same framed pictures; the same books; the same clock (which she had restored to working order); the same globe; the same chairs; the same cases of snails, fossils, and seashells; the same set of scales. She reinstated the famous writing desk, just two and a half feet long, a school desk really, insubstantial enough for Fabre to pick up and move as needed. She brought the photograph back to life. Or rather, she brought it into the present and, in the process, re-created the study as a memorial. Only Fabre himself is missing (and he is missing from the image, too), though the sunlight that still floods through the garden window fills the room with the aura of his life, a life lived fully right in this space.

The grounds presented a different challenge. When Fabre arrived, in 1879, he discovered that the nearly two and a half acres of land he now owned had once been a vineyard. Cultivation had involved the removal of most of the “primitive vegetation.” “No more thyme, no more lavender, no more clumps of kermes-oak,” he lamented.4 Instead, his new garden was a mass of thistles, couch grass, and other upstarts. He ripped it out and replanted. By the time Mme. Slézec arrived, however, the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, which had taken possession on the death of Fabre’s last surviving son, in 1967, had turned much of the land into a botanical garden. Scouring Fabre’s notebooks, his manuscripts, and his correspondence, studying photographs taken on the grounds, Mme. Slézec searched for clues that would enable her to restore what Fabre had intended to persist after his death. She cleared the shrubs obstructing his much-loved view of Mount Ventoux, the isolated outlier of the French Alps that—following in Petrarch’s famous footsteps—Fabre often climbed. She reintroduced bamboo, forsythia, roses, and Lebanon oak, and she protected and managed the surviving Atlas cedars, the Aleppo and Corsican pines, and the graceful lilac walk that leads from the entry gate to the house.

The garden, she determined, had been planned in three sections. In front of the house, Fabre had laid out a formal flower garden surrounding a large ornamental pond. This was where he entertained his not inconsiderable number of visitors: members of the local intellectual elite and, toward the end of his life, dignitaries and admirers from further afield. Beyond the flower beds, he established the harmas for which the house was named, an area of native shrubs and trees that were planted, nurtured, then left to grow with minimum management. Finally, beyond the harmas, he planted a large area of trees, a parc arboré, again allowed to thrive with relatively little intervention. These latter two areas were his “laboratory of living entomology,” the habitats for his insect studies.5 Viewed from the flower garden, they looked wild and untamed, but as in the Romantic tradition of landscape gardening, this naturalness was an effect of much art and labor.

Fabre lived at l’Harmas until his death in 1915 at age ninety-two, and it was here that he wrote nine of the ten volumes of his Souvenirs entomologiques, a massive work with a mass readership on which his fame and reputation rest. It was a labor he conceived as an irrefutable demonstration of the “Intelligence [that] shine[s] behind the mystery of things”6 and as a monument against “transformism”—that is, the evolution of plants and animals through the adaptive transformation of species descended from common ancestors, a formulation of evolution general enough to include both Darwin and his French forerunner, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. It was here in the harmas and the parc arboré that Fabre encountered the animals that fill those volumes and bear the burden of his calling: the wasps, bees, beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, caterpillars, scorpions, and spiders whose behavior he describes in such vivid detail. It was here, in this “Eden of bliss,” as he put it (with one eye ever trained on his legacy), that he would “live henceforth alone with the insect.”7


The garden at l’Harmas and the countryside surrounding it were a naturalist’s paradise, and Fabre’s interests were voracious, his knowledge encyclopedic. He studied birds, plants, and fungi. He collected fossils, seashells, and snails. But above all, it was the insects that fascinated him.

Fascination, though, is not always twinned with affection. Hundreds of cicadas lived in the two plane trees outside his front door, and each day in summer he heard their calls. “Ah! Creature possessed,” he despaired soon after arriving, “the plague of my dwelling, which I hoped would be so peaceful!” He considered hacking down the trees to be rid of them. He had already eliminated the frogs from his pond (“by means perhaps a little too rigorous,” he admitted).8 If he could, said Mme. Slézec, he would have silenced the songbirds too.

The cicadas were a “real torment.”9 But like all of nature, they were also an opportunity. As a child, Fabre had been deeply impressed by La Fontaine’s Fables, though less by their moral complexity and social satire than by their ability to make the natural world serve as a vehicle of moral instruction. Nature was everywhere and at every turn offered occasion for inquiry and education. Insects, especially, were around every corner and beneath every footstep. And so were their secrets. Insects struggled, they triumphed, they failed. Their lives were full of drama both epic and homespun; they had personalities, desires, preferences, habits, and fears. Indeed, their lives were much like his own. Unearthing an insect’s biography was both an exploration of the unknown and something more: a journey on which everyone was invited and for which Fabre was both the guide and the subject. “Fabre’s accounts of insect life,” writes the historian Norma Field perceptively, “convey both the drama he found in it and the drama he experienced in exploring it.… The narrative of insect life becomes the narrative of Fabre’s life.”10 Field sees in this convergence a persuasive narrative structure that gives Fabre’s writing its exceptional force. And perhaps it’s not only his readers who are being persuaded. All this narrative blurring signals an ontological blurring between the man and his insects, an effect of deep affinities. What does it take, we might wonder, to become a true insect poet?

Everyone could participate in Fabre’s narrative. Scientific inquiry demanded specialized skills, patience, and ingenuity. But its dissemination would be accessible and democratic. Each insect was a mysterious neighbor whose true identity was revealed only through the patience and ingenuity of its biographer. By the time he is done, each insect has given up its secrets, surrendered its life story. And, Fabre insists, this biographical approach is a surer route to knowledge than any science that takes as its object the dead animal pinned to a card and viewed under a microscope. Morphological similarities might be meaningful to the elite theorists in their metropolitan studies, but what counted out here in the world was 'margin-bottom:0cm;margin-bottom:.0001pt;text-align: justify;text-indent:12.0pt;line-height:normal'>The great institutions of natural history, botany, and zoology were increasingly preoccupied with questions of classification. For Fabre, such activities and (what he saw as) their newly distanced ways of engaging with nature—as object, specimen, icon—were, quite simply, “burying us.”11 Insects were all around, yet we scarcely knew them. If, like La Fontaine, we observed their behavior with patience and dedication, they could provide an unrivaled source of moral and scientific education. Even the cicadas. Even the maggots. And even—perhaps especially—those ruthless hymenopteran hunters, the solitary wasps.


Work on the high wall surrounding l’Harmas started soon after Fabre and his family arrived in 1879, but construction was frustratingly slow. For the naturalist, however, the delays were serendipitous. The builders left large piles of stone and sand in the garden, and these were soon occupied by bees and wasps. Two wasps, the Bembix and the Languedocian sphex, were old friends that Fabre knew well from previous encounters. They made homes in the sand, and he spent much of his days observing and recording their behavior.

Fabre truly loved wasps. Along with beetles, they occupy more of the Souvenirs than any other group. (He wrote little on ants and butterflies.) He loved that they were still so unknown. He loved their determination—so close to his own—to overcome the largest obstacles. He loved their precision. Above all, he loved that they allowed him to disclose the astonishing complexities of their behavior and then, like a magician, reveal that this behavior, no matter how much it looked like problem solving and ingenuity was—contra Darwin—entirely devoid of intelligence. He loved the wasps because, as exemplars to him of both the “wisdom” and the “ignorance” of instinct, they were his accomplices in the campaign against transformism.

He seeks them out. Knowing their habits, he finds a likely spot—a sand dune, a steep roadside bank, a small clearing in the undergrowth, a south-facing garden wall, a kitchen fireplace—and he waits. He watches each species prepare its nest in its own style. Here is the Bembix rostrata digging like a puppy (“The sand, shot backwards under the abdomen, passes through the arch of the hind-legs, gushes like a fluid in a continuous stream, describes its parabola and falls to the ground some seven or eight inches away”).12 Here is a small group of Cerceris tuberculata, “industrious miners” who “patiently remove with their mandibles a few bits of gravel from the bottom of the pit and push the heavy mass outside.”13 Here are some yellow-winged sphex (Sphex flavipennis), “a troop of merry companions encouraging one another in their work; … the sand flies, falling in a fine dust on their quivering wings; and the too bulky gravel, removed bit by bit, rolls far away from the workyard. If a piece seems too heavy to be moved, the insect gets up steam with a shrill note which reminds one of the woodman’s ‘Hoo!’”).14 And here are the Eumenes wasps, whose nest is so “gracefully curved” and so carefully decorated with snail shells and pebbles that it is “both a fortress and a museum.”15

Their nests complete, the wasps fly off. Fabre waits, his patience inexhaustible. Finally, they return, laden with food for the larva that will hatch in their nests. A Cerceris lands with a metallic Buprestis beetle. A hairy Ammophila (a sphex) arrives with an outsize lepidopteran larva. Here is a Chalybion (another sphex) clasping a spider between her legs. Here comes a yellow-winged sphex dragging a cricket far larger than itself.

Facedown on the ground, lens in hand, as close as his quarry allows, Fabre permits no detail to escape him, hour after hour, an eager giant spying on a Lilliputian world. Sometimes, anxious for discovery, he goes further, dislodging the nest and prizing it open with his knife. Maybe there’s a lone victim, paralyzed and positioned on its back, a single egg placed on its abdomen just beyond reach of its feebly flickering legs; maybe there are several victims in a cell, stacked on top of one another or arranged front to back, the freshest farthest from the egg.

“Observation sets the problem,” he writes; “experiment solves it.”16 Sometimes he tests the animal in situ. He might wait for the moment when the wasp, descending to check the nest, leaves its captive momentarily unguarded. Swiftly, Fabre purloins the immobilized victim and, breath bated, observes the wasp’s agitation on surfacing. Or he allows the wasp to position her prey in the nest and then enters stealthily, removes the victim, and watches to see if she will nonetheless deposit her egg and seal the entrance as usual (or as he would have it, as predetermined).

Sometimes he carries the nest carefully back to the house. Often, he captures the insect, brings it to his laboratory, and creates controlled and convenient conditions in which to observe its behavior and devise more complex experiments of longer duration. Perhaps, searching for answers in anatomy as well as psychology, he chloroforms and dissects it.

His first dissection was a revelation. It catalyzed his decision to abandon a career teaching mathematics and to make a living from his true passion, natural history. It was 1848. The Second Republic had just been established, and France was in uproar. Fabre was in Corsica, twenty-five years old, teaching physics in the college at Ajaccio and as entranced by the luxuriant landscape (“the infinite, glittering sea at my feet, the dreadful masses of granite overhead”)17 as any Humboldt setting foot in the New World.

He had leaped at the posting, eager to escape Carpentras (“that accursed little hole”).18 Just a few months previously, he had resigned his job as a schoolmaster there, revealing the sense of outrage that would never fully desert him, his hurt at the exclusions that refused to end no matter his achievements. It was the memory of his ejection from school when his parents—Provençal peasants who tried (and failed) to make a living keeping cafés in a series of towns—could not keep up the monthly fees. It was his frustration as a young man laboring on railroad-construction sites, repeatedly passed over for academic postings and denied the opportunity to show his capacities (“The injustice was too unheard-of,” he wrote to his brother, Frédéric, in September 1848, “… to give … [me] two licentiate’s diplomas, and to make … [me] conjugate verbs for a pack of brats!”).19 It was his disappointment at the commercial failure of his decade’s work on a process to extract madder, the red dye used for military uniforms, an enterprise designed to provide him with the income he would need to take up academic employment (which, at the time, was unpaid and intended only for men of means). It was his distress when the clerical backlash against Napoleon III’s educational reforms led to his dismissal from teaching (he had been giving free science classes that were open to girls), throwing his family into poverty and upon the charity of a close friend, the English liberal theorist John Stuart Mill (who had moved to Provence to live and die near the grave of his wife, the early feminist Harriet Taylor).20 It was bitterness that all this misfortune was compounded by the failure of those with power over him to appreciate that his successes (his baccalaureates in letters and mathematics, his degrees in the mathematical and physical sciences, his doctorate in the natural sciences, his more than 200 publications: textbooks as well as volumes of popular science written at a time when the genre scarcely existed; as well as his major scientific discoveries: the first demonstrations of taxis in animals and the proof of hypermetamorphosis in beetles) were won against odds unimaginable by the Parisian scientific elite. It was more bitterness that when recognition finally came, at the end of his long life, the university, the scientists, even the entomologists, rarely paid homage; it was the literary lions—Victor Hugo (who dubbed him the Homer of insects); Edmond Rostand, the author of Cyrano de Bergerac (who, not to be outdone, anointed him the insects’ Virgil); the playwright Romain Rolland (for whom Fabre was “un des Français que j’admire le plus”); and the Provençal poet Frédéric Mistral—who campaigned for Fabre’s nomination for the 1911 Nobel Prize—not for a scientific prize, please note, but for the prize for literature.21 It was his helpless anger at the sudden loss of his eldest son at sixteen and the subsequent deaths of two young daughters and two wives, tragedies that were to cast a pall over his life but tragedies, it must be admitted, from which he himself created a badge of lifelong suffering that became an against-all-odds story of the homespun genius, the poverty-stricken hermitlike poet of science at work in his garden, alone with his insects, simplicity, sacrifice, naïveté in the strict sense, the story that would thrill the Parisian cultural set in his last days and draw them down to the unfamiliar environs of Sérignan.

It was a raw anger that fueled a vigorous populism. Addressing an imagined audience of elite scientists, the men who had responded to his antagonism to evolutionary theory by removing his textbooks from classrooms and once more plunging him into grim poverty, he articulates a passion so consuming that it temporarily absolves the cicadas: “You rip up the animal and I study it alive; you turn it into an object of horror and pity, whereas I cause it to be loved; you labor in a torture chamber and dissecting room, I make my observations under the blue sky to the song of the Cicadas, you subject cell and protoplasm to chemical tests, I study instinct in its loftiest manifestations; you pry into death, I pry into life.”22 He meant, of course, that he studied the living animal, the animal in its true form, as God intended it to be known, a being of spirit, mystery, and definite purpose, a being accessible through experience not theory, through intimacy not abstraction.

But he was, as we already know, not averse to prying into death, and indeed, according to his friend and biographer, the doctor-politician Georges Victor Legros, it was with that first dissection, in Ajaccio, that his story began. In Corsica, he had befriended Alfred Moquin-Tandon, a professor of botany at Toulouse, a man of letters twenty years his senior who wrote poetry in vernacular Provençal and talked of the importance of an accomplished style, even in the writing of biology. Over dinner, Moquin-Tandon, improvising instruments from his sewing basket, dissected a snail. “From that time forward,” wrote Legros, Fabre “began to collect not only dead, inert, or desiccated forms, mere material for study, with the aim of satisfying his curiosity; he began to dissect with ardor, a thing he had never done before. He housed his tiny guests in his cupboard; and occupied himself, as he was always to do in the future, with the smaller living creatures only.” Soon after, Fabre wrote Frédéric from Corsica, “My scalpels are tiny daggers which I make myself out of fine needles; my marble slab is the bottom of a saucer; my prisoners are lodged by the dozen in old match-boxes; maxime miranda in minimis.23

Maxime miranda in minimis. Of the many tiny marvels he would encounter over the succeeding decades, the most miraculous were the hunting wasps. Some of what they revealed to him was already known, but some was entirely new. Not even the illustrious René-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur—the pioneer of entomological observation who described the Odynerus wasp at length in his six-volume Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire des insectes (1734–42)—knew that instead of laying their egg directly on the “swarming heap” of two dozen captive weevil larvae, the Odynerus (and the Eumenes) suspend it from a fine thread attached to the domed roof of the nest.24 After years of trying to engineer the opportunity, Fabre was finally a witness. It was, he confessed, “one of those moments of inward joy which atone for much vexation and weariness.” The hatched wasp larva lowers itself to feed (“head downwards, it is digging into the limp belly of one of the caterpillars”), and then—when its meal becomes too agitated—it hoists itself safely out of reach.25


Each of his insects confirmed the power of instinct. It might seem, he said, as if these animals know what they’re doing. It might appear as if their astonishing behavior is an exterior manifestation of an interior life. But that would be entirely wrong. They act without consciousness and without self-knowledge. They follow instincts they have possessed since the Creation, instincts that are blind, rigid, and innate, that are not learned but are instead possessed fully formed from birth, perfect and infallible, highly specialized to their function and peculiar to each species. These instincts possess “wisdom”: they generate flawless behavior that solves the most complex problems of physical existence. Yet under the stress of experimental disruption, they prove themselves completely “ignorant,” unresponsive to the simplest changes in familiar conditions.26

Over and over he told this story, believing—as many creationists still do—that in instinct he had found evolution’s Achilles’ heel, proof that species are fixed and immutable and have been so since the beginning. Because—and his argument is quite this simple—how could intermediary stages exist for such extraordinarily complex and precisely calibrated behavior? Think of the hunting wasps, he says; it’s a zero-sum game: “The art of preparing the larva’s provisions allows of none but masters and suffers no apprentices.”27 If the prey isn’t adequately immobilized, he says, it will destroy the egg or the larva; if the prey is so badly wounded that it dies, the egg will hatch but the larva’s food source will putrefy and the hatchling will starve. What animal genius enables the delicate calculation by which, time after time, the prey is rendered insensate but with all vital functions intact? As he watches the hairy Ammophila paralyze its victim, he faces life’s most profound truth, the mystery of mysteries, before which even grown men of science can only weep: “Animals obey their compelling instinct, without realizing what they do. But whence comes that sublime inspiration? Can theories of atavism, of natural selection, of the struggle for life interpret it reasonably? To me and my friend, this was and remained one of the most eloquent revelations of the unutterable logic that rules the world and guides the ignorant by the laws of its inspiration. Stirred to our innermost being by the flash of truth, both of us felt tears of undefinable emotion spring to our eyes.”28

Any of his insects could bring him here. But it was the wasps, he believed, that presented the most forceful case against the Darwinian view that instincts are inherited adaptive behaviors; that, as Darwin put it in 1871 in The Descent of Man, complex instincts are gained “through the natural selection of variations of simpler instinctive actions,” and “those insects which possess the most wonderful instincts are certainly the most intelligent.” Darwin’s instincts were, of course, inherited, and they were far from fixed and far from perfect. They were adaptive, not prescient. As he summarized it, “intelligent actions, after being performed during several generations, become converted into instincts and are inherited.”29

It was against these heresies that Fabre marshaled the wasps. And it was the wasps that gave him license to state categorically, “I reject the modern theory of instinct.” “Modern theory,” his disparaging term for evolution, was “an ingenious game in which the arm-chair naturalist, the man who shapes the world according to his whim, is able to take delight, but in which the observer, the man grappling with reality, fails to find a serious explanation of anything whatsoever that he sees.”30

The hairy Ammophila chooses for her prey the larva of the lepidopteran Agrotis segetum, a creature up to fifteen times her weight. Fabre’s description of the struggle between the tiny wasp and the large “gray worm” is one of his most famous. “Never,” he wrote, “did the intuitive science of instinct show me anything more exciting.”

He is walking with his friend close to home when they catch sight of the agitated Ammophila. The two men “at once lay down on the ground, close to where she was working,” so close, in fact, that—in a typically Doctor Dolittle detail—the wasp briefly settles on Fabre’s sleeve.31 They watch as she scours a narrow patch of ground, evidently on the track of her prey. Ill-advisedly, the larva surfaces. “The huntress was on the spot at once, gripping him by the skin of his neck and holding tight in spite of his contortions. Perched on the monster’s back, the Wasp bent her abdomen and deliberately, without hurrying, like a surgeon thoroughly acquainted with his patient’s anatomy, drove her lancet into the ventral surface of each of the victim’s segments, from the first to the last. Not a ring was left without receiving a stab; all, whether with legs or without, were dealt with in order, from front to back.”32

Note the key observation: the wasp delivers nine stings, each injected at a precise point in a different segment of the caterpillar’s body. And note also that the stings are delivered in sequence. Fabre’s subsequent dissection seems to prove the wasp’s foresight. These are surgical strikes, each taking out one of the caterpillar’s motor ganglia. But the best is to come.

The victim’s head is still unscathed, the mandibles are at work: they might easily, as the insect is borne along, grip some bit of straw in the ground and successfully resist this forcible removal; the brain, the primary nervous center, might provoke a stubborn contest, which would be very awkward with so heavy a burden. It is well that these hitches be avoided. The caterpillar, therefore, must be reduced to a state of torpor which will deprive him of the least inclination for self-defence. The Ammophila succeeds in this by munching his head. She takes good care not to use her needle: she is no clumsy bungler and knows quite well that to inflict a wound on the cervical ganglia would mean killing the caterpillar then and there, the very thing to be avoided. She merely squeezes the brain between her mandibles, calculating every pinch; and, each time, she stops to ascertain the effect produced, for there is a nice point to be achieved, a certain degree of torpor that must not be exceeded, lest death should intervene. In this way, the requisite lethargy is obtained, a somnolence in which all volition is lost. And now the caterpillar, incapable of resistance, incapable of wishing to resist, is seized by the nape of the neck and dragged to the nest. Comment would mar the eloquence of such facts as these.33

In a classic paper first published in 1972, the psychologist Richard Herrnstein (now remembered less fondly as co-author of The Bell Curve), located Fabre as a major figure in the “intuitional approach to instinct,” a position Herrnstein neatly summarized as “a set of denials held together by a sense of awe.”34

In this late-nineteenth–early-twentieth-century post-Darwinian moment of intense debate about the nature and origins of human and animal behavior, instinct was a central, much-contested philosophical and empirical concept. The intuitional position—with its idea of instinct as a special and undefined “capacity for adaptation”35 distinct from intelligence—was only one of several key poles. Herrnstein identified three and contrasted Fabre’s account with what he called the “reflexive view,” which brought together such diverse figures as Herbert Spencer, the behaviorists Jacques Loeb and (in his early work) John B. Watson, and the psychologist-philosopher William James, who was quite clear on the distinction between his own position and that of a Fabre: “The older writings on instinct are ineffectual wastes of words … [that] smothered everything in vague wonder at the clairvoyant and prophetic power of the animals—so superior to anything in man—and at the beneficence of God in endowing them with such a gift. But God’s beneficence endows them, first of all, with a nervous system; and, turning our attention to this, makes instinct immediately appear neither more nor less wonderful than all the other facts of life.”36 In this intuitional account, says James, instincts are little more than complex, differentiated reflexes (“compound reflex action” was Spencer’s famous phrase).

Herrnstein’s third position, which, like the reflexive view, assumed that instincts are subject to selective pressures in ways similar to morphological traits, was termed hormic (as in hormonal) psychology by William McDougall, its main proponent. According to McDougall, instincts are highly malleable and susceptible to environmental influence but organized around a stable core, which is driven by a striving toward a defined outcome (the building of a nest, the imprisoning of prey, and so on) and is the impulse behind almost all human and animal behavior. Instincts, wrote McDougall, are “the mental forces that maintain and shape all the life of individuals and societies.”37

With the rise of behaviorism in the 1920s, instinct fell out of favor as an explanation of animal behavior and reemerged only in the 1950s with the popularization of the ethologists, especially Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen, who, though Darwinians, enforced a sharp division between instinct and learning. There is a line here that reaches across the decades from Fabre to these more recent students of animal behavior and is held together by simple behavioral experiments in natural settings, by close observation, and by the familiar combination of science and wonder. It’s a line that somehow bypasses Fabre’s hostility to evolution and instead picks up his commitment to popular pedagogy—the impulse to accessibility that led Lorenz, Tinbergen, and their colleague Karl von Frisch to cultivate an eager reading public and capture the Nobel Prize that eluded their predecessor.

It is a line of flight. The wasps fly straight through here, veering off in unanticipated directions, touching down at decisive moments. They flee science to foment Fabrean wonder among the modern creationists, for example, and sometimes they appear in more intriguing places, as in the imagination of the influential philosopher Henri Bergson, a great admirer of Fabre’s (he attended the celebration at l’Harmas organized by Legros in 1910 that heralded the Provençal hermit’s belated journey to the limelight). Bergson listens to the description of the nine-times-stabbing Ammophila surgeon and develops his own idiosyncratic metaphysics of evolution, which draws on Georges Cuvier’s early-nineteenth-century notion that animals, like sleepwalkers, are equipped with a “somnambulist” consciousness (“a kind of consciousness which is intellectually unaware of its purpose”).38

Bergson offers an intuitional view of instinct as a “divinatory sympathy” and, like Fabre, opposes instinct to intelligence. But the opposition has a different basis. Where Fabre sees intelligence as the mark of human superiority, to Bergson it is a limited form of understanding, cold and external. Where Fabre sees instinct as mechanical and shallowly automatic, to Bergson it is a profound understanding, a kind of knowledge that takes us to “the very inwardness of life,” reaching back through the common evolutionary history of wasp and caterpillar, back before they diverged on the tree of life, back to a deep intuition of each other, so that the Ammophila simply knows how to paralyze the caterpillar without ever having learned and so that their dramas “might owe nothing to outward perception, but result from the mere presence together of the Ammophila and the caterpillar, considered no longer as two organisms, but as two activities.”39

Still, as Bertrand Russell noted as early as 1921, “love of the marvellous may mislead even so careful an observer as Fabre and so eminent a philosopher as Bergson.”40 Fabre got a lot wrong about the hairy Ammophila, and it is on plain empirics that his critique of natural selection has been most effectively dismissed. This is not, it seems, a zero-sum game after all. It is true that, in general, the wasp paralyzes its Lepidoptera larvae with multiple stings, one to each segment. But the operation is not so miraculously accurate, nor so consistent, nor does it always follow the same order. Nor does the caterpillar even survive every time. Sometimes the larvae feed off its putrefying body. Sometimes they are killed by its thrashing torso. Moreover, as both reflexive and hormic theorists suggested, the wasp adjusts its behavior in response to changing external stimuli, such as climate, the availability of food, and the condition and behavior of its prey. And it readily alters the sequence and (what, for want of a better term, we might call) the logic of its actions for reasons that may be self-evidently necessary or, on other occasions, quite opaque. Wasps have been observed stinging forty separate larvae and then choosing to drag the forty-first, unparalyzed, to their nest. They have been recorded paralyzing their prey but not following this action with any kind of nest building. They have been seen stinging at random, opportunistically, apparently just trying to get a good shot in. And it has been discovered that their sting is an injection as well as a stab and that it contains poison that produces instant paralysis and the longer-term effect of inhibiting metamorphosis and maintaining the larval body in a supple state, the effect on the victim less percussive than chemical.41

There’s something uncanny here. And it’s not only the wasp. Herrnstein was right to point to the mysticism at the heart of Fabre’s account. He understood that the “vague wonder” that readers take from Fabre is the most potent legacy of the intuitional position. Yet it has its paradoxes too. Fabre pleads with us to understand that these animals are acting blindly, automatically, without will or intention. And to get there, he revels in the animals’ behavior, believing that the more complex it is and the more rational it appears, the more devastating his unmasking of it as no more than blind instinct, the more crushing his denunciation of the transformists that follows. These wasps are “surgeons” who “calculate” and “ascertain.” Their victims “resist.” But the effect is unforeseen. Fabre is enthralled. And the wasps claim the stage. He is their host. They speak through him, live through him. His prose leaves us not with a sense of the insects’ insufficiencies but with a profound impression of their capacities. A profound impression of the wasps’ capacities, that is, and of Fabre’s too. Despite his insistence, it is not instinct that is miraculous but the animals themselves.


The celebrity Fabre enjoyed in his final years did not long survive his death. Though there was little possibility of his embrace by the scientific community, literary fashion ensured that his stature as a nature writer would also rapidly fall. Nowadays, he is largely forgotten both in France and in the English-speaking world. Not even the creationists claim him.

Only in Japan is Fabre now a household name. There, he is a stalwart of the elementary school curriculum and is often a child’s first introduction to a natural world that soon comes alive in summer insect-collecting assignments. He frequently returns in later life too, as parents introduce their children to the pleasures of natural history and recall the carefree days of their own youthful insect love. (“I write above all things for the young,” Fabre, a schoolteacher for a full twenty-six years, once told his critics in the scientific establishment; “I want to make them love the natural history which you make them hate.”)42

As we might expect, he is a fixture of Japan’s numerous insectaria. But he also pops up in less likely places: incarnated in the resourceful boy hero of a current manga (Insectival Crime Investigator Fabre) in the top-selling biweekly omnibus Superior; as an anime character (in the series Read or Die, he is cloned as an evil genius with the power to turn insects loose against civilization); as a free promotional plastic figurine (a souvenir entomologique)—along with models of the cicada, the scarab beetle, the hairy Ammophila, and other favorites—in any of the thousands of 7-Eleven convenience stores throughout the country; and in luxury advertising, as a marker of male cosmopolitanism, intellectual curiosity, and a certain spiritual yearning.43

But it is not just in schools, nature centers, and Japan’s vibrantly commodified popular culture that Fabre’s presence is felt. While his writings are available in English only in haphazard and elderly translation, a recent tally calculated that Japanese scholars produced forty-seven complete or partial editions of the Souvenirs alone between 1923 and 1994.44 Okumoto Daizaburo, literature professor, insect collector, and founder-director of Tokyo’s new Fabre Museum, points out that the early history of these translations is especially interesting.45 It was, after all, Osugi Sakae, the famous anarchist and author of the memorably subversive aphorism “Beauty is to be found in disarray,” who completed the first systematic translation of Fabre into Japanese and whose plan—cut short by his brutal murder in the police repression that followed the great Kanto earthquake of 1923—was to translate the entire Souvenirs. In 1918, around the time he first read Fabre, Osugi wrote: “I like a spirit. But I feel a repugnance when it is theorized. Under process of theorizing, it is often transformed into a harmony with social reality, a slavish compromise, and a falsehood.”46

Though a committed Darwinian (he had already translated the Origin of Species), Osugi felt he had found a kindred spirit in Fabre. Captivated by the energy of Fabre’s prose and by the pedagogical possibilities of popular science, Osugi was also drawn strongly to Fabre’s hostility to theorizing. The problem of theory, the charismatic writer-activist believed, lay less in its ability to explain than in its desire to order, less in its ambition to make sense of the world than in its appeal to the analytic over the experiential. The ordering impulse was a constraining impulse, one driven by the desire to dominate, to master, both intellectually and practically. The elevation of the rational, he asserted, impoverished the possibilities of apprehension. “To desire collapsing the universe into a single algorithm and to master all of reality with the precepts of reason” was, Fabre had written, a “grandiose enterprise,” not a grand one.47 It didn’t seem to matter to Osugi that this suspicion of global explanation arose from Fabre’s constant rediscovery of God’s hand in nature, a very different basis for wariness than his own.48

I don’t know whether Okumoto is correct in his argument that Fabre’s appeal for Osugi lay in their shared nonconformity, but I like where it leads us. As Okumoto tells it, the revolutionary labor leader took inspiration from the schoolteacher-naturalist’s rejection of authoritarian pedagogy, his insistence on teaching girls as well as boys, and above all, his attitude toward categorization. (“A fig for systems!” Fabre exclaims in the Souvenirs when discussing taxonomists’ refusal to classify spiders as insects.)49 Fabre’s celebration of the sensuality of inquiry, his rejection of authority, and his democratic accessibility fascinated Osugi—as it does Okumoto, who places Fabre alongside the celebrated naturalist and folklorist Kumagusu Minakata (1867–1941), another household name in today’s Japan and another figure honored for his nonconformity and independence: “These two idiosyncratic autodidacts never simplified their own thoughts into laws and formulas. Some people criticized their lack of strong, consistent theories, but they kept searching for the diversity of the world and kept seeing everything with a fresh eye. They are, indeed, what Rimbaud calls ‘voyants.’”50

“Insect lovers are anarchists,” writes Okumoto elsewhere; “they hate following other people’s orders and try to create something like ‘order’ by themselves—or else they don’t care about such a thing at all!”51Insect lovers, he says, see the world from the place of the insect, from inside the life of the animal, from within its micro world. They pry into life, not death.

There’s another insect lover who might help here. Imanishi Kinji, ecologist, mountaineer, anthropologist, founder of Japanese primatology, and best-selling theorist of nature study (shizengaku), began his career in the 1930s studying mayfly larvae in the Kamo River, in Kyoto. A theorist of evolution, Imanishi was no theoretical Fabrean. But he was no Darwinian either. Like Osugi’s hero, the great anarchist Peter Kropotkin, Imanishi saw cooperation as the motor of evolution, rejecting both inter- and intraspecific competition as the basis of natural selection. Imanishi stressed the connection and harmonious interaction among living things but insisted that the meaningful ecological units are societies, outside of which an individual cannot survive. Individuals come together not for reproduction but because they have needs in common, which they meet through collaboration. With its interest in cooperating groups rather than competing monads, his shizengaku is, he maintained, a Japanese view of evolution, distinct from a Darwinian system ideologically rooted in Western individualism.52 Like Fabre, Imanishi attracted considerable condescension from professional biologists in Europe and North America, who scented an anti-scientific anti-Darwinism at work. But Imanishi’s ideas have widespread popularity in Japan.53 Even though there is little overlap between the architecture of Imanishi’s thought and Fabre’s natural historical theology, there is an unambiguous affinity. “There are people in the world,” Imanishi wrote in 1941,

who have spent their whole lives dressed in white smocks, and have never once been out of the laboratory. There are probably even famous scholars who have never once seen animals and plants as they exist in nature. I will not stand for the lumping together of people who have views of nature like that, and people like me, who have shaped their views of nature by spending their lives in the midst of nature; this feeling, perhaps an undercurrent, is somewhere behind my work. Even if there are no natural sciences, nature will still exist. No matter how great the natural sciences make themselves look, they can know only a part of nature. Having subdivided nature and become a specialist in some field, one is a mere specialist of constituent nature (bubun shizen). In the schools they do not teach us that, in addition to constituent nature, there is also total nature (zentai shizen). It was the mountains and exploration which taught me of the existence of total nature.54

The “anti-science” rejection of mechanistic theory, the intuitive connection of observer and observed, the immersive affinity of person and world, this enfolding of a life and its work. Remember Fabre: the simplicity, the patience, the life eked out far from metropolitan glamour, the attempt to grasp the living whole, the disdain for authoritarianism, the ethical independence, the moral life, the scholarly life, the pedagogical life. These are lessons that appeal just as strongly to old and young, to radical and conservative.

And what’s more, for Imanishi as for Okumoto, Fabre’s pursuit of the godly in insects is recognizable in another way. It has a sensibility that is easily assimilated to a set of ideas often invoked by Japanese nature lovers (and foreign commentators on Japanese attitudes toward nature) seeking to explain what nationalists, Romantics, New Agers, and others frequently consider a unique Japanese affinity to nature and, in particular, to insects: that animist, Shintoist—and subsequently Japanese Buddhist—notion that divinity (kami) “take[s] abode in natural features that give people a feeling of awe or spirituality,” that “nature is divine,” that nature itself is divine.55 (Not, I should emphasize, as Fabre would have it, that nature is an expression of the Divine.)

And there’s something else. Osugi and Okumoto reveal the inadequacies of literal-meaning-centered reading. They remind us that to understand Fabre and his appeal, we have to listen for other languages in his work, not simply to what the linguistic philosopher J. L. Austin would call his “constative” meanings—his unconvincing theory of instinct, his poorly reasoned rebuttal of transformism—but to his poetics, the poetics of his storytelling and of the writing that unexpectedly pulls you through the hand lens and into the wasps’ nest, the poetics of his haunted life and of his consummate self-mythologizing, the poetics of grand affinity with the natural world, the poetics of his insects, of the impossible, uncertain intimacy between you, me, and those others that are simultaneously most commonplace and most alien.56


In one of his famous monthly essays in the magazine Natural History, the evolutionary biologist and historian of science Stephen Jay Gould noted that the parasitic wasps—both the endoparasites, which consume their living prey from the inside out, and those ectoparasites described by Fabre, who eat from the outside in—confronted Western theologians of the eighteenth and nineteenth century with their most terrifying problem, the problem of evil. If God is benevolent and the Creation an expression of his goodness and wisdom, “why,” they agonized, “are we surrounded with pain, suffering, and apparently senseless cruelty in the animal world?”57 It was easy to understand that predation was intrinsic to survival in nature, but why would a compassionate God allow the horrors inflicted by the wasp on its victims, the “slow death by parasitic ingestion,” a death made more nightmarish in that it was suffered by living, evidently conscious beings in a manner that, as Gould put it, recalled “the ancient English penalty for treason—drawing and quartering, with its explicit object of extracting as much torment as possible by keeping the victim alive and sentient.”

“As the king’s executioner drew out and burned his client’s entrails,” Gould wrote, “so does the [wasp] larvae eat fat bodies and digestive organs first, keeping the [victim] alive by preserving intact the essential heart and central nervous system.”58

It is hardly original to point out that nature has long been an irresistible mirror to the human condition, its laws seen as expressions of God’s laws, its every gesture embodying a moral lesson, its “societies” taken as atavistic versions of our own. Faced with the frightening inscrutability of the parasitic wasp, two roads were possible to these observers. One involved the painful acknowledgment of nature’s evil followed by the necessary next step of a determination to transcend animality and fulfill the promise of humanity through goodness. The second, more common nowadays than in earlier centuries and more aligned with the contingency of modern evolutionary theory, rested on the moral disenchantment of nature, on the claim that there are in fact no lessons to be found in the behavior of nonhuman beings or phenomena, that nature, in Gould’s word, is “nonmoral,” that, as he put it, “Caterpillars are not suffering to teach us something; they have simply been outmaneuvered” (and that, although currently improbable, they and their fellow victims may one day even turn the tables on the wasps).

But parasitic wasps don’t lend themselves to disenchantment. Somehow, in their presence, observation is filled with drama. “We cannot,” Gould pointed out, “render this corner of natural history as anything but story, combining the themes of grim horror and fascination and usually ending not so much with pity for the caterpillar as with admiration for the [wasp].”59

Poor parasitized Fabre! A fine host indeed. If he had only seen it this clearly perhaps he would not have told us quite so much about the Sphex, the Bembix, and the rest. He might have thought twice before dwelling so long on the details of their hunting strategies and, in particular, on the precision of their surgical skills. But the point, of course, is that he couldn’t help himself. From the moment he wept before the Ammophila, the die was cast. And that surrender was both his undoing and his triumph. When it came to it, he let the animals tell their tales. In this, at least, his instincts were exactly right.