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The “Homer of the Insects”: On the 200th birthday of Jean-Henri Fabre


It must have been around 1987 when my publisher at the time asked me when I visited him to discuss new projects: "Wouldn't you like to write about Henry David Thoreau for our biography series?" I had read Thoreau's "Walden, or the Life in the World". Forests” and “On the duty of disobedience to the state” and happily agreed.

Two weeks later I received a letter: “I'm terribly sorry, I forgot that I had already promised Thoreau to someone else. Do you want to write about Jean-Henri Fabre instead?”

I wrote back: “Who is Jean-Henri Fabre?”

So I set out to find out. I drove with my girlfriend to the south of France, to Serignan, a small community ten kilometers from Orange. There we drank the wonderful wine of the area and, because there was nothing else to be found, had to live in a former castle, where you could only get one of the six rooms on the condition that you could also enjoy the exquisite French cuisine there.

A desolate piece of land full of thistles and insects

In Serignan was the famous "Harmas": "A deserted, barren piece of land, scorched by the sun, favorable for the thistles and the skin-winged insects", where Fabre lived and researched from 1870 until his death in 1915, and where he made the greatest Part of his monumental work: “Souvenirs Entomologiques” wrote, the “Memoirs of an Entomologist”. I bought this work in a paperback edition in the museum, which is set up in the former home. I couldn't have afforded the hardcover. This book was the most important source for Fabre's biography, because this astute scientist did not write scholarly treatises, but rather reported on his adventures with insects in the form of stories that also described the landscapes in which he carried out his experiments and the often difficult living conditions , which hindered his research work for a long time.

However, I only acquired my knowledge of French during a few vacations. With the help of a dictionary, I laboriously worked my way through these ten volumes and the French biographies that had been written by contemporaries. I was then able to read the last five volumes fluently.

How poor people are socialized to live in poverty

Jean-Henri Fabre was born in 1823 to poor farmers in the barren Rouerge countryside, three days before Christmas. His thirst for knowledge awoke early, but when, as a four-year-old, he brought back his discoveries from tending ducks at the pond - beetles, snail shells, fossils - he aroused his mother's anger by tearing his pockets with such useless stuff. If only he would at least collect herbs to feed the rabbits! The adult Jean-Henri understood his mother's attitude: experience taught poor people that it could only do harm to try to concern themselves with higher things instead of concentrating all their strength on survival. Nevertheless, one should not accept this.

After primary school he was able to attend college for free and in return serve as a choir boy in its chapel. In a competition he won a scholarship to the teacher training college. He soon got a job at a primary school where the pay was just enough “for chickpeas and a little wine.” The young teacher wondered what could be most useful to his students, most of whom came from the countryside, and he taught them the chemistry of agriculture. He acquired the necessary knowledge before the lessons. He took his students outdoors to teach geometry, namely land surveying. He learned from his students how to get the mortar bee's honey and searched and snacked with them. The geometry came later.

A cataclysmic discovery leads to friendship with Darwin

He lived from one day to the next with his young wife; the city was often behind on salaries. Her first son died soon after birth. The young teacher stubbornly took external exam after exam to acquire his academic degree. For his doctoral thesis, he studied the book by the then patriarch of entomology Léon Dufour about the lifestyle of Cerceris, the knot wasp. In their underground nest, Dufour had found small beetles from the genus Buprestis, jewel beetles. The wasp catches them as food for their offspring. She lays her eggs on it and the hatched maggots consume the beetle. But why did the flesh of the dead beetles stay fresh until the maggots consumed it?

Dufour suspected that the wasp was giving them a preservative through its sting. Fabre discovered that the beetles weren't actually dead. The solution to the puzzle was: The wasp delivered its poison precisely into the nerve center that moved the legs and wings. The beetles were just paralyzed, the maggots were eating the living flesh. Choosing the right beetles, stinging the right place, was something the wasp was born with. Fabre sent a memorandum to the university, which was published a year later, in 1855. It earned him a prize from the Institut Français and a mention in Darwin's Origin of Species. Darwin called him the “master observer” and the two remained in correspondence until Darwin's death. Darwin also asked Fabre to carry out certain experiments for him.

Gaps in the theory of evolution

Fabre valued Darwin very much, but the theory of evolution did not convince him. He was deeply religious, but he argued not with the Bible but purely scientifically against Darwin's theory, whose gaps he pointed out, especially Darwin's assumption that acquired characteristics could be inherited.

But if you read Fabre's work, his descriptions of the diversity of insect species, you get a vivid idea of ​​the relationships and transitions between the species. Don't the different species of knot wasps preying on different species of weevils suggest that a common ancestor of wasps must have once hunted the common ancestor of beetles? Don't the species of bees that the patient observer has described show all the transitional stages between complete solitary behavior and the complicated political system of the honey bee?

“You explore death, I explore life”

Fabre's research was not about dissecting and cataloging his subjects, but rather observing their way of life and their behavior in their natural environment. He could lie on the hard earth for hours in the scorching summer heat and watch a wasp building a nest. This was a completely new scientific approach: “You study death, I study life,” he wrote.

However, he subjected his insects to cunningly devised experiments: the gyroscope wasp digs an underground passage with its legs. At the end of it she creates the breeding cave for the larvae, which she has to constantly supply with flies and hoverflies. If she flies to hunt, she closes the entrance with a stone. If she returns with the prey, she will easily find the entrance again. Fabre used a knife to uncover the passage and the breeding chamber. The wasp tried to find the entrance, it dug where the entrance had to be, not realizing that the passage was open in front of it. During her search, she ran into the breeding chamber, but she didn't recognize the larva that she was supposed to feed and so she trampled on it. Until she uncovered the entrance, she didn't know what to do next and couldn't feed the larva.

Darwin had granted the insects a tiny shred of reason. But Fabre recognized: “This behavior is merely a chain of instinctive actions, one of which causes the other, in a sequence that even the most serious circumstances cannot overturn.” While rose beetles are specialized, he presented the grubs of other species. These grubs soon died, and the larvae with them. The larvae had a very specific concept of how to eat the grub: first the fat, then the muscle tissue, and only at the end the nerve cords and ganglia. With another grub their feeding pattern didn't work and they killed it prematurely.

"Just like the details of the organism, perhaps even better than these, that drive to build according to certain definite rules characterizes the bodies of the insects that we group together under the name of 'species'."

People's educator

In 1867, Napoleon III's Minister of Education took. a program of popular education and girls' education is being launched. Fabre began giving evening classes in Avignon. Girls' education was a thorn in the side of the Catholic Church. And when Fabre told the girls something about fertilization in his course - namely the fertilization of flowers - it was too much for the pious moral guardians. He lost his job and his apartment.

But in the meantime Fabre had already written a few textbooks, and now he set about it seriously and was soon successful. He wrote books for the official curriculum, but also for interdisciplinary subjects such as: “Heaven”, “The Earth”, “The Chemistry of Uncle Paul”, “History of a Log of Wood”. He aimed for wholeness, not dissection. Using the top that children often made, he illustrated the rotation of the earth around itself and around the sun. They were the first non-fiction books for children and young people. With the income from these books he was able to forego employment and devote himself entirely to his research.

The “Souvenirs Entomologiques”

He also wrote his scientific papers in such a way that any bright fourteen-year-old should understand them. The first volume of Souvenirs was published in 1879, when he was 56 years old. In 1907, at the age of 84, he published the tenth. This should have been followed by an eleventh, but his strength was no longer sufficient. In 1910 he decided to produce a final edition, which appeared in 1913, illustrated with many photographs taken by his son Paul as his collaborator.

The work earned him the admiration not only of scientists, but also of poets such as Maurice Maeterlinck, Edmond Rostand and Romain Rolland. Victor Hugo called him the “Homer of insects.” It's not just the tragic love stories and the heroic struggles that this book contains that justify the comparison. The fullness of life is in the work, its wild beauty. Of course, it is above all the heroic song of the mothers that the Provencals sang, not that of the warriors against their own kind, as the Greeks had written it.

The work was rejected by some representatives of the academic world: it was not written “scientifically” and the literary design was not appropriate for a scientific work.

Late honors

In 1911, a campaign began to nominate him for the Nobel Prize, but the Institut Française already had another candidate. The poet Mistral, himself a Nobel Prize winner, exercised his right of nomination the following year. Without success. The textbooks stopped selling and Fabre had to resume the fight for his daily bread. Mistral published an article in “Matin” under the headline: “The genius who dies of hunger.” The result was a flood of donations. With the help of his friends, he, beset by age and grief for his late second wife, sent back every single donation and had the anonymous contributions given to the poor of Serignan.

He slowly faded away. He could no longer enter his study on the first floor or the garden. But until the last day, he demanded that the windows of his room be open so that he could feel the sun. To the last day he talked about insects and explained their names and their origins to the nurse who cared for him. Jean-Henri Fabre died on October 11, 1915.

Fabre's work was translated into many languages, but for a long time only excerpts and fragments were available in German. Feature films were made about him in France and the Soviet Union, and in Japan he was revered precisely because of his combination of science and art. This went so far that a Japanese company was able to sell 10.000 copies of his small work table, which he mentioned several times in his writings. My book, which was published in 1995, was also translated into Japanese and Korean.

As a result of the long Franco-German hostility - Fabre experienced both the Franco-German War of 1870 and the beginning of the First World War - interest in Fabre was not very great in the German-speaking world. Only a few excerpts were published. It was only in 2010 that the Mattes und Seitz publishing house dared to produce the highly deserving complete edition of the “Memoirs of an Entomologist” in German, which was completed in 2015 with the tenth volume. 

The Beltz-Verlag edition of my book “I but explore life” has long been sold out. However, a new edition is available as a print on demand from a major online bookseller. The book ends with this quote: 

“In my daydreams, I often wished I could think for just a few minutes with my dog's primitive brain, to look at the world through the compound eyes of a mosquito. How different things would look then!”

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Written by Martin Auer

Born in Vienna in 1951, formerly a musician and actor, freelance writer since 1986. Various prizes and awards, including being awarded the title of professor in 2005. Studied cultural and social anthropology.

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