Thursday, 17 March 2016

Oxburgh Hall, Fabre's Entomology, and Evolution

While visiting the Library of Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, I found a copy of Hugh Miller's Foot-prints of the Creator: or the Asterolepis of Stromness and wondered whether the Fox Talbot family had been enthusiastic readers of the book [1]. Last week, I was at Oxburgh Hall, the ancestral home of the Roman Catholic Bedingfield family, famous for its well-preserved Priest's Hole, into which the brave can still clamber. This hidden room was to protect Roman Catholic clerics after the Reformation, a time when they were hunted and persecuted. The house and park are wonderful places to visit [2] and I followed my usual habit of perusing the spines of the volumes in the Library: one of the books that stood out was a copy of Jean-Henri Fabre's Social Life in the Insect World.

Fabre, who lived from 1823 to 1915, was an enthusiastic entomologist and had the ability to engage readers with his descriptions of insects and their behaviour, often amplified by the results of experiments that he conducted. Here is an example from Social Life in the Insect World where he discusses his observations on the Oak Eggar Moth Lasiocampa quercus (see above). The text is translated from the French and this is what members of the Bedingfield family would have read [3]:

One afternoon, while trying to determine whether sight plays any part in the search for the female once the males had entered the room, I placed the female in a bell-glass and gave her a slender twig of oak with withered leaves as a support. The glass was set upon a table facing the open window. Upon entering the room the moths could not fail to see the prisoner, as she stood directly in the way. The tray, containing a layer of sand, on which the female had passed the preceding day and night, covered with a wire-gauze dish-cover, was in my way. Without premeditation I placed it at the other end of the room on the floor, in a corner where there was little light. It was a dozen yards away from the window.
   The result of these preparations entirely upset my preconceived ideas. None of the arrivals stopped at the bell-glass, where the female was plainly to be seen, the light falling full upon her prison. Not a glance, not an inquiry. They all flew to the further end of the room, into the dark corner where I had placed the tray and the empty dish-cover.
   They alighted on the wire dome, explored it persistently, beating their wings and jostling one another. All the afternoon, until sunset, the moths danced about the empty cage the same saraband that the actual presence of the female had previously evoked. Finally they departed: not all, for there were some that would not go, held by some magical attractive force.

I find this description of what we now know to be the action of pheromones to be delightful: who could not be fascinated by Fabre's account of his experiment? Charles Darwin certainly valued his work in insect biology and, in a letter to Fabre on 31st January 1880 [4], wrote:

I hope that you will permit me to have the satisfaction of thanking you cordially for the lively pleasure which I have derived from reading your book. Never have the wonderful habits of insects been more vividly described, and it is almost as good to read about them as to see them.

Further in the same letter comes this:

I am sorry that you are so strongly opposed to the Descent theory; I have found the searching for the history of each structure or instinct an excellent aid to observation; and wonderful observer as you are, it would suggest new points to you. If I were to write on the evolution of insects, I could make good use of some of the facts which you give.

Fabre's Creationism came from his deep religious beliefs, recorded by his biographer and namesake, Abbé Augustin Fabre [5]: these times of overweening atheism [the biography was published in 1921], when so many pseudo-scientists are striving to persuade the ignorant that science is learning to dispense with God, would it not be a most timely thing to reveal, to the eyes of all, a scientist of undoubted genius who finds in science fresh arguments for belief, and manifold occasions for affirming his faith in the God who has created and rules the world?

Incorporating quotes from Jean-Henri Fabre, he continues:

.."Life is a horrible phantasmagoria. But it leads us to a better future.".. ..This future the naturalist [Fabre] liked to conceive in accordance with the images familiar in his mind, as being a more complete understanding of the great book of which he had deciphered only a few words, as a more perfect communion with the offices of nature, in the incense of the perfumes "that are softly exhaled by the carven flowers from their golden censers," amid the delightful symphonies in which are mingled the voices of crickets and Cicadae, chaffinches and siskins, skylarks and goldfinches, "those tiny choristers," all singing and fluttering, "trilling their motets to the glory of Him who gave them voice and wings on the fifth day of Genesis."..

.."And when one evening," says his friend, "I remarked that these little miracles clearly proved the existence of a divine Artificer: 'For me, I do not believe in God', declared the scientist, repeating for the last time his famous and paradoxical profession of faith: 'I do not believe in God, because I see Him in all things and everywhere.'"

It is fitting then that Fabre's book is in the Library (shown below) at Oxburgh Hall, the home of the Roman Catholic Bedingfield family. Not only will family members have thoroughly enjoyed Fabre's descriptions of his observations and experiments in entomology, they would also empathise with the importance of his faith, although they may have questioned Fabre's dogmatism. It is easy to sympathise with Darwin's frustration at the conflict between reason and the unbending position of those believing that The Holy Bible must be taken literally. It is a conflict that continues today.

[3] Jean-Henri Fabre (1911) Social Life in the Insect World (translated by Bernard Miall). London, T. Fisher Unwin Ltd.

[5] Abbé Augustin Fabre (1921) The Life of Jean Henri Fabre, the Entomologist 1823-1910 (translated by Bernard Miall). New York, Dodd, Mead and Company.

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