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A DIG AT THE EVOLUTIONISTS




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Next: RATIONING ACCORDING TO SEX

Previous: CHANGE OF DIET



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