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HEREDITY




Facts which I have set forth elsewhere prove that certain dung
beetles' make an exception to the rule of paternal indifference--a
general rule in the insect world--and know something of domestic
cooperation. The father works with almost the same zeal as the
mother in providing for the settlement of the family. Whence do
these favored ones derive a gift that borders on morality?

One might suggest the cost of installing the youngsters. Once they
have to be furnished with a lodging and to be left the wherewithal
to live, is it not an advantage, in the interests of the race, that
the father should come to the mother's assistance? Work divided
between the two will ensure the comfort which solitary work, its
strength overtaxed, would deny. This seems excellent reasoning;
but it is much more often contradicted than confirmed by the facts.
Why is the Sisyphus a hard working paterfamilias and the sacred
beetle an idle vagabond? And yet the two pill rollers practice the
same industry and the same method of rearing their young. Why does
the Lunary Copris know what his near kinsman, the Spanish Copris,
does not? The first assists his mate, never forsakes her. The
second seeks a divorce at an early stage and leaves the nuptial
roof before the children's rations are massed and kneaded into
shape. Nevertheless, on both sides, there is the same big outlay
on a cellarful of egg-shaped pills, whose neat rows call for long
and watchful supervision. The similarity of the produce leads one
to believe in similarity of manners; and this is a mistake.

Let us turn elsewhere, to the wasps and bees, who unquestionably
come first in the laying up of a heritage for their offspring.
Whether the treasure hoarded for the benefit of the sons be a pot
of honey or a bag of game, the father never takes the smallest part
in the work. He does not so much as give a sweep of the broom when
it comes to tidying the outside of the dwelling. To do nothing is
his invariable rule. The bringing up of the family, therefore,
however expensive it may be in certain cases, has not given rise to
the instinct of paternity. Then where are we to look for a reply?

Let us make the question a wider one. Let us leave the animal, for
a moment, and occupy ourselves with man. We have our own
instincts, some of which take the name of genius when they attain a
degree of might that towers over the plain of mediocrity. We are
amazed by the unusual, springing out of flat commonplaces; we are
spellbound by the luminous speck shining in the wonted darkness.
We admire; and, failing to understand whence came those glorious
harvests in this one or in that, we say of them: "They have the
gift."

A goatherd amuses himself by making combinations with heaps of
little pebbles. He becomes an astoundingly quick and accurate
reckoner without other aid than a moment's reflection. He
terrifies us with the conflict of enormous numbers which blend in
an orderly fashion in his mind, but whose mere statement overwhelms
us by its inextricable confusion. This marvelous arithmetical
juggler has an instinct, a genius, a gift for figures.

A second, at the age when most of us delight in tops and marbles,
leaves the company of his boisterous playmates and listens to the
echo of celestial harps singing within him. His head is a
cathedral filled with the strains of an imaginary organ. Rich
cadences, a secret concert heard by him and him alone, steep him in
ecstasy. All hail to that predestined one who, some day, will
rouse our noblest emotions with his musical chords. He has an
instinct, a genius, a gift for sounds.

A third, a brat who cannot yet eat his bread and jam without
smearing his face all over, takes a delight in fashioning clay into
little figures that are astonishingly lifelike for all their
artless awkwardness. He takes a knife and makes the briar root
grin into all sorts of entertaining masks; he carves boxwood in the
semblance of a horse or sheep; he engraves the effigy of his dog on
sandstone. Leave him alone; and, if Heaven second his efforts, he
may become a famous sculptor. He has an instinct, a gift, a genius
for form.

And so with others in every branch of human activity: art and
science, industry and commerce, literature and philosophy. We have
within us, from the start, that which will distinguish us from the
vulgar herd. Now to what do we owe this distinctive character? To
some throwback of atavism, men tell us. Heredity, direct in one
case, remote in another, hands it down to us, increased or modified
by time. Search the records of the family and you will discover
the source of the genius, a mere trickle at first, then a stream,
then a mighty river.

The darkness that lies behind that word heredity! Metaphysical
science has tried to throw a little light upon it and has succeeded
only in making unto itself a barbarous jargon, leaving obscurity
more obscure than before. As for us, who hunger after lucidity,
let us relinquish abstruse theories to whoever delights in them and
confine our ambition to observable facts, without pretending to
explain the quackery of the plasma. Our method certainly will not
reveal to us the origin of instinct; but it will at least show us
where it would be waste of time to look for it.

In this sort of research, a subject known through and through, down
to its most intimate peculiarities, is indispensable. Where shall
we find that subject? There would be a host of them and
magnificent ones, if it were possible to read the sealed pages of
others' lives; but no one can sound an existence outside his own
and even then he can think himself lucky if a retentive memory and
the habit of reflection give his soundings the proper accuracy. As
none of us is able to project himself into another's skin, we must
needs, in considering this problem, remain inside our own.

To talk about one's self is hateful, I know. The reader must have
the kindness to excuse me for the sake of the study in hand. I
shall take the silent beetle's place in the witness box, cross-
examining myself in all simplicity of soul, as I do the animal, and
asking myself whence that one of my instincts which stands out
above the others is derived.


Since Darwin bestowed upon me the title of 'incomparable observer,'
the epithet has often come back to me, from this side and from
that, without my yet understanding what particular merit I have
shown. It seems to me so natural, so much within everybody's
scope, so absorbing to interest one's self in everything that
swarms around us! However, let us pass on and admit that the
compliment is not unfounded.

My hesitation ceases if it is a question of admitting my curiosity
in matters that concern the insect. Yes, I possess the gift, the
instinct that impels me to frequent that singular world; yes, I
know that I am capable of spending on those studies an amount of
precious time which would be better employed in making provision,
if possible, for the poverty of old age; yes, I confess that I am
an enthusiastic observer of the animal. How was this
characteristic propensity, at once the torment and delight of my
life, developed? And, to begin with, how much does it owe to
heredity?

The common people have no history: persecuted by the present, they
cannot think of preserving the memory of the past. And yet what
surpassingly instructive records, comforting too and pious, would
be the family papers that should tell us who our forebears were and
speak to us of their patient struggles with harsh fate, their
stubborn efforts to build up, atom by atom, what we are today. No
story would come up with that for individual interest. But by the
very force of things the home is abandoned; and, when the brood has
flown, the nest is no longer recognized.

I, a humble journeyman in the toilers' hive, am therefore very poor
in family recollections. In the second degree of ancestry, my
facts become suddenly obscured. I will linger over them a moment
for two reasons: first, to inquire into the influence of heredity;
and, secondly, to leave my children yet one more page concerning
them.

I did not know my maternal grandfather. This venerable ancestor
was, I have been told, a process server in one of the poorest
parishes of the Rouergue. He used to engross on stamped paper in a
primitive spelling. With his well-filled pen case and ink horn, he
went drawing out deeds up hill and down dale, from one insolvent
wretch to another more insolvent still. Amid his atmosphere of
pettifoggery, this rudimentary scholar, waging battle on life's
acerbities, certainly paid no attention to the insect; at most, if
he met it, he would crush it under foot. The unknown animal,
suspected of evil doing, deserved no further enquiry. Grandmother,
on her side, apart from her housekeeping and her beads, knew still
less about anything. She looked on the alphabet as a set of
hieroglyphics only fit to spoil your sight for nothing, unless you
were scribbling on paper bearing the government stamp. Who in the
world, in her day, among the small folk, dreamt of knowing how to
read and write? That luxury was reserved for the attorney, who
himself made but a sparing use of it. The insect, I need hardly
say, was the least of her cares. If sometimes, when rinsing her
salad at the tap, she found a caterpillar on the lettuce leaves,
with a start of fright she would fling the loathsome thing away,
thus cutting short relations reputed dangerous. In short, to both
my maternal grandparents, the insect was a creature of no interest
whatever and almost always a repulsive object, which one dared not
touch with the tip of one's finger. Beyond a doubt, my taste for
animals was not derived from them.

I have more precise information regarding my grandparents on the
father's side, for their green old age allowed me to know them
both. They were people of the soil, whose quarrel with the
alphabet was so great that they had never opened a book in their
lives; and they kept a lean farm on the cold granite ridge of the
Rouergue tableland. The house, standing alone among the heath and
broom, with no neighbor for many a mile around and visited at
intervals by the wolves, was to them the hub of the universe. But
for a few surrounding villages, whither the calves were driven on
fair days, the rest was only very vaguely known by hearsay. In
this wild solitude, the mossy fens, with their quagmires oozing
with iridescent pools, supplied the cows, the principal source of
wealth, with rich, wet grass. In summer, on the short swards of
the slopes, the sheep were penned day and night, protected from
beasts of prey by a fence of hurdles propped up with pitchforks.
When the grass was cropped close at one spot, the fold was shifted
elsewhere. In the center was the shepherd's rolling hut, a straw
cabin. Two watchdogs, equipped with spiked collars, were
answerable for tranquillity if the thieving wolf appeared in the
night from out the neighboring woods.

Padded with a perpetual layer of cow dung, in which I sank to my
knees, broken up with shimmering puddles of dark brown liquid
manure, the farmyard also boasted a numerous population. Here the
lambs skipped, the geese trumpeted, the fowls scratched the ground
and the sow grunted with her swarm of little pigs hanging to her
dugs.

The harshness of the climate did not give husbandry the same
chances. In a propitious season, they would set fire to a stretch
of moorland bristling with gorse and send the swing plow across the
ground enriched with the cinders of the blaze. This yielded a few
acres of rye, oats and potatoes. The best corners were kept for
hemp, which furnished the distaffs and spindles of the house with
the material for linen and was looked upon as grandmother's private
crop.

Grandfather, therefore, was, before all, a herdsman versed in
matters of cows and sheep, but completely ignorant of aught else.
How dumbfounded he would have been to learn that, in the remote
future, one of his family would become enamoured of those
insignificant animals to which he had never vouchsafed a glance in
his life! Had he guessed that that lunatic was myself, the
scapegrace seated at the table by his side, what a smack I should
have caught in the neck, what a wrathful look!

"The idea of wasting one's time with that nonsense!" he would have
thundered.

For the patriarch was not given to joking. I can still see his
serious face, his unclipped head of hair, often brought back behind
his ears with a flick of the thumb and spreading its ancient Gallic
mane over his shoulders. I see his little three-cornered hat, his
small clothes buckled at the knees, his wooden shoes, stuffed with
straw, that echoed as he walked. Ah, no! Once childhood's games
were past, it would never have done to rear the Grasshopper and
unearth the Dung beetle from his natural surroundings.

Grandmother, pious soul, used to wear the eccentric headdress of
the Rouergue highlanders: a large disk of black felt, stiff as a
plank, adorned in the middle with a crown a finger's breadth high
and hardly wider across than a six franc piece. A black ribbon
fastened under the chin maintained the equilibrium of this elegant,
but unsteady circle. Pickles, hemp, chickens, curds and whey,
butter; washing the clothes, minding the children, seeing to the
meals of the household: say that and you have summed up the
strenuous woman's round of ideas. On her left side, the distaff,
with its load of flax; in her right hand, the spindle turning under
a quick twist of her thumb, moistened at intervals with her tongue:
so she went through life, unwearied, attending to the order and the
welfare of the house. I see her in my mind's eye particularly on
winter evenings, which were more favorable to family talk. When
the hour came for meals, all of us, big and little, would take our
seats round a long table, on a couple of benches, deal planks
supported by four rickety legs. Each found his wooden bowl and his
tin spoon in front of him. At one end of the table always stood an
enormous rye loaf, the size of a cartwheel, wrapped in a linen
cloth with a pleasant smell of washing, and remained until nothing
was left of it. With a vigorous stroke, grandfather would cut off
enough for the needs of the moment; then he would divide the piece
among us with the one knife which he alone was entitled to wield.
It was now each one's business to break up his bit with his fingers
and to fill his bowl as he pleased.

Next came grandmother's turn. A capacious pot bubbled lustily and
sang upon the flames in the hearth, exhaling an appetizing savor of
bacon and turnips. Armed with a long metal ladle, grandmother
would take from it, for each of us in turn, first the broth,
wherein to soak the bread, and next the ration of turnips and
bacon, partly fat and partly lean, filling the bowl to the top. At
the other end of the table was the pitcher, from which the thirsty
were free to drink at will. What appetites we had and what festive
meals those were, especially when a cream cheese, homemade, was
there to complete the banquet!

Near us blazed the huge fireplace, in which whole tree trunks were
consumed in the extreme cold weather. From a corner of that
monumental, soot-glazed chimney, projected, at a convenient height,
a bracket with a slate shelf, which served to light the kitchen
when we sat up late. On this we burnt chips of pine wood, selected
among the most translucent, those containing the most resin. They
shed over the room a lurid red light, which saved the walnut oil in
the lamp.

When the bowls were emptied and the last crumb of cheese scraped
up, grandam went back to her distaff, on a stool by the chimney
corner. We children, boys and girls, squatting on our heels and
putting out our hands to the cheerful fire of furze, formed a
circle round her and listened to her with eager ears. She told us
stories, not greatly varied, it is true, but still wonderful, for
the wolf often played a part in them. I should have very much
liked to see this wolf, the hero of so many tales that made our
flesh creep; but the shepherd always refused to take me into his
straw hut, in the middle of the fold, at night. When we had done
talking about the horrid wolf, the dragon and the serpent and when
the resinous splinters had given out their last gleams, we went to
sleep the sweet sleep that toil gives. As the youngest of the
household, I had a right to the mattress, a sack stuffed with oat
chaff. The others had to be content with straw.

I owe a great deal to you, dear grandmother: it was in your lap
that I found consolation for my first sorrows. You have handed
down to me, perhaps, a little of your physical vigor, a little of
your love of work; but certainly you were no more accountable than
grandfather for my passion for insects.

Nor was either of my own parents. My mother, who was quite
illiterate, having known no teacher than the bitter experience of a
harassed life, was the exact opposite of what my tastes required
for their development. My peculiarity must seek its origin
elsewhere: that I will swear. But I do not find it in my father,
either. The excellent man, who was hard working and sturdily built
like granddad, had been to school as a child. He knew how to
write, though he took the greatest liberties with spelling; he knew
how to read and understood what he read, provided the reading
presented no more serious literary difficulties than occurred in
the stories in the almanac. He was the first of his line to allow
himself to be tempted by the town and he lived to regret it. Badly
off, having but little outlet for his industry, making God knows
what shifts to pick up a livelihood, he went through all the
disappointments of the countryman turned townsman. Persecuted by
bad luck, borne down by the burden, for all his energy and good
will, he was far indeed from starting me in entomology. He had
other cares, cares more direct and more serious. A good cuff or
two when he saw me pinning an insect to a cork was all the
encouragement that I received from him. Perhaps he was right.

The conclusion is positive: there is nothing in heredity to explain
my taste for observation. You may say that I do not go far enough
back. Well, what should I find beyond the grandparents where my
facts come to a stop? I know, partly. I should find even more
uncultured ancestors: sons of the soil, plowmen, sowers of rye,
neat herds; one and all, by the very force of things, of not the
least account in the nice matters of observation.

And yet, in me, the observer, the inquirer into things began to
take shape almost in infancy. Why should I not describe my first
discoveries? They are ingenuous in the extreme, but will serve
notwithstanding to tell us something of the way in which tendencies
first show themselves. I was five or six years old. That the poor
household might have one mouth less to feed, I had been placed in
grandmother's care, as I have just been saying. Here, in solitude,
my first gleams of intelligence were awakened amidst the geese, the
calves and the sheep. Everything before that is impenetrable
darkness. My real birth is at that moment when the dawn of
personality rises, dispersing the mists of unconsciousness and
leaving a lasting memory. I can see myself plainly, clad in a
soiled frieze frock flapping against my bare heels; I remember the
handkerchief hanging from my waist by a bit of string, a
handkerchief often lost and replaced by the back of my sleeve.

There I stand one day, a pensive urchin, with my hands behind my
back and my face turned to the sun. The dazzling splendor
fascinates me. I am the Moth attracted by the light of the lamp.
With what am I enjoying the glorious radiance: with my mouth or my
eyes? That is the question put by my budding scientific curiosity.
Reader, do not smile: the future observer is already practicing and
experimenting. I open my mouth wide and close my eyes: the glory
disappears. I open my eyes and shut my mouth: the glory reappears.
I repeat the performance, with the same result. The question's
solved: I have learnt by deduction that I see the sun with my eyes.
Oh, what a discovery! That evening, I told the whole house all
about it. Grandmother smiled fondly at my simplicity: the others
laughed at it. 'Tis the way of the world.

Another find. At nightfall, amidst the neighboring bushes, a sort
of jingle attracted my attention, sounding very faintly and softly
through the evening silence. Who is making that noise? Is it a
little bird chirping in his nest? We must look into the matter and
that quickly. True, there is the wolf, who comes out of the woods
at this time, so they tell me. Let's go all the same, but not too
far: just there, behind that clump of groom. I stand on the look
out for long, but all in vain. At the faintest sound of movement
in the brushwood, the jingle ceases. I try again next day and the
day after. This time, my stubborn watch succeeds. Whoosh! A grab
of my hand and I hold the singer. It is not a bird; it is a kind
of Grasshopper whose hind legs my playfellows have taught me to
like: a poor recompense for my prolonged ambush. The best part of
the business is not the two haunches with the shrimpy flavor, but
what I have just learnt. I now know, from personal observation,
that the Grasshopper sings. I did not publish my discovery, for
fear of the same laughter that greeted my story about the sun.

Oh, what pretty flowers, in a field close to the house! They seem
to smile to me with their great violet eyes. Later on, I see, in
their place, bunches of big red cherries. I taste them. They are
not nice and they have no stones. What can those cherries be? At
the end of the summer, grandfather comes with a spade and turns my
field of observation topsy-turvy. From under ground there comes,
by the basketful and sackful, a sort of round root. I know that
root; it abounds in the house; time after time I have cooked it in
the peat stove. It is the potato. Its violet flower and its red
fruit are pigeonholed for good and all in my memory.

With an ever watchful eye for animals and plants, the future
observer, the little six-year-old monkey, practiced by himself, all
unawares. He went to the flower, he went to the insect, even as
the large white butterfly goes to the cabbage and the red admiral
to the thistle. He looked and inquired, drawn by a curiosity
whereof heredity did not know the secret. He bore within him the
germ of a faculty unknown to his family; he kept alive a glimmer
that was foreign to the ancestral hearth. What will become of that
infinitesimal spark of childish fancy? It will die out, beyond a
doubt, unless education intervene, giving it the fuel of example,
fanning it with the breath of experience. In that case, schooling
will explain what heredity leaves unexplained. This is what we
will examine in the next chapter.





Next: MY SCHOOLING

Previous: LARVAL DIMORPHISM



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