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.





Fertile Workers Honey Pasturage Overstocking facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Feedback