THE PROBLEM OF THE SCOLIAE





Now that all the facts have been set forth, it is time to collate them. We

already know that the Beetle-hunters, the Cerceres (Cf. "The Hunting

Wasps": chapters 1 to 3.--Translator's Note.), prey exclusively on the

Weevils and the Buprestes, that is, on the families whose nervous system

presents a degree of concentration which may be compared with that of the

Scolia's victims. Those predatory insects, working in the open air, are

exempt from the difficulties which their emulators, working underground,

have to overcome. Their movements are free and are directed by the sense of

sight; but their surgery is confronted in another respect with a most

arduous problem.



The victim, a Beetle, is covered at all points with a suit of armour which

the sting is unable to penetrate. The joints alone will allow the poisoned

lancet to pass. Those of the legs do not in any way comply with the

conditions imposed: the result of stinging them would be merely a partial

disorder which far from subduing the insect, would render it more dangerous

by irritating it yet further. A sting in the joint of the neck is not

admissible: it would injure the cervical ganglia and lead to death,

followed by putrefaction. There remains only the joint between the corselet

and the abdomen.



The sting, in entering here, has to abolish all movement with a single

stab, for any movement would imperil the rearing of the larva. The success

of the paralysis, therefore, demands that the motor ganglia, at least the

three thoracic ganglia, shall be packed in close contact opposite this

point. This determines the selection of Weevils and Buprestes, both of

which are so strongly armoured.



But where the prey has only a soft skin, incapable of stopping the sting,

the concentrated nervous system is no longer necessary, for the operator,

versed in the anatomical secrets of her victim, knows to perfection where

the centres of innervation lie; and she wounds them one after another, if

need be from the first to the last. Thus do the Ammophilae go to work when

dealing with their caterpillars and the Sphex-wasps when dealing with their

Locusts, Ephippigers and Crickets.



With the Scoliae we come once again to a soft prey, with a skin penetrable

by the sting no matter where it be attacked. Will the tactics of the

caterpillar-hunters, who stab and stab again, be repeated here? No, for the

difficulty of movement under ground prohibits so complicated an operation.

Only the tactics of the paralysers of armour-clad insects are practicable

now, for, since there is but one thrust of the dagger, the feat of surgery

is reduced to its simplest terms, a necessary consequence of the

difficulties of an underground operation. The Scoliae, then, whose destiny

it is to hunt and paralyse under the soil the victuals for their family,

require a prey made highly vulnerable by the close assemblage of the nerve-

centres, as are the Weevils and Buprestes of the Cerceres; and this is why

it has fallen to their lot to share among them the larvae of the

Scarabaeidae.



Before they obtained their allotted portion, so closely restricted and so

judiciously selected; before they discovered the precise and almost

mathematical point at which the sting must enter to produce a sudden and a

lasting immobility; before they learnt how to consume, without incurring

the risk of putrefaction, so corpulent a prey: in brief, before they

combined these three conditions of success, what did the Scoliae do?



The Darwinian school will reply that they were hesitating, essaying,

experimenting. A long series of blind gropings eventually hit upon the most

favourable combination, a combination henceforth to be perpetuated by

hereditary transmission. The skilful co-ordination between the end and the

means was originally the result of an accident.



Chance! A convenient refuge! I shrug my shoulders when I hear it invoked to

explain the genesis of an instinct so complex as that of the Scoliae. In

the beginning, you say, the creature gropes and feels its way; there is

nothing settled about its preferences. To feed its carnivorous larvae it

levies tribute on every species of game which is not too much for the

huntress' power or the nurseling's appetite; its descendants try now this,

now that, now something else, at random, until the accumulated centuries

lead to the selection which best suits the race. Then habit grows fixed and

becomes instinct.



Very well. Let us agree that the Scolia of antiquity sought a different

prey from that adopted by the modern huntress. If the family throve upon a

diet now discontinued, we fail to see that the descendants had any reason

to change it: animals have not the gastronomic fancies of an epicure whom

satiety makes difficult to please. Because the race did well upon this

fare, it became habitual; and instinct became differently fixed from what

it is to-day. If, on the other hand, the original food was unsuitable, the

existence of the family was jeopardized; and any attempt at future

improvement became impossible, because an unhappily inspired mother would

leave no heirs.



To escape falling into this twofold trap, the theorists will reply that the

Scoliae are descended from a precursor, an indeterminate creature, of

changeable habits and changing form, modifying itself in accordance with

its environment and with the regional and climatic conditions and branching

out into races each of which has become a species with the attributes which

distinguish it to-day. The precursor is the deus ex machina of evolution.

When the difficulty becomes altogether too importunate, quick, a precursor,

to fill up the gaps, quick, an imaginary creature, the nebulous plaything

of the mind! This is seeking to lighten the darkness with a still deeper

obscurity; to illumine the day by piling cloud upon cloud. Precursors are

easier to find than sound arguments. Nevertheless, let us put the precursor

of the Scoliae to the test.



What did she do? Being capable of everything, she did a bit of everything.

Among its descendants were innovators who developed a taste for tunnelling

in sand and vegetable mould. There they encountered the larvae of the

Cetonia, the Oryctes, the Anoxia, succulent morsels on which to rear their

families. By degrees the indeterminate Wasp adopted the sturdy proportions

demanded by underground labour. By degrees she learnt to stab her plump

neighbours in scientific fashion; by degrees she acquired the difficult art

of consuming her prey without killing it; at length, by degrees, aided by

the richness of her diet, she became the powerful Scolia with whom we are

familiar. Having reached this point, the species assumes a permanent form,

as does its instinct.



Here we have a multiplicity of stages, all of the slowest, all of the most

incredible nature, whereas the Wasp cannot found a race except on the

express condition of complete success from the first attempt. We will not

insist further upon the insurmountable objection; we will admit that, amid

so many unfavourable chances, a few favoured individuals survive, becoming

more and more numerous from one generation to the next, in proportion as

the dangerous art of rearing the young is perfected. Slight variations in

one and the same direction form a definite whole; and at long last the

ancient precursor has become the Scolia of our own times.



By the aid of a vague phraseology which juggles with the secret of the

centuries and the unknown things of life, it is easy to build up a theory

in which our mental sloth delights, after being discouraged by difficult

researches whose final result is doubt rather than positive statement. But

if, so far from being satisfied with hazy generalities and adopting as

current coin the terms consecrated by fashion, we have the perseverance to

explore the truth as far as lies in our power, the aspect of things will

undergo a great change and we shall discover that they are far less simple

than our overprecipitate views declared them to be. Generalization is

certainly a most valuable instrument: science indeed exists only by virtue

of it. Let us none the less beware of generalizations which are not based

upon very firm and manifold foundations.



When these foundations are lacking, the child is the great generalizer. For

him, the feathered world consists merely of birds; the race of reptiles

merely of snakes, the only difference being that some are big and some are

little. Knowing nothing, he generalizes in the highest degree; he

simplifies, in his inability to perceive the complex. Later he will learn

that the Sparrow is not the Bullfinch, that the Linnet is not the

Greenfinch; he will particularize and to a greater degree each day, as his

faculty of observation becomes more fully trained. In the beginning he saw

nothing but resemblances; he now sees differences, but still not plainly

enough to avoid incongruous comparisons.



In his adult years he will almost to a certainty commit zoological blunders

similar to those which my gardener retails to me. Favier, an old soldier,

has never opened a book, for the best of reasons. He barely knows how to

cipher: arithmetic rather than reading is forced upon us by the brutalities

of life. Having followed the flag over three-quarters of the globe, he has

an open mind and a memory crammed with reminiscences, which does not

prevent him, when we chat about animals, from making the most crazy

assertions. For him the Bat is a Rat that has grown wings; the Cuckoo is a

Sparrow-hawk retired from business; the Slug is a Snail who has lost his

shell with the advance of years; the Nightjar (Known also as the

Goatsucker, because of the mistaken belief that the bird sucks the milk of

Goats, and, in America, as the Whippoorwill.--Translator's Note.), the

Chaoucho-grapaou, as he calls her, is an elderly Toad, who, becoming

enamoured of milk-food, has grown feathers, so that she may enter the byres

and milk the Goats. It is impossible to drive these fantastic ideas out of

his head. Favier himself, as will be seen, is an evolutionist after his own

fashion, an evolutionist of a very daring type. In accounting for the

origin of animals nothing gives him pause. He has a reply to everything:

"this" comes from "that." If you ask him why, he answers:



"Look at the resemblance!"



Shall we reproach him with these insanities, when we hear another, misled

by the Monkey's build, acclaim the Pithecanthropus as man's precursor?

Shall we reject the metamorphosis of the Chaoucho-grapaou, when people tell

us in all seriousness that, in the present stage of scientific knowledge,

it is absolutely proved that man is descended from some rough-hewn Ape? Of

the two transformations, Favier's strikes me as the more credible. A

painter of my acquaintance, a brother of the great composer Felicien David

(Felicien Cesar David (1810-1876). His chief work was the choral symphony

"Le Desert":--Translator's Note.), favoured me one day with his reflections

on the human structure:



"Ve, moun bel ami," he said. "Ve, l'home a lou dintre d'un por et lou

defero d'uno mounino." "See, my dear friend, see: man has the inside of a

pig and the outside of a monkey."



I recommend the painter's aphorism to those who might like to discover

man's origin in the Hog when the Ape has gone out of fashion. According to

David, descent is proved by internal resemblances:



"L'home a lou dintre d'un por."



The inventory of precursory types sees nothing but organic resemblances and

disdains the differences of aptitude. By consulting only the bones, the

vertebrae, the hair, the nervures of the wings, the joints of the antennae,

the imagination may build up any sort of genealogical tree that will fit

with our theories of classification, for, when all is said, the animal, in

its widest generalization, is represented by a digestive tube. With this

common factor, the way lies open to every kind of error. A machine is

judged not by this or that train of wheels, but by the nature of the work

accomplished. The monumental roasting-jack of a waggoners' inn and a

Breguet chronometer both have trains of cogwheels geared in almost a

similar fashion. (Louis Breguet (1803-1883), a famous Parisian watchmaker

and physicist.--Translator's Note.) Are we to class the two mechanisms

together? Shall we forget that the one turns a shoulder of mutton before

the hearth, while the other divides time into seconds?



In the same way, the organic scaffolding is dominated from on high by the

aptitudes of the animal, especially that superior characteristic, the

psychical aptitudes. That the Chimpanzee and the hideous Gorilla possess

close resemblances of structure to our own is obvious. But let us for a

moment consider their aptitudes. What differences, what a dividing gulf!

Without exalting ourselves as high as the famous reed of which Pascal

speaks, that reed which, in its weakness, by the mere fact that it knows

itself to be crushed, is superior to the world that crushes it, we may at

least ask to be shown, somewhere, an animal making an implement, which will

multiply its skill and its strength, or taking possession of fire, the

primordial element of progress. (Blaise Pascal(1623-1662). The allusion is

to a passage in the philosopher's "Pensees." Pascal describes man as a

reed, the weakest thing in nature, but "a thinking reed."--Translator's

Note.) Master of implements and of fire! These two aptitudes, simple though

they be, characterize man better than the number of his vertebrae and his

molars.



You tell us that man, at first a hairy brute, walking on all fours, has

risen on his hind-legs and shed his fur; and you complacently demonstrate

how the elimination of the hairy pelt was effected. Instead of bolstering

up a theory with a handful of fluff gained or lost, it would perhaps be

better to settle how the original brute became the possessor of implements

and fire. Aptitudes are more important than hair; and you neglect them

because it is there that the insurmountable difficulty really resides. See

how the great master of evolution hesitates and stammers when he tries, by

fair means or foul, to fit instinct into the mould of his formulae. It is

not so easy to handle as the colour of the pelt, the length of the tail,

the ear that droops or stands erect. Yes, our master well knows that this

is where the shoe pinches! Instinct escapes him and brings his theory

crumbling to the ground.



Let us return to what the Scoliae teach us on this question, which

incidentally touches on our own origin. In conformity with the Darwinian

ideas, we have accepted an unknown precursor, who by dint of repeated

experiment, adopted as the victuals to be hoarded the larvae of the

Scarabaeidae. This precursor, modified by varying circumstances, is

supposed to have subdivided herself into ramifications, one of which,

digging into vegetable mould and preferring the Cetonia to any other game

inhabiting the same heap, became the Two-banded Scolia; another, also

addicted to exploring the soil, but selecting the Oryctes, left as its

descendant the Garden Scolia; and a third, establishing itself in sandy

ground, where it found the Anoxia, was the ancestress of the Interrupted

Scolia. To these three ramifications we must beyond a doubt add others

which complete the series of the Scolia. As their habits are known to me

only by analogy, I confine myself to mentioning them.



The three species at least, therefore, with which I am familiar would

appear to be derived from a common precursor. To traverse the distance from

the starting-point to the goal, all three have had to contend with

difficulties, which are extremely grave if considered one by one and are

aggravated even more by this circumstance, that the overcoming of one would

lead to nothing unless the others were surmounted as successfully. Success,

then, is contingent upon a series of conditions, each one of which offers

almost no chance of victory, so that the fulfilment of them all becomes a

mathematical absurdity if we are to invoke accident alone.



And, in the first place, how was it that the Scolia of antiquity, having to

provide rations for her carnivorous family, adopted for her prey only those

larvae which, owing to the concentration of their nervous systems, form so

remarkable and so rare an exception in the insect order? What chance would

hazard offer her of obtaining this prey, the most suitable of all because

the most vulnerable? The chance represented by unity compared with the

indefinite number of entomological species. The odds are as one to

immensity.



Let us continue. The larva of the Scarabaeid is snapped up underground, for

the first time. The victim protests, defends itself after its fashion,

coils itself up and presents to the sting on every side a surface on which

a wound entails no serious danger. And yet the Wasp, an absolute novice,

has to select, for the thrust of its poisoned weapon, one single point,

narrowly restricted and hidden in the folds of the larva's body. If she

miscalculates, she may be killed: the larva, irritated by the smarting

puncture, is strong enough to disembowel her with the tusks of its

mandibles. If she escapes the danger, she will nevertheless perish without

leaving any offspring, since the necessary provisions will be lacking.

Salvation for herself and her race depends on this: whether at the first

thrust she is able to reach the little nervous plexus which measures barely

one-fiftieth of an inch in width. What chance has she of plunging her

lancet into it, if there is nothing to guide her? The chance represented by

unity compared with the number of points composing the victim's body. The

odds are as one against immensity.



Let us proceed still further. The sting has reached the mark; the fat grub

is deprived of movement. At what spots should the egg now be laid? In

front, behind, on the sides, the back or the belly? The choice is not a

matter of indifference. The young grub will pierce the skin of its

provender at the very spot on which the egg was fixed; and, once an opening

is made, it will go ahead without hesitation. If this point of attack is

ill-chosen, the nurseling runs the risk of presently finding under its

mandibles some essential organ, which should have been respected until the

end in order to keep the victuals fresh. Remember how difficult it is to

complete the rearing when the tiny larva is moved from the place chosen by

the mother. The game promptly becomes putrid and the Scolia dies.



It is impossible for me to state the precise motives which lead to the

adoption of the spot on which the egg is laid; I can perceive general

reasons, but the details escape me, as I am not well enough versed in the

more delicate questions of anatomy and entomological physiology. What I do

know with absolute certainty is that the same spot is invariably chosen for

laying the egg. With not a single exception, on all the victims extracted

from the heap of garden mould--and they are numerous--the egg is fixed

behind the ventral surface, on the verge of the brown patch formed by the

contents of the digestive system.



If there be nothing to guide her, what chance has the mother of gluing her

egg to this point, which is always the same because it is that most

favourable to successful rearing? A very small point, represented by the

ratio of two or three square millimetres (About 1/100 square inch.--

Translator's Note.) to the entire surface of the victim's body.



Is this all? Not yet. The grub is hatched; it pierces the belly of the

Cetonia-larva at the requisite point; it plunges its long neck into the

entrails, ransacking them and filling itself to repletion. If it bite at

random, if it have no other guide in the selection of tit-bits than the

preference of the moment and the violence of an imperious appetite, it will

infallibly incur the danger of being poisoned by putrid food, for the

victim, if wounded in those organs which preserve a remnant of life in it,

will die for good and all at the first mouthfuls.



The ample joint must be consumed with prudent skill: this part must be

eaten before that and, after that, some other portion, always according to

method, until the time approaches for the last bites. This marks the end of

life for the Cetonia, but it also marks the end of the Scolia's feasting.

If the grub be a novice in the art of eating, if no special instinct guide

its mandibles in the belly of the prey, what chance has it of completing

its perilous meal? As much as a starving Wolf would have of daintily

dissecting his Sheep, when he tears at her gluttonously, rends her into

shreds and gulps them down.



These four conditions of success, with chance so near to zero in each case,

must all be realized together, or the grub will never be reared. The Scolia

may have captured a larva with close-packed nerve-centres, a Cetonia-grub,

for instance; but this will go for nothing unless she direct her sting

towards the only vulnerable point. She may know the whole secret of the art

of stabbing her victim, but this means nothing if she does not know where

to fasten her egg. The suitable spot may be found, but all the foregoing

will be useless if the grub be not versed in the method to be followed in

devouring its prey while keeping it alive. It is all or nothing.



Who would venture to calculate the final chance on which the future of the

Scolia, or of her precursor, is based, that complex chance whose factors

are four infinitely improbable occurrences, one might almost say four

impossibilities? And such a conjunction is supposed to be a fortuitous

result, to which the present instinct is due! Come, come!



>From another point of view again, the Darwinian theory is at variance with

the Scoliae and their prey. In the heap of garden mould which I exploited

in order to write this record, three kinds of larvae dwell together,

belonging to the Scarabaeid group: the Cetonia, the Oryctes and Scarabeus

pentodon. Their internal structure is very nearly similar; their food is

the same, consisting of decomposing vegetable matter; their habits are

identical: they live underground in tunnels which are frequently renewed;

they make a rough egg-shaped cocoon of earthy materials. Environment, diet,

industry and internal structure are all similar; and yet one of these three

larvae, the Cetonia's, reveals a most singular dissimilarity from its

fellow-trenchermen: alone among the Scarabaeidae and, more than that, alone

in all the immense order of insects, it walks upon its back.



If the differences were a matter of a few petty structural details, falling

within the finical department of the classifier, we might pass them over

without hesitation; but a creature that turns itself upside down in order

to walk with its belly in the air and never adopts any other method of

locomotion, though it possesses legs and good legs at that, assuredly

deserves examination. How did the animal acquire its fantastic mode of

progress and why does it think fit to walk in a fashion the exact contrary

of that adopted by other beasts?



To these questions the science now in fashion always has a reply ready:

adaptation to environment. The Cetonia-larva lives in crumbling galleries

which it bores in the depths of the soil. Like the sweep who obtains a

purchase with his back, loins and knees to hoist himself up the narrow

passage of a chimney, it gathers itself up, applies the tip of its belly to

one wall of its gallery and its sturdy back to another; and the combined

effort of these two levers results in moving it forward. The legs, which

are used very little, indeed hardly at all, waste away and tend to

disappear, as does any organ which is left unemployed; the back, on the

other hand, the principal motive agent, grows stronger, is furrowed with

powerful folds and bristles with grappling-hooks or hairs; and gradually,

by adaptation to its environment, the creature loses the art of walking,

which it does not practise, and replaces it by that of crawling on its

back, a form of progress better suited to underground corridors.



So far so good. But now tell me, if you please, why the larvae of the

Oryctes and the Scarabaeus, living in vegetable mould, the larva of the

Anoxia, dwelling in the sand, and the larva of the Cockchafer in our

cultivated fields have not also acquired the faculty of walking on their

backs? In their galleries they follow the chimney-sweep's methods quite as

cleverly as the Cetonia-grub; to move forward they make valiant use of

their backs without yet having come to ambling with their bellies in the

air. Can they have neglected to accommodate themselves to the demands of

their environment? If evolution and environment cause the topsy-turvy

progress of the one, I have the right, if words have any meaning whatever,

to demand as much of the others, since their organization is so much alike

and their mode of life identical.



I have but little respect for theories which, when confronted with two

similar cases, are unable to interpret the one without contradicting the

other. They make me laugh when they become merely childish. For example:

why has the tiger a coat streaked black and yellow? A matter of

environment, replies one of our evolutionary masters. Ambushed in bamboo

thickets where the golden radiance of the sun is intersected by stripes of

shadow cast by the foliage, the animal, the better to conceal itself,

assumed the colour of its environment. The rays of the sun produced the

tawny yellow of the coat; the stripes of shadow added the black bars.



And there you have it. Any one who refuses to accept the explanation must

be very hard to please. I am one of these difficult persons. If it were a

dinner-table jest, made over the walnuts and the wine, I would willingly

sing ditto; but alas and alack, it is uttered without a smile, in a solemn

and magisterial manner, as the last word in science! Toussenel, in his day,

asked the naturalists an insidious question. (Alphonse Toussenel (1803-

1885), the author of a number of learned and curious works on ornithology.-

-Translator's Note.) Why, he enquired, have Ducks a little curly feather on

the rump? No one, so far as I know, had an answer for the teasing cross-

examiner: evolution had not been invented then. In our time the reason why

would be forthcoming in a moment, as lucid and as well-founded as the

reason why of the tiger's coat.



Enough of childish nonsense. The Cetonia-grub walks on its back because it

has always done so. The environment does not make the animal; it is the

animal that is made for the environment. To this simple philosophy, which

is quite antiquated nowadays, I will add another, which Socrates expressed

in these words:



"What I know best is that I know nothing."





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