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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, n

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.