Speaking of Fashion

One of my favorite scientists of all time is that “Homer of the insect world,” that “incomparable observer,” that Frenchman of voluminous knowledge and childlike wonder, Jean Henri Fabre!

I just love reading Fabre with students. Unfortunately the “intellectual fashion”of our time (which is one of the four kinds of slavery from which liberal education frees us) is dead set against exposing children to Fabre and his approach to nature.

Even in the late nineteenth century, Fabre was deeply concerned about the modern monolithic approach to science:

“Others have reproached me with my style, which has not the solemnity, nay, better, the dryness of the schools. They fear lest a page that is read without fatigue should not always be the expression of the truth. Were I to take their word for it, we are profound only on condition of being obscure.”

And he continues to excoriate these sorts of scientists with gusto and passion!

“You rip up the animal and I study it alive; you turn it into an object of horror and pity, whereas I cause it to be loved; you labour in a torture-chamber and dissecting-room, I make my observations under the blue sky, to the song of the Cicadae, you subject cell and protoplasm to chemical tests, I study instinct in its loftiest manifestations; you pry into death, I pry into life. And why should I not complete my thought: the boars have muddied the clear stream; natural history, youth’s glorious study, has, by dint of cellular improvements, become a hateful and repulsive thing. Well, if I write for men of learning, for philosophers, who, one day, will try to some extent to unravel the tough problem of instinct, I write also, I write above all things, for the young, I want to make them love the natural history which you make them hate; and that is why, while keeping strictly to the domain of truth, I avoid your scientific prose, which too often, alas, seems borrowed from some Iroquois idiom!”

I love this. The prevailing fashion in science instruction is just as Fabre describes. Anyone who has examined the current science text book scene will agree. For those interested in an authentic discussion of nature and of the things that fill our common experience, the current scientific fashion appears to have nothing but a condescending scorn. No, real science entails investigating things that cold only be known through what Aristotle might call “private experience,” which can only be gained by very few and that through the use of very expensive laboratory equipment. Fabre sees this in his own day:

Laboratories are being founded at great expense, on our Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, where people cut up small sea-animals, of but meagre interest to us; they spend a fortune on powerful microscopes, delicate dissecting-instruments, engines of capture, boats, fishing-crews, aquariums, to find out how the yolk of an Annelid’s (A red-blooded worm.–Translator’s Note.) egg is constructed, a question whereof I have never yet been able to grasp the full importance; and they scorn the little land-animal, which lives in constant touch with us, which provides universal psychology with documents of inestimable value, which too often threatens the public wealth by destroying our crops. When shall we have an entomological laboratory for the study not of the dead insect, steeped in alcohol, but of the living insect; a laboratory having for its object the instinct, the habits, the manner of living, the work, the struggles, the propagation of that little world with which agriculture and philosophy have most seriously to reckon? To know thoroughly the history of the destroyer of our vines might perhaps be more important than to know how this or that nerve-fibre of a Cirriped ends (Cirripeds are sea-animals with hair-like legs, including the Barnacles and Acorn-shells.–Translator’s Note.); to establish by experiment the line of demarcation between intellect and instinct; to prove, by comparing facts in the zoological progression, whether human reason be an irreducible faculty or not: all this ought surely to take precedence of the number of joints in a Crustacean’s antenna. These enormous questions would need an army of workers; and we have not one. The fashion is all for the Mollusc and the Zoophyte. (Zoophytes are plant-like sea-animals, including Star-fishes, Jelly-fishes, Sea-anemones, and Sponges.–Translator’s Note.) The depths of the sea are explored with many drag-nets; the soil which we tread is consistently disregarded. While waiting for the fashion to change, I open my harmas laboratory of living entomology; and this laboratory shall not cost the ratepayers one farthing.

If you chance upon one of Fabre’s many books grab it and start your collection. He is, of course, at his best when discussing insects but I also love his discussions about the earth (This Earth of Ours) and Astronomy (The Heavens).

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About marklangley

Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see theLyceum.org) Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their twelve children.
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