Enjoying Life and Other Literary Remains

The Scarabee Monographed


In the minds of most people, the naturalist is a rare and eccentric-looking animal, sometimes observed poking up the mud of a horse-pond or dissecting the internal economy of a tapeworm. He is commonly supposed to bear a close personal resemblance to the animals which he studies, and caricaturists always see him with a tail or a tentacle, or peeping from a burrow or perched upon the branch of a tree.

Scarabees, however, are often very ordinary-looking people indeed, with no distinguishing mark to aid those who venture upon classification after a cursory survey. They are not all “professors” — though some may be peers of the realm. They do not all wear spectacles — though some effectively use an eyeglass. They may be called Charles, Bob, or Dick — and occasionally Algernon, Cosmo, or Randolph. They are not all eccentrics; not a few who have distinguished themselves in the great public arena of Scarabee endeavour, in private life have been politicians, courtiers, and ambassadors. Buff on is reported to have had a handsome person and magnificent diplomatic manners. Baron de Geer (1720-1778), Marshal of the Court of Sweden and Knight of the Polar Star, was in his day the possessor of one of the largest fortunes in Sweden and a very fine gentleman indeed. Yet his enthusiasm for “the innocent pursuit” of Entomology was such that on the publication of his famous “Memoirs on the History of Insects,” he was induced in a fit of despair to burn the greater part of the impression because they failed to arouse the interest they deserved.

Prejudices against the Scarabee’s chosen pursuits are legion. In that delightful novel, “Two on a Tower,” by Thomas Hardy, the author makes his hero an astronomer rather than a biologist, and puts him in a tower in the moonlight rather than in a ditch catching frogs. It is unnecessary to be a novelist to see the advantage of that; moreover, the time is not yet when an enlightened public opinion can see in the biologist who labours in the mephitic atmosphere of horse-ponds a gentleman no whit the less romantic than an astronomer dogging “the secret footsteps of the heavens"; yet the truth is that horse-ponds contain marvels as staggering as solar systems.

The common idea is that Scarabee work is dirty, prosaic, ridiculous — a question of the number of legs in a caterpillar, of such technical blazonry as “Metopidium high, supra-numerals elongate, clypeus peristomial.” It means an exotic delight in some such sensational announcement in a letter to “Nature” as, say, the discovery of a new membrane in the alimentary canal of a lady-bird. If you possess a friend or relative with a penchant for spiders or beetles, remember to ask him jocosely when you meet, “Black beetles, eh?” forgetting, I trow, the parable which tells how a certain great personage once accosted Gibbon after the publication of his third volume of “The Decline and Fall” with, “Well, Mr. Gibbon, still scribbling?” (That an anatomist can be as voluminous as Mr. Gibbon is evident if I say that as recently as last year a German doctor, Herr Professor Voss, published a thick book recounting the structure of the thorax, or middle part only, of a single insect, a cricket.)

But your contemptuous attitude the Scarabee likes not, though he usually ignores it. He is a happy man, indifferent to what the world may think, cultivating his own plot of happiness, rarely looking over the hedge and never to the horizon, self-contained, autonomous. No one who has read Fabre, or Mr. and Mrs. Peckham on wasps, or turned over the plates of Lyonet’s great quarto volume on the structure of the caterpillar of Cossus, the Goat Moth, or any of the Scarabee classics, can fail to understand the fascination of his pursuits and his absorption in them. He nothing sees the whole day long, like the gallant knight enthralled by the beautiful and merciless lady of his heart.


Scientific men often seem to the uninitiated to be seriously engaged upon apparently trifling and irrelevant matters. Isaac Newton under the apple-tree was probably blowing dandelion “clocks.” Sir Francis Galten — to take a modern instance — used to walk about the streets of London pricking a piece of paper with a pin. He was collecting statistics of people’s eyes, noses, chins, according to a method invented by himself for the foundations of the new science of eugenics. And so a zoologist, having completed a charming book on the little sea-worm, Convoluta roscoffensis, would have you believe that his Convoluta problems involve the security of the Empire or the redemption of man. Perhaps. But where is the worker who, confronted, as he often is, with the point-blank question, “What’s the use of your work? Why trouble to find out if an earth-worm has a heart or whether pigs have wings?” has the courage to reply, in the sense of vulgar utility in which the question is put: “My dear good sir, no earthly use at all. Good-day.” Of no more practical utility, that is, than, shall we say, a Grecian urn or a lyric by Colonel Lovelace.

That, on occasion, his labours are of service to the community is a fact sufficiently brought home to most of us recently, when his knowledge of the structure, life-history, and habits of such common and dangerous enemies to health as the housefly, the flea, and the louse, has been at the disposal of those responsible for the health of troops in the field and of non-combatants at home. But economic zoology is only a bypath in the multifarious labours of the Scarabee, and perhaps it would be less presumptuous for him to adopt as his motto and justification Laurence Sterne’s witty remark that “where the heart leaps out before the understanding it saves the judgment a world of trouble.”

His affections are distributed over the whole Animal Kingdom. To the pious Scarabee, no animal is so mean or so minute as not to attract his respectful attention. Anything with legs, a pulsating vacuole, a waving tentacle, is sufficient to awake responsive chords. It would warm the cockles of the coldest heart to hear the Ichneumonidas specialist refer affectionately to the “Iks,” or the expert Conchologist smilingly pronounce “Strombs.” The blind Huber, who by the aid of his devoted assistant laid the foundations of all our knowledge of the bees’ community, regarded bees with something more than mere affection, we are told. “Beaucoups de gens aiment les abeilles,” says Gelieu, “je n’ai vu personne qui les aima médiocrement. On se passione pour elles.”

Recollecting, perhaps, the sentiment expressed by Boyle, that nothing can be unworthy of investigation by man that was not unworthy of being created by God, a member of the wealthy Rothschild family is at the present moment the foremost authority on the Siphonaptera, a name which polite students give to fleas. In the lay mind the flea is only a. joke — and always one which must be cracked. But, “pour les vrai savans,” he is a serious and very attractive study in comparative anatomy, bionomics, and metamorphosis. Even lice have never lacked students. Henry Denny monographed the British species as early as 1842. The “Monographia Anopluorum Britanniæ” is a very curious old book, concluding with a quotation from the 91st Psalm: “These all wait upon Thee that Thou mayest give them their meat in due season.”

Good Sir Thomas Browne said that he could digest a salad gathered in a churchyard as easily as one from a garden. “At the sight of Viper or Toad,” he adds, “I find in me no desire to take up a stone and destroy them.” Every Scarabee would like to shake his hand for saying that. And yet some women there are who would prefer Lady Godiva’s ordeal to a struggle with a mouse in a closed room. Oliver Goldsmith owned to an “invincible aversion to caterpillars.” Ambrose Pare, the father of modern surgery, mentions the case of a man who always fainted at the sight of an eel. There are four or five pages in Victor Hugo’s “Les Travailleurs de la Mer” spent in libelling medusæ and cuttlefish.


If we are to arrive at the very citadel of the Scarabee’s soul, it now becomes necessary to proceed with circumspection. He is a wary animal, particularly over matters relating to the soul, the existence of which he will probably deny, while the heart he does not care to discuss except as the organ of circulation. So, having caught your hare, treat him gently, smooth out his pelage, win his confidence, and incredible revelations shall follow. The learned old gentleman who is preparing a catalogue of the Chalcididae, you imagined was engrossed merely in nomenclature, chastotaxy, and other technical matters. He is really a glutton for form and colour in the insect world. The vision of a nervous or vascular system, or the musculature of a limb, pleases the anatomist’s eye almost as much as it satisfies his intellectual curiosity. “Isn’t it nice?” he will say to you, his eyes ablaze with pleasure.

Alfred Russel Wallace wrote of his young days that he possessed a strong desire to know the causes of things, a great love of beauty in form and colour, and a considerable but not excessive desire for order and arrangement in whatever he had to do. Characteristically enough, naturalists cherish a keen delight in those colour patterns and symmetrical arrangements of parts that can be drawn with set-square and compasses — the radiate forms of starfish, sea-urchins, and medusae, or the exquisite bilateral symmetry of Nereis and a hundred other beautiful sea-worms. They may not be versed in chioroscuro and the principles of composition, but the essential thing they have: the artist’s love of beauty in form and colour — love without which, as Heine says, the sun will only measure so many miles in diameter, the flowers will only be classified by the number of their stamens, and the water will be merely wet.

The devotion of the naturalist to his work is certainly the chief salient in his character. Enthusiasm with him is always at boiling-point — much to the irritation of those less well endowed with nervous energy! It is thrilling to read of the celebrated Bonnet of Geneva (who discovered parthenogenesis in animals) watching a plant louse from four o’clock in the morning until seven in the evening, or of the superhuman labours of Swammerdam, who ransacked earth, air, and water for insects, and who often spent whole days in cleaning the fat from a single caterpillar in order to be better able to study its anatomy.

Robert Louis Stevenson would doubtless have asked, before giving rein to his praise of Bonnet, if he could play the flute or take a hand at cards. Even less whimsical critics would be glad, I fancy, if it could be said that Swammerdam once shouted “Damn the caterpillar,” and went and got a glass of ale. Most laymen would lose their patience with the great French zoologist, Lacépède,1 who continued to write his “L’Histoire des Poissons” during the most disturbed period of the French Revolution. During this present Armageddon, many a Scarabee’s head is still bent over his dissecting dish when the milkman comes round in the morning.

Listen, too, to the ominous opening of an obituary notice which appeared a few years ago in the Scarabee’s Monthly Magazine:

“Twenty years too late for his scientific reputation, after having done an amount of injury to Entomology almost inconceivable in its magnitude, Francis Walker has passed from us.”

And yet, to the truly philosophic mind, why should fishes be any less interesting than revolutions, and indeed why not undertake the castigation of a criminal like Mr. Walker with as much ferocious enthusiasm as other folk — with other enthusiasms — employ to plead for a National Theatre or Food Reform?

Enthusiasm for a great cause, we know from the copybooks, is a noble sentiment, and enthusiasm even for worms, insects, or somebody’s patent pills has a “je ne sais quoi” that is divine. I admit that at times — for example to hear an odonatologist (i.e., a student of the science which treats of dragonflies!) exclaim, with the emphasis of real emotion, “There is something- radically wrong with our conception of the radial sector” (a small vein in the dragonfly’s wing) — one reflects sadly that enthusiasm of any kind must be bought with a price, and there are plenty of naturalists who have gladly paid it — in the loss of health and eyesight, in the sacrifice of their wealth, their profession, and even their domestic happiness (one has but to read the lives of naturalists to see this), and nearly all have surrendered voluntarily or involuntarily almost all other vital interests. Charles Darwin was bound to admit that towards the close of his life all his early love of art, poetry, and music had evaporated. Surely here is the supreme sacrifice.

1 Lacépède’s interests were, however, quite wide, and he published a general history of Europe in eighteen volumes.

Even when due allowance is made for the dazzling attractions of biological research, it must be confessed that the researcher frequently takes himself and his work with an almost portentous seriousness. When the Scarabee bends his doting head over the ant heap or the microscope, one almost expects to see signs in the sky. The placid assertion of Oliver Goldsmith, in “The Animated Nature,” that Natural History is the occupation of the idle and speculative rather than of the busy and ambitious, is a grievous error in his eyes. In the field of natural history, nowadays at all events, the busy and ambitious may make great reputations — they may even come to sit on Committees and make presidential addresses, and receive what has been happily called “the anxious civilities of the undistinguished.”

There come moments, I fear, when the heart fails even the most courageous essayist who has undertaken to defend Scarabees. For the most part, they are fine fellows — men with the single eye and the whole body, full of the glow and light of a grand enthusiasm. But a few there are whom no counsel would put into the witness-box without a qualm. Yet, in the belief that a just tribunal will save the city for the sake of those righteous ones, I intend to present all the available evidence.

Your really god-forsaken Scarabee, then, spends his life in dotting i’s and crossing t’s, in repeating over animals their Latin names like magic incantations, in totting up lists of the species that occur in his district. He is obsessed by the cult of the card index, by a mania for order and arrangement. He rivals Mr. Gradgrind in his desire for facts — facts swallowed with the same unwinking voracity as a crocodile swallows bricks. It thrills him to know that in the male flea there is one abdominal nervous ganglion less than in the female — without necessarily wishing to understand the reason why. A Rossia discovered in a rock-pool makes a red-letter day in his Calendar because the find “extends its range” — yet you may be sure he has caught no inkling of the factors governing the distribution of cuttlefish. “It is my business,” says he, “merely to record the facts,” hating to suggest a theory of generalization through fear of being caught out by an exception to the rule. “Accuracy” to him is a holy word, pronounced with eyes lowered and the palms crossed over the breast; “imaginative” is a term of opprobrium; poetry means long hair; the summer solstice is nothing but the probable time for the emergence of some insect from its cocoon, and Coniston or Chamouni he recalls merely as good treacling localities. Undignified jousts are not infrequent: “He says that it is ‘unthinkable’ that Carabus clathratus should occur in my parish,” snarls a worsted Knight of the Pin, “but it is conceivable that that depends upon the thinker.” He is a specialist: mention an Acmaea to an authority on the Helicidae and he yawns. To a lepidopterist, the hymenoptera are of no more interest than the cuneiform texts to a third-form boy. This type of Scarabee crouches over the group of animals selected for study like a dog growling over a bone: on the approach of a rival student there is trouble. “It is so nice to feel,” remarked an ingenuous youth of about sixty summers, “that you know more of one particular subject than anybody else in the world!”

The specialist is a very extraordinary person. He will tell you — and he never tires of saying it, with an incomprehensible pride in the devastating infinity of the Kosmos — that a single organism requires for perfect elucidation more than the available grey matter of the human brain. And, summoning an intellectual courage of which few of us can boast, he lowers himself deep into the mine of knowledge, happy if, after an industrious life, he has dug out a few lumps of information about a crab or a fly in a minefield which stretches from here to beyond the stars.

Verily, only a specialist can understand “with what scope God builds the worm.”

But let me warn the reckless critic that any “old fossil” may on occasion suddenly turn on his traducers and confound them with an attitude which takes the heart by storm. A very old naturalist — a veteran Scarabee, in his day guilty of almost every Scarabee crime — found it in his heart to say to me one sunny morning in Devon: “I love the bees, the poppies, and the swallows. ‘The beautiful swallows — be kind to them.’” He quoted Richard Jefferies.

Few indeed realize with what scope God builds an occasional Scarabee.

1915. Reprinted from The Forum.

HTML edition by Ray Davis, free for any use.