Picture of author.

Jean-Henri Fabre (1823–1915)

Author of The Story Book of Science

148+ Works 2,560 Members 17 Reviews 9 Favorited

About the Author

Image credit: wikimedia commons


Works by Jean-Henri Fabre

The Story Book of Science (2006) 638 copies
Fabre's Book of Insects (1921) 283 copies
The Life of the Spider (1912) 239 copies
The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre (1949) — Author — 130 copies
The Passionate Observer (1879) 88 copies
Insect Adventures (1917) 71 copies
The Life of the Caterpillar (1912) 49 copies
The Mason-Bees (1914) 47 copies
The Wonders of Instinct (1918) 46 copies
The Life of the Fly (1913) 44 copies
Bramble-Bees and Others (1901) 33 copies
Insects (1979) 26 copies
The Hunting Wasps (1915) 19 copies
More Hunting Wasps (1915) 19 copies
The Life of the Grasshopper (1917) 17 copies
The Mason-Wasps (1901) 15 copies
The Life of the Scorpion (1923) 14 copies
The Life of the Weevil (1922) 9 copies
The Heavens (1939) 9 copies
More Beetles (1901) 6 copies
Pilze (Naturkunden) (2015) 5 copies
This Earth of Ours (2005) 5 copies
The Mason Bees (2021) 2 copies
Insect Adventures, Book 1 (2012) 2 copies
Promenades entomologiques (1980) 2 copies
Farm Friends and Foes (1925) 1 copy
Zoologie 1 copy
Z życia owadów (1994) 1 copy

Associated Works

The Treasure Chest (1932) — Contributor — 256 copies


Common Knowledge



My daughter, Avalon, (13) and I finished this today after having read it very slowly over the last few years. It was a really special experience and I gifted her with the book when we were done. These stories were sweet and it was fun to see how things were explained so long ago.
classyhomemaker | Dec 11, 2023 |
Fabre obituary press cuttings 1915
LNHS.Library | Dec 4, 2019 |
I read in part because I like horror stories and, as I knew from John Crompton's book, few creatures are more horrific than the hunting wasps. These monsters paralyze their victims by paralyzing them with a sting, then burying them alive with their eggs attached. When their eggs hatch, the larvae eat them alive, taking care to leave the most vital areas to the last.

This isn't due to sadism. Fabre, in one of his many experiments, learned that the larvae must eat their prey alive or fresh, for they are poisoned by any flesh that has even slightly rotted. He also learned that the larvae could eat different kinds of prey. Their mothers, however, couldn't paralyze different kinds of prey. They were programmed to attack the vital nerve in their prey that would paralyze but not kill it. I lost track of species and other classifications so I'm not sure of the exact taxonomic relationships between huntress and prey. I do know that Fabre tried to fool them by showing an insect that looked like it belonged in in their usual class of prey, but didn't, and by showing them an insect that was in their usual class of prey, but didn't look like it. He failed. The wasps could always identify the insect with the nerve.

Fabre didn't believe in insect intelligence, if intelligence meant the ability to learn something new. He tried to have them change their routines in many experiments and claimed that he always failed. Typical is his description of the Tachytes, which he tried to persuade to alter her routine in storing locusts. When she persisted in doing the same thing over and over, he dismissed her as which he described as "a narrow conservative, learning nothing and forgetting nothing." Do not … confound reason with intelligence … I deny the one, and the other is incontestable, within very modest limits." He pointed out that another wasp failed to solve a problem he had set for it, not only because it couldn't reason the problem back to its cause, but because it had no idea that there was a cause.

What insects had was what he praised as "the incomprehensible wisdom of instinct," "instinct, a gratuitous attribute, an unconscious aspiration, rivals knowledge, that most costly acquisition." showing in such matters as their knowledge of their prey's inner anatomy, said knowledge being the precise location of the nerve centers that they needed to strike to paralyze or kill their prey, anatomy that left them vulnerable to their unchanging and unchangeable method of attack. "The outer structure of the victims operated on counted for nothing in the method of operating. This is determined by the inner anatomy." "Modify the conditions ever so slightly; and these skillful paralyzers are at an utter loss." Their ability to sense said inner anatomy could be detected in related species that bore very little resemblance to each other and prevented from attacking insects that looked at their usual prey on the outside but were different where it mattered on the inside.

He opposed Darwin and the natural selection theory of evolution because of his observations of instinct. "This science is unconscious of itself has not been acquired, by her and her race, through experiments perfected from age to age and habits transmitted from one generation to the next … it is absolutely impossible to experiment and to learn an art when you are lost if you do not succeed at the first attempt." How did he explain it? After these statements, he gave the credit to "the universal knowledge in which all things move and have their being!" If that sounds vague and gooey, and it did to me, he made more frequently an argument that made more sense. He and other scientists could accumulate facts but they couldn't answer the great questions with them. "… if we go to the bottom of things, we know nothing about anything … To know how to know nothing might well be the last word of wisdom." He in short distrusted theorists and theories and despised armchair biologists who questioned his results without having observed the insects themselves. "First use your eyes and then you shall leave to argue!"

Darwin apparently believed that animals had intelligence; Fabre believed that his experiments had proven that they did not. "If the one has learned by prolonged practice in attack, the other should also have learnt by prolonged practice in defense, for attack and defense possess a like merit in the fight for life." How could a bee-hunting wasp, via natural selection, learned how to attack a bee while the bee never learned how to defend itself? "… the one knows without having learnt, the other does not know because she is incapable of learning." He was also impressed with how the behavioral patterns of cocoon building varied with each insect. He noted that two different species, confronted with the same building materials, would build very different cocoons. "The workshop, the work, the provisions have not determined the instinct. The instinct comes first; it lays down laws instead of being subject to them."
… (more)
Coach_of_Alva | Jun 2, 2013 |
Each field of scientific investigation has its heroes, great men and women rooted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who laid the foundations of the discipline through observation and experimentation. To the field of entomology, that place is reserved for the French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre. Fabre led a long and productive life, born in 1823 and dying at the high age of 92 in 1915. He wrote numerous textbooks in the field of natural history and agriculture, including zoology and botany, but his passion was with insects. Especially during the later years of his life, which he spent in his home in the Harmas, in south-central France, he experimented with and observed a variety of insects and spiders, and published his observations in a series of essays, bundled into ten volumes of Souvenirs entomologiques, which appeared between 1879 and 1909. After 1910, selections from these essays were collected and translated into English by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos.

The wonders of instinct is a collection of essays from Fabre's Souvenirs entomologiques. It consists of 14 chapters, most of which can be read independently. The first chapter, added by the translator, describes Jean-Henri Fabre's home and work in the Harmas, functions as an introduction. It is clear that the original work ended with chapter 12, and it must be deduced that the subsequent two chapters were added by the editor / translator.

The wonders of instinct contains chapters on a variety of insects--a number of wasp-like flies, the green grasshopper, burying-beetles, the bluebottle, the pine processionary caterpillar, the glow-worm and the cabbage-caterpillar, while chapters 9 and 10 are devoted to spiders, namely the black-bellied tarantula and the banded epeira.

Most of Fabre’s observations take place in an experimental set-up, as he observes how insects consume their food, lay their eggs or bury themselves in glass pots and test tubes in his laboratory in his home. One of Jean-Henri Fabre's most famous experiments is that in which he balanced a number of pine processionary caterpillars on the circular edge of a vase and showed that they walk head-to-tail for a virtually unlimited interval of time (the experiment was broken off after seven days).

The life of the fly is a similar collection of essays, also based on Fabre's Souvenirs entomologiques. It is quite a bit more varied than The wonders of instinct, containing 20 chapters, dealing with various kinds of insects, such as, the Anthrax, the Monodontomerus cupreus, greenbottles, grey flesh flies, the bumble-bee fly, and the bluebottle. The majority of the chapters are devoted to describing the life of various kinds of flies, and their grubs and maggots. The flies described in this collection of essays are the kind that most people think of at the word “flies”, namely the shiny green or blue big buzzers, that lay their eggs on meat. It is obvious that the title of this collection derives from the prominent place dedicated to describing these flies. However, The life of the fly also contains five autobiographical chapters which describe Jean-Henri Fabre's recollections of childhood, schooling, and early career in mathematics and chemistry. These chapters describe some of the hardship and hopes of the young Fabre as he grew up in a poor family in the countryside of France, chapters which remind the reader of chapters from Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet which was published at about the same time, when Jean-Henri Fabre was aged between 7 and 11 years old (in the early 1830s).
The chapters on the fly and its grubs in The life of the fly is not for the faint of heart, as it gives detailed descriptions of putrefaction and maggots crawling all over. Incidentally, as in chapter 7 of The wonders of instinct, which was dedicated to the bluebottle, Fabre shows his interest to apply his findings into the nature and behaviour of flies in practical tips for dealing with poultry, fowl and wild birds sold in farmer’s markets. So much decay could be prevented if birds were only sold in a simple paper envelope. Other practical observations in the field of agriculture can be found in the chapter about mushrooms (chapter 18).
In 1859, Jean-Henri Fabre was 36 when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species all of Fabre’s books were published after 1860, but his years of formation took place before the publication of Darwin’s revolutionary theory. Darwin knew Fabre and “bestowed upon me the title of “incomparable observer” (p. 260). Nonetheless, Jean-Henri Fabre seems to have been skeptic of Darwin’s theory of evolution, particularly doubting the role of heredity. In chapter 5 of The life of the fly Fabre takes 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. Grown up in a family of toilers of the earth, Fabre cannot explain where his intellectual capacity and interest for insects comes from, which he calls his instinct. This chapter on heredity should of course have been included in the essay collection entitled The wonders of instinct. Without it, the reader might wonder whether the word “instinct” in the title is a misspelling for “insect”. The essays illustrate that more than 150 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species Darwin’s ideas are so firmly rooted in the consciousness of the reader, that they cannot see the form and behaviour of insects other than as the result of evolutionary processes. However, Jean-Henri Fabre firmly believed that the appearance and instinctive behaviour of insects was fixed, and could not be traced to the insects’ ancestors.

The essays in both collections are very readable, although readers must put up with a number of Latin names and terminology, while non-native readers of English wonder what the common names of all these insects would be in their native languages. Where necessary, the translator has provided useful explanations and clarification.

The translator, Alexander Teixeira de Mattos desrves praise in his own right. Born in Amsterdam in 1865, his parents moved to England in 1874, where he grew up. However, in 1908 Teixeira de Mattos obtained Dutch citizenship. He was active as a translator, translating works of various French and Dutch authors, notable seven novels by Louis Couperus into English. Because of the outstanding quality of his translations, many of his translations have remained in print. The high readability of the essays of Jean-Henri Fabre testifies to that.

Page numbers refer to the omnibus edition by the Shanghai: World Publishing (2011) 上海: 世界图书出版公司. The first chapter in both The wonders of instinct and The life of the fly is identical. This is no error of the publisher. Both essay collections were selected and published separately. In each case, Teixeira de Mattos acted both as the editor and translator. In his role as the editor, Teixeira de Mattos deemed it appropriate that each volume should be preceded by an introductory chapter. Confusion might arise, as the Chinese publisher has, regretfully, omitted Teixeira de Mattos’ preface to each edition. The omnibus is a cheap reprint in a series of classics. It would have been appropriate if the omnibus edition were published with a critical introduction, which could possibly also smooth over the repeated, identical chapter.
… (more)
edwinbcn | May 19, 2013 |


You May Also Like

Associated Authors


Also by

Charts & Graphs