Jean Fabre (1823-1915) seems out of place in our time and in his own. He was a scientist more in the mold of Henry David Thoreau than Louis Pasteur or Niels Bohr. Here is a man who made a home in a nearly uninhabitable plot of land overrun by insects and rodents in order to watch up close the behaviors of bugs most of us consider pests. “The Harmas,” the first chapter in Fabre’s book The Life of the Fly, reveals, at first glance, something of a mad scientist too engrossed in the world of his subjects, but as we look deeper we find a timely reminder of the philosophical and imaginative heart of science.

Fabre moved into a dilapidated home with inarable land, choosing the long abandoned property because it was teaming with bugs and weeds. He described his new home as the place for which he had always prayed—in his words an “Eden” which he held simultaneously as cursed and blessed. He spent his days among the creatures, observing them meticulously. He treated his habitat as part living laboratory and part hermitage. His stay in the Harmas was as much a retreat from the world as a field of study. The wildlife he treated as both study subjects and material for meditation.

His goal was to tell a story by personifying the animals with which he lived, not to equate them with humans but to interpret and communicate their behaviors by imagining them with human consciousness. The insects did not inhabit the fallow land, they invaded it:

The house was as utterly deserted as the ground. When man was gone and peace assured, the animal hastily seized on everything.

He saw the work of the insects and birds as an economy in miniature, each species ambitiously practicing a trade:

Here come hunters of every kind of game, builders in clay, weavers of cotton goods, collectors of pieces cut from a leaf or the petals of a flower, architects in pasteboard, plasterers mixing mortar, carpenters boring wood, miners digging underground galleries, workers handling goldbeater’s skin and many more.

His study was integral to the environment in which he immersed himself:

Here, surely—and the list is far from complete—is a company both numerous and select, whose conversation will not fail to charm my solitude, if I succeed in drawing it out. My dear beasts of former days, my old friends, and others, more recent acquaintances, all are here, hunting, foraging, building in close proximity.

Patient observation yielded detail bordering on the poetic:

Who is this one? An Anthidium [Bee]. She scrapes the cobwebby stalk of the yellow-flowered centaury and gathers a ball of wadding, which she carries off proudly in the tips of her mandibles. She will turn it, under ground, into cotton-felt satchels to hold the store of honey and the egg.

Fabre contributed to science a means of capturing in figure what cannot be adequately expressed in clinical jargon. What it lacks in efficiency and precision, it gains in representing the experience of the creatures studied. The Black-eared Chat, [Bird] is described as “garbed like a Dominican, white-frocked with black wings.” The Amazon ant does not go in search of slave ants to raise her young, she “leaves her barrack rooms in long battalions and marches far afield to hunt for slaves.” The literary flare and sense of adventure appeals to the imagination, which makes it palatable for “youth’s glorious study.”

Fabre’s target audience is children, that is, children in a literal and symbolic sense. In the latter there is an attempt to bring back to life the consuming curiosity adults (especially adults in the scientific community) had as children first discovering the world around them. Fabre upbraids modern science and the schools in which it is taught for “dryness”, “hollow formulas”, and “learned smatterings.” In a sudden flourish Fabre accuses experimental science of wholesale obliviousness:

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 labor in a torture chamber and dissecting room; I make my observations under the blue sky to the song of the cicadas, you subject cell and protoplasm to chemical tests; I study instinct in its loftiest manifestations; you pry into death; I pry into life.

Fabre can offer a sweeping critique of experimental life science without intending a critique of all laboratory science. His position may be a reaction to the fear of natural science giving way entirely to what he perceived as passing scientific fads. There may be a related fear of the absolute subjugation of science to new research technologies. Fabre is protective of natural history, an embedded observation of natural processes as they unfold in their normal environment. The purpose: to capture the grandeur of life in all its manifestations and piece together nature’s larger design.

Any tendency in science to marginalize natural history pulls the search for truth out of context. It would obscure the drama of life playing out in particular beings and the marvelous intricacy with which living things interact in the whole of creation. Science limited to the narrowest specialties—those which never venture beyond the lab or the dissecting tool—often disqualifies natural history from legitimate science. The most empiricist scientists (those who dominate modern academia) “demote” natural history to the ranks of philosophical disciplines on the assumption that science and philosophy are mutually exclusive. Historically, there has been no such opposition. In fact, until recent times, science has been considered a subset of philosophy.

Let’s give credit where credit is due. A sterilized laboratory offers the proximate advantage of a highly controlled environment so as to isolate particular study variables. Once we learn how to influence things by controlling variables, we can better manage our environment, from the treatment of disease to the harnessing of atomic energy. A whole new world of medical, pharmaceutical, and engineering advances is available to us through modern science. However we find ourselves more susceptible than ever to a utilitarian view of science. In other words, scientific utilitarianism has begun to reduce science to technology, so much so that science without direct and immediate product is considered frivolous and obsolete.

Technology can produce genuine progress for man, but it is not an end unto itself. Technology, and the science from which it emerges, have as their end the perfective end of man. Science helps us better realize our nature as integral beings of body and spirit by taking account of more than just man’s material dominion over the world. The tools Fabre used to explore and express reality—imagination, literary devices, philosophical meditations—are not inconsistent with systematic scientific objectivity. They provide a means of establishing continuity among the world’s myriad complex interactions by giving it a narrative. Life in all its aspects is a marvelous adventure. Science, of all disciplines, ought to account for this.
Fabre was keenly sensitive to his own position in the world he observed. Dissection and laboratory controls, for Fabre, represented the attempt to remove the wasp from the world of man. It was not the method he attacked as much as the assumption behind it: that man is not the reference point of science. Fabre personified birds, insects, and even plants, in order to explore meaning in creation. By finding meaning in creation, he might discern a plan. In discerning a plan, he might find his role in the universe. In finding his role in the universe, he might see himself as God sees him.

Jason T. Adams teaches theology at St. Theodore Guerin School in Noblesville, IN.