Monday, June 22, 2009

Of Wasps and Darwin

The following essay was written by William Henry Hudson (1841-1922), a British author, naturalist, and ornithologist. He wrote the novel Green Mansions: A Romance of the Tropical Forest (1904). His writing is beautiful and rich in detail, the sort of detail that a trained naturalist would note.

In this essay he describes wasps in England whose habits recall to his mind “a host of wasps” which he had observed as a boy growing up in Argentina. He also writes about how Darwin’s theory of evolution had an unsettling impact on his thinking.

Hudson was suspicious of the empiricism of Darwin and his supporters. In The Purple Land he wrote: “Ah, yes, we are all vainly seeking after happiness in the wrong way. It was with us once and ours, but we despised it, for it was only the old common happiness which Nature gives to all her children, and we went away from it in search of another grander kind of happiness which some dreamer — Bacon or another — assured us we should find. We had only to conquer Nature, find out her secrets, make her our obedient slave, then the Earth would be Eden, and every man Adam and every woman Eve. We are still marching bravely on, conquering Nature, but how weary and sad we are getting! The old joy in life and gaiety of heart have vanished, though we do sometimes pause for a few moments in our long forced march to watch the labours of some pale mechanician, seeking after perpetual motion, and indulge in a little, dry, cackling laugh at his expense.”

Towards the end of his life, Hudson moved to Sussex, England. His grave is in Broadwater Church in Worthing.

Wasps (1905)
W.H. Hudson

One rough day in early autumn I paused in my walk in a Surrey orchard to watch a curious scene in insect life - a pretty little insect comedy I might have called it had it not brought back to remembrance old days when my mind was clouded with doubts, and the ways of certain insects, especially of wasps, were much in my thoughts. For we live through and forget many a tempest that shakes us; but long afterwards a very little thing - the scent of a flower, the cry of a wild bird, even the sight of an insect - may serve to bring it vividly back and to revive a feeling that seemed dead and gone.

In the orchard there was an old pear-tree which produced very large late pears, and among the fruit the September wind had shaken down that morning there was one over-ripe in which the wasps had eaten a deep cup-shaped cavity. Inside the cavity six or seven wasps were revelling in the sweet juice, lying flat and motionless, crowded together. Outside the cavity, on the pear, thirty or forty blue-bottle flies had congregated, and were hungry for the juice, but apparently afraid to begin feeding on it; they were standing round in a compact crowd, the hindmost pressing on and crowding over the others: but still, despite the pressure, the foremost row of flies refused to advance beyond the rim of the eaten-out part. From time to time one of the more ventursesome spirit would put out his proboscis and begin sucking at the edge; the slight tentative movement would instantly be detected by a wasp, and he would turn quickly round to face the presumptuous fly, lifting his wings in a threatening manner, and the fly would take his proboscis off the rim of the cup. Occasionally hunger would overcome their fear; a general movement of the flies would take place, and several would begin sucking at the same time; then the wasp, seeming to think that more than a mere menacing look or gesture was required in such a case, would start up with an angry buzz, and away the whole crowd of flies would go to whirl round and round in a little blue cloud with a loud, excited hum, only to settle again in a few moments on the big yellow pear and again crowding round the pit as before.

Never once during the time I spent observing them did the guardian wasp relax his vigilance. When he put his head down to suck with the others his eyes still appeared able to reflect every movement in the surrounding crowd of flies into his little spiteful brain. They could crawl round and crawl round as much as they liked on the very rim, but let one begin to suck and he was up in arms in a moment.

The question that occurred to me was: How much of all this behaviour could be set down to instinct and how much to intelligence and temper? The wasp certainly has a waspish disposition, a quick resentment, and is most spiteful and tyrannical towards other inoffensive insects. He is a slayer and devourer of them, too, as well as a feeder with them on nectar and sweet juices; but when he kills, and when the solitary wasp paralyses spiders, caterpillers, and various insects and stores them in cells to provide a horrid food for the grubs which will eventually hatch from the still undeposited eggs, the wasp then acts automatically, or by insticnt, and is driven, as it were, by an extraneous force. In a case like the one of the wasp's behaviour on the pear, and in innumerable other cases which one may read of or see for himself, there appears to be a good deal of the element of the mind. Doubtless it exists in all insects, but differs in degree; and some Orders appear to be more intelligent than others. Thus, any person accustomed to watch insects closely and note their little acts would probably say that there is less mind in the beetles and more in the Hymenoptera than in other insects; also that in the last-named Order the wasps rank highest.

The scene in the orchard also served to remind me of a host of wasps, greatly varying in size, colour, and habits, although in their tyrannical temper very much alike, which I had been accustomed to observe in boyhood and youth in a distant region. They attracted me more, perhaps, than any other insects on the account of their singular and brilliant coloration and their formidable character. They were beautiful but painful creatures; the pain they caused me was first bodily, when I interfered in their concerns or handled them carelessly, and was soon over; later it was mental and more enduring.

To the very young colour is undoubtedly the most attractive quality in nature, and these insects were enamelled in colours that made them the rivals of butterflies and shining metallic beetles. There were wasps with black and yellow rings and with black and scarlet rings; wasps of a unifrom golden brown; others like our demoiselle dragon-fly that looked as if fresh from a bath of splendid metallic blue; others with steel-blue bodies and bright red wings; others with crimson bodies, yellow head and legs, and bright blue wings; others black with gold, with pink head and legs; and so on through scores and hundreds of species 'as Nature list to play with her little ones,' until one marvelled at so great a variety, so many singular and beautiful contrasts, produced by half-a-dozen brilliant colours.

It was when I began to find out the ways of wasps with other insects on which they nourish their young that my pleasure in them became mixed with pain. For they did not, like spiders, ants, dragon-flies, tiger-beetles, and other rapacious kinds, kill their prey at once, but paralysed it by stinging its nerve centres to make it incapable of resistance, and stored it in a closed cell, so that the grub to be hatched by and by should have fresh meat to feed on - not fresh-killed but live meat.

Thus the old vexed question - How reconcile these facts with the idea of a beneficent Being who designed it all - did not come to me from reading, nor from teachers, since I had none, but was thrust upon me by nature itself. In spite, however, of its having come in that sharp way, I, like many another, succeeded in putting the painful question from me and keeping to the old traditions. The noise of the battle of Evolution, which had been going on for years, hardly reached me; it was but a faintly heard murmur, as of storms immeasurably far away 'on alien shores.' This could not last.

One day an elder brother, on return from travel in distant lands, put a copy of the famous Origin of Species in my hands and advised me to read it. When I had done so, he asked me what I thought of it. 'It's false!' I exclaimed in a passion, and he laughed, little knowing how important a matter this was to me, and told me I could have the book if I liked. I took it without thanks and read it again and thought a good deal about it, and was nevertheless able to resist it teachings for years, solely because I could not endure to part with a philosophy of life, if I may so describe it, which could not logically be held, if Darwin was right, and without which life would not be worth having. So I thought at the time; it is a most common delusion of the human mind, for we see that the good which is so much to us is taken forcibly away, and that we get over our loss and go on very much as before.

It is curious to see now that Darwin himself gave the first comfort to those who, convinced against their will, were anxious to discover some way of escape which would not involve the total abandonment of their cherished beliefs. At all events, he suggested the idea, which religious minds were quick to seize upon, that the new explanation of the origin of the innumerable forms of life which people on earth from one or a few primordial organisms afforded us a nobler conception of the creative mind than the traditional one. It does not bear examination, probably it originated in the author's kindly and compassionate feelings rather than in his reasoning faculties; but it gave temporary relief and served its purpose. Indeed, to some, to very many perhaps, it still serves as a refuge - this poor, hastily made straw shelter, which lets in rain and wind, but seems better to them than no shelter at all.

But of the intentionally consoling passages in the book, the most impressive to me was that in which he refers to instincts and adaptation such as those of the wasp, which writers on natural history subjects are accustomed to describe, in a way that seems quite just and natural, as diabolical. That, for example, of the young cuckoo ejecting its foster-brothers from the nest; of slave-making ants, and of the larvae of the Ichneumonidae feeding on the live tissues of the caterpillers in whose bodies they have been hatched. He said that it was not perhaps a logical conclusion, but it seemed to him more satisfactory to regard such things 'not as specifically endowed or created instincts, but as small consequences of one general law' - the law of variation and the survival of the fittest.


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