2 april 2010

Here's that famous passage from Darwin's last and best-selling book,

Worms do not possess any sense of hearing. They took not the least notice of the shrill notes from a metal whistle, which was repeatedly sounded near them; nor did they of the deepest and loudest tones of a bassoon. They were indifferent to shouts, if care was taken that the breath did not strike them. When placed on a table close to the keys of a piano, which was played as loudly as possible, they remained perfectly quiet.

- Darwin, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observation on their Habits, 1881

and now the southern charm and whimsy of Fabre:

Of my experiments in this matter, I will mention only one, the most memorable.

I borrow the municipal artillery, that is to say the mortars which are made to thunder forth on local feast days. The gunner is delighted to load them for the benefit of the Cicadae and to come and fire them off at my place. There are two of them, crammed as though for the most solemn of rejoicings. No politician making the circuit of his constituency in search of re-election was ever honoured with so much powder. We are careful to leave the windows open, to save the panes from breaking. The two thundering engines are set at the foot of the plane-trees in front of my door. No precautions are taken to hide them: the Cicadas singing in the branches overhead cannot see what is happening below.

We are an audience of six. We wait for a moment of comparative quiet. The number of singers is assessed by each of us, as are the strength and rhythm of the song. We are now ready, with ears pricked up to hear what will happen in the aerial orchestra. The mortar is let off, with a noise like a genuine thunder-clap . . .

No consternation whatever up above. The number of performers is the same, the rhythm is the same, the volume of sound the same. The six witnesses are unanimous: the mighty explosion has in no way affected the song of the Cicadae. And the second mortar gives an exactly similar result.

What conclusion are we to draw from this persistence of the orchestra, which is not at all surprised or put out by the firing of a gun? Am I to infer from it that the Cicada is deaf? I will certainly not venture so far as that; but, if any one else more daring than I were to make the assertion, I really should not know what arguments to employ in contradicting him. I should be obliged at least to concede that the Cicada is extremely hard of hearing and that we may apply to him the familiar saying: to bawl like a deaf man.

- Fabre, Souvenirs Entomologiques, 1897

Two great scientist naturalists, working at the top of their game, and yet we now find it so easy to draw conclusions and make connections that they were sometimes unable to accomplish. To be fair on Darwin, he soon found that worms were sensitive to vibrations through their flowerpot containers when placed on the top of the piano, but Fabre never figured out that the auditory range of cicadas might not include the frequencies generated by cannon fire.

Postscript: White was at it too:

When we call loudly thro' the speaking trumpet to Timothy [White's Aunt's tortoise], he does not seem to regard the noise.

- Gilbert White, Journals, September 17th 1780