Jean Henri Fabre: a lesson in observation and inductive reasoning

Scientific methodology requires the initial step of keen observation.  In order to phrase testable hypotheses and construct an appropriate experimental design, observations of some phenomenon must be made.  Observations lead to questions of how the phenomenon works or why the phenomenon is there, thus throwing the observations into rigor of testing framed by a hypothesis and, ultimately, acceptance or rejection of that hypothesis.

Naturalists are incomparable observers.  They examine the world with their eyes wide open, focusing on those things that to them stand out above the cacophony of background noises, behaviors, colors, and creatures.  Niko Tinbergen (1907-1988), famous in his field of animal behavior, commented that he had observed Black-headed gulls endlessly before he realized that their removal of shell pieces after the hatching of their young was an observation that merited investigation of “Why?” and “How?”.  Was there a survival value to that behavior?  What was the underlying causation of egg-shell removal?  He wasn’t looking for that specific behavior, but after observing the gulls over time, that behavior stood out among the gull’s overall behavioral repertoire.

Fabre (1823-1914) was a French naturalist with no formal training, but a keen eye and a desire to understand the world around him.  He had a particular interest in insect behavior, of which little was known in the 1800s.  Fabre was excellent in recording his observations and experiments, publishing them in 10 vibrant volumes called Souvenirs Entomologiques (1879-1907).  These were later translated into English in Social Life in the Insect World (1916).

Fabre’s discussion of his surprising encounter with Giant Peacock moths as they sought a female cloistered for observation under wire gauze in his home is a remarkable discussion of inductive reasoning and the scientific method.  We will be reading Fabre’s discussion of the Giant Peacock moth together in class to examine his observations and the questions that arise from them, his experimental approach to answer those questions, his expansion of the questions after rejection of initial hypotheses, his increased data collection to increase validity of the results, and his repeatability of the experiment once his hypothesis was accepted.  What a classic example of inductive reasoning!  Fabre drew conclusions or generalizations of Giant Peacock moth behavior based on individual instances suggesting the truth, but not ensuring it.  More questions and experimentation will add validity.  This is the crux of the scientific method and will serve as a primer for us as we begin our year in Biology.

Mrs. Bauchiero

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