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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
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Staveley's British Insects (S192: 1871)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A book review printed in the 11 May 1871 issue of Nature. A figure appearing in the original is not given here. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S192.htm

British Insects. A familiar Description of the Form, Structure, Habits, and Transformations of Insects. By E. F. Staveley, Author of "British Spiders." (London: L. Reeve and Co., 1871.)

     [[p. 22]] To compose a work on so extensive and difficult a subject as "British Insects," which shall convey a large amount of useful and interesting information without being too much overloaded with bare facts,--which shall be accurate without being dry, and amusing without being flippant,--is no easy task, yet it is accomplished by the author of this work in a very creditable manner. The introductory chapters are condensed and clear, just giving enough information on the general structure and economy of insects to interest the uninitiated reader, and lead him on to the more detailed account of each order given in the succeeding chapters.

     An excellent feature of the work is the clearness of the type, and the well-executed woodcuts which somewhat too sparingly illustrate the text, while sixteen coloured plates by Mr. Robinson contain admirably life-like portraits of nearly a hundred of our most conspicuous or most interesting insects. A few extracts will best illustrate the author's style. In the chapter on the larvæ of Lepidoptera it is remarked, that there is neither time nor place in which we may not find the traces of these creatures or the creatures themselves.

     "If at one time of the year we tear a handful of moss from the trunk of a tree, out drop some little brown chrysalids; if at another we drag a tuft of grass up by the roots, there we find silken tubes, the homes of some small caterpillars. We find them in fungi, we find them in grain, we find them in teazle-heads, in fir-cones, in rosebuds, and in fruit; and the Hymenopterist, carefully watching the insect emerging from a gall, discovers that he has reared in it a moth! On the face of a lichen-covered rock we see a moving fragment, and lo! a little caterpillar, neatly encased like a caddis-worm in a tent of lichen, is moving and feeding, safe even from the bird's sharp eye. We open our drawers, and there, oh, sight of horror! What is that streak of white silk upon the best garment--the garment laid by, too good for common wear? We look farther; what is that dusty little roll? It is a great-coat on a microscopic scale. It matches our best garment ominously. It moves--a head peeps out--some little legs, and away it walks!--tell not the housekeeper!--away it walks in safety from the admiring Entomologist."

     As an example of the woodcut illustrations we give the series showing the progressive stages in the transformations of the dragon-fly. The sluggish mud-coloured pupa ascends the stem of a grass or any other stalk of convenient size which rises above the surface of the water, after a time the skin cracks behind, between the wing cases, and the head and thorax of the enclosed fly are drawn out. The abdomen follows, the insect turning up and clinging to the pupa case, where it remains till the wings increase to the full size so rapidly that they can be seen to grow.

     In the chapter on Diptera there are some good remarks on the many erroneous uses of the term "Fly."

     "Being a 'popular name' the people have a right to mean what they choose by it, and they avail themselves of the right--some meaning by it one thing, some another, some every flying insect for which they know no other name. Thus the 'fly' of the former is usually the little hopping turnip beetle; the 'fly' of the hop-grower is an aphis; the 'fly' of the herdsman a gad; while to the citizen almost anything to be seen with wings (except pigeons and sparrows) is a fly. There are some, again, to whom flies are flies, one fly the fly, the common well-known little black house-fly. Here at last is something definite. No, not even now; for these will, at least, claim their young house-fly, and their full-grown house-fly, and expect you to believe that late in the year their house-fly takes to biting you, little dreaming that the little fly, and the big fly, and the fly which bites you, not only are different species but even belong to different genera; that the little fly never grows big, that the big fly never was little, and that their house-fly could not bite you if he would. What, then, [[p. 23]] are we to understand by the name fly? It is clear that the popular sense has no sense at all, or too many senses, and yet the word cannot be spared from our vocabulary. In any Latin dictionary we shall find Musca (fly), and the entomologist pounces upon it and says it shall mean the tribe of two-winged insects. Linnæus so used it, and his genus Musca, now broken up into many new genera, represented the greater number of those insects which the entomologist now claims as flies."

     In some parts of the work there is rather a tendency to jump at conclusions, and to give explanations of very doubtful value. It is attempted, for instance, to explain why the bee has four wings instead of two, by the fact that it is necessary for them to fold up and pack into a small compass to avoid injury and be out of the way during work, and this it is said is "the purpose of the division of the wing." This conveys the entirely erroneous impression that the wings of insects are normally two, and that the four are formed by the "division" of these two, an impression which we feel sure a person so well informed as the author could not have meant to convey. It also seems carrying hypothetical life-history a little too far to say of a bee emerging from the pupa that "into his mind rushed a full sense of his responsibilities," and on finding himself, say, a worker, "he, or rather she, became aware that the duties of house-builder, housekeeper, nurse, and even soldier and sentinel, devolved upon her;" and accordingly she forthwith "addressed herself to the task of repaying to futurity that debt which the cares of a former generation had laid upon her, and daily she toiled in its fulfilment." To make this exposition of the mental state of the newly-born bee complete, we should have been told whether it regulated its conduct in doubtful cases [[p. 24]] according to the utilitarian or the intuitive theory of morality.

     Such vagaries as the above are however rare, and we can conscientiously recommend this book as admirably adapted to lead its readers to observe for themselves the varied phenomena presented by insects, and thus to become true entomologists.

Alfred R. Wallace

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