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Bees (1848)
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

A simple one-page story written to convey the standard “Argument from Design” championed by William Paley, by articulating how the intricate hives constructed by bees follow mathematical principles, and concluding from that there must be a Designer God capable of designing bees who can instinctively follow mathematics.

Mr. Harvey ran an apiary and was well-versed with the bees and the bees, so to speak… One evening, over dinner, he and his 3 children had a brief discussion and some work related to maintenance of bees and the hives. The next day, Mr. Harvey’s young son, Issac, brought in a piece of the honeycomb which had fallen down from the prior day’s work. As Mr. Harvey started explaining to his children what the bees would have done with that fallen comb-piece, Mr. Harlbut, a teacher at “The Academy” made his appearance:

(quoted from Bees)

“At this moment, Mr. Hurlbut, the teacher of the Academy, came up, and took the piece of comb in his hand. “ What a curious piece of workmanship!” said he.

“ Very,” said Isaac.

“ Do you know,” said Mr. Hurlbut, “that these cells are constructed on exact mathematical principles ?”

“ Do bees understand mathematics ?” said Isaac.

“ I can’t say that I think they do; still their work is in accordance with mathematical principles. Sir Isaac Newton undertook to determine in what way a number of vessels could be constructed so as, without leaving any vacant space, they should have the greatest strength. The result of his mathematical investigation was, that cells just such as the bee constructs have the greatest strength and capacity. It was not then known that the cells of the bee conformed to those principles ; that was a subsequent discovery.”

“ How do you explain it, sir ? Bees surely do not study mathematics.”

“ I suppose they are guided by instinct in their work.”

“ There is one thing connected with this subject,” said Isaac’s Father, “ which I should like to have explained. When we look on the works of nature, and see contrivance,—when we see manifest marks of design, we infer a designer. This is the way in which we prove the existence of God from the light of nature.”

“ Certainly.”

“ Well, now there is every mark of design in the honeycomb, and yet it does not prove the existence of a designing author. You confess that the bee does not act from design. Now if the marks of design in the comb of the bee, does not prove a designer, how do the marks of design all around us in nature, prove a designer?”

“Suppose,” said Mr. Hurlbut, “I should show you some intricate mathematical calculations in figures, and you find that they are all correct Should you not say that it proved the existence of a mathematician"

“ Certainly.”

“Suppose then, I show you that the calculations were the work of a machine, such a one as was constructed by Mr. Babbage in England ; would that destroy the proof of the existence of a mathematician ?’

“ No, I should infer that there was a mathematician who made the machine.”

“ On the same principle you would infer, that there was a designer who made the bee, which is in some respects, an animated mathematical machine."

“ I see it now."

Isaac did not at first understand the conversation, but by thinking it over, and asking his father some questions, he came to understand. It gave him an idea of reasoning — a most important idea for a young to gain.”

I liked the quick reference to automated calculating machine and Charles Babbage to add one step in that argument. But of course, it would have been blasphemous in 1848 to continue that chain of thought and have Isaac ask, through the same facility of “reasoning”, whether a Designer God was also “Designed” by a higher God…

(This story was published over a decade before Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace 's seminal works. Still, I feel obligated now to point out that natural selection provides an explanation of how bee hive architecture could be optimized over time without anyone having to have understood the underlying mathematics at all. -ak)

Bees was published in the August 10, 1848 issue of The Youth’s Companion.

(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to Bees
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Fruits of Perseverance by Anonymous
  2. Lucy and David and the God Equation by Alan McKenzie
  3. A Proof of God by Colin Adams
  4. The Young Mathematician by Anonymous
  5. Pascal's Wager by Nancy Rue
  6. Mister God, This is Anna by Fynn
  7. 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein
  8. Saint Joan of New York: A Novel About God and String Theory by Mark Alpert
  9. The God Patent by Ransom Stephens
  10. The Young Philosopher - A Sketch For Parents by Sylvanus Cobb, Jr..
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GenreDidactic, Children's Literature,
MediumShort Stories,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)