Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/January 1875/Emotions in the Primitive Man

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A MEASURE of evolution in living things is, the degree of correspondence between changes in the organism and coexistences and sequences in the environment. In the "Principles of Psychology," it was shown that mental development is "an adjustment of inner to outer relations that gradually extends in Space and Time, that becomes increasingly special and complex, and that has its elements ever more precisely coordinated and more completely integrated." Though in that place chiefly exemplified as the law of intellectual progress, this is equally the law of emotional progress. The emotions are compounded out of simple feelings, or rather out of the ideas of them; the higher emotions are compounded out of the lower emotions; and thus there is progressing integration. For the same reason there is progressing complexity: each larger consolidated aggregate of ideal feelings contains more varied, as well as more numerous, clusters of components. The extension of the correspondence in Space, too, though lest manifest, may still be asserted: witness the difference between the proprietary feeling in the savage, responding only to a few material objects adjacent to him — weapons, decorations, food, place of shelter, etc. — and the proprietary feeling in the civilized man, who owns land in Canada, shares in an Australian mine, Egyptian stock, and mortgage-bonds on an Indian railway. And, that the extension of the correspondence in Time may be asserted of the more evolved emotions will be manifest, on remembering how the sentiment of possession is gratified by acts of which the fruition can come only after many years, and even gets pleasure from an ideal power over bequeathed property; and on remembering how the sentiment of justice seeks satisfaction in reforms that are to benefit future generations.

As pointed out in a later division of the "Principles of Psychology," a more special measure of mental development is the degree of representativeness in the states of consciousness. Cognitions and feelings were both classified in the ascending order of presentative, presentative-representative, representative, and re-representative. This general order has been necessary; since there must have been presentation before representation, and representation before re-representation. It was shown, too, that this more special standard harmonizes with the more general standard; since increasing representativeness in the states of consciousness is shown by the more extensive integrations of ideas, by the greater definiteness with which they are represented, by the greater complexity of the integrated groups, as well as by the greater heterogeneity among their elements; and here it may be added that greater representativeness is also shown by the greater distances in space and time to which the representations extend.

There is a further measure which may be serviceably used along with the other two. As was shown in the "Principles of Psychology:"

"Mental evolution, both intellectual and emotional, may be measured by the degree of remoteness from primitive reflex action. The formation of sudden, irreversible conclusions on the slenderest evidence is less distant from reflex action than is the formation of deliberate and modifiable conclusions after much evidence has been collected. And similarly, the quick passage of simple emotions into the particular kinds of conduct they prompt is less distant from reflex action than is the comparatively-hesitating passage of compound emotions into kinds of conduct determined by the joint instigation of their components."

Here, then, are our guides in studying the primitive man as an emotional being. Considering him as less evolved, we must expect to find him comparatively wanting in those most complex emotions that respond to multitudinous and remote probabilities and contingencies. His consciousness may be regarded as unlike that of the civilized man, by consisting in a greater degree of sensations and the simple represented feelings directly associated with them, and by containing fewer and weaker feelings involving representations of consequences beyond the proximate. And the relatively-simple emotional consciousness thus characterized we may expect to be consequently characterized by less of that coherence and continuity which results when the promptings of direct desires are checked by sentiments responding to ultimate effects, and by more of that irregularity which results when each desire as it arises discharges itself in action before counter-desires have been awakened.


On turning from these deductions to examine the facts. with a view to induction, we meet difficulties like those which we met in the last chapter. As in size and structure the inferior races differ from one another enough to produce some indefiniteness in our conception of the primitive man—physical; so in their passions and sentiments the inferior races present contrasts sufficiently marked to obscure the essential traits of the primitive man—emotional.

This last difficulty, like the first, is indeed one that might have been anticipated. The spreading of the race during all past epochs into the multitudinous widely-contrasted habitats entailing widely unlike modes of life has necessarily been accompanied by emotional specialization as well as by physical specialization. And beyond differentiations of character directly due to differences of natural circumstances and resulting habits, the inferior varieties of men have been made to differ by the degrees and durations of social discipline they have been subject to. Referring to such unlikenesses, Mr. Wallace remarks that "there is, in fact, almost as much difference between the various races of savage as of civilized peoples."

To conceive the primitive man, therefore, as he existed when social aggregation commenced, we must generalize as well as we can this entangled and partially-conflicting evidence: led mainly by the traits common to the very lowest, and finding what guidance we may in the a priori conclusions set down above.

The fundamental trait of impulsiveness, though one to be looked for as universal among inferior races, is not everywhere conspicuous. Taken in the mass, the aborigines of the New World seem impassive in comparison with those of the Old World: some of them, indeed, exceeding the civilized people of Europe in ability to control their emotions. Through stories most peoples have been made familiar with this trait of the North-American Indians; and the statements of recent travelers confirm those of older ones. The Dakotas are said to suffer with patience both physical and moral pains. The Creeks display "phlegmatic coldness and indifference." So, too, with various native peoples of South America. According to Burnand, the Guiana Indian, though "strong in his affections," will lose his dearest relations, as he bears excruciating pains, with "apparent stoical insensibility;" and Humboldt speaks of bis "resignation." So, too, of the Uaupes: Wallace comments on "the apathy of the Indian, who scarcely ever exhibits any feelings of regret on parting or of pleasure on his return." And, that a character of this kind was wide-spread, seems implied by testimonies respecting the ancient semi-civilized peoples of America, who were not impulsive. Nevertheless, there are among these races traits of a contrary kind, more congruous with those of the uncivilized races generally. Spite of their usually unimpassioned behavior, the Dakotas rise into frightful states of bloody fury when killing buffaloes; and among the phlegmatic Creeks there are "very frequent suicides caused by trifling disappointments." Some of these American indigenes, too, do not show this apathy: as, in the North, the Snake Indian, who is said to be "a mere child, irritated by, and pleased with, a trifle;" and as, in the South, the Tupis, of whom it is said that "if a savage struck a foot against a stone, he raged over it, and bit it like a dog." This exceptional non-impulsiveness in many American races may possibly be due to constitutional inertness. Among ourselves, there are people whose habitual equanimity results from want of vitality: being but half-alive, the emotions produced in them by irritations have less than the usual intensities. That a general apathy, thus caused, may account for this peculiarity, seems in South America implied by the alleged sexual coldness.

Recognizing such anomaly as there may be in these facts, we find throughout the rest of the world a general congruity. Passing from North America to Asia, we come to the Kamtchadales, of whom we read that they are "excitable, not to say (for men) hysterical. A light matter set them mad, or made them commit suicide;" and we come to the Kirghiz, who are said to be "fickle and uncertain." Turning to Southern Asiatics, we find Burton asserting of the Bedouin that he is "a mixture of worldly cunning and great simplicity," and that his valor is "fitful and uncertain." And while, of the Arabs, Denham remarks that "their common conversational intercourse appears to be a continual strife and quarrel," Palgrave says they will "chaffer half a day about a penny, while they will throw away the worth of pounds on the first asker." Among the African races we find like traits. Captain Burton, saying that the East-African is, "like all other barbarians, a strange mixture of good and evil," describes him thus:

"He is at once very good-tempered and hard-hearted, combative and cautious; kind at one moment, cruel, pitiless, and violent, at another; sociable and
unaffectionate; superstitious and grossly irreverent; brave and cowardly, servile and oppressive; obstinate, yet fickle and fond of changes; with points of honor, but without a trace of honesty in word or deed; a lover of life, though addicted to suicide; covetous and parsimonious, yet thoughtless and improvident."

With the exception of the Bechuanas, of whom even temper and self-command are asserted, the like is true of the races farther south. Thus, in the Damara, Galton says the feeling of revenge is very transient — "gives way to admiration of the oppressor." Burchell describes the Hottentots as passing from extreme laziness to extreme eagerness for action. And the emotional nature of the Bushmen is summed up by Arbrousset as quick, generous, headstrong, vindictive — very noisy quarrels are of daily occurrence: "Father and son will attempt to kill each other." Among the scattered societies of the Eastern Archipelago, those formed of Malays, or in which the Malay blood predominates, do not exhibit this trait. The Malagasy are said to have "passions never violently excited" — are not quick in resenting injuries, but cherish the desire for revenge; and the pure Malay is described as not demonstrative. The rest, however, have the ordinary trait. Among the Negrittos, the Papuan is "impetuous, excitable, noisy;" the Feejeeans have "emotions easily roused but transient," and "are extremely changeable in their disposition;" the Andamanese "are all frightfully passionate and revengeful;" and Ave are told of the Tasmanians that, "like all savages, they quickly change from smiles to tears." Among other of the lowest races there are the Fuegians, who "have hasty tempers," and "are loud and furious talkers;" and the Australians, whose impulsiveness Stuart implies by saying that the "angry Australian jin exceeds the European scold," and that a man "remarkable for haughtiness and reserve sobbed long when his nephew was taken from him." Bearing in mind that such non-impulsiveness as is shown by the Malays occurs in a race that has reached a considerable degree of civilization, and that the lowest races, as the Andamanese, Tasmanians, Fuegians, Australians, betray impulsiveness in a very decided manner, we may safely assert it to be a trait of primitive man, possessed, probably, in a greater degree than is implied by the above quotations. What the earliest character was, we may best conceive by reading the following vivid description of a Bushman. Asserting his simian appearance, Lichtenstein continues:

"What gives the more verity to such a comparison was the vivacity of his eyes, and the flexibility of his eyebrows, which he worked up and down with every change of countenance. Even his nostrils and the corners of his mouth, nay, his very ears, moved involuntarily, expressing his hasty transitions from eager desire to watchful distrust.... When a piece of meat was given him, and half rising he stretched out a distrustful arm to take it, he snatched it hastily, and stuck it immediately into the fire, peering around with his little
keen eyes, as if fearing that some one should take it away again: all this was done with such looks and gestures, that any one must have been ready to swear he had taken the example of them entirely from an ape."

Indirect evidence that early human nature differed from later human nature, by having this extreme emotional variability, is yielded us by the contrast between the child and the adult among ourselves. For, on the hypothesis of evolution, the civilized man, passing through phases representing phases passed through by the race, will, early in life, betray this impulsiveness which the early race had. The saying that the savage has the mind of a child with the passions of a man—or, as it would be more correctly put, has adult passions which act in a childish manner—thus possesses a deeper meaning than appears. There is a genetic relationship between the two natures, such that, allowing for differences of kind and degree in the emotions, we may regard the coördination of them in the child as fairly representing the coördination in the primitive man.

The more special emotional traits are in large part dependent on, and further illustrative of, this fundamental trait. This relative impulsiveness—this smaller departure from primitive reflex action, this lack of the re-representative emotions which hold the simpler ones in check—is accompanied by improvidence.

The Australians are described as "incapable of any thing like persevering labor the reward of which is in futurity." According to Kolben, the Hottentots are "the laziest people under the sun;" and we are told that with the Bushmen it is "always either a feast or a famine." Passing to the indigenes of India, it is said of the Todas that they are "indolent and slothful;" of the Bhils, that they have "a contempt and dislike to labor"—will half-starve rather than work; while of the Santals we read that they have not "the unconquerable laziness of the very old Hill-tribes." So, from Northern Asia, the Kirghiz may be taken as exemplifying idleness; and in America we have the fact that none of the aboriginal peoples, if uncoerced, show capacity for industry. In the North, cut off from his hunting life, the Indian, capable of no other, decays and disappears; and in the South the tribes disciplined by the Jesuits lapsed into their original state, or a worse, when the stimuli and restraints ceased. All which facts are in part ascribable to inadequate consciousness of the future—feeble grasp of distant results. Where, as among the Sandwich-Islanders, and in some of the Malay societies, we find considerable industry, it goes along with such a social state as implies discipline throughout a long past—conditions have caused considerable divergence from the primitive nature. It is true that perseverance with a view to remote benefit occurs among savages. They bestow much time and pains on their weapons: six months to make as many arrows, immense patience in drilling holes through stones. But in these cases, beyond the fact that the benefits are simple, proximate, and conspicuous, it is to be observed that little muscular effort is required, and the activity is thrown on perceptive faculties which are constitutionally active.[1]

A trait which naturally goes along with inability so to conceive the future as to be influenced by the conception is a childish mirthfulness—merriment not sobered by thought of what is coming. Though sundry races of the New World, along with their general impassiveness, are little inclined to gayety, and though among the Malay races and the Dyaks gravity is a characteristic, yet generally it is otherwise. Of the New-Caledonians, Feejeeans, Tahitians, New-Zealanders, we read that they are always laughing and joking. Throughout Africa, too, the negro shows us everywhere this same trait; and of other races, in other lands, the various descriptions of various travelers are: "full of fun and merriment," "full of life and spirits," "merry and talkative," "skylarking in all ways," "boisterous gayety," "laughing immoderately at trifles." Even the Esquimaux, notwithstanding all their privations, are described as "a happy people." We have but to remember how greatly habitual anxiety about coming events moderates the flow of spirits—we have but to contrast the lively but improvident Irishman with the grave but provident Scot—to see that there is a relation between these traits in the uncivilized man. The relatively-impulsive nature, implying total absorption in a present pleasure, causes at the same time these excesses of gayety and this inattention to threatened evils.

Along with the trait of improvidence there goes, both as cause and consequence, an undeveloped proprietary sentiment. When thinking about the nature of the savage, we overlook the fact that he lacks the extended consciousness of individual possession, and that under his conditions it is impossible for him to have it. Established, as the sentiment can be, only by multitudinous experiences of the gratifications which possession brings, continued through successive generations, it cannot arise where the circumstances do not permit these experiences. Beyond the few rude appliances ministering to his bodily wants, the primitive man has nothing that he can accumulate—there is no sphere for an acquisitive tendency. Where he has grown into a pastoral life, there arises a possibility of benefits from increased possessions—he profits by multiplying his flocks. Still, while he remains nomadic, it is difficult to supply his flocks with unfailing food when they are large, and he has increased losses from enemies and wild animals; so that the benefits of accumulation are kept within narrow limits. Only as the agricultural state is reached, and only as the tenure of land passes from the tribal form, through the family form, to the individual form, is there a widening of the sphere for the proprietary sentiment.

So that the primitive man, distinguished by his improvidence, distinguished also by deficiency of that desire to own which checks improvidence, is, by his circumstances, debarred from the experiences which develop this desire and diminish the improvidence.

Let us turn now to those emotional traits which directly affect the formation of social groups. Varieties of mankind, as we now find them, are social in different degrees; and, further, they are distinguished by different degrees of independence—are here tolerant of restraint and here intolerant of it. Clearly, the proportions between these two characteristics must greatly affect the social union.

Describing the Mantras, indigenes of the Malay Peninsula, Père Bourien says: "Liberty seems to be to them a necessity of their very existence;" "every individual lives as if there were no other person in the world but himself;" they separate if they dispute; So, too, of the wild men in the interior of Borneo, "who do not associate with each other;" and whose children, when "old enough to shift for themselves, usually separate, neither one afterward thinking of the other." A nature of this kind manifestly precludes social development; and it shows its effects in the solitary families of the wood-Veddahs, or those of the Bushmen, whom Arbrousset describes as "independent and poor beyond measure, as if they had sworn to remain always free and without possessions." Of sundry races that remain in a low state, this trait is remarked; as in South America, among the Araucanians, "the Mapuché is impatient of contradiction, and brooks no command;" as, according to Bates, among the Indians of Brazil, who, tractable when quite young, begin to display "impatience of all restraint at puberty;" as among the Caribs, who were "impatient under the least infringement" of their independence. Sundry of the Hill-tribes of India, too, exhibit a kindred nature. The savage Bhils have "a natural spirit of independence;" the Bodo and Dhimal "resist injunctions injudiciously urged, with dogged obstinacy;" and the Lepchas "undergo great privations rather than submit to oppression." This impediment to social evolution we meet with again among some nomadic races. "A Bedouin," says Burckhardt, "will not submit to any command, but readily yields to persuasion;" and he is said by Palgrave to have "a high appreciation of national and personal liberty," and "a remarkable freedom from any thing like caste feeling in what concerns ruling families and dynasties." That this moral trait is injurious during early stages of social progress, is in some cases observed by travelers, as by Earl, who says of the New Guinea people that their "impatience of control" precludes organization. Not, indeed, that absence of independence will of itself cause an opposite result. The Kamtchadales, according to Grieve, exhibit "slavishness to people who use them hard," and "contempt of those who treat them with gentleness;" and Galton, describing the Damaras as having "no independence," says they "court slavery"—that "admiration and fear" are their only strong sentiments. A certain proportion between the feelings prompting obedience and prompting resistance seems required. The Malays, who have evolved into several semi-civilized societies, are said to be submissive to authority; and yet each is "sensitive to any interference with the personal liberty of himself or another." Clearly, however, be the cause of submission what it may—whether want of self-assertion, or fear, or awe of superiority, which, separately and together, in different proportions, favor subordination—a relatively-subordinate nature is everywhere shown by men composing social aggregates of considerable size. In such semi-civilized societies as tropical Africa contains, it is conspicuous; and it was manifest in the peoples who formed the extinct Oriental societies, as also in those who formed the extinct societies of the New World.

If, as among the Mantras above named, intolerance of restraint is joined with want of sociality, there is a double obstacle to social union: a cause of dispersion is not checked by a cause of aggregation. If, as among the Todas, a man will sit inactive for hours, "seeking no companionship," he is under less temptation to tolerate restrictions, han if solitude is unbearable. Clearly, the ferocious Feejeean, in whom, strange as it seems, "the sentiment of friendship is strongly developed," is impelled by this sentiment, as well as by his extreme loyalty, to continue in a society in which despotism based on cannibalism is absolutely without check.

When we average the evidence, first as presented by the very lowest men who group themselves socially to the smallest extent, and then as presented by more advanced men forming larger aggregates, we find warrant for saying that primitive men, who, before any arts of life were developed, necessarily lived on wild food, implying wide dispersion of small numbers, were, on the one hand, not much habituated to associated life, and were, on the other hand, habituated to that uncontrolled following of immediate desires which goes along with separateness. So that, while the attractive force was small, the repulsive force was great. Only as primitive men were impelled into greater gregariousness by local conditions which furthered the maintenance of many individuals in a small area, could there come that increase of sociality required to check unrestrained action. And here we see yet a further difficulty which stood in the way of social evolution at the outset.—From the "Principles of Sociology" Part I.

  1. It should be remarked as a qualifying fact, which has its physiological as well as its sociological interest, that the characters of men and women are in sundry cases described as unlike in power of application. Among the Bhils, while the men hate labor, many of the women are said to be industrious. Among the Kookies, too, the women are "quite as industrious and indefatigable as the Naga women:" the men of both tribes being lazy. Similarly in Africa. In Loango, though the men are inert, the women "give themselves up to" husbandry "with indefatigable ardor;" and our recent experiences on the Gold Coast show that a like contrast holds there. The establishment of this difference seems to imply the limitation of heredity by sex.