Popular Science Monthly/Volume 15/May 1879/The Growth of the Will

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I DESIRE to offer a few observations in reply to the paper by Professor Payton Spence, in the August number of the "Popular Science Monthly,"[1] on my theory of the growth of the Will.

By a calculation of the chance coincidences of the muscles of the human body, Professor Spence appears to reduce to an utter absurdity any theory that makes the will depend upon trial and error. At the same time, he finds in the doctrine of evolution an easy way out of the difficulty.

1. My first remark is, that I from the first assumed a large number of instinctive connections among our organs, not perhaps so large a number as may now seem requisite, but still so many as to reduce greatly the random tentatives in new acquisitions. In my chapter on instinct ("The Senses and the Intellect," and mental science) I described under reflex actions and primitive combined movements, numerous instinctive groupings of considerable complexity on which the will can build its subsequent powers. I set no limit to the number of such instincts; only, I did not refer to any that were not more or less immediately apparent. I reasoned out the locomotive rhythm in the human subject, notwithstanding that it can not be manifested at birth, as in the case of quadrupeds.

2. When I composed "The Senses and the Intellect," the doctrine of evolution was not before the world in any shape. I made no attempt to frame an hypothesis to account for our instincts; I assumed them as I found them, and described the progress of the individual acquisitions as they appeared to my observation. In my subsequent writings I have made ample use of the hypothesis, so far as I think it agrees with the facts. I may refer more particularly to the third edition of "The Emotions and the Will," published not long ago. In "Mental and Moral Science" I allow for the probability of hereditary acquisitions in reference to the various relations summed up in the knowledge of space.

3. My theory of the will, as first conceived, was the expression of the facts as I was able to view them at the time. I regarded as acquisitions everything that appeared to need teaching in some shape or other; as, for example, speech. I inquired what were the powers that existed in the absence of teaching, and what were those that came into being only by teaching, or by some sort of experience or acquirement. I may have misconceived the scope of the two departments; but, to the best of my knowledge at the time, I endeavored to appreciate the extent of each. I saw that an infant at the end of a few months could perform simple articulations, as wa, na, bo, bu, and that on these could be based the instruction in speech. I did not consider that the articulations could be taught; I was inclined to believe that they might be stumbled on by random tentatives. I now proceed to remark on Professor Spence's reductio ad absurdum of that operation.

4. When the Professor talks of the number of muscles that must come into play in pronouncing the letter A, and of the enormous unlikelihood of a child stumbling on the right one in a few months, he leaves out of account various circumstances. For one thing, the combinations are absolutely limited by mutual conflict; only such groupings as can go together are to be allowed. How far this would reduce the possible number of trials I do not say, nor do I mean to affirm that the number would not remain very large; still his figure would be very seriously reduced. I will take a more patent example than speech, namely, the movement of the eyes. We know that six muscles are at work; and, allowing several gradations of energy to each, say four, there are twenty-four elements to play upon in every variety of combination. But now, instead of summing the arithmetical possibilities of union among these elements, let us survey the outcome. Of course in many of the combinations, as when two opposing muscles were equally stimulated, there would be no result; there would be simply a shock of painful collision. When the stimuli are unequal, there would be motion in some one course—up, down, right, left, slanting, curved. The possibilities now are not so very formidable: the eye can only sweep over its field of vision to and fro, here and there; its movements might conceivably be very numerous, but all the purposes of voluntary acquirement might be served without a very great number.

Because the muscles admit of all these possible stimuli, it does not follow that the brain will ever impart them all. The limits of the motor centers would be the limits of the spontaneous impulses. The workings of the system are brought within a narrow routine, from the deficiency of the nervous matter. There are possibilities of combination of the muscles of the eyes that may never have been realized by the educated eye, far less by the uneducated eye.

Take, again, the swing of the limbs. Many muscles are at work, and many possibilities of union are open; but how few are actually realized! The supposition of the vastness of the possible combinations cuts two ways: it opens up an almost infinite source of active capability. For, although it might be long ere we reached some one particular combination, yet, out of the number of combinations that we might make, we should fall upon manifold obvious utilities that would be soon confirmed into useful habits. The same end may be served by many varieties of means; there might be fifty thousand routes of the hand to the mouth, but, provided it got there anyhow, all would end well. The observation would apply generally to Professor Spence's millions of possibilities: many thousands of them would equally hit the same mark.

5. I might dwell at greater length on the two limiting considerations now adduced; that is to say (1), the limits of the central mechanism, and (2) the equal suitability of many thousands of the supposed possible combinations to given ends. I go on, however, to cite the most important qualification of all—the self-controlling power of the active mechanism. This is the assumption needed to account for the origin of voluntary power, whether in the individual or in the race. To expatiate upon this would only be to repeat what I have said in my writings; and I could not, in a short space, say anything that would be likely to satisfy Professor Spence. I prefer for what remains of my paper to comment upon his own theory, namely, the doctrine of heredity or evolution, which he puts forward as the true solution of the difficulties of the will. In the first place, however, I refer him to "The Emotions and the Will," third edition, p. 318, where I endeavor to show that the postulates of my theory of will—namely, spontaneity, the law connecting pleasure with increased vitality, and the contiguous growth of accidental connections—are indispensable to the evolution doctrine, as stated by Spencer and Darwin. What I mean now to affirm is, that precisely the same difficulty, arising from millions of possibilities of combined action, occurs at every step of our progress by evolution. The only thing that serves to abate the difficulty is that, when a happy combination is once struck, it is hereditarily transmitted and becomes a possession for ever. This would be an important mitigation, if hereditary transmission were easily and soon effected; but the facts show clearly that a vast space of time is required to bring any acquisition up to the point of being transmitted to a perceptible amount. So that the time obstacle still recurs; and Professor Spence's difficulty of permutations and combinations recurs with it. Indeed, if his computations were good as against my view of the will, it would be little less crushing against the start of voluntary power in the race: we should need to substitute, in order to the development of humanity, for millions of years, millions of millions. It is evident, to me at least, that there must be a shorter road, in both cases, than his calculations would suppose.

6. I am quite ready to grant that our voluntary acquisitions repose upon certain established tendencies—call them instinctive or hereditary—and that the Professor is perfectly correct in describing the mature will as a mixture of organic maturation with proper acquisition. But I should not quite concur in his mode of expressing the proportions of the two. I think I could show that the brain of man, while it must contain at birth many preëstablished groupings or connections, is distinguished for its flexibility, adaptation, or educability; and that, if we were to sum up the contents of any of our leading acquisitions, say speech, the primordial part—the supposed capacity of articulation—which the Professor thinks would need millions of tentatives, is the base for a superstructure of enormous extent, needing nothing to account for it but the power of retentiveness operating upon these few articulate modes. Consider the power of speaking seven languages, and how little of this can be by any possibility transmitted, and we must admit that, somehow or other, a vast number of connections can be established in the lifetime of an individual; every reasonable allowance being made for hereditary tendencies.

7. In order to prove that we possess by hereditary transmission a countless number of organized muscular arrangements, upon which our acquisitions are based, Professor Spence adduces the instances of abnormal exaltation of capacity, under trance, mesmerism, somnambulism, and other extraordinary conditions. For my own part, I doubt whether these phenomena have been sufficiently investigated to be turned to this use. We may readily suppose that the hereditary tendencies may be inflamed by mental excitement to the ancestral level; in other words, that I can be made to do, without the full measure of training, all that my forefathers may have attained to. This is like the case of forgotten memories revived in fever. But that I should by being mesmerized, or by being thrown into a trance, perform feats that no one of my ancestors had ever been educated to perform—as, for example, ballet-dancing or rope-walking—is not within the legitimate application of the law of heredity. It would be like water rising above its source. I am not disputing the phenomena themselves; but I think they need some other principles for their explanation, and, if quoted as proving the extent of our hereditary organization, they have the defect of proving too much.

  1. "Voluntary Motion," by Prof. Payton Spence, M.D.