Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/March 1891/Laws of Government Among the Lower Animals

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1196371Popular Science Monthly Volume 38 March 1891 — Laws of Government Among the Lower Animals1891J. W. Slater


By J. W. SLATER, F. E. S.

"Positive morality under some form or other has existed in every society of which the world has had experience."—(Grote's Fragments on Ethical Subjects, vol. iii, p. 497.)

WHETHER the author just quoted knowingly or intentionally referred to the societies of the lower animals, as well as to those of mankind, I am not aware. Perhaps, if he had no such intentions, his testimony may be regarded as all the more valuable. Assuredly the ant-hill, the wasp's nest, the rookery, or even the roaming herd of elephants, antelopes, peccaries, or the like, could not cohere, and therefore could not continue to exist as such, without some kind of law and government. Such law, too, must have its foundations laid not exclusively in the physical force of the individual, but in part upon notions of right or wrong, however vague and crude. Absolute personal equality is probably non-existent in any case. Bodily strength plays a part the more prominent the less complex and perfect is the organization of the society. In a herd of bisons, of wild horses, of elephants, or in a troop of baboons, the strongest, generally a male in the prime of life, possesses and exerts a certain supremacy. He holds exactly the same position as does the chief of a savage human tribe; holds it by the same tenure and exercises it in a very similar manner, and subject to the same limitations. That his authority is not absolutely uncontrolled we may learn from a fact to which I shall have to return—the existence of adult males, generally large and powerful, who live in exile.

Among birds the moral life is more highly developed than among mammalia, as we may learn from their being more generally monogamous. Hence, with them, individual superiority sinks very much into the background. The rookery or the heronry seems to form a republic where all are subject to a code of laws which the majority is always ready to put in force against any offender.

The queen bee holds her position by the right of the strongest as against all rivals, and, on the birth or the introduction of another female, she is always bound to do battle to the death for her position. But her sway over her subjects—if such we may consider them—unlike that of the strongest tusker in a herd of elephants, rests nowise upon physical force.

Before speaking of the laws of brutes, we must necessarily first show that they have a perception of duties and of rights. Many facts prove that the lower animals recognize property, and distinguish as clearly as do many men between meum and tuum. When trespassing they plainly know that their quarrel is not just, and conscience makes cowards of many if not of all.

"You are aware," says a writer in the Zoölogist (vol. v, p. 1635), "that in Rome the inhabitants are accustomed to throw out the garbage and refuse of their houses, which is deposited generally in some blind corner appointed for that purpose by the police. Though several hundreds of these depots exist in Rome, not one is unappropriated, but has become the fee-simple of some particular dog, who will not suffer his claim to be invaded. Some cases of co-partnership in a corner have been observed, but with brothers on the death of a parent, and desperate battles occur occasionally about 'fixity of tenure,' as in Tipperary."

The homeless dogs of Constantinople have their particular quarters of the city, into which no dog save its regularly established canine inmates can intrude without the risk of being torn to pieces.

A spider, unless greatly superior in size, hesitates to invade the web of another spider for marauding purposes. Ants consider themselves rightfully entitled not merely to the city they have built, and the roads they have laid out, but to the whole neighboring territory, and they will brave any odds in its defense.

I do not assert that among the lower animals right is the only might. Like the "lords of creation" they often covet what is not their own, and, like them, they sometimes overcome the feeling of respect for their neighbor's landmark. There are feathered and four-footed Romanoffs—Nachbarfresser—who, without scruple, seek to absorb whatsoever lies in their vicinity. Nor does righteous indignation always lend the assailed party strength enough to defend his Plevna.

We may go yet further: not only do animals feel a right to such possessions as they have acquired by custom, by first discovery, or by labor. Such right, among social species, is recognized by public opinion, and is enforced by positive law. In support of this statement let us turn to the rookery. It has been observed, not once only but repeatedly, that a particular couple of rooks, too lazy to fetch building materials for themselves, and given to plundering their more industrious neighbors, have been formally punished by the community. The penalty inflicted varies greatly. Sometimes it consists simply in a sound beating. Sometimes the ill-gotten nest is summarily demolished, and the materials are given back to their rightful owners. Sometimes, again—perhaps when sundry former convictions are on record—the offenders, after a severe cuffing, are forever banished from the rookery and left to seek out for themselves a new settlement. On one occasion I saw a rook stealthily approach the bottom of a completed nest and try to remove some of the sticks. But the inmate, reaching over the edge, gave the thief a good peck, whereupon he at once new away without attempting to defend himself or to retaliate. Similar cases may be witnessed among other species of birds which live in communities.

It may here be pertinently asked whether the laws of the lower animals protect persons as well as property, or whether they resemble the criminal code of England, which imprisons the thief and dismisses the ruffian with a paltry fine—in fact, a retrospective license. In reply, I must point to the "rogue elephants" of India and Ceylon, and to the outlawed buffaloes of South Africa. The gratuitous malignity of these outlaws has been noted by many travelers, and it has been ascribed to their expulsion from the herd. This is confounding cause with effect: they are banished for being quarrelsome and for repeated breaches of the peace.

But to return to the rookery: "crow courts," or crow parliaments" as they are locally called, have been observed in various districts. These are prolonged meetings in which, after much noise, sometimes proceeding from one bird, sometimes from a small number, and then again from the general assembly, a single rook is attacked by the community and put to death. These executions do not seem to be connected with any inroad upon property, since they are not confined to the nesting season, the great time for robberies. There is hence reason to suspect that we have here proceedings for offenses against the person, or against the general well-being of rookdom.

In districts where carrion crows abound, similar trials and executions have also been observed among these bold marauders.

Among rooks, further, laws of a different kind may be traced, the exact purport of which has not been discovered, but which evidently subserve a public purpose rather than the mere regulation of private disputes. For instance, in a grove tenanted by a flourishing rookery, one particular tree, seemingly eligible enough, was never selected for nest-building purposes. If a pair of young birds made the attempt, they were prevented and the foundations of their house regularly removed until they conformed to the custom of their fellow-citizens and built on some authorized tree. In this one case a clew to the proceedings was furnished by accident. A violent storm suddenly overthrew the tree, which, though apparently sound and vigorous, was inwardly decayed beneath the surface of the ground. How the rooks discovered the untrustworthy condition of the tree is a question interesting, indeed, but beside our purpose.

The existence of such laws proves that the rooks have made some advances in civilization, and deem it a duty to protect the lives of their community even against its own ignorance or carelessness. The prohibition of nests in the unsafe tree is a step toward sanitary legislation.

But there are other instances, instructive in their way, where rooks interfere with members of their own community without any apparent cause. White remarks (Selborne, Observations on Various Parts of Nature), "If a pair offer to build on a single tree, the nest is plundered and demolished at once." This has been repeatedly observed by other naturalists where the trees were quite unexceptionable in point of soundness. Surely these birds, by their conduct in such cases, remind us of certain proceedings of our own species. The rooks who persecute their fellow-citizens who build on unauthorized trees are exactly like human beings who claim a vested interest in their neighbors' speculative opinions, who carry scientific questions to be decided upon in a police court, who dictate what may be discussed and what must be ignored, and who seek to limit the methods of scientific research. Hence the rooks are probably the first animals which have evolved the vice of intolerance. Censorships, anti-vivisection agitations, the imprisonment or execution of discoverers, may thus be traced down the zoölogical series, and may be deemed the ultimate transformation of the tabooed trees near the rookery. In the rooks, as in the demos of ancient Athens, as G. H. Lewes pointed out, it is curious that the first distinct manifestation of intolerance should be in a republican community. Perhaps here, as elsewhere, political freedom has to be bought at the price of intellectual and moral bondage.

The laws of ants are probably more complete and intricate than those of the rookery. In the ant-hill the individual is completely absorbed in and subjected to the interests of the community. Cases which seem to indicate sanitary legislation have been observed by Sir John Lubbock and others. Theft in communist societies like those of ants can not occur, and needs, therefore, no repression. Neglect of duty does occasionally take place, and it has been seen to be promptly punished with death. Among the agricultural ants of Texas prisoners have been known to be brought in by a fellow-citizen and handed over in a very rough manner to the guards who are always on duty on the level ground before the city, and who carry the offender into the underground passages. Working ants (Mrs. L. Hutton, Journal of the Linnæan Society, vol. v, p. 217) have been seen to be killed by their companions, apparently as the penalty of inaction.

It is sometimes contended that the divisions of the human species in general, or of any of its races and subraces, into nations, tribes, and clans, is a phenomenon which has no parallel among the lower animals. This view is a grave error. Almost every truly and permanently gregarious species, as distinguished from such as merely flock together temporarily for some casual purpose, shows plain marks of a subdivision into nationalities. These tribes, by whatever name man may condescend to call them, possess the main features of similar aggregations among the human species. They lay claim to some particular territory; they defend it to the best of their ability against outsiders, and at the same time in a manner truly human they are not unwilling to encroach upon the domains of their neighbors. They have even two distinct moral codes, one to be observed toward fellow-citizens and the other for aliens of their own species.

Nationality among the lower animals shows itself in two very different types. Among vertebrates, the nation, wherever it exists, is composed, as in the human species, of a number of families, monogamous or polygamous as the case may be.

Among the Articulata, at least in the only cases where true nationality can be traced—i. e., among insects—the social unit is not the family but the individual. In the case of the hive bee we might, indeed, say that the family and the nation are coextensive. Among ants this is not the case, since in every well-established ant-hill there are several queens, so that the community is not linked together by blood. It may be contended that the absence of the family, viewed as a something which for most individuals has claims stronger than those of the state, is the cause which has permitted the successful organization of communism in insect societies.

Among ants, bees, wasps, etc., the state has no rival. She absorbs all those sympathies and energies which in human society the average individual devotes to the interests of his wife and children.

We thus see that, from their own point of view, theorists on social reform have been logically consistent in attacking the institution of marriage and the entire system of domestic life, though unwittingly they have sought to approximate man to the condition of the ant and the bee. They would form society, not as heretofore of families, but of individuals; or, as it might be expressed in physical language, they seek to build up the community not of molecules, but of atoms!

But suppose that communism were successful in the abolition of marriage among mankind, would it therefore reach its ideal? Let us look a little more closely into insect life.

It is not enough to show that the failure of communism among mankind and its success among ants and bees are due to the existence and the power of the family in the former case and to its absence in the latter. We must yet inquire into the why and the wherefore of so important a distinction. Vertebrate society, where it exists at all, is founded on family life, because every normal vertebrate animal is attracted to some individual of the opposite sex by the strongest impulse of its nature, that of self-preservation alone, and not always, being excepted. Invertebrate society where it exists in perfection, as among certain Hymenoptera, is not formed of an aggregation of families because the great majority of hymenopterous insects of the social species are neuters, incapable of domestic attachment and devoted to the community alone. To attempt without the existence of neuters to introduce among mankind the social arrangements of the ant-hill is an utterly baseless scheme.

Looking a little further in the same direction, we see that among men there is a wide diversity both in intelligence and in energy. The more highly endowed individual, if he does not leave his children in a better position, materially speaking, is yet likely to hand down to them his own personal superiority. In this manner the equality craved for by theorists is practically annulled.

Among ants nothing parallel can occur. The workers and the fighters are sexless. If any individual is superior to its fellows in strength and intelligence—and certain facts recorded lead us to believe that such must be the case—it has no offspring to whom its gains could be bequeathed or its personal superiority handed down.

Hence the origin of a pariah, a criminal, or a pauper class is prevented. Conversely, the formation of a class d'élite is rendered impossible. The ant-hill is, indeed, safe from the existence of the pedagogue and his disciples; but it is, on the other hand, deprived of the thinker, the inventor, and the discoverer.

This is doubtless the reason of the stationary character of the civilization of ants. In proof of this ossification or stagnation, a very interesting fact was pointed out by the eminent Swiss naturalist Oswald Heer. Certain ants belonging to one and the same species are found both in Switzerland and in England. Between the two groups no intercourse can have taken place and no communication can have been transmitted since the "silver streak of sea" was interposed between Dover and Calais—that is, for many thousands of years. Yet on careful examination the social arrangements of these two severed portions, their architecture, and their habits in general, appear identical. Now, had their civilization been undergoing any changes, it is not conceivable that such changes would in both these communities have proceeded at the same rate and taken exactly the same direction. Hence the inference seems plain that in that species of ant progress is at an end.

The brevity of the career of each individual insect acts also decidedly in favor of the preservation of social equality and of the stationariness of civilization. If either ant or man is apt to rise or to fall, then the shorter the time during which such rise or fall is possible the more surely will a uniform level of society be maintained.

To prevent misunderstanding, I must remark that differences of structure, with a corresponding difference of duties, occur among the workers in the ant-hill; but these differences are not transmissible, and the various classes of workers spring indiscriminately from the same parents. Hence they are not analogous to the castes that have arisen in many human races.

It is noteworthy that man has from time to time sought to imitate the neuter order so prevalent in hymenopterous societies. These attempts, however, whether made by devoting certain classes to celibacy, or by a more barbarous method prevalent in antiquity, and surviving in the East even to our own times, have been an utter failure. Celibates have always proved a disturbing force. What would be the effects, moral and social, of the appearance of a neuter form of the human species, corresponding to the working bee or ant, it is difficult to foresee. We may venture to surmise that they would be disastrous.

But, though communists, ants and bees are not cosmopolitans. A stranger of the same species, but belonging to a different nationality, is far from welcome in the hive or the nest. As a rule, death will be its lot.

Wars not infrequently rage between different hives, or between distinct settlements of ants of one and the same species. According to several observers, though the contending armies are to human eyes utterly undistinguishable, yet each individual combatant never fails to discriminate between friend and foe.

Concerning the government of social insects, we are as yet utterly in the dark. We see works undertaken, altered and extended, criminals executed, guards set, food brought in, nuisances removed, expeditions planned, and wars waged, but we do not see the guiding spirit. Who determines in what direction a body of ecitons shall set out on a foray? Who regulates the numbers and the position of the guard found at the entrances of an ant-hill? Who relieves the little sentinels in due course?

In some species there are, indeed, large-sized individuals which seem to exercise a kind of authority, but concerning their powers and duties we know little indeed. If the various functions of a human community were left to the spontaneous initiative of all comers, we should have sad confusion. Now, the various duties to be regularly performed in an ant-hill, if less numerous and multiform than those of a civilized human city, yet seem, to our eyes, to be sufficiently complex to necessite a prearranged system.

A most curious fact in ant-life has been observed by the eminent French chemist, M. Berthelot, who is also a zealous entomologist. He noticed in a little wood a nourishing city of ants which for several successive years went on enlarging its structures and laying out roads in every direction. At last, without any manifest cause, it began gradually to decay. It had not been afflicted by wars, nor by scarcity of provisions; yet the number of its inmates seemed to diminish, their energy and activity faded, and their domes and galleries, no longer kept in repair, took a desolate and ruinous aspect. On the other hand, a colony which the old ant-hill had formerly sent out to a considerable distance was becoming the leading city of the district. What might be the cause of this decay of the mother-city is, of course, very doubtful. Perhaps its inmates had had an attack of what is now called "national conscience." Perhaps in a fit of "magnificent self-abnegation"—a modern synonym for suicide—they had decided that it was selfish to look after their own interests, and decreed that such ought to be allowed to perish. Or, it might be merely an instance of the fact that not merely individuals, but communities, races, and species are mortal—the loss of vitality having its wider analogue in the decay of the tribal instinct.

I have formerly witnessed a very similar case among rooks. A huge ash tree, flourishing in the court of a suburban mansion, and known familiarly as the "crow tree," had been, for a term of years going beyond my remembrance, tenanted by a community of rooks to the extent of perhaps twenty-five to thirty nests each season. At last there set in a gradual falling off. From year to year the number of inhabited nests decreased, and those which were unoccupied fell to ruin or were carried off as building materials. When I last had occasion to pass through the town, only two nests remained in the old "crow tree."

All this time a new rookery had been founded in a park at about a mile outside the town, and thither the former denizens of the tree emigrated. This colony is now much more populous than the old settlement had ever been.

The cause of the "decline and fall" is as mysterious as that of M. Berthelot's ant-hill. The birds had not been in any way molested; their ranks had evidently not been thinned by disease, or the new rookery could not have increased so rapidly.

But, whatever might be the causes in these two instances, we see here another feature in common between human nations and the nations of the lower animals.

It has been observed that even common misfortunes will not compel animals of one and the same species, but belonging to different nationalities, to unite. This fact has come under the notice of elephant-hunters. It has sometimes happened that two distinct herds of these animals have been surrounded and entrapped together. In such a case, instead of uniting in one grand charge upon the barriers, they keep coldly aloof from each other.

The penalty of banishment occasionally inflicted upon an evil-doer by a community, whether of elephants, buffaloes, or rooks, involves in its very essence the idea of nationality. Where there is no patria, there can be no expatriation. Any group of beings must feel themselves a community before they could inflict exile upon an offending member.