Popular Science Monthly/Volume 40/December 1891/Progress and Perfectibility in the Lower Animals

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By Prof. E. P. EVANS.

WHAT we call institutions are only organized and hereditary instincts, and are common to man and the lower animals. The original social character of animals, which forms the basis of their institutions, is also the quality that renders them capable of domestication. Man simply takes advantage of this quality, and turns it to his own account by bringing the animal into his own domestic circle and service and making it a member of his household.

In birds, for example, the conjugal instinct is remarkably strong, or, as we would say in speaking of human relations, the institution of marriage, either in its monogamous or polygamous form, is firmly established and highly developed, and forms the foundation of a well-ordered domestic and social life.

The paternal fox trains his young with as much care and conscientiousness as any human father; the beaver constructs his habitation with the foresight of a military engineer and the skill of an experienced architect; the bee lives in well-regulated communities, forms states, and founds colonies; and the ant not only cultivates the soil, plants crops, gathers in the fruits of his labor and stores them for future use, and keeps other insects as domestic cattle, but shares also the vicious propensities and domineering disposition of man, waging war on creatures of his own species and holding his prisoners as slaves.

These habits or customs have the same origin and character in the lower animals as in man, being in both cases products of evolution and undergoing modifications from generation to generation. Animal, not less than human, societies are governed by their laws and traditions, and preserve a sort of historical continuity by which past and present are bound together in a certain orderly sequence. Bee-hives which suffer from over-population rear a queen and send forth with her a swarm of emigrants to colonize, and the relations of the mother-hive to her colonies are known to be much closer and more cordial than those which she sustains to apian communities with which she has no genetic connection. Here the ties of kinship are as strong and clearly recognized as they are between consanguineous tribes of men.

Again, the statement that animal habits are fixed, and human customs variable and improvable, is true only to a very limited extent. Closer observation has shown the latter to be more stable and the former more mutable than is generally imagined, especially if we compare the highest orders of animals with the lowest human tribes. In primitive society and among savage races customs remain the same for countless generations, and seem to be quite as persistent and incapable of change as animal instincts.

Not only do animals, often in the course of a comparatively short period, undergo marvelous transformations both of mind and body, through the force of natural selection or by careful interbreeding, but they are also led by circumstances and through forethought to make conscious and intentional changes in their manner of life.

It is curious to note the variety of characteristics distinguishing members of the same family or genus. Thus, the European cuckoo lays her eggs in the nests of other birds, and leads the life of a shiftless parasite and shameless polyandrous vagabond. The American cuckoo, on the contrary, has not yet learned to shirk her maternal duties and domestic responsibilities, but, like an honest and thrifty housewife and conscientious mother, hatches her own eggs and rears her own young. The South African and Australasian representatives of the cuculinæ follow, in this respect, the habits of the European bird. There is also a species of molothrus, which sometimes begins but seldom finishes a nest, like the hypothetical man in the parable, who would fain build without first sitting down to count the cost. She is seized occasionally with a spasm of virtuous endeavor in this direction, but soon yields to the greater comfort and convenience of imposing upon others the burden of brooding and nurturing her offspring. Evidently she turns the matter over in her mind, and, like Rousseau, reasons herself into the belief that it is better not to assume any family cares, but to cast her children as foundlings upon the bosom of public charity. "There are the goldfinches, thrushes, fly-catchers, cardinal grossbeaks, and other fussy motherly fowl," she seems to say, "willing enough to undertake the charge; why not gratify their low philoprogenitive passion, and thus enable me to devote myself to more congenial pursuits!" Still another kind of molothrus leads the life of a squatter, never building a nest of her own, but brooding in the abandoned nest of some other bird.

Many birds have, within the memory of man, made considerable advances in architectural skill, and adopted new and improved methods of constructing their nests. This progress has been observed especially in California since the settlement of that country, and in all cases the young profit from the knowledge acquired by their parents, and the improvement becomes a permanent possession of the race. In places where they are particularly exposed to the attacks of pugnacious sparrows, they have been known to close the opening in front of their nests and make the entrance on the back near the wall. In some instances this purely precautionary and defensive change of structure, after its efficiency had been tested in a single nest, has been adopted by the swallows of an entire district. Orioles, according to the observations of Dr. Abbott, finding that the bough from which they have suspended their nest is too slight to sustain the weight of the full brood, attach it by a long string to the branch above, fastening it securely "by a number of turns and a knot." It would be difficult to say in what respect the mental process leading to the adoption of such a mechanical contrivance differs from that which causes an architect to buttress a weak wall.

The Baltimore oriole also adapts the texture and structure of its nest to the exigencies of climate. In the Southern States it selects a site on the north side of a tree, and builds of Spanish moss loosely put together and without lining, so as to permit a free circulation of air. Farther north it seeks a sunny exposure, builds more compactly, and uses some soft material for lining. The impulse to build is instinctive, but conscious intelligence is exercised in modifying the methods of building to suit circumstances.

The same bird now uses yarn and worsted instead of vegetable fiber for its nest, but it always selects for this purpose the least conspicuous colors, such as gray and drab; and yet the bird's gorgeous plumage is proof, according to the theory of sexual attraction, that bright colors are pleasing to it. Here we have an example of æsthetic pleasure being subordinated to considerations of safety; the prudent oriole, notwithstanding its fondness for resplendent hues, choosing those colors which render its nest less visible and more difficult to discover, and rejecting those which, in other respects, are more gratifying to its fancy.

The tailor-bird of East India used to stitch the leaves of its nest together with fine grass, horse-hair, and threads, which it twisted out of wool; since the introduction of British manufactures it uses sewing-thread and the filaments of textile fabrics, except in remote regions, where the ingenious bird still works on in the primitive way. So, too, in America, birds in constructing their nests everywhere turn to their account the products of human industry and keep abreast with the progress of the age. The materials employed correspond to the contemporary state of civilization, and mark the periods of industrial development through which the human race has passed. The wagtails, in a watch-making district of Switzerland, have learned to build their nests of fine steel shavings; a nest of this kind, if preserved, would indicate to the inhabitants of that country a thousand years hence the kind of industry that was carried on by their ancestors. Sparrows, which usually build in chinks of walls or under roofs, if forced to build their nests in trees or other unsheltered places, cover them with a sort of hood to keep out the rain. Buffon, who records this fact, adds: L'instinct se manifest done ici par un sentiment presque raisonné et qui suppose au moins la comparaison de deux petites idées. In the presence of such clear manifestations of thought and reflection, it seems absurd to speak of a "sentiment almost reasoned," or to indulge in condescending baby-talk about "two little ideas."

Apiarists now provide their hives with artificial comb for the storage of honey, and the bees seem glad to be relieved of the labor of making cells as their predecessors had done. Instead of gathering propolis from the buds of plants, the workers stop their hives with the mixture of resin and turpentine with which the arboriculturist salves wounded trees, and readily substitute oatmeal for pollen if they can get it. These facts, and many others which might be adduced, suffice to prove that animals avail themselves of new discoveries and easier methods in order to increase the comforts and conveniences of life.

Even instincts, which seem firmly rooted and are regarded as characteristic of the class, are by no means so persistent as is commonly supposed. The individual inherits, but soon loses them if they are not brought into early exercise. A duck or gosling, if reared in the house until it is two or three months old, has no greater liking for the water than a chicken, and if thrown into a pond will scramble out, showing signs of great fear of the element to which its web-feet are particularly adapted. An artificially hatched chicken does not attach itself to a hen more than to any other animal, but follows its first associate, a child, a cat, or a dog.

Buffon denies that animals are susceptible of what he calls "the perfectibility of the species." "They are to-day," he says, "what they always have been, and always will be, and nothing more; because, as their education is purely individual, they can only transmit to their young what they themselves have received from their parents. Man, on the other hand, inherits the culture of ages and gathers and conserves the wisdom of successive generations, and may thus profit by every advance of the race, and, in turn, aid in perfecting it more and more."

This assertion has been repeated by scientists of the old school as though it were an axiom of natural history, instead of an arrogant anthropocentric assumption refuted by scores of well-authenticated facts. The whole process of domestication, which is to the lower animals what civilization is to man, and the possibility of producing and propagating desirable qualities in the race, run counter to Buffon's theory. The value of a horse's pedigree depends upon the transmissibility of distinctive characteristics which were originally peculiar to some individual horse, idiosyncrasies which commended themselves to man as worthy of preservation, or such as in the natural struggle for existence would assert and propagate themselves.

If the descendants of blood-horses do not inherit the individual training of their sires, neither are the children of scholars or musicians born with a knowledge of books or the ability to play on musical instruments. What is inherited in both cases is some particular disposition or endowment, a superior aptitude for the things in which their progenitors excelled. Indeed, this heritage is handed down in horses with surer and steadier increase, or, at least, with smaller loss and depreciation than in human beings, since they are mated with sole reference to this result; and there is no room left for the play of personal fancy and caprice, or for social, sentimental, or pecuniary considerations, which exert a baneful influence upon marriage from a physiological point of view, and contribute to the deterioration of the race. This is strikingly perceptible in some portions of Europe, where the struggle for existence, and especially for high social position, is exceedingly intense, and a large dower suffices to cover up all mental and physical deficiencies in the bride.

The scientific swine-breeder keeps genealogical tables of his pigs, and is as jealous of any taint in a pure porcine strain as any prince of the blood is of plebeian contamination. In both cases the vitiation bars succession, the one condition of which is purity of lineage. It is by the selection not only of the finest stock, but also of the choicest individuals for breeding, that animals are "progressively improved" both bodily and intellectually. This is, perhaps, most clearly observable in hunting-dogs and race-horses, which have undergone quite remarkable modifications within the present century owing to the extraordinary pains taken to develop and perfect their peculiar characteristics. In some instances unusual births or freaks of nature are preserved, and by persistently propagating themselves form the starting point of new species. A striking example of this perpetuation of individual peculiarities is the short-legged and long-backed Ancon sheep, a comparatively recent product of Nature rendered permanent by the care of man. A pointer, greyhound, or collie inherits and transmits to its offspring not only race attributes, but also acquired aptitudes in the same manner and to the same degree as a human being does who is distinguished for some special faculty. There are prodigies of dogs which do not beget prodigies of puppies, just as there are men of genius whose children are by no means eminent for their intellectual endowments.

If the conceptual world of the lower animals is limited and fragmentary, so is that of savages and of ignorant and uncultivated men, who live for the most part in the present and the immediate past, and have a relatively narrow range of thoughts and experiences. Long-lived animals, such as parrots, ravens, and elephants, have an advantage over short-lived animals in the development of intelligence. Civilized man, however, not only lives his own individual life, and profits, like other animals, from the wisdom of his parents and the influences of his environment, but also, by means of written records, lives the life of the race, of which he enjoys the selectest fruits garnered in history.

It must also be borne in mind that dogs are and always have been bred for special purposes, such as pointing, retrieving, running, watching, and biting, but not for general intelligence. Mr. Galton, who calls attention to this fact, suggests that it would be interesting as a psychological experiment to mate the cleverest dogs generation after generation, breeding and educating them solely for intellectual power and disregarding every other consideration.

In order to carry out this plan to perfection and to realize all the possibilities involved in such a comprehensive scheme, it would be necessary to devise some system of signs by which dogs would be able to communicate their ideas more fully and more clearly than they can do at present, both to each other and to man. That the invention of such a language is not impossible is evident from what has been already achieved in the training of dogs for exhibition, as well as from the extent to which they have learned to understand human speech by mere association with man. Prof. A. Graham Bell believes that they may be taught to pronounce words, and is now making scientific experiments in this direction. The same opinion was expressed two centuries ago by no less an authority than Leibnitz, who adduces some startling facts in support of it. The value of such a language as a means of enlarging the animal's sphere of thought and power of conception, and of giving a higher development to its intellectual faculties, is incalculable.

Every dog trained as a hunter or herder is a specialist, and is prized for one fine capacity attained in some degree at the expense of mental proportion and symmetry; in miscellaneous matters outside of his province he may be easily surpassed by any underbred and mongrel but many-sided village cur. Modern scholarship shows a like tendency to psychical alogotrophy or one-sided intellectual growth. As science deepens its researches, each department of investigation becomes more distinct, and the toiler in the mines of knowledge is forced to confine his labors to a single lode if he would exhaust the treasures it contains. He sees clearly so far as his lantern casts its rays; but all outside of this small luminous circle is dense darkness.

If a race of superior beings had taken charge of man's education for thousands of years and conducted it on the same principle as that which has guided us in domesticating and utilizing the lower animals, what maimed specimens of humanity would have been the result! Slavery has always tended to produce this effect; but the slave, however degraded his condition, speaks the same language as his master, thereby profiting from his intercourse with those who are placed over him, and sharing in the general progress of society more fully than any dumb animal could do. So, too, the position which Christian intolerance assigned to the Jews for many centuries, closing to them all branches of industry except usury, developed in them a peculiar talent for finance, together with many hard and offensive traits of character naturally growing out of money brokerage, and finally becoming almost innate. In the middle ages they were made to serve as sponges to suck up the people's substance in order that it might be squeezed out of them at the convenience of the rulers. King John II, surnamed the Good, issued in 1360 a decree permitting the Jews in his realm to take, as compensation for loaning money, "quatre deniers par livre par semaine, equivalent to ninety per cent per annum, not from any feeling of favoritism for the Israelites, but, as he expressly stated, because "the greater the privileges enjoyed by the Jews, the better they will be able to pay the taxes levied on them by the king." This "good" monarch was wont to confiscate periodically a large portion of the pillage thus obtained in order to replenish his exhausted exchequer, and was actually praised by his subjects for punishing Jewish rapacity. It was a system of indirect taxation worthy of modern tariff legislators.

In the early part of the thirteenth century, Frederic II, the Hohenstaufen, ordained that the Jews should be permitted to dwell in Nuremberg and to lend money on interest, stating that, "inasmuch as this sinful business is essential to trade and to the commercial prosperity of the city, it would be a lesser evil to let the Jews carry it on than that Christians should imperil the salvation of their souls by such practices, since the former, owing to their notorious obduracy, will doubtless persist in their religious perversity and be damned anyhow." If the Jews now "take a breed of barren metal" as naturally as a pointer takes to pointing or a hound to the trail of a fox, this tendency is due in part at least to circumstances which they did not create and could not control. The chief accusation brought against them by anti-Semitic agitators is that they are unwilling to follow industrial or agricultural pursuits, in utter forgetfulness of the fact that until a comparatively recent date they were forbidden by Christian legislation either to engage in mechanical employments or to own land.

The influence of domestication on the mental development of animals depends upon the purposes which the domesticator has in view. If he regards them merely as forms of food, and his sole aim is to increase the amount of their adipose tissue and edible substance and thus get the maximum of meat out of them, then domestication tends to stupefy them. The intellectual training of the pig would naturally diminish the quantity of lard it would produce. So far as man is concerned, this latter function is the chief end of the porker's existence, and it must not be tried and found wanting in this respect, whatever may be its mental deficiencies. It must be fat-bodied whether it be fat-witted or not, and the natural qualities which do not contribute to its gross weight and enhance its ultimate value as victuals are systematically discouraged and depressed.

In view of the treatment that the pig has received for centuries at the hands of man, it is remarkable that the animal has retained so much of its original cunning and love of cleanliness as it now possesses. That a creature so fond of bathing in pure running water should be condemned to a filthy sty is an act of unconscious cruelty discreditable to human discernment. If the sow that has been washed returns to her wallowing in the mire, it is as a last resort in hot weather; she would much prefer a clear pond or limpid stream if she could get access to it.

Being fed and protected by its owner in its domestic state, the hog no longer needs to exercise the faculties which were essential to the self-preservation of its wild progenitors. The stimulus arising from the struggle for existence ceases, and, as it is reared solely to be eaten, its association with man does not call forth any new powers. In China and Polynesia, where the dog is esteemed chiefly as food, it is a sluggish and stupid beast. On the other hand, the pig can be trained to hunt, and not only acquires great fondness for the sport, but also shows extraordinary sagacity in the pursuit of game. It has an uncommonly keen scent, and can be taught to point better than the pointer. Curiously enough, when the pig is used for hunting purposes, the dogs, usually so eager for the chase, sullenly retire from the field and refuse to associate with their bristly competitor in venery. Possibly the hereditary and ineradicable enmity between the dog and hog as domestic animals may be a survival of the fierce antipathy which is known to exist between the wolf and the wild boar. In Burmah the ringed snake is trained for the chase, and is especially serviceable in flushing jungle-cock, since the reptile can penetrate the thickest underbrush, where it would be impossible for a dog or a falcon to go.

The tamability of an animal is simply its capability of adapting itself to new relations in life, and depends partly on its mental endowments, but still more upon its moral character. It is quite as much a matter of temperament and social disposition as of quickness of understanding. The elephant, dog, and horse among quadrupeds, the beaver among rodents, and the daw and raven among birds, are, for this reason, most easily tamed, and show the most marked and rapid improvement in consequence of their daily intercourse with man. Intellectual acuteness without the social affections and kindred moral qualities rather resists than facilitates domestication. Of all domestic animals the cat was the most difficult to tame, and it needed the patience and persistence so strongly characteristic of the ancient Egyptians, sustained by religious superstition, in order to accomplish this result. Even now the cat, although extremely fond of its home and capable of considerable attachment to persons, has never been reduced to strict servitude and become the valet of man like the dog, but has always remained to a certain degree what it originally was, a prowling beast of prey.

Barking in dogs is a habit due to domestication. The wild dog never barks, but only howls, like the Himalayan buansu, or merely whines, like the East Indian colsum; and the domestic dog reverts from barking to howling when it relapses into its primitive state. Wagging the tail is another mode of expression which the dog has acquired through association with man. It is well known, too, that a dog which has been reared by a cat adopts many of the habits of its foster-mother, such as cleaning itself with its paw; by continuously pairing such dogs and rearing them under like influences it would be possible to produce a canine species with feline traits, which should become permanent and transmissible.

A recent writer. Dr. Leopold Schutz, professor in the theological seminary at Treves, who may be taken as an extreme representative of the old orthodox school of zoöpsychologists, maintains that animals do not think, reflect, form purposes, or act with premeditation of any kind, have no freedom, no choice, no emotional or intellectual life of their own, but that a higher power performs all these operations through them as cunning pieces of mechanism. The bird sings, according to this theory, without any personal pleasure or participation in its song; it sings at a certain time and can not help it, nor is it able to sing at any other time. The living cuckoo is as automatic as the wooden cuckoo of a Black Forest clock, and under the same mechanical compulsion to sing its song when the appointed hour arrives. Altum, in his book on bird-life (Der Vogel und sein Leben Münster, 1868), infers from the fact that a bird sings more in the pairing season than at other seasons of the year, that its song is a "natural necessity," in which it takes no individual pleasure. But this conclusion by no means follows from the premises. The song is a means to an end, and has for its final object sexual attraction and selection. One would surely not be justified in inferring that a woman who dresses well, chiefly in order to gratify her husband or her lover, finds no individual æsthetic satisfaction in a fine gown; or that a man goes a-wooing from "natural necessity," and gets no entertainment out of courtship.

Prof. Schutz's doctrine that animals are mere puppets, whose movements are determined by the direct intervention of higher powers, seems to have been derived from what is recorded of the relations of these creatures to holy men in the legends of the saints, rather than from a scientific study of the book of Nature; his point of view is not that of the zoöpsychologist, but that of the hagiologist.

The chief difficulty attending the investigation of mental processes in animals is that they can not express themselves in human language and explain to us their thoughts and feelings and the motives underlying their conduct. We are thus liable to misinterpret their actions and deny them many endowments which they really possess, just as the first explorers of new countries fail to discover in savages ideas and conceptions which are afterward found to characterize them in a remarkable degree.

We have happily rid ourselves somewhat of the ethnocentric prepossessions which led the Greeks, and still lead the Chinese, to regard all other peoples as outside barbarians; but our perceptions are still obscured by anthropocentric prejudice which prevents us from fully appreciating the intelligence of the lower animals and recognizing any psychical analogy between these humble kinsmen and our exalted selves.