Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/October 1897/The Idea of Murder Among Men and Animals

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WHOEVER has studied in its particulars the history of the past knows well that human ferocity is an unfathomable abyss. Who could enumerate all the means invented by men to exterminate each other in turn, from the spear and the yataghan to shrapnel, from hemlock to prussic acid, from Greek fire to dynamite? Were we to try and calculate, even roughly, the number of human beings who have died a violent death at the hands of their own kind, even during that period alone which has elapsed since the dawn of history, the total reached would be undoubtedly monstrous. Nor must we be blinded as to the feelings of our ancestors by the growth of a certain gentleness of manners which has for scarcely a century past been refining human society in Europe; one of our ancestors' chief amusements consisted in the destruction of other men—the extermination of other human beings. Homicide has been at all times, in all forms, and under all conditions, individual and collective, a fierce passion of the human race, a most common incident of everyday life, inspiring no one with any feeling of horror whatsoever. It is sufficient to recall the fact that among people who reached a noteworthy stage of civilization, such as the Romans, war, which is a systematic homicide, or, in other words, ferocity reduced to a science, could be regarded as a financial speculation and a perfectly legitimate one for the educated classes to engage in; and that what is called history is little more than an interminable series of murders, individual and collective, one more ferocious than the other.

The present age has witnessed so important an amelioration of habits that we are apt to forget that it is of very recent date, and to see in the ferocity displayed by our ancestors something contrary to human nature—so much so that we have come to stigmatize all actions of an excessively savage character as "inhuman" and "brutal." A closer analysis will, however, show that this is an illusion; inasmuch as murderous ferocity, by which I mean the passion for destroying life, would seem to be a characteristic peculiar to humanity, one which either does not exist in animals or has been observed to exist among them only in an infinitesimal degree.

This is one of the most obscure and difficult problems which we meet with in animal psychology. A large number of animals live, it is true, in a state of permanent warfare, killing and devouring each other in turns, but how far does this fact imply another—viz., that this internecine slaughter presupposes in animals a clear idea of death—of the extinction of life as the necessary consequence of their actions? How far are these acts of hostility determined by the intention of depriving another animal of life? In other words, have animals a distinct idea of life and death and of the means by which life may be destroyed?

Let us examine the animals which are considered to be the most ferocious among the mammals—viz., the feline tribe. It is well known that the lion, which attacks another animal in order to make a meal of him, almost always kills his prey by seizing it by the neck and crushing between his teeth the other's cervical vertebræ. Further, the lion's action in this maneuver is so certain that he generally kills the animal at the first attempt. Are we justified in inferring from this fact that the lion has a clear idea of life and death, and that he crunches between his teeth his adversary's vertebæ with the distinct idea of killing him, aware that by so doing he is depriving him of life? I do not think so. When he treats his prey thus he probably merely remembers from former experience that the animal will offer no further resistance and may therefore be devoured in peace—a far simpler idea than those complex differentiated notions implied in a perception of the difference between life and death.

That, as a matter of fact, the lion does not possess the aforesaid idea of life as distinguished from death, and of the possibility of inflicting the latter, may be seen from his behavior when he springs upon a hunter who has wounded him—not to devour the hunter but in self-defense. If he had a distinct idea of life and death and of the means at his disposal of inflicting death, this is surely the occasion in which he should display it. On the contrary, however, it usually happens that when a lion springs upon a hunter that has wounded him and knocks him down, he bites him two or three times, wherever he can; and, having thus satisfied his rage, he goes away, taking no further heed of his enemy, whose ultimate fate depends upon what part of the body the lion has bitten him. If the bite has injured some vital organ, the unfortunate hunter succumbs to his injuries; but if it has been inflicted upon some secondary organ only, he may escape from a most critical position with comparatively little damage. Hence, although the lion's claws are as keen as razors and his teeth little better than daggers of the most terrible kind, hundreds do frequently escape from conflict with a lion, sometimes almost unwounded. Meunier, one of the most illustrious French observers of animal psychology, narrates how a certain man named Botta was once knocked down by a lion, kept in a perilous position for some time, bruised all over, and badly bitten in the arm, fter which the lion went away, leaving the man very seriously but not dangerously wounded. Delagorgue cites a lion hunter who found himself in the same predicament twice within seven years after having fired at a lion. The first time the lion contented himself with fracturing both the hunter's arms; the second time it inflicted six bites and clawed him in several parts of the body, and on neither occasion did it proceed to further reprisals. Another man, Vermaes by name, a farmer living near the source of the Mooi, a tributary of the Tanguela, in Natal, one evening espied a lioness assailing his cattle. Directly he saw her he fired and hit her; but the animal sprang upon him and knocked him down. The man afterward described how he had felt: his ears stunned by the animal's hoarse roars, how he had seen two jaws armed with long white teeth opened wide above him; how he had felt the two sides of his chest being crunched together all the way down; after that, nothing more. He was picked up bleeding from this one bite, after giving which the lioness had departed.

These facts seem to show that the lion is not consciously aware of his power of destroying the life of another living creature. He springs upon his enemy in order to wreak his anger, and bites instinctively, but not to kill him. Hence he bites at random wherever chance offers, without allowing himself to be guided by previous experience, which would have shown him that certain bites given in a certain way may cause death; and as soon as he has satisfied the need he feels of relieving his rage by biting he goes away.

The lion, then, is a dangerous beast, not because he is ferocious in the sense that he enjoys the sensation of successful slaughter—he has not reached the idea of death, and hence can not realize his vast power to inflict it; he is ferocious because he bites when infuriated, and because the bites of an animal so powerfully endowed by Nature are of terrible consequence. Hence it follows that when he strikes his prey so definitely on the neck before devouring it, he does so not with the distinct idea of killing it, but merely because experience has shown him that after having struck it in this particular way he can most easily devour it; and this fact also explains why he does not strike in the same way when he springs upon another creature, not for food, but in a fury of self-defense. Let us now consider another species of animal, and one nearer to man—viz., the apes, more especially the strongest and most savage of their kind. Here, again, it is permissible to assume that no variety of ape has succeeded in forming a clear idea of death and of the means of inflicting it. Thus, if the gorilla were possessed of the idea of death, and the way in which his formidable arms can cause it, never would man escape from a struggle with such a creature for, as Brehm points out, a single blow from the huge claw-armed foot of a gorilla can rip up a man, break open his chest, or cleave his skull. And yet many do escape from these encounters with the great simian, maimed and mutilated indeed, but with their lives. Brehm narrates that he has met in Africa with many such horribly mauled survivors. Now, it is evident that if so strong and formidable an animal—whose human foes are absolutely at his mercy, once they have discharged their firearms—frequently fails to kill them, it can only be because he strikes blindly under the influence of rage, without directing his blows in such a way as to indicate that he possesses any consciousness as to the spots in which the blows would produce the most vital effects. The gorilla, therefore, has no idea of death and of the means of inflicting it.

This view is strengthened by all we know concerning the conflicts which take place among the gorillas themselves. The male gorilla fights savagely in the mating season, and yet no one has ever found a dead gorilla which could possibly have perished in one of these skirmishes. On the other hand, gorillas have been seen bearing scars or jagged rents undoubtedly produced by the teeth of some rival in love, an obvious indication that in these conflicts the animals confine themselves to biting as chance directs, and that their frightful capacity for slaughter is not set in motion from any predetermined idea of destroying the life of an adversary.

The orang-outang likewise uses its teeth as sole weapon of offense and defense; and that also on impulse. "When it is wounded or pursued," says Brehm, "it can defend itself well; the hunter should then be on his guard. The animal's arms are strong, and its teeth most formidable; it can easily fracture a man's arm and its bites are horrible."

Let us follow the same author's description of a fight between a dog and a baboon, which is the largest simian after the orang-outang and the gorilla: "The dog follows its foe and endeavors to seize it; but the baboon suddenly turns and springs upon the dog with an appalling howl, grips it with all its claws at once on breast and throat, bites it deeply on those spots several times, rolls with it over and over on the ground, biting again and again, and at last leaves it prostrate, covered with wounds and blood. The baboon then makes for the rocks, uttering yells of victory absolutely diabolical." Here, too, it is evident that even the strongest baboon is not guided by the idea of destroying its adversary; it is not aware that by compressing the dog's throat it might strangle or suffocate him, that by biting in certain parts of the body it might cause him to bleed to death. It simply allows itself to be carried away by an impulse of fury, which is vented in bites and scratches—sometimes, it is true, of terrific violence—which, however, do not easily cause death, precisely because all these actions, however violent, are not co-ordinated in an end, viz., that of killing the adversary—by a clear idea of death and of the means of inflicting it.

I have cited the above examples to show that in one of the strongest felines and among the strongest and most intelligent of the anthropoid apes the existence of the idea of death and of the means of inflicting it can not be admitted, and that hence the slaughter of one of these animals by another, whether of its own or of another species, can never be the result of a conscious act of volition. In their struggles, both among themselves and with other creatures, their aim is never to kill, but merely to bite and claw; in short, to give vent to their internal rage by violent acts as impulse may direct. And if such acts do sometimes result in death, this fact must be regarded as essentially due to accident, and according as the wound happens to be inflicted, with more or less severity, upon a vital part of the body. But the capacity, predetermined by conscious will, to slay another creature of the same or of a different species seems to be non-existent; and hence all the ferocity of these animals is impulsive, the result of impetus, never a matter of reflection or of will; it is confined between narrow limits, in that it lacks that idea of the possibility of destroying the life of other creatures which has opened such a boundless horizon to the ferocity of the human race.

Can this generalization, which facts demonstrate to be true as regards the lion and some of the primates, be extended to the whole animal creation? To make a similar assertion would undoubtedly be rash; the facts which have been noted are not numerous, and we know little or nothing of the psychology of ferocity even among animals like the tiger, which have, as wild beasts, a terrible reputation, or among others which are extraordinarily intelligent, such as the elephant. Nevertheless I believe that, as we have been able to observe this fact in one of the most feared of carnivora and also among the most intelligent and those nearest to man, we are justified in asserting that the idea of death and the possibility of inflicting it by artificial means in the animal world is at least very indistinct, scarcely dawning, uncertain, and that if any species has arrived at such an idea, it is in such cases a mere dim and blurred outline. It is therefore probable that the idea of murder is a prerogative of the human race, or that the human race is the only one which has arrived at the conception with great clearness, and that this superiority in man is a characteristic which differentiates him from all the other species of animals. Probably it was in this direction that, at a very early period, in the first beginnings of human life, and in that variety from which Homo sapiens emerged by selection, the intellectual force of the human species was directed, and that the comprehension of the difference between the state of life and the state of death, with the perception of the fact that living creatures might be made through certain co-ordinate actions to pass from the first state to the second, was one of the first and grandest discoveries of the human race. It is easy indeed to understand of what great use this discovery was to man in his struggle with animals physically superior to himself, to find himself in possession of the grand secret of life and death. The work of selection accomplished by man among the enemies of his species thus became systematic; it became, notwithstanding the physical feebleness of man's constitution, infinitely more efficacious than the destruction effected by man's foes, who were so much stronger, in the ranks of the human race. Governed and regulated by the clear idea of killing, with deliberate artifice, the enemies of the human race, this selection not only became a terrible weapon and assured victory to man in the struggle for existence, but it impelled him to perfect indefinitely those means of slaughter to which he owed his victory.

This discovery has been of such capital importance that one might say that the idea of killing and being killed is the fundamental idea underlying the mental system of the most savage human races—those that are nearest akin to animals—such as the Australian aborigines, the Botocudos, and the American Indians. It is well known that the savage races suffer from a perfect delirium of persecution, as witness their continual slaughter through some subtle invention of other men. The Australians even have no idea of natural death—can not conceive of a man's dying from any other than a violent cause; they believe that every one who dies has been killed by some hidden agency of destruction, just as he may have laid one low with an arrow. Hence the well-known Australian custom that, on the death of a member of the tribe, a relative must seek out some member of another tribe and kill him to revenge the supposed murder. Superstitions and cruel practices of primitive life, such as we find among the Australians, have their origin in the abuse of generalization from the one primitive discovery that one man has power over the life of another man, and one of the first mental efforts of humanity has lain in connecting these two general extensions of an idea which is at bottom just, and in connecting it by experience and observation so as to determine its real limits and to prevent man from seeing homicidal forces in every unexplained phenomenon of Nature. This idea was also fraught with importance in regard to forms of social life—an importance so fundamental that a great part of the work of primitive society was nothing but the practical development of this idea. The first form of social progress which we find in the advance of human society is progress in the manufacture of instruments of destruction—spears, daggers, knives, arrows, bows—for among almost all primitive peoples it is in their weapons that we first notice a wide differentiation and variety of shape. There have been many races that had only one form of house, very few articles of clothing or ornament, a single kind of food, or nearly so—none with but one kind of destructive weapon, a single form of knife, spear, bow. The capacity for committing conscious murder upon other beings, of its own or another species, has marked so fundamentally the superiority of the human race over all other species of animals that in the suggestions of this idea there have developed through long time all the mental activities of the human race. This fundamental idea was perhaps the first discovery of man, and ranks with that of fire as among the fundamental discoveries of the history of mankind; and if human cruelty has been only too capable of assuming forms infinitely richer and more varied than the simple cruelty of animals, it is to this discovery that the fact is due.