Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/October 1899/Correspondence

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Dr. Edward Thorndike's interesting account, in our August number, of his investigations touching the reasoning power of animals has brought us a large number of letters questioning some of the main conclusions set forth in the article, and criticising the method of the inquiry. Not having room for all these communications, we print one of them, and add extracts from two others. These represent the principal objections urged by the various writers against the conclusions drawn by the author of the article from his experiments.


Editor Popular Science Monthly:

Sir: The first reading of Dr. Thorndike's article Do Animals Reason? in the August Popular Science Monthly, gave the impression, which has been deepened by subsequent perusal, that his experiments were not only inadequate to solve the question, but unfairly chosen.

A dog or a cat, utterly hungry, is placed in a box, from which it can escape "by performing some simple (?) action, such as pulling a wire loop, stepping on a platform or lever, clawing down a string, or turning a wooden button."

In the first place, what tends to destroy the reasoning power more than utter hunger? This intense physical craving begets frenzy rather than reason. The more intense this primeval desire, the greater the demand upon primitive instinct for its satisfaction. In the open the cat will jump at a bird, the dog at a bone. If the bird be up a tree, the cat will climb; if the bone be buried, the dog will burrow. Climbing and burrowing are deep-rooted developments of the feline and the canine nature.

Put a dog or a cat, utterly hungry, in a box and hang a piece of meat outside. Instinct prompts a jump through the bai's of the box at the meat, and the greater the number of unsuccessful attempts the less the likelihood of the animal with a gnawing stomach sitting down to scrutinize the mechanical construction of the box to the point of perceiving that by stepping on a lever if will open a door. How many millions of years did it take two-legged man to arrive at the perception of the use of the lever? Did the shaggy biped arrive at that perception by sitting down when utterly hungry and looking at a lever; or did he, through countless generations, by some such chance as lifting a stone with a stick, come to the knowledge of weight and fulcrum?

Put an anthropoid ape, some several degrees nearer man in intelligence than a cat, in a modern office elevator that moves by the push of an electric button, suspend the elevator between two stories, and what do you suppose that anthropoid ape will do?

Put a schoolgirl fresh from belleslettres and matinées in the cab of a locomotive and tell her to run it to the next station. She can not but know that steam will make the wheels go round, but what will she do in the maze of throttles, handles, disks, and rods that confronts her? What will she do if utterly hungry?

Take a laborer from his pick and shovel on the railway embankment and put him at the desk of the general manager. He can read and write. Let the messenger boys and clerks shower him with the letters and telegrams that bombard that desk every day, and let him try to settle the questions to which they give rise.

Now, why can not the schoolgirl run the locomotive, the laborer the railroad? Because the relations of things necessary to the tasks have never been imprinted upon their registering cells; because, in the latter case at least, of the lack of power of co-ordination—that is, the lack of the power of abstract reasoning that the task involves.

Why can not anybody do anything as well as anybody else? Because certain relations have been more deeply impressed upon certain brains than upon others; because of the greater power of certain brains to co-ordinate certain relations, their greater ability to give concrete manifestation of the result of such co-ordination through the efferent nerves. Otherwise any one of us could design a bridge, compose a symphony, or organize a trust.

The oftener relations are impressed upon the registering cells, the more readily are those relations co-ordinated, provided the brain structure be of the requisite caliber. Reiterated impression through the ages of the relations between their needs and rounding things, together with the development of structural capacity, has led the beaver to build his dam, the bee the honeycomb, the ant its village, the bird its nest. In each case the registered impressions have led to action made possible by long-continued contact between structure and environment; the actions are the result of development that has proceeded mite by mite through unknown time. The brain of neither bird nor beast nor man will immediately co-ordinate radically new impressions received in a radically new environment into coherent action that leads to definite result.

Here is an example within the writer's immediate knowledge: At the age of seventeen a boy entered the service of one of the large railway systems as a clerk in the passenger department. Through eleven years of enthusiastic and concentrated endeavor to master the details of the service he rose to the head of the clerical force—that is, the reiterated impression upon his brain cells of the functions of the passenger service led to that co-ordination which resulted in efficient action. Then he became employed in the office of a large coal-mining company. For several days it was with the utmost difficulty that he could bring his attention to bear upon the new tasks. While seated at the desk in the coal office the old railway problems would chase through his mind; when he began to write the initials of the Pittsburg Consolidated Coal Company, he would find that he had written the initials of the Pittsburg, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway Company; instead of the initials of the Pittsburg, Fairport and Northwestern Dock Company, the initials of the Pittsburg, Fort Wayne and Chicago Railway Company. The latter initials in each case would appear upon the paper before he knew it, actually without his knowing that he had written them. The entirely unfamiliar routine entailed by the custody of bank accounts, coal leases, deeds and contracts, reports of coal shipments, and the handling of vouchers, became adjusted in his brain bit by bit through many weeks, and it was months before he could co-ordinate the new impressions into broad and well-defined reasoning. If he had been utterly hungry through all the period of the new service, it might have taken years.

Now, what can be expected of a dog or a cat, whose mental processes have been adjusted by inheritance and experience to life in the fields and jungles, when placed in a box, utterly hungry, to study mechanical contrivances? It is manifest that if the brain of a dog or a cat would become adjusted to the radically unfamiliar steps necessary to release it from such a radically unfamiliar environment, that adjustment could only come by extremely slow degrees. Voluntary perception is almost beyond the limits of expectation, and the leading of the animal through the necessary steps would have to be repeated time after time before the impressions upon its brain would reach any degree of permanence, especially as its brain would be lacking in attention, and the repeated handling be an annoyance to it. But that by such tutelage the animals, or a proportion of them, arrived at a knowledge of the means necessary to escape from the box is shown by Dr. Thorndike himself. "If one repeats the process, keeps putting the cat back into the box aft«r each success, the amount of useless action gradually decreases, the right movement is made sooner and sooner, until finally it is done as soon as the cat is put in." But he says: "This sort of a history is not the history of a reasoning animal. It is the history of an animal who meets a certain situation with a lot of instinctive acts.… Little by little the one act becomes more and more likely to be done in that situation, while the others slowly vanish. This history represents the wearing smooth of a path in the brain, not the decisions of a rational consciousness."

Wherein, however, does this differ from the manner in which hundreds of clerks in offices finally learn routine work and mechnically go through the motions necessary to its performance? Do not the actions of thousands of laborers in field and factory seem to proceed from a wearing smooth of a path in the brain, rather than from rational consciousness? Yet they can not be said to be devoid of reason. Is not a great proportion of the daily actions of any one of us gone through from force of habit, almost by instinct?

The word reason does not apply alone to the mental processes of a Helmholtz, but to the co-ordination, however slight, of relations that result in definite action even of a humble organism. Herbert Spencer has clearly shown that instinct and reason differ in degree and not in kind.

Dr. Thorndike lays stress upon the fact that a "cat which, when first put in, took sixty seconds to get out, in the second trial eighty, in the third fifty, in the fourth sixty, in the fifth fifty, in the sixth forty," etc., and remarks: "Suppose the cat had, after the third accidental success, been able to reason? She would then have, the next time and all succeeding times, performed the act as soon as put in." Not long ago the writer and a man whose high intelligence can not be questioned, in moments of relaxation were trying to do one of the familiar ring puzzles—endeavoring to separate a ring from two others of peculiar shape and then to join the three. After repeated trials, one would loosen it, but could not replace it; the other finally succeeded in replacing it, but could not loosen it. Then the one could replace it, but not loosen it; the other loosen, but not replace it, and each was closely watching the other all the time. It was half an hour or more before either could both loosen and replace the ring, occasional successful attempts not being repeated until after several succeeding failures. Contrast the relation of the brain of the dazed and indifferent and peculiarly bedeviled cat to the puzzle presented to it by the inside of the box with the earnest effort of the two men to solve the ring puzzle. Who has not found a task more difficult the fifth or sixth time than the second or third, and has only performed it with ease after repeated attempts of varying degrees of success and failure?

In conclusion, the writer begs leave to relate an incident, which has not before appeared in print, that profoundly impressed him with the belief that at least in one instance one particular animal displayed reason. One Sunday morning, a dozen years or more ago, he was standing on the bank of the Ohio River at the Sewickley Ferry. A family group, accompanied by a large Newfoundland dog, hailed the ferryman and got in his boat, leaving the dog, which persuasively barked and wagged his tail, on the bank. As the boat pulled out into the stream the dog whined, and then made ready to leap in after it. Then he stopped at the water's edge, and, with head down, gazed intently at the river for several seconds—it seemed a minute or more. Then he ran up the bank more than a hundred feet, stopped, looked at the receding boat, plunged into the stream, and swam vigorously. The current, bearing him down, made his course diagonal to the bank. A boy standing by my side said: "Isn't that a smart dog? If he'd been a crazy dog he'd have jumped in where he was, but he ran up the bank so the current wouldn't wash him down away from the boat."

But the dog, swimming with all his vigor, was borne past the boat when within twenty feet or so of it; he endeavored to straighten his course without success, and then, in a long semicircle, swam around to the near bank, landing two or three hundred feet below the place whence the ferryboat had started.

What this dog would have done if placed, utterly hungry, in a box from which he could only liberate himself by stepping on a platform or turning a wooden button, I do not know.

Logan G. McPherson.
Pittsburg, August 3, 1899.

Mr. Frederic D. Bond, of 413 South Forty-fourth Street, Philadelphia, writes: Of the accuracy of Dr. Thorndike's experiments I have no doubt, but certain facts connected with them seem to deprive the observations of much of their relevance.

Dr. Thorndike states that he arranged his experiments to give reasoning every chance to display itself, if it existed, and to observe those in which the acts required and the thinking involved were not far removed from the acts and feelings of ordinary animal life. Of these experiments one of the chief was to determine whether and in what way a cat would escape from a box opening by turning a button. Now, I submit that in this and the succeeding experiments the conditions Dr. Thorndike fancied to exist by no means did so. Simple as the release of a door by a button seems to us, the apparent simplicity arises merely from our empirical knowledge of what does happen in such a situation. Actually to think out the rationale of the matter, as an animal having no experience either personally or from heredity would have to do, involves very complex mental processes. The environment of a human being is vastly different from an animal's, though of this fact we constantly lose sight in reasoning; of mechanical appliances and principles, for example, an animal knows nothing, and yet we are too apt to suppose it regarding the world with a store of ancestral and individual experiences utterly foreign to it; and then, on its failing to do what, in the light of such experience, seems to us easy, we proceed to call into question its possession of reason.…

That the cats did finally learn to escape shows, according to Dr. Thorndike, "the wearing smooth of a path in the brain, not the decisions of a rational consciousness." May I ask Dr. Thorndike what possible reason could a cat have to suppose that what happened once must needs happen again? Does Dr. Thorndike fancy his own knowledge of a million like matters was acquired by reason, and not empirically elaborated by processes of exactly the same sort as the cats went through? Let this experiment be tried on a healthy infant of two years, and I am of the opinion that the results would be the same as with the cat; yet the infant undoubtedly carries on "thinking processes similar, at least in kind, to our own," which Dr. Thorndike implicitly denies to his cats.

The chief cause of the inability of students to reach concordant results in this matter of animal intelligence appears to lie in a certain uncritical assumption often made. That all consciousnesses have a certain field of presentations, that to this field they attain, that because of it they feel and will, are fundamental facts; but the belief that attention or feeling or will differs per se in different consciousnesses, other than as the field to which they are at the moment related, differs—this is an utterly unwarranted assumption. According to the action of its environment, each conscious being must know the world just so far as is needed to conform its existence thereto, or else it must perish; but whether such knowledge, which is acquired by experience only, be quite small, as with animals, or somewhat larger, as with man, there is no reason to suppose that the attention, feeling, or will of the animal differs in itself from the same psychological state in man.


Mr. Andrew Van Bibber, of Cincinnati, Ohio, says: Animals, and especially wild ones, have no bank account or reserve, and have to face new conditions daily, and yet they make a living where man would starve.

When I was out in Colorado and Utah, years ago, I used to know of animals removing the bait nicely from dangerous traps without springing the trap. I knew of a dog who went over a mile to call his owner to the aid of a boy who had broken his leg, and who would not be refused till understood. This is brutish "instinct," is it?—something that Dr. Thorndike can't define. Will "instinct" teach a tired, half-starved horse to eat oats if you set them before him? Dr. Thorndike would say "Yes," but Dr. Thorndike would be wrong unless that horse knew from personal past experience what oats were. What animals learn (like the human animal) they learn chiefly by experience. They accumulate facts in their minds and use them.

I served in the cavalry of the Armies of the Tennessee and the Cumberland, and I know that instinct will not cause a hungry horse to touch oats unless he knows from his own experience what oats are. We used to capture horses in Mississippi which had never seen oats, it is all corn down there. We would bring them into camp tired out and hungry, and would pour out our oats for them. Not one of them would touch the oats. You could leave the hungry horses hitched for twenty-four hours before oats, and not one grain would they touch. They would stand there and starve. We had to throw up their heads and fill their mouths full of oats. If we stopped there, they would spit them out. We had to grab their jaws and work them sideways until they had a good taste. Then they understood, and ate oats right along. Plenty of such horses in Mississippi to-day.…

If Dr. Thorndike tried his intelligent "Experiment No. 11" with a two-year-old cat, why didn't he try it with a two-year-old human? I guess he would have found an equal amount of ignorance of the mechanism of door fastenings, which comes only with teaching, and would have produced only struggles and screaming.



Editor Popular Science Monthly:

Sir: In the article contributed to your magazine for the month of August on Recent Legislation against the Drink Evil, I notice what appears to me to be a misstatement of fact. The writer speaks of the results of prohibition in the State of Maine, and says, "In sixty-three years Maine has seen her commerce disappear and her population dwindle."

I have not investigated the matter of Maine's commerce, but I find that her population has not dwindled in any possible sense of the term during the period indicated above.

It is, perhaps, a common impression that Maine has had such an exodus of her people to other States of the Union that she has suffered a loss in population. What are the real facts of the case? The census taken by the Government in 1840 gave the State 501,000 people, and that taken in 1890, 601,000, which shows, during the interval between 1840 and 1890, an increase of 160,000. The increase in population even during the decade 1880-90 was 13,000. Whether there has been a decrease since 1890 nobody at present knows, and will not know until the decennial census is taken next year.

In view of these facts, I feel justified in challenging the correctness of the gentleman's statement, quoted above. There can be no room for doubt that Maine has sustained considerable losses I in population from farm desertion, but no statistics can be presented to show that the State has, during the time stated above, been dwindling in the number of people living within her borders.

J. Earle Brown.
Woonsockett, R. I., August 17, 1899.