Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/March 1875/The Genesis of Superstitions
By HERBERT SPENCER.
COMPREHENSION of the thoughts generated in the primitive man by his converse with the surrounding world can be had only by looking at the surrounding world from his stand-point. The accumulated knowledge and the mental habits slowly acquired during education must be suppressed, and we must divest ourselves of conceptions which, partly by inheritance and partly by individual culture, have been rendered necessary. None can do this completely, and few can do it even partially.
It needs but to observe what unfit methods are adopted by educators, to be convinced that even among the disciplined the power to frame thoughts which are widely unlike their own is extremely small. When we see the juvenile mind plied with generalities while it has yet none of the concrete facts to which they refer—when we see mathematics introduced under the purely rational form, instead of under that empirical form with which it should be commenced by the child, as it was commenced by the race—when we see a subject so abstract as grammar put among the first instead of among the last, and see it taught analytically instead of synthetically; we have ample evidence of the prevailing inability to conceive the ideas of undeveloped minds. And, if, though they have been children themselves, men find it hard to rethink the thoughts of the child, still harder must they find it to rethink the thoughts of the savage. To keep out automorphic interpretations is beyond our power. To look at things with the eyes of absolute ignorance, and observe how their attributes and actions originally grouped themselves in the mind, imply a self-suppression that is impracticable.
Nevertheless, we must here do our best to conceive the surrounding world as it appeared to the primitive man, that we may be able the better to interpret deductively the evidence available for induction. And, though we are incapable of reaching the conception by a direct process, we may make some approach to it by an indirect process. Guided by the doctrine of evolution in general, and by the more special doctrine of mental evolution, we may help ourselves to delineate primitive ideas in some of their leading traits. Having observed a priori what must be the characters of those ideas, we shall be as far as possible prepared to realize them in imagination, and then to discern them as actually existing.
We must set out with the postulate that primitive ideas are natural, and, under the conditions in which they occur, rational. In early life we have been taught that human nature is everywhere the same. Led thus to contemplate the beliefs of savages as beliefs entertained by minds like our own, we marvel at their strangeness, and ascribe perversity to those who hold them. Casting aside this error, we must substitute for it the truth that the laws of thought are everywhere the same, and that, given the data as known to him, the inference drawn by the primitive man is the reasonable inference.
In the sky, clear a few moments ago, the savage sees a fragment of cloud which grows while he gazes. At another time, watching one of these moving masses, he observes shreds of it drift away and vanish; and presently the whole disappears. What thought results in him? He knows nothing about precipitation and dissolution of vapor, nor has there been any one to stop his inquiry by the reply, "It is only a cloud." The essential fact forced on his attention is that something he could not before see has become visible, and something just now visible has vanished. The whence, and the where, and the why, he cannot tell; but there is the fact.
In this same space above him occur other changes. As day declines, bright points here and there show themselves, becoming clearer and more numerous as darkness increases, and then at dawn they fade gradually, until not one is left. Differing from clouds utterly in size, form, color, etc., differing also as continually reappearing in something like the same places, in the same relative positions, and in moving but very slowly always in the same way, they are yet like them in becoming now visible and now invisible. That feeble lights maybe wholly obscured by a bright light, and that the stars are shining during the day though he does not see them, are facts beyond the imagination of the savage. The truth, as he perceives it, is that these existences now show themselves and now are hidden.
Differing greatly from clouds and stars in their behavior as the sun and moon do, they show, in common with them, this same alternation of visibility with invisibility. The sun rises on the other side of the mountains; from time to time going behind a cloud, presently comes out again; and at length hides below the level of the sea. The moon, besides doing the like, first increases slowly night after night, and then wanes, by-and-by reappearing as a thin bright streak, with the rest of her disk so faintly perceptible as to seem only half existing.
Added to these commonest and most regular occupations and manifestations, are various others, even more striking—comets, meteors, and the aurora with its arch and pulsating streams; flashes of lightning, rainbows, halos. Differing from the rest and from one another as these do, they similarly appear and disappear. So that by a being absolutely ignorant, but able to remember, and to group the things he remembers, the heavens must be regarded as a scene of arrivals and departures of many kinds of existences; some gradual, some sudden, but alike in this, that it is impossible to say whence the existences come or whither they go.
Not the sky only, but also the earth's surface, supplies various instances of these disappearances of things which have unaccountably appeared. Now the savage sees little pools of water formed by the rain-drops coming from a source he cannot reach; and now, in a few hours, the gathered liquid has made itself invisible. Here, again, is a fog; perhaps lying isolated in the hollows, perhaps enwrapping every thing, which came a while since and presently goes without leaving a trace of its whereabouts. Afar off is perceived water—obviously a great lake; but on approaching it the seeming lake recedes, and cannot be found. In the desert, what we know as sand-whirlwinds, and on the sea what we know as water-spouts, are to the primitive man moving things which appear and then vanish. Looking out over the ocean, he recognizes an island known to be a long way off, and commonly invisible, but which has now risen out of the water; and to-morrow, just above the horizon, he observes an inverted figure of a boat, perhaps by itself, or perhaps joined to an erect figure above. In one place he sometimes perceives land-objects on the surface of the sea, or in the air over it—a fata morgana; and in another, over against him on the mist, there occasionally comes into view a gigantic duplicate of himself—"a Brocken spectre." These occurrences, some familiar and some unfamiliar, repeat the same experience—show transitions between the visible and the invisible.
Once more, let us ask what must be the original conception of wind. Consider the facts apart from hypothesis, and the implication which every breeze or gust carries with it is that of a power neither visible nor tangible. Nothing in early experiences yields the idea of air, as we are now familiar with it; and, indeed, probably most can recall the difficulty they once had in thinking of the surrounding medium as a material substance. The primitive man cannot regard it as a something which acts as do the things he sees and handles. Into this seemingly-empty space around, there from time to time comes an invisible agent which bends the trees, drives along the leaves, disturbs the water, and which he feels moving his hair, fanning his cheek, and now and then pushing his body with a force he has some difficulty in overcoming. What may be the nature of this agent there is nothing to tell him; but one thing is irresistibly thrust on his consciousness—that sounds can be made, things about him can be moved, and he himself can be buffeted, by an existence he can neither grasp nor see.
What primitive ideas arise out of these experiences derived from the inorganic world? In the absence of hypothesis (which is foreign to thought in its earliest stages), what mental association do these multitudinous occurrences, some at long intervals, some daily, some hourly, some from minute to minute, tend to establish? They present, under many forms, the relation between a perceptible and an imperceptible mode of existence. In what way does the savage think of this relation? He cannot think of it in terms of dissipation into vapor and condensation from it, nor in terms of optical relations producing illusions, nor in any terms of physical science. How, then, does he formulate it? A clew to the answer will be furnished by recalling certain remarks of young children. When an image from the magic lantern, thrown on a screen, suddenly disappears on withdrawal of the slide, or when the reflection from a looking-glass, cast for a child's amusement on the wall or ceiling, is made to vanish by changing the attitude of the glass, the child asks, "Where is it gone to?" The notion arising in its mind is, not that this something no longer seen has become non-existent, but that it has become non-apparent; and it is led to think this by daily observing persons disappear behind adjacent objects, by seeing things put away out of sight, and by now and again finding a toy that had been hidden or lost. Similarly, the primitive idea is, that these various existences now manifest themselves and now conceal themselves. As the animal which he has wounded hides itself in the brushwood, and, if it cannot be found, is supposed by the savage to have escaped in some incomprehensible way, but to be still existing, so, in the absence of accumulated and organized knowledge, the implication of all these experiences is that many of the things above and around pass often from visibility to invisibility, and conversely. Bearing in mind how the actions of wind prove that there is an invisible form of existence which manifests power, we shall see this belief to be plausible.
It remains only to be pointed out that along with this conception of a visible condition and an invisible condition, which each of these many things has, there comes the conception of duality. Each of them is in a sense double, since it has these two complementary modes of being.
Significant facts of another order, from time to time disclosed, may next be noted—facts irresistibly impressing the primitive man with the belief that things are transmutable from one kind of substance to another. I refer to the facts forced on his attention by embedded remains of animals and plants.
While gathering food on the sea-shore, he finds, protruding from a rock, a shell which, if not of the same shape as the shells he picks up, is so similar that he naturally classes it with them. But, instead of being loose, it is part of a solid block; and, on breaking it off, he finds its inside as hard as its matrix. Here, then, are two kindred forms, one of which consists of shell and flesh, and the other of shell and stone. Near at hand, in the mass of clay débris detached from the adjacent cliff, he picks up a fossile ammonite. Perhaps, like the Gryphæa just examined, it has a shelly coating with a stony inside. Perhaps, as happens with some liassic ammonites of which the shell has been dissolved away, leaving the masses of indurated clay that filled its chambers locked loosely together, it suggests a series of articulated vertebrae coiled up; or, as with other liassic ammonites of which the shell has been replaced by iron pyrites, it has a glistening appearance like that of a snake's skin. As such fossils are sometimes called "snake-stones," and are in Ireland supposed to be the serpents St. Patrick banished, we cannot wonder if the uncritical savage, classing this object with those it most resembles, thinks it a transmuted snake—once flesh and now stone. In another place, where a gully has been cut through sandstone by a stream, he observes on the surface of a slab the outline of a fish, and, looking closely, sees scales and the traces of fins; and elsewhere, similarly embedded in rock, he finds skulls and bones not unlike those of the animals he kills for food; some of them, indeed, not unlike those of men.
Still more striking are the transmutations of plants occasionally discovered. I do not refer so much to the prints of leaves in shale, and the fossil stems found in strata accompanying coal; I refer, more especially, to the silicified trees here and there met with. Retaining, not their general forms only but their minute structures, so that the annual growths are marked by rings of color such as mark them in living stems, these yield the savage clear evidence of transmutation. With all our knowledge it remains difficult to understand how silica can so replace the components of the wood as to preserve the appearance thus perfectly; and for the primitive man, knowing nothing of molecular action and unable to conceive a process of substitution, there is no possible thought but that the wood is changed into stone.
Thus, if we ignore those conceptions of physical causation which have arisen only as experiences have been slowly organized during civilization, we shall see that in their absence there would be nothing to prevent us from putting on these facts the interpretations which the primitive man puts on them. Looking at the evidence through his eyes, we find his belief, that things change from one kind of substance to another, to be the inevitable belief
And here let us not omit to note that along with the notion of transmutation is involved the notion of duality. These things have obviously two states of existence.
Much evidence forces on the primitive man the notion that things can change their forms as well as their substances. Did we not thoughtlessly assume that truths which culture has made obvious to us are naturally obvious, we should see that an unlimited belief in metamorphosis is one which the savage cannot avoid. From early childhood we hear remarks implying that certain transformations which living things undergo are matters of course, while other transformations are impossible. This distinction we suppose to have been manifest at the outset. But, at the outset, the observed metamorphoses suggest that any metamorphosis may occur.
Consider the immense contrast in form as in substance between the seed and the plant. Look at this nut with hard brown shell and white kernel, and ask what basis there is for the expectation that from it will presently come a soft shoot and green leaves. When young we are told that the one grows into the other; and, the blank form of explanation being thus filled up, we cease to wonder and inquire. Yet, it needs but to consider what thought would have arisen had there been no one to give this mere verbal solution, to see that the thought would have been—transformation. Apart from hypothesis, the bare fact is that a thing having one size, shape, and color, becomes a thing having an utterly different size, shape, and color.
Similarly with the eggs of birds. But a few days since this nest contained four or five rounded, smooth, speckled bodies; and now in place of them are as many chicks gaping for food. We are brought up to the idea that the eggs have been hatched; and with this semblance of interpretation we are content. This extreme change in visible and tangible characters being recognized as one constantly occurring in the order of Nature, is therefore regarded as not remarkable. But to a mind occupied by no generalized experiences of its own or of others, there would seem nothing more strange in the production of chicks from nuts than in the production of chicks from eggs: a metamorphosis of the kind we think impossible would stand on the same footing as one which familiarity has made us think natural. Indeed, on remembering that there still survives, or till lately survived, the popular belief that barnacle-geese arise from barnacles—on learning that, even in the early transactions of the Royal Society, there is a paper describing a barnacle as showing faint traces of the young bird it is about to produce—it will be seen that only by advanced science has there been discriminated the natural organic transformations, from transformations which to ignorance seem just as likely.
The insect-world yields instances of metamorphoses even more misleading. To a branch which shades the opening of his wigwam, the savage saw, a few days ago, a caterpillar hanging with its head downward. Now in the same place hangs a differently formed and colored thing—a chrysalis. In a week or two after there comes out a butterfly: leaving a thin, empty case. These insect-metamorphoses, as we call them, which we now interpret as processes of evolution presenting certain definitely-marked stages, are, in the eyes of the primitive man, metamorphoses in the original sense. He accepts them as actual changes of one thing into another thing utterly different.
How readily the savage confounds these metamorphoses which really occur with metamorphoses apparently like them but impossible, we shall perceive on considering a few cases of mimicry by insects, and the conclusions they lead to. Many caterpillars, beetles, moths, butterflies, simulate the objects by which they are commonly surrounded. The Onychocerus scorpio is so exactly like, "in color and rugosity," to a piece of the bark of the particular tree it frequents, "that until it moves it is absolutely invisible:" thus raising the idea that a piece of the bark itself has become alive. Another beetle, Onthophilus sulcatus, is "like the seed of an umbelliferous plant;" another "undistinguishable by the eye from the dung of caterpillars;" some of the Cassidæ "resemble glittering dew-drops upon the leaves;" and there is a weevil so colored and formed that, on rolling itself up, it "becomes a mere oval brownish lump, which it is hopeless to look for among the similarly-colored little stones and earth pellets among which it lies motionless," and out of which it emerges after its fright, as though a pebble had become animated. To these examples given by Mr. Wallace, may be added that of the "walking-stick insects," so called "from their singular resemblance to twigs and branches."
"Some of these are a foot long and as thick as one's finger, and their whole coloring, form, rugosity, and the arrangement of the head, legs, and antennæ, are such as to render them absolutely identical inwith dead sticks. They hang loosely about shrubs in the forest, and have the extraordinary habit of stretching out their legs unsymmetrically, so as to render the deception more complete."
What wonderful resemblances exist, and what illusions they may lead to, will be fully perceived by those who have seen, in Mr. Wallace's collection of butterflies, the Indian genus Kallima, placed amid the objects it simulates. Habitually settling on branches bearing dead leaves, and closing its wings, it then resembles a dead leaf, not only in general shape, color, markings, but in so seating itself that the processes of the lower wings unite to form the representation of a foot-stalk. When it takes flight, the impression produced is that one of the leaves has changed into a butterfly. This impression is greatly strengthened when the creature is caught. On the under side of the closed wings is still clearly marked the midrib, running right across them from foot-stalk to apex; and here, too, are lateral veins. Nay, this is not all. Mr. Wallace says:
"We find representations of leaves in every stage of decay, variously blotched and mildewed and pierced with holes, and in many cases irregularly covered with powdery black dots gathered into patches and spots, so closely resembling the various kinds of minute fungi that grow on dead leaves that it is
impossible to avoid thinking at first sight that the butterflies themselves have
been attacked by real fungi."
On recalling the fact that, a few generations ago, all civilized people believed, as many civilized people believe still, that decaying meat is itself transformed into maggots, on being reminded that among our peasantry, at the present time, the thread-like aquatic worm Gordius is said to be horse-hair that has fallen into the water and become living, we shall see it to be inevitable that these extreme resemblances should suggest the notion of actual metamorphoses. That this notion, so suggested, becomes a belief, is a proved fact. In Java and neighboring regions inhabited by it, that marvelous insect, "the walking leaf," is positively asserted to be a leaf that has become animated. What else should it be? In the absence of that explanation of mimicry so happily hit upon by Mr. Bates, no natural origin for such wonderful likenesses between things wholly unallied can be imagined. And, while there is no generalized knowledge, there is nothing to prevent acceptance of these apparent transformations as real transformations; indeed, apparent and real are not distinguished until criticism and skepticism have made some progress.
Once established, the belief in transformation extends itself without resistance to other classes of things. Between an egg and a young bird, there is a far greater contrast in appearance and structure than between one mammal and another. The tadpole, with a tail and no limbs, differs from a young frog with four limbs and no tail, more than a man differs from a hyena; for both of these have four limbs, and both laugh. Evidently, then, the natural metamorphoses so abundant throughout Nature, joined with these apparent metamorphoses which the primitive man inevitably confounds with them, originate the conception of metamorphoses in general, which rises into an explanation everywhere employed without check.
Here, again, we have to note that, while initiating and fostering the notion that things of all kinds may suddenly change their forms, the experiences of transformation confirm the notion of duality. Each object is not only what it seems, but is potentially something else.
Those, from whose minds the thoughts of childhood have not wholly vanished, will remember the interest they once felt in watching their shadows—moving legs and arms and fingers, and observing how corresponding parts of the shadows moved. By a child a shadow is thought of as an entity. I do not assert this without evidence. A memorandum made in 1858, in elucidation of the ideas described in the just-published book of Williams on the Feejeeans, concerns a little girl of some seven, who did not know what a shadow was, and to whom I could give no conception of its true nature.
On ignoring acquired ideas, we shall see this difficulty to be quite natural. A thing having outlines, and differing from surrounding things in color, and especially a thing which moves, is, in other cases, a reality. Why is not this a reality? The conception of it, merely a negation of light, is a conception not to be framed until after the behavior of light is in some degree understood. It is true that the uncultured among ourselves, without clearly formulating the truth that light, proceeding in straight lines, necessarily leaves unlighted spaces behind opaque objects, nevertheless come to regard a shadow as naturally attending an object exposed to light, and as not being any thing real. But this is one of the countless cases in which inquiry is set at rest by a verbal explanation. "It's only a shadow," is the answer given in early days; and this answer, repeatedly given, deadens wonder and stops further thought.
But the primitive man, with no one to answer his questions, and without ideas of physical causation, necessarily concludes a shadow to be an actual existence, which belongs in some way to the person casting it. He simply accepts the facts. Whenever the sun or moon is visible, he sees this attendant thing which rudely resembles him in shape, which moves when he moves, which now goes before him, now keeps by his side, now follows him, which lengthens and shortens as the ground inclines this way or that, and which distorts itself in strange ways as he passes by irregular surfaces. True he cannot see it in cloudy weather; but, in the absence of a physical interpretation, this simply proves that his attendant something comes out only on bright days and bright nights. It is true, also, that such resemblance as his shadow bears to him, and its approximate separateness from him, are shown only when he stands up: on crouching, it becomes indefinitely formed; and as he lies down it seems to disappear and partially merge into him. But this observation confirms his impression of its reality. This greater or less separateness of his own shadow reminds him of cases where a shadow is quite separate. When watching a fish in the water on a fine day, he sees a dark, fish-shaped patch on the bottom at a considerable distance from the fish, but nevertheless following it hither and thither. Lifting up his eyes, he observes dark patches moving along the mountain-sides—patches which, whether traced or not to the clouds that cast them, are seen to be widely disconnected from objects. These facts show him that shadows, often so closely joined with their objects as to be hardly distinguishable from them, may become distinct and remote.
Thus, by minds beginning to generalize, shadows must be conceived as existences appended to, but capable of separation from, material things. And that they are so conceived is abundantly proved. We find it stated by Bastian of the Benin negroes, that they regard men's shadows as their souls; and he also says of the Wanika that they are afraid of their own shadows: possibly thinking, as some other negroes do, that their shadows watch all their actions, and bear witness against them. Among the Greenlanders, according to Crantz, a man's shadow is one of his two souls—the one which goes away from his body at night. Among the Feejeeans, too, the shadow is called "the dark spirit," as distinguished from another which each man possesses. And the community of meaning, hereafter to be noted more fully, which various unallied languages betray between shade and spirit, shows us the same thing.
These illustrations of the truth that a shadow is originally regarded as an appended entity suggest more than I here wish to show. The ideas of the uncivilized, as we now find them, have developed from their first vague forms into forms having more coherence and definiteness. We must neglect the special characters of these ideas, and consider only that most general character with which they began. This proves to be the character we inferred above. Shadows are realities which, always intangible and often invisible, nevertheless severally belong to their visible and tangible correlatives; and the facts they present furnish further materials both for the notion of apparent and unapparent states, and for the notion of a duality in things.
Other phenomena, in some respects allied, yield these notions still more materials. I refer to reflections.
If the rude resemblance in outlines and movements which a shadow bears to the person casting it raises the idea of a second entity, much more must the exact resemblance of a reflection do this. Repeating all the details of form, of light and shade, of color, and mimicking even the grimaces of the original, this image cannot at first be interpreted otherwise than as an existence. Only by experiment is it ascertained that to the visual impressions there are not, in this case, those corresponding tactual impressions yielded by most other things. What results? Simply the notion of an existence which can be seen but not felt. Optical interpretation is impossible. That the image is formed by reflected rays, cannot be conceived while physical knowledge does not exist; and, in the absence of authoritative statement that the reflection is a mere appearance, it is inevitably taken for a reality—a reality in some way belonging to the person whose traits it simulates and whose actions it mocks.
Moreover, these duplicates seen in the water yield to the primitive man obvious verifications of certain other beliefs which surrounding things suggest. Deep down in the clear pool, are there not clouds like those he sees above? The clouds above appear and disappear. Has not the existence of these clouds below something to do with it? At night, again, seeming as though far underneath the surface of the water, are stars as bright as those overhead. Are there, then, two places for the stars? and did those which disappeared during the day go below where the rest are? Once more, overhanging the pool is this dead tree, from which he breaks off branches for firewood. Is there not an image of it too? and the branch which he burns and which vanishes into nothing in burning—is there not some connection between its invisible state and that image of it in the water which he could not touch, any more than he can now touch the consumed branch?
That reflections thus generate a belief—confused and inconsistent it may be, but still a belief—that each individual has a duplicate, usually unseen, but which may be seen on going to the water-side and looking in, is not an a priori inference only; there are facts verifying it. According to Williams, some Feejeeans "speak of man as having two spirits. His shadow is called 'the dark spirit,' which, they say, goes to Hades. The other is his likeness reflected in water or a looking-glass, and is supposed to stay near the place in which a man dies." This belief in two spirits is, indeed, the most consistent one. For are not a man's shadow and his reflection separate? and are they not coexistent with one another and with himself? Can he not, standing at the water-side, observe that the reflection in the water and the shadow on the shore, simultaneously move as he moves? Clearly, while both belong to him, the two are independent of him and of one another; for both may be absent together, and either may be present in the absence of the other.
Early theories about this duplicate are now beside the question, and must be ignored. We are concerned only with the fact that it is thought of as real. To the primitive mind, making first steps in the interpretation of the surrounding world, here is revealed another class of facts confirming the notion that existences have their visible and invisible states, and strengthening the implication of a duality in each existence.
Let any one ask himself what would be his thought if, in a state of childlike ignorance, he were to pass some spot and to hear repeated a shout which he uttered. Would he not inevitably conclude that the answering shout came from another person? Succeeding shouts severally repeated with words and tones like his own, yet without visible source, would rouse the idea that this person was mocking him, and at the same time concealing himself. A futile search in the wood or under the cliff would end in the conviction that the hiding person was very cunning: especially when joined to the fact that here, in the spot whence the answer before came, no answer was now given—obviously because it would disclose the mocker's whereabouts. If at this same place, on subsequent occasions, this responsive shout from a source eluding search always came to any passer-by who called out, the resulting thought would be that in this place there dwelt one of these invisible forms—a man who had passed into an invisible state, or who could become invisible when sought.
Nothing approaching to the physical explanation of an echo can be framed by the uncivilized man. What does he know about the reflection of sound-waves?—what, indeed, is known about the reflection of sound-waves by the mass of our own people? Were it not that the spread of knowledge has modified the mode of thought throughout all classes, producing everywhere a readiness to accept what we call natural interpretations, and to assume that there are natural interpretations to occurrences not comprehended, there would even now be an explanation of echoes as caused by unseen beings.
That to the primitive mind they thus present themselves is shown by facts. Southey, writing of the Abipones, says that "what became of the Lokal" (spirit of the dead) "they knew not, but they fear it, and believe that the echo was its voice." Concerning the Indians of Cumana (Central America), Herrera tells us that they "believed the soul to be immortal, that it did eat and drink in a plain where it resided, and that the echo was its answer to him that spoke or called." And, narrating his voyage down the Niger, Lander says that "from time to time, as we came to a turn in the creek, the captain of the canoe halloed to the fetich, and, where an echo was returned, half a glass of rum and a piece of yam and fish were thrown into the water. When asked why, he said, 'Did you not hear the fetich?'"
Here, as before, I must ask the reader to ignore these special interpretations, acceptance of which forestalls the argument. Attention is now drawn to this evidence simply as confirming the inference that, in the absence of physical explanation, an echo is conceived as the voice of some one who avoids being seen. So that once more we have duality implied—of an invisible as well as a visible state.
To a mind unfurnished with any ideas save those of its own gathering, surrounding Nature thus presents multitudinous cases of seemingly-arbitrary change—now slight and slow, now gradual and great, now sudden and extreme. In the sky and on the earth, things make their appearance and disappear; and there is nothing to show why they do so. Here on the surface and there deeply embedded in the ground are things that have been transmuted in substance—changed from flesh to stone, from wood to flint. Living bodies on all sides exemplify metamorphosis in ways marvelous enough to the instructed, and to the primitive man quite incomprehensible. And this protean character which so many things around him exhibit, and which familiarize him with the notion that there are two or more interchangeable states of existence, is again impressed on him by such phenomena as shadows, reflections, and echoes.
Did we not thoughtlessly accept as innate the conceptions slowly elaborated during civilization and acquired insensibly during our early days, we should at once see that these ideas which the primitive man forms are inevitably formed. The laws of mental association necessitate these primitive notions of transmutation, of metamorphosis, of duality; and, until experiences have been systematized, no limits or restraints are known. With the eyes of developed knowledge we look at the snow as a particular form of crystallized water, and at hail as drops of rain which congealed as they fell. When these become fluid we say they have thawed—thinking of the change as a physical effect of heat; and, similarly, when the hoar-frost fringing the sprays turns into hanging drops, or when the surface of the pool solidifies and again liquefies. But, looked at with the eyes of absolute ignorance, these are transmutations of substance—passings from one kind of existence into another kind of existence. And in like ways are necessarily conceived all the changes above enumerated.
Let us now ask what happens in the primitive mind when there has been accumulated this heterogeneous assemblage of crude ideas, having, amid their differences, certain resemblances. In conformity with the law of evolution, every aggregate tends to integrate, and to differentiate while it integrates. The aggregate of primitive ideas must do this. After what manner will it do it? At the outset, these multitudinous vague notions form a loose mass without order They slowly segregate, like cohering with like, and so forming indefinitely-marked groups. When these groups begin to form a consolidated whole, constituting a general conception of the way in which things at large go on, they must do it in the same way: such coherence of the groups as arises must be due to some likeness among the members of all the groups. We have seen that there is such a likeness—this common trait of duality joined with this aptitude for passing from one mode of existence to another.
Integration must commence by the recognition of some conspicuous typical case. It is a truth perpetually illustrated, that accumulated facts lying in disorder begin to assume some order if an hypothesis is thrown among them. When into a chaos of detached observations is introduced an observation akin to them in which a causal relation is discernible, it forthwith commences assimilating to itself from this heap of observations those which are congruous, and tends even to coerce into union those of which the congruity is not manifest. One may say that as the protoplasm forming an unfertilized germ remains inert until the matter of a sperm-cell is joined with it, but begins to organize when this addition is made, so a loose aggregate of observations continues unsystematized in the absence of an hypothesis, but under the stimulus of an hypothesis undergoes changes bringing about a coherent systematic doctrine. What particular example, then, of this prevalent duality plays the part of an organizing principle to the aggregate of primitive ideas? We must not look for an hypothesis properly so called: an hypothesis is an implement of inquiry not to be framed by the primitive mind. We must look for some experience in which this duality is forcibly thrust on the attention. As a consciously-held hypothesis is habitually based on some obtrusive instance of a relation, which other instances are suspected to be like, so the particular primitive notion which is to serve as an unconscious hypothesis, setting up organization in this aggregate of primitive notions, must be one conspicuously exemplifying their common trait.
First identifying this typical notion, we shall afterward have to enter on a survey of the general conceptions which result. It will be needful to pursue various lines of inquiry and exposition not manifestly relevant to our subject; and it will also be needful to consider the meaning of much evidence furnished by men who have advanced beyond the savage state. But this discursive treatment is unavoidable. Until we can figure to ourselves with approximate truth the primitive system of thought, we cannot fully understand primitive conduct; and, rightly to conceive the primitive system of thought, we must compare the systems found in many societies, helping ourselves, by observing its developed forms, to verify our conclusions respecting its undeveloped form.