Popular Science Monthly/Volume 8/January 1876/Instinct and Acquisition

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591270Popular Science Monthly Volume 8 January 1876 — Instinct and Acquisition1876Douglas Alexander Spalding



SO great was the influence of that school of psychology which maintained that we and all other animals had to acquire in the course of our individual lives all the knowledge and skill necessary for our preservation, that many of the very greatest authorities in science refused to believe in those instinctive performances of young animals about which the less learned multitude have never had any doubt. For example, Helmholtz, than whom there is not, perhaps, any higher scientific authority, says: "The young chicken very soon pecks at grains of corn, but it pecked while it was still in the shell, and when it hears the hen peck, it pecks again, at first seemingly at random. Then, when it has by chance hit upon a grain, it may, no doubt, learn to notice the field of vision which is at the moment presented to it."

At the meeting of this Association in 1872, I gave a pretty full account of the behavior of the chicken after its escape from the shell. The facts observed were conclusive against the individual-experience psychology. And they have, as far as I am aware, been received by scientific men without question. I would now add that not only does the chick not require to learn to peck at, to seize, and to swallow small specks of food, but that it is not a fact, as asserted, and generally supposed, that it pecks while still in the shell. The actual mode of self-delivery is just the reverse of pecking. Instead of striking forward and downward (a movement impossible on the part of a bird packed in a shell with its head under its wing), it breaks its way out by vigorously jerking its head upward, while it turns round within the shell, which is cut in two—chipped right round in a perfect circle some distance from the great end.

Though the instincts of animals appear and disappear in such seasonable correspondence with their own wants and the wants of their offspring as to be a standing subject of wonder, they have by no means the fixed and unalterable character by which some would distinguish them from the higher faculties of the human race. They vary in the individuals as does their physical structure. Animals can learn what they did not know by instinct and forget the instinctive knowledge which they never learned, while their instincts will often accommodate themselves to considerable changes in the order of external events. Everybody knows it to be a common practice to hatch ducks'-eggs under the common hen, though in such cases the hen has to sit a week longer than on her own eggs. I tried an experiment to ascertain how far the time of sitting could be interfered with in the opposite direction. Two hens became broody on the same day, and I set them on dummies. On the third day I put two chicks a day old to one of the hens. She pecked at them once or twice; seemed rather fidgety, then took to them, called them to her and entered on all the cares of a mother. The other hen was similarly tried, but with a very different result. She pecked at the chickens viciously, and both that day and the next stubbornly refused to have any thing to do with them.

The pig is an animal that has its wits about it quite as soon after birth as the chicken. I therefore selected it as a subject of observation. The following are some of my observations: That vigorous young pigs get up and search for the teat at once, or within one minute after their entrance into the world. That if removed several feet from their mother, when aged only a few minutes, they soon find their way back to her, guided apparently by the grunting she makes in answer to their squeaking. In the case I observed the old sow rose in less than an hour and a half after pigging, and went out to eat; the pigs ran about, tried to eat various matters, followed their mother out, and sucked while she stood eating. One pig I put in a bag the moment it was born and kept it in the dark until it was seven hours old, when I placed it outside the sty, a distance of ten feet from where the sow lay concealed inside the house. The pig soon recognized the low grunting of its mother, went along outside the sty struggling to get under or over the lower bar. At the end of five minutes it succeeded in forcing itself through under the bar at one of the few places where that was possible. No sooner in than it went without a pause into the pig-house to its mother, and was at once like the others in its behavior. Two little pigs I blindfolded at their birth. One of them I placed with its mother at once: it soon found the teat and began to suck. Six hours later I placed the other a little distance from the sow; it reached her in half a minute, after going about rather vaguely; in half a minute more it found the teat. Next day I found that one of the two left with the mother, blindfolded, had got the blinders off; the other was quite blind, walked about freely, knocking against things. In the afternoon I uncovered its eyes, and it went round and round as if it had had sight, and had suddenly lost it. In ten minutes it was scarcely distinguishable from one that had had sight all along. When placed on a chair it knew the height to require considering, went down on its knees and leaped down. When its eyes had been unveiled twenty minutes I placed it and another twenty feet from the sty. The two reached the mother in five minutes and at the same moment.

Different kinds of creatures, then, bring with them a good deal of cleverness, and a very useful acquaintance with the established order of Nature. At the same time all of them later in their lives do a great many things of which they are quite incapable at birth. That these are all matters of pure acquisition appears to me an unwarranted assumption. The human infant cannot masticate; it can move its limbs, but cannot walk, or direct its hands so as to grasp an object held up before it. The kitten just born cannot catch mice. The newly-hatched swallow or tomtit can neither walk, nor fly, nor feed itself. They are as helpless as the human infant. Is it as the result of painful learning that the child subsequently seizes an apple and eats it? that the cat lies in wait for the mouse? that the bird finds its proper food and wings its way through the air? We think not. With the development of the physical parts, comes, according to our view, the power to use them, in the ways that have preserved the race through past ages. This is in harmony with all we know. Not so the contrary view. So old is the feud between the cat and the dog, that the kitten knows its enemy even before it is able to see him, and when its fear can in no way serve it. One day last month, after fondling my dog, I put my hand into a basket containing four blind kittens, three days old. The smell my hand had carried with it set them puffing and spitting in a most comical fashion.

That the later developments to which I have referred are not acquisitions can be in some instances demonstrated. Birds do not learn to fly. Two years ago I shut up five unfledged swallows in a small box not much larger than the nest from which they were taken. The little box, which had a wire front, was hung on the wall near the nest, and the young swallows were fed by their parents through the wires. In this confinement, where they could not even extend their wings, they were kept until after they were fully fledged. Lord and Lady Amberley liberated the birds and communicated their observations to me, I being in another part of the country at the time. On going to set the prisoners free, one was found dead—they were all alive on the previous day. The remaining four were allowed to escape one at a time. Two of these were perceptibly wavering and unsteady in their flght. One of them, after a flight of about ninety yards, disappeared among some trees; the other, which flew more steadily, made a sweeping circuit in the air, after the manner of its kind, and alighted, or attempted to alight, on a branchless stump of a beech; at last it was no more seen. No. 3 (which was seen on the wing for about half a minute) flew near the ground, first round the Wellingtonia, over to the other side of the kitchen-garden, past the bee-house, back to the lawn, round again, and into a beech-tree. No. 4 flew well near the ground, over a hedge twelve feet high to the kitchen-garden through an opening into the beeches, and was last seen close to the ground. The swallows never flew against any thing, nor was there, in their avoiding objects, any appreciable difference between them and the old birds. No. 3 swept round the Wellingtonia, and No. 4 rose over the hedge just as we see the old swallows doing every hour of the day. I have this summer verified these observations. Of two swallows I had similarly confined, one, on being set free, flew a yard or two too close to the ground, and rose in the direction of a beech-tree, which it gracefully avoided; it was seen for a considerable time sweeping-round the beeches and performing magnificent evolutions in the air high above them. The other, which was observed to beat the air with its wings more than usual, was soon lost to sight behind some trees. Titmice, tomtits, and wrens, I have made the subjects of a similar experiment and with similar results.

Again, every boy who has brought up nestlings with the hand must have observed that, while for a time they but hold up their heads and open their mouths to be fed, they by-and-by begin quite spontaneously to snap at the food. Here the development may be observed as it proceeds. In the case of the swallow I am inclined to think that they catch insects in the air perfectly well immediately on leaving the nest.

With regard, now, to man, is there any reason to suppose that, unlike all other creatures, his mental constitution has to be in the ease of each individual built up from the foundation out of the primitive elements of consciousness? Reason seems to me to be all the other way. The infant is helpless at birth for the same reason that the kitten or swallow is helpless—because of its physical immaturity; and I know of nothing to justify the contrary opinion, as held by some of our distinguished psychologists. Why believe that the sparrow can pick up crumbs by instinct, but that man must learn to interpret his visual sensations and to chew his food? Dr. Carpenter, in his "Mental Physiology," has attempted to answer this argument in the only way in which it could be answered. He has produced facts which appear to him to prove that "the acquirement of the power of visually guiding the muscular movements is experimental in the case of the human infant." More than forty years ago Dr. Carpenter took part in an operation performed on a boy three years old for congenital cataract. The operation was successful. In a few days both pupils were almost clear; but, though the boy "clearly recognized the direction of a candle or other bright object, he was as unable as an infant to apprehend its distance; so that, when told to lay hold of a watch, he groped at it just as a young child lying in its cradle." He gradually began to use his eyes; first in places with which he was not familiar, but it was several months before he trusted to them for guidance as other children of his age would do. No one will doubt the accuracy of any of these statements; but I cannot agree with Dr. Carpenter that he had in the case of the boy any thing "exactly parallel" to my experiment of hooding chickens at birth and giving them their sight at the end of one or two days. This boy was couched when three years old. Probably sight would have been at first rather puzzling to my chickens, had they not received it until they were six months old. Dr. Carpenter seems to have forgotten for the moment that instincts as well as acquisitions decay through desuetude, and that this is especially true when the faculties in question have never once been started into action and are of the kind which develop through exercise. Another and vital difference between Dr. Carpenter's experiments and mine is this, that, when at the end of two days I gave my chickens sight, I did not do so by poking out or lacerating the crystalline lenses of their eyes with a needle.

The presumption, then, that the progress of the infant is but the unfolding of inherited powers remains as strong as ever. With wings there comes to the bird the power to use them; and why should we believe that, because the human infant is born without teeth, it should, when they do make their appearance, have to discover their use by a series of happy accidents?

One word as to the origin of instincts. In common with other evolutionists, I have argued that instinct in the present generation may be regarded as the product of the accumulated experiences of past generations. More peculiar to myself, and giving special meaning to the word experience, is the view that the question of the origin of the most mysterious instinct is not more difficult than, or different from, but is the same with the problem of the origin of the physical structures of the creatures. For, however they may have come by their bodily organization, it, in my opinion, carries with it a corresponding mental nature.

In opposition to this view, it has been urged that we have only to consider almost any well-marked instinct to see that it could never have been a product of evolution. We, it is said most frequently, cannot conceive the experiences that might by inheritance have become the instincts; and we can see very clearly that many instincts are so essential to the preservation of the creatures that without them they could never have lived to acquire, them. The answer is easy. Granting our utter inability to go back in imagination through the infinite multitude of forms, with their diversified mental characteristics, that stand between the greyhound and the speck of living jelly to which, according to the theory of evolution, it is related by an unbroken line of descent—granting that we are, if possible, still less able to picture in imagination the process of change from any one form to another—what then? Not surely that the theory of evolution is false! For the same argument will prove that no man present can possibly be the son of his father. Our ignorance is very great, but it is not a very great argument.

The other objection, that the creatures could never have lived to acquire their more important instincts, rests on a careless misunderstanding of the theory of evolution. It assumes in the drollest possible way that evolutionists must believe that in the course of the evolution of the existing races there must have from time to time appeared whole generations of creatures that could not start on life from the want of instincts that they had not got. There can be no need to say more than that these unfortunate creatures are assumed to have been singularly unlike their parents. The answer is, that it is not the doctrine of evolution that the bodies are evolved first by one set of causes and the minds are put in afterward by another. This notion is but the still lingering shadow of the individual-experience psychology. As evolutionists, whether we take the more common view and regard the actions of animals as prompted by their feelings and guided by their thoughts, or believe, as I do, that animals and men are conscious automata, in either case we are under no necessity of assuming, in explanation of the origin of the most mysterious instincts, any thing beyond the operation of those laws that we see operating around us, but concerning which we have yet to learn more, perhaps, than we have learned.—Nature.

  1. Read at the Bristol meeting of the British Association.