Here to return to
FACTORS IN ANIMAL LIFE
THE question that the Californian schoolchildren put to me, “Have the birds got sense?” still “sticks in my crop.”
Such extraordinary sense has been attributed to most of the wild creatures by several of our latter day nature-writers, that I have been moved to examine the whole question more thoroughly than ever before, and to find out, as far as I can, just how much and what kind of sense the birds and four-footed beasts have.
In this and in some following chapters I shall make an effort to use my own sense to the best advantage in probing that of the animals, which has, as I think, been so vastly overrated.
When sentiment gets overripe, it becomes sentimentalism. The sentiment for nature which has been so assiduously cultivated in our times is fast undergoing this change, and is softening into sentimentalism toward the lower animals. Many a wholesome feeling can be pushed so far that it becomes a weakness and a sign of disease. Pity for the sufferings of our brute neighbors may be a manly feeling; and then again it may be so fostered and cosseted that it becomes maudlin and unworthy. When hospitals are founded for sick or homeless cats and dogs, when all forms of vivisection are cried down, when the animals are humanized and books are written to show that the wild creatures have schools and kindergartens, and that their young are instructed and disciplined in quite the human way by their fond parents; when we want to believe that reason and not instinct guides them, that they are quite up in some of the simpler arts of surgery, mending or amputating their own broken limbs and salving their wounds, — when, I say, our attitude toward the natural life about us and our feeling for it have reached the stage implied by these things, then has sentiment degenerated into sentimentalism, and our appreciation of nature lost its firm edge.
No doubt there is a considerable number of people in any community that are greatly taken with this improved anthropomorphic view of wild nature now current among us. Such a view tickles the fancy and touches the emotions. It makes the wild creatures so much more interesting. Shall we deny anything to a bird or beast that makes it more interesting, and more worthy of our study and admiration?
This sentimental view of animal life has its good side and its bad side. Its good side is its result in making us more considerate and merciful toward our brute neighbors; its bad side is seen in the degree to which it leads to a false interpretation of their lives. The tendency to which I refer is no doubt partly the result of our growing humanitarianism and feeling of kinship with all the lower orders of creation, and partly due to the fact that we live in a time of impromptu nature study, when birds and plants and trees are fast becoming a fad with half the population, and when the “yellow” reporter is abroad in the fields and woods. Never before in my time have so many exaggerations and misconceptions of the wild life about us been current in the popular mind. It is becoming the fashion to ascribe to the lower animals nearly all our human motives and attributes, and often to credit them with plans and devices that imply reason and a fair amount of mechanical knowledge. An illustration of this is the account of the nest of a pair of orioles, as described in the “North American Review” for May, 1903, by a writer of popular nature books. These orioles built a nest so extraordinary that it can be accounted for only on the theory that there is a school of the woods, and that these two birds had been pupils there and had taken an advanced course in Strings. Among other things impossible for birds to do, these orioles tied a knot in the end of a string to prevent its fraying in the wind! If the whole idea were not too preposterous for even a half-witted child to believe, one might ask, What in the name of anything and everything but the “Modern School of Nature Study” do orioles know about strings fraying in the wind and the use of knots to prevent it? They have never had occasion to know; they have had no experience with strings that hang loose and unravel in the wind. They often use strings, to be sure, in building their nests, but they use them in a sort of haphazard way, weaving them awkwardly into the structure, and leaving no loose ends that would suffer by fraying in the wind. Sometimes they use strings in attaching the nest to the limb, but they never knot or tie them; they simply wind them round and round as a child might. It is possible that a bird might be taught to tie a knot with its foot and beak, though I should have to see it done to be convinced. But the orioles in question not only tied knots; they tied them with a “reversed double hitch, the kind that a man uses in cinching his saddle”! More wonderful still, not finding in a New England elm-embowered town a suitable branch from which to suspend their nest, the birds went down upon the ground and tied three twigs together in the form of “a perfectly measured triangle” (no doubt working from a plan drawn to a scale). They attached to the three sides of this framework four strings of equal length (eight or ten inches), all carefully doubled, tied them to a heavier string, carried the whole ingenious contrivance to a tree, and tied it fast to a limb in precisely the way you or I would have done it! From this framework they suspended their nest, the whole structure being about two feet long, and having the effect of a small hanging basket. Still more astonishing, when the genuineness of the nest is questioned, a man is found who makes affidavit that he saw the orioles build it! After such a proceeding, how long will it be before the water-birds are building little rush cradles for their young, or rush boats to be driven about the ponds and lakes by means of leaf sails, or before Jenny Wren will be living in a log cabin of her own construction? How long will it be before some one makes affidavit that the sparrow with his bow and arrow has actually been seen to kill Cock Robin, and the beetle with his thread and needle engaged in making the shroud? Birds show the taste and skill of their kind in building their nests, but rarely any individual ingenuity and inventiveness. The nest referred to is on a plane entirely outside of Nature and her processes. It belongs to a different order of things, the order of mechanical contrivances, and was of course “made up,” probably from a real oriole’s nest, and the writer who vouches for its genuineness has been the victim of a clever practical joke — a willing victim, no doubt, since he is looking in Nature for just this kind of thing, and since he believes there is “absolutely no limit to the variety and adaptiveness of Nature even in a single species.” If there is no such limit, then I suppose we need not be surprised to meet a winged horse, or a centaur, or a mermaid at any time.
It is as plain as anything can be that the animals share our emotional nature in vastly greater measure than they do our intellectual or our moral nature; and because they do this, because they show fear, love, joy, anger, sympathy, jealousy, because they suffer and are glad, because they form friendships and local attachments and have the home and paternal instincts, in short, because their lives run parallel to our own in so many particulars, we come, if we are not careful, to ascribe to them the whole human psychology. But it is equally plain that of what we mean by mind, intellect, they show only a trace now and then. They do not accumulate a store of knowledge any more than they do a store of riches. A store of knowledge is impossible without language. Man began to emerge from the lower orders when he invented a language of some sort. As the language of animals is little more than various cries expressive of pleasure or pain, or fear or suspicion, they do not think in any proper sense, because they have no terms in which to think — no language. I shall have more to say upon this point in another chapter. One trait they do show which is the first step toward knowledge — curiosity. Nearly all the animals show at times varying degrees of curiosity, but here again an instinctive feeling of possible danger probably lies back of it. They even seem to show at times a kind of altruistic feeling. A correspondent writes me that she possessed a canary which lived to so great an age that it finally became so feeble it could not crack the seeds she gave it, when the other birds, its own progeny, it is true, fed it; and Darwin cites cases of blind birds, in a state of nature, being fed by their fellows. Probably it would be hasty to conclude that such acts show anything more than instinct. I should be slow to ascribe to the animals any notion of the uses of punishment as we practice it, though the cat will box her kittens when they play too long with her tail, and the mother hen will separate her chickens when they get into a fight, and sometimes peck one or both of them on the head, as much as to say, “There, don’t you do that again.” The rooster will in the same way separate two hens when they are fighting. On the surface this seems like a very human act, but can we say that it is punishment or discipline in the human sense, as having for its aim a betterment of the manners of the kittens or of the chickens? The cat aims to get rid of an annoyance, and the rooster and the mother hen interfere to prevent an injury to members of their family; they exhibit the paternal and maternal instinct of protection. More than that would imply ethical considerations, of which the lower animals are not capable. The act of the baboon, mentioned by Darwin, I believe, that examined the paws of the cat that had scratched it, and then deliberately bit off the nails, belongs to a different and to a higher order of conduct.
A complete statement of the factors that shape the lives of the lower orders would include three terms — instinct, imitation (though, doubtless, this is instinctive), and experience. Instinct is, of course, the main factor, and by this term we mean that which prompts an animal or a man to act spontaneously, without instruction or experience. All creatures are imitative, and man himself not the least so. I had a visit the other day from a woman who had spent the last two years in London, and her speech betrayed the fact; she had quite unconsciously caught certain of the English mannerisms of speech. A few years in the South will give the New Englander the Southern accent, and vice versa. The young are, of course, more imitative than the old. Children imitate their parents; the young writer imitates his favorite author.
Animals of different species closely associated will imitate each other. A lady writes me that she has a rabbit that lives in a cage with a monkey, and that it has caught many of the monkey’s ways. I can well believe it. Dogs reared with cats have been known to acquire the cat habit of licking the paws and then washing the ears and face. Wolves reared with dogs learn to bark, and who has not seen a dog draw its face as if trying to laugh as its master does? When a cat has been taught to sit up for its food, its kittens have been known to imitate the mother. Darwin tells of a cat that used to put its paw into the mouth of a narrow milk-jug and then lick it off, and that its kittens soon learned the same trick. In all such cases, hasty observers say the mother taught its young. Certainly the young learned, but there was no effort to teach on the part of the parent. Unconscious imitation did it all. Our “Modern School of Nature Study” would say that the old sow teaches her pigs to root when they follow her afield, rooting in their little ways as she does. But would she not root if she had no pigs, and would not the pigs root if they had no mother? All acts necessary to an animal’s life and to the continuance of the species are instinctive; the creature does not have to be taught them, nor are they acquired by imitation. The bird does not have to be taught to build its nest or to fly, nor the beaver to build its dam or its house, nor the otter or the seal to swim, nor the young of mammals to suckle, nor the spider to spin its web, nor the grub to weave its cocoon. Nature does not trust these things to chance; they are too vital. The things that an animal acquires by imitation are of secondary importance in its life. As soon as the calf, or the lamb, or the colt can get upon its feet, its first impulse is to find the udder of its dam. It requires no instruction or experience to take this important step.
How far the different species of song-birds acquire each their peculiar songs by imitation is a question that has not yet been fully settled. That imitation has much to do with it admits of little doubt. The song of a bird is of secondary importance in its life. Birds reared in captivity, where they have never heard the songs of their kind, sing at the proper age, but not always the songs of their parents. Mr. Scott of Princeton proved this with his orioles. They sang at the proper age, but not the regular oriole song. I am told that there is a well-authenticated case of an English sparrow brought up with canaries that learned to sing like a canary. “The Hon. Daines Barrington placed three young linnets with three different foster-parents, the skylark, the woodlark, and the titlark or meadow-pipit, and each adopted, through imitation, the song of its foster-parent.” I have myself heard goldfinches that were reared in a cage sing beautifully, but not the regular goldfinch song; it was clearly the song of a finch, but of what finch I could not have told. I have also heard a robin that sang to perfection the song of the brown thrasher; it had, no doubt, caught it by imitation. I have heard another robin that had the call of the quail interpolated into its own proper robin’s song. But I have yet to hear of a robin building a nest like a brown thrasher, or of an oriole building a nest like a robin, or of kingfishers drilling for grubs in a tree. The hen cannot keep out of the water the ducks she has hatched, nor can the duck coax into the water the chickens she has hatched. The cowbird hatched and reared by the sparrow, or the warbler, or the vireo does not sing the song of the foster-parent. Why? Did its parent not try to teach it? I have no evidence that young birds sing, except occasionally in a low, tentative kind of way, till they return the following season, and then birds of a feather flock together, robins staying with robins, and cowbirds with cowbirds, each singing the song of its species. The songs of bobolinks differ in different localities, but those of the same locality always sing alike. I once had a caged skylark that imitated the songs of nearly every bird in my neighborhood.
Mr. Leander S. Keyser, author of “Birds of the Rockies,” relates in “Forest and Stream” the results of his experiments with a variety of birds taken from the nest while very young and reared in captivity; among them meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds, brown thrashers, blue jays, wood thrushes, catbirds, flickers, woodpeckers, and several others. Did they receive any parental instruction? Not a bit of it, and yet at the proper age they flew, perched, called, and sang like their wild fellows — all except the robins and the red-winged blackbirds: these did not sing the songs of their species, but sang a medley made up of curious imitations of human and other sounds. And the blue jay never learned to sing “the sweet gurgling roulade of the wild jays,” though it gave the blue jay call correctly. Mr. Keyser’s experiment was interesting and valuable, but his sagacity fails him when interpreting the action of the jay in roosting in an exposed place after it had been given its liberty. He thinks this showed how little instinct can be relied on, and how much the bird needed parental instruction. Could he not see that the artificial life of the bird in the cage had demoralized its instincts, and that acquired habits had supplanted native tendencies? The bird had learned to be unafraid in the cage, and why should it be afraid out of the cage? This reminds me of a letter from a correspondent: he had a tame crow that was not afraid of a gun; therefore he concluded that the old crows must instill the fear of guns into their young! Why should the crow be afraid of a gun, if it had learned not to be afraid of the gunner?
I have seen a young chickadee fly late in the day from the nest in the cavity of a tree straight to a pear-tree, where it perched close to the trunk and remained unregarded by its parents till next morning. But no doubt its parents had given it minute directions before it left the nest how to fly and where to perch!
That animals learn by experience in a limited way is very certain. Yet that old birds build better nests or sing better than young ones it would be hard to prove, though it seems reasonable that it should be so.
Rarely does one see nests of the same species of varying degrees of excellence — that is, first nests in the spring. The second nest of any species is likely to be a more hurried and incomplete affair. Some species are at all times poor nest-builders, as the cuckoos and the pigeons. Other birds are good nest-builders, as the orioles, the thrushes, the finches, the warblers, the hummingbirds, and one never finds an inferior specimen of the nests of any of these birds. There is probably no more improvement in this respect among birds than there is among insects.
I have no proof that wild birds improve in singing. One does not hear a vireo, or a finch, or a thrush, or a warbler that is noticeably inferior as a songster to its fellows; their songs are all alike, except in the few rare cases when one hears a master songster among its kind; but whether this mastery is natural or acquired, who shall tell?
What birds learn about migration, if anything, I do not see that we have any means of finding out.
It has been observed of birds reared under artificial conditions that the young males practice a long time before they sing well. That this is true of wild birds, there is no proof. What birds and animals learn by experience is greater cunning. Does not even an old trout know more about hooks than a young one? Birds of any kind that are much hunted become wilder, even though they have not had the experience of being shot. Ask any duck or grouse or quail hunter if this is not so. Our ruffed grouse learns to fly with a corkscrew motion where it is much fired at on the wing. How wary and cautious the fox becomes in regions where it is much trapped and hunted! Even the woodchuck becomes very wild on the farms where it is much shot at, and this wildness extends to its young. In his “Wilderness Hunter” President Roosevelt says the same thing of the big game of the Rockies. Antelope and deer can be lured near the concealed hunter by the waving of a small flag till they are shot at a few times. Then they see through the trick. “The burnt child fears the fire.” Animals profit by experience in this way; they learn what not to do. In the accumulation of positive knowledge, so far as we know, they make little or no progress. Birds and beasts will adapt themselves more or less to their environment, but plants and trees will do that, too. The rats in Jamaica have learned to nest in trees to escape the mongoose, but this is only the triumph of the instinct of self-preservation. The mongoose has not yet learned to climb trees; the pressure of need is not yet great enough. It is said that in districts subject to floods moor-hens often build in trees. All animals will change their habits under pressure of necessity; man changes his without this pressure. The Duke of Argyll saw a bald eagle seize a fish in the stream — an unusual proceeding; but the eagle was doubtless very hungry, and there was no osprey near upon whom to levy tribute.
Romanes found that rats would get certain semiliquid foods out of a bottle with their tails, as a cat will get milk out of a jar with her paw, but neither ever progresses so far as to use any sort of tool for the purpose, or to tip the vessel over. Animals practice concealment to secure their prey, but not deception, as man does. They do not use lures or disguises, or traps or poison.
There is, of course, no limit to the variety and adaptiveness of nature taken as a whole, but each species is hedged about by impassable limitations. The ouzel is akin to the thrushes, and yet it lives along and in the water. Does it ever take to the fields and woods, and live on fruit and land-insects, and nest in trees like other thrushes? So with all birds and beasts. They vary constantly, but not in one lifetime, and the sum of these variations, accumulated through natural selection, as Darwin has shown, gives rise, in the course of long periods of time, to new species.
As I have already said, domestic animals vary more than wild ones. Every farmer and poultry-grower knows that some hens are better with chickens than others — more motherly, more careful — and rear a greater number of their brood. The same is true of sows with pigs. Some sows will eat their pigs, and wild animals in cages often destroy their young. Some ewes will not own their lambs, and occasionally a cow will not own her calf. (Such cases show perverted or demoralized instinct.) Similar to these are the strange friendships that sometimes occur among the domestic animals, as that of a sheep with a cow, a goose with a horse, or a hen adopting kittens. In a state of nature these curious attachments probably never spring up. Instinct is likely to be more or less demoralized when animal life touches human life.
With the wild creatures we sometimes see one instinct overcoming another, as when fear drives a bird to desert its nest, or when the instinct of migration leads a pair of swallows to desert their unfledged young.
A great many young birds come to grief by leaving the nest before they can fly. In such cases, I suppose, they disobey the parental instructions! I find it easier to believe that instinct is at fault, or that one instinct has overcome another; something has disturbed or alarmed the young birds, and the fear of danger has led them to attempt flight before their wings were strong enough. Once, when I was climbing up to the nest of a broad-winged hawk, the young took fright and launched out in the air, coming to the ground only a few rods away.
Instinct, natural prompting, is the main matter, after all. It makes up at least nine tenths of the lives of all our wild neighbors. How much has fear had to do in shaping their lives and in perpetuating them! And “fear of any particular enemy,” says Darwin, “is certainly an instinctive quality.” It has been said that kittens confined in a box, and which have never known a dog, will spit and put up their backs at a hand that has just stroked a dog, — even before their eyes are opened, one authority says, but this I doubt. My son’s tame gray squirrel had never seen chestnuts, nor learned about them in the school of the woods, and yet when he was offered some, he fairly danced with excitement; he put his paws eagerly around them and drew them to him, and chattered, and looked threateningly at all about him. Does man know his proper food in the same way? The child has only the instinct to eat, and will put anything into its mouth.
How the instinctive wildness of the turkey crops out in the young! Let the mother turkey while hovering her brood give the danger-signal, and the young will run from under her and hide in the grass. Why? To give her a chance to fly and decoy away the enemy. I think young chickens will do the same. Young partridges hatched under a hen run away at once. Pheasants in England reared under a domestic fowl are as wild as in a state of nature. Some California quail hatched under a bantam hen in the Zoo in New York did not heed the calls of their foster-mother at all the first week, but at her alarm-note they instantly squatted, showing that the danger-cry of a fowl is a kind of universal language that all species understand. One may prove this at any time by arousing the fears of any wild bird: how all the other birds catch the alarm! Charles St. John says that in Scotland the stag you are stalking is sure to be put to flight if it hears the alarm-cry of the cock-grouse. You see it is more important that the wild creatures should understand the danger-signals of one another than that they should understand the rest of their language.
To what extent animals reason, or show any glimmering of what we call reason, is a much-debated question among animal psychologists, and I shall have more to say upon the subject later on. Dogs undoubtedly show gleams of reason, and other animals in domestication, such as the elephant and the monkey. One does not often feel like questioning Darwin’s conclusions, yet the incident of the caged bear which he quotes, that pawed the water in front of its cage to create a current that should float within its reach a piece of bread that had been placed there, does not, in my judgment, show any reasoning about the laws of hydrostatics. The bear would doubtless have pawed a cloth in the same way, vaguely seeking to draw the bread within reach. But when an elephant blows through his trunk upon the ground beyond an object which he wants, but which is beyond his reach, so that the rebounding air will drive it toward him, he shows something very much like reason.
Instinct is a kind of natural reason, — reason that acts without proof or experience. The principle of life in organic nature seeks in all ways to express and to perpetuate itself. It finds many degrees of expression and fulfillment in the vegetable world; it finds higher degrees of expression and fulfillment in the animal world, reaching its highest development in man.
That the animals, except those that have been long associated with man, and they only in occasional gleams and hints, are capable of any of our complex mental processes, that they are capable of an act of reflection, of connecting cause and effect, of putting this and that together, is to me void of proof. Why, there are yet savage tribes in which the woman is regarded as the sole parent of the child. When the mother is sick at childbirth, the father takes to his bed and feigns the illness he does not feel, in order to establish his relationship to the child. It is not at all probable that the males of any species of animals, or the females either, are guided or influenced in their actions by the desire for offspring, or that they possess anything like knowledge of the connection between their love-making and their offspring. This knowledge comes of reflection, and reflection the lower animals are not capable of. But I shall have more to say upon this point in another chapter, entitled “What do Animals Know?” I will only say here that animals are almost as much under the dominion of absolute nature, or what we call instinct, innate tendency, habit of growth, as are the plants and trees. Their lives revolve around three wants or needs — the want of food, of safety, and of offspring. It is in securing these ends that all their wit is developed. They have no wants outside of these spheres, as man has. Their social wants and their love of beauty, as in some of the birds., are secondary. It is quite certain that the animals that store up food for the winter do not take any thought of the future. Nature takes thought for them and gives them their provident instinct. The jay, by his propensity to carry away and hide things, plants many of our oak and chestnut trees, but who dares say that he does this on purpose, any more than that the insects cross-fertilize the flowers on purpose? Sheep do not take thought of the wool upon their backs that is to protect them from the cold of winter, nor does the fox of his fur. In the tropics sheep cease to grow wool in three or four years.
All the lower animals, so far as I know, swim the first time they find themselves in the water. They do not have to be taught: it is a matter of instinct. It is what we should expect from our knowledge of their lives. Not so with man; he must learn to swim as he learns so many other things. The stimulus of the water does not at once set in motion his legs and arms in the right way, as it does the animal’s legs; his powers of reason and reflection paralyze him — his brain carries him down.
Not until he has learned to resign himself to the water as the animal does, and to go on all fours, can he swim. As soon as the boy ceases to struggle against his tendency to sink, assumes the horizontal position, and strikes out as the animal does, with but one thought, and that to apply his powers of locomotion to the medium about him, he swims as a matter of course. It is said that children have sometimes. been known to swim when thrown into the water. Their animal instincts were not thwarted by their powers of reflection. Doubtless this never happened to a grown person. Moreover, is it not probable that the specific gravity of the hairless human body is greater than that of the hair-covered animal, and that it sinks, while that of the cat or dog floats? This, with the erect position of man, makes swimming with him an art that must be acquired.
There is no better illustration of the action of instinct as opposed to conscious intelligence than is afforded by the parasitic birds, — the cuckoo in Europe and the cowbird in this country, — birds that lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Darwin speculates as to how this instinct came about, but whatever may have been its genesis, it is now a fixed habit among these birds. Moreover, the instinct of the blind young alien, a day or two after it is hatched, to throw or crowd its foster-brothers out of the nest is a strange and anomalous act, and is as untaught and unreasoned as anything in vegetable life. But when our yellow warbler, finding this strange egg of the cowbird in her nest, proceeds to bury it by putting another bottom in the nest and carrying up the sides to correspond, she shows something very much like sense and judgment, though of a clumsy kind. How much simpler and easier it would be to throw out the strange egg! I have known the cowbird herself to carry an egg from a nest in which she wished to deposit one of her own. Again, how stupid and ludicrous it seems on the part of the mother sparrow, or warbler, or vireo, when she goes about toiling desperately to satisfy the hunger of her big clamorous bantling of a cowbird, never suspecting that she has been imposed upon!
Of course the line that divides man from the lower orders is not a straight line. It has many breaks and curves and deep indentations. The man-like apes, as it were, mark where the line rises up into the domain of man. Furthermore, the elephant and the dog, especially as we know them in domestication, encroach upon man’s territory.
Men are born with aptitudes for different things, but the art and the science of them all they have to learn; proficiency comes with practice. Man must learn to spin his web, to build his house, to sing his song, to know his food, to sail his craft, to find his way — things that the animals know “from the jump.” The animal inherits its knowledge and its skill: man must acquire his by individual effort; all he inherits is capacity in varying degrees for these things. The animal does rational things without an exercise of reason. It is intelligent as nature is intelligent. It does not know that it knows, or how it knows, while man does. Man’s knowledge is the light of his mind that shines on many and widely different objects, while the knowledge of animals cannot be symbolized by the term “light” at all. The animal acts blindly so far as any conscious individual illumination or act of judgment is concerned. It does the thing unwittingly, because it must. Confront it with a new condition, and it has no resources to meet that condition. The animal knows what necessity taught its progenitors, and it knows that only as a spontaneous impulse to do certain things.
Instinct, I say, is a great matter, and often shames reason. It adapts means to an end, it makes few or no mistakes, it takes note of times and seasons, it delves, it bores, it spins, it weaves, it sews, it builds, it makes paper, it constructs a shelter, it navigates the air and the water, it is provident and thrifty, it knows its enemies, it outwits its foes, it crosses oceans and continents without compass, it foreshadows nearly all the arts and trades and occupations of mankind, it is skilled without practice, and wise without experience. How it arose, what its genesis was, who can tell? Probably natural selection has been the chief agent in its development. If natural selection has developed and sharpened the claws of the cat and the scent of the fox, why should it not develop and sharpen their wits also? The remote ancestors of the fox or of the crow were doubtless less shrewd and cunning than the crows and the foxes of to-day. The instinctive intelligence of an animal of our time is the sum of the variations toward greater intelligence of all its ancestors. What man stores in language and in books — the accumulated results of experience — the animals seem to have stored in instinct. As Darwin says, a man cannot, on his first trial, make a stone hatchet or a canoe through his power of imitation. “He has to learn his work by practice; a beaver, on the other hand, can make its dam or canal, and a bird its nest, as well or nearly as well, and a spider its wonderful web quite as well, the first time it tries as when old and experienced.”
An animal shows intelligence, as distinct from instinct, when it takes advantage of any circumstance that arises at the moment, when it finds new ways, whether better or not, as when certain birds desert their old nesting-sites, and take up with new ones afforded by man. This act, at least, shows power of choice. The birds and beasts all quickly avail themselves of any new source of food supply. Their wits are probably more keen and active here than in any other direction. It is said that in Oklahoma the coyotes have learned to tell ripe water- melons from unripe ones by scratching upon them. If they have not, they probably will. Eating is the one thing that engrosses the attention of all creatures, and the procuring of food has been a great means of education to all.
I notice that certain of the wood-folk — mice and squirrels and birds — eat mushrooms. If I would eat them, I must learn how to distinguish the edible from the poisonous ones. I have no special sense to guide me in the matter, as doubtless the squirrels have. Their instinct is sure where my reason fails. It would be very interesting to know if they ever make a mistake in this matter. Domestic animals sometimes make mistakes as to their food because their instinct has been tampered with and is by no means as sure as that of the wild creatures. It is said that sheep will occasionally eat laurel and St. John’s-wort, which are poisonous to them. In the far West I was told that the horses sometimes eat a weed called the loco-weed that makes them crazy. I have since learned that the buffaloes and cattle with a strain of the buffalo blood never eat this weed.
The imitation among the lower animals to which I have referred is in no sense akin to teaching. The boy does not learn arithmetic by imitation. To teach is to bring one mind to act upon another mind; it is the result of a conscious effort on the part of both teacher and pupil. The child, says Darwin, has an instinctive tendency to speak, but not to brew, or bake, or write. The child comes to speak by imitation, as does the parrot, and then learns the meaning of words, as the parrot does not.
I am convinced there is nothing in the notion that animals consciously teach their young. Is it probable that a mere animal reflects upon the future any more than it does upon the past? Is it solicitous about the future well-being of its offspring any more than it is curious about its ancestry? Persons who think they see the lower animals training their young consciously or unconsciously supply something to their observations; they read their own thoughts or preconceptions into what they see. Yet so trained a naturalist and experienced a hunter as President Roosevelt differs with me in this matter. In a letter which I am permitted to quote, he says:
“I have not the slightest doubt that there is a large amount of unconscious teaching by wood-folk of their offspring. In unfrequented places I have had the deer watch me with almost as much indifference as they do now in the Yellowstone Park. In frequented places, where they are hunted, young deer and young mountain sheep, on the other hand, — and of course young wolves, bobcats, and the like, — are exceedingly wary and shy when the sight or smell of man is concerned. Undoubtedly this is due to the fact that from their earliest moments of going about they learn to imitate the unflagging watchfulness of their parents, and by the exercise of some associative or imitative quality they grow to imitate and then to share the alarm displayed by the older ones at the smell or presence of man. A young deer that has never seen a man feels no instinctive alarm at his presence, or at least very little; but it will undoubtedly learn to associate extreme alarm with his presence from merely accompanying its mother, if the latter feels such alarm. I should not regard this as schooling by the parent any more than I should so regard the instant flight of twenty antelope who had not seen a hunter, because the twenty-first has seen him and has instantly run. Sometimes a deer or an antelope will deliberately give an alarm-cry at sight of something strange. This cry at once puts every deer or antelope on the alert; but they will be just as much on the alert if they witness nothing but an exhibition of fright and flight on the part of the first deer or antelope, without there being any conscious effort on its part to express alarm.
“Moreover, I am inclined to think that on certain occasions, rare though they may be, there is a conscious effort at teaching. I have myself known of one setter dog which would thrash its puppy soundly if the latter carelessly or stupidly flushed a bird. Something similar may occur in the wild state among such intelligent beasts as wolves and foxes. Indeed, I have some reason to believe that with both of these animals it does occur — that is, that there is conscious as well as unconscious teaching of the young in such matters as traps.”
Probably the President and I differ more in the meaning we attach to the same words than in anything else. In a subsequent letter he says: “I think the chief difference between you and me in the matter is one of terminology. When I speak of unconscious teaching, I really mean simply acting in a manner which arouses imitation.”
Imitation is no doubt the key to the whole matter. The animals unconsciously teach their young by their example, and in no other way. But I must leave the discussion of this subject for another chapter.