Interpretation is a favorite word with some recent nature writers. It is claimed for the literary naturalist that he interprets natural history. The ways and doings of the wild creatures are exaggerated and misread under the plea of interpretation. Now, if by interpretation we mean an answer to the question, "What does this mean?" or, "What is the exact truth about it?" then there is but one interpretation of nature, and that is the scientific. What is the meaning of the fossils in the rocks? or of the carving and sculpturing of the landscape? or of a thousand and one other things in the organic and inorganic world about us? Science alone can answer. But if we mean by interpretation an answer to the inquiry, "What does this scene or incident suggest to you? how do you feel about it?" then we come to what is called the literary or poetic interpretation of nature, which, strictly speaking, is no interpretation of nature at all, but an interpretation of the writer or the poet himself. The poet or the essayist tells what the bird, or the tree, or the cloud means to him. It is himself, therefore, that is being interpreted. What do Ruskin's writings upon nature interpret? They interpret Ruskin—his wealth of moral and ethical ideas, and his wonderful imagination. Richard Jefferies tells us how the flower, or the bird, or the cloud is related to his subjective life and experience. It means this or that to him; it may mean something entirely different to another, because he may be bound to it by a different tie of association. The poet fills the lap of Earth with treasures not her own—the riches of his own spirit; science reveals the treasures that are her own, and arranges and appraises them.
Strictly speaking, there is not much in natural history that needs interpreting. We explain a fact, we interpret an oracle; we explain the action and relation of physical laws and forces, we interpret, as well as we can, the geologic record. Darwin sought to explain the origin of species, and to interpret many palaeontological phenomena. We account for animal behavior on rational grounds of animal psychology, there is little to interpret. Natural history is not a cryptograph to be deciphered, it is a series of facts and incidents to be observed and recorded. If two wild animals, such as the beaver and the otter, are deadly enemies, there is good reason for it; and when we have found that reason, we have got hold of a fact in natural history. The robins are at enmity with the jays and the crow blackbirds and the cuckoos in the spring, and the reason is, these birds eat the robins' eggs. When we seek to interpret the actions of the animals, we are, I must repeat, in danger of running into all kinds of anthropomorphic absurdities, by reading their lives in terms of our own thinking and consciousness.
A man sees a flock of crows in a tree in a state of commotion; now they all caw, then only one master voice is heard, presently two or three crows fall upon one of their number and fell him to the ground. The spectator examines the victim and finds him dead, with his eyes pecked out. He interprets what he has seen as a court of justice; the crows were trying a criminal, and, having found him guilty, they proceeded to execute him. The curious instinct which often prompts animals to fall upon and destroy a member of the flock that is sick, or hurt, or blind, is difficult of explanation, but we may be quite sure that, whatever the reason is, the act is not the outcome of a judicial proceeding in which judge and jury and executioner all play their proper part. Wild crows will chase and maltreat a tame crow whenever they get a chance, just why, it would be hard to say. But the tame crow has evidently lost caste among them. I have what I consider good proof that a number of skunks that were wintering together in their den in the ground fell upon and killed and then partly devoured one of their number that had lost a foot in a trap.
Another man sees a fox lead a hound over a long railroad trestle, when the hound is caught and killed by a passing train. He interprets the fact as a cunning trick on the part of the fox to destroy his enemy! A captive fox, held to his kennel by a long chain, was seen to pick up an ear of corn that had fallen from a passing load, chew it up, scattering the kernels about, and then retire into his kennel. Presently a fat hen, attracted by the corn, approached the hidden fox, whereupon he rushed out and seized her. This was a shrewd trick on the part of the fox to capture a hen for his dinner! In this, and in the foregoing cases, the observer supplies something from his own mind. That is what he or she would do under like conditions. True, a fox does not eat corn; but an idle one, tied by a chain, might bite the kernels from an ear in a mere spirit of mischief and restlessness, as a dog or puppy might, and drop them upon the ground; a hen would very likely be attracted by them, when the fox would be quick to see his chance.
Some of the older entomologists believed that in a colony of ants and of bees the members recognized one another by means of some secret sign or password. In all cases a stranger from another colony is instantly detected, and a home member as instantly known. This sign or password, says Burmeister, as quoted by Lubbock, "serves to prevent any strange bee from entering into the same hive without being immediately detected and killed. It, however, sometimes happens that several hives have the same signs, when their several members rob each other with impunity. In these cases the bees whose hives suffer most alter their signs, and then can immediately detect their enemy." The same thing was thought to be true of a colony of ants. Others held that the bees and the ants knew one another individually, as men of the same town do! Would not any serious student of nature in our day know in advance of experiment that all this was childish and absurd? Lubbock showed by numerous experiments that bees and ants did not recognize their friends or their enemies by either of these methods. Just how they did do it he could not clearly settle, though it seems as if they were guided more by the sense of smell than by anything else. Maeterlinck in his "Life of the Bee" has much to say about the "spirit of the hive," and it does seem as if there were some mysterious agent or power at work there that cannot be located or defined.
This current effort to interpret nature has led one of the well-known prophets of the art to say that in this act of interpretation one "must struggle against fact and law to develop or keep his own individuality." This is certainly a curious notion, and I think an unsafe one, that the student of nature must struggle against fact and law, must ignore or override them, in order to give full swing to his own individuality. Is it himself, then, and not the truth that he is seeking to exploit? In the field of natural history we have been led to think the point at issue is not man's individuality, but correct observation—a true report of the wild life about us. Is one to give free rein to his fancy or imagination; to see animal life with his "vision," and not with his corporeal eyesight; to hear with his transcendental ear, and not through his auditory nerve? This may be all right in fiction or romance or fable, but why call the outcome natural history? Why set it down as a record of actual observation? Why penetrate the wilderness to interview Indians, trappers, guides, woodsmen, and thus seek to confirm your observations, if you have all the while been "struggling against fact and law," and do not want or need confirmation? If nature study is only to exploit your own individuality, why bother about what other people have or have not seen or heard? Why, in fact, go to the woods at all? Why not sit in your study and invent your facts to suit your fancyings?
My sole objection to the nature books that are the outcome of this proceeding is that they are put forth as veritable natural history, and thus mislead their readers. They are the result of a successful "struggle against fact and law" in a field where fact and law should be supreme. No doubt that, in the practical affairs of life, one often has a struggle with the fact. If one's bank balance gets on the negative side of the account, he must struggle to get it back where it belongs; he may even have the help of the bank's attorney to get it there. If one has a besetting sin of any kind, he has to struggle against that. Life is a struggle anyhow, and we are all strugglers—struggling to put the facts upon our side. But the only struggle the real nature student has with facts is to see them as they are, and to read them aright. He is just as zealous for the truth as is the man of science. In fact, nature study is only science out of school, happy in the fields and woods, loving the flower and the animal which it observes, and finding in them something for the sentiments and the emotions as well as for the understanding.
With the nature student, the human interest in the wild creatures—by which I mean our interest in them as living, struggling beings—dominates the scientific interest, or our interest in them merely as subjects for comparison and classification.
Gilbert White was a rare combination of the nature student and the man of science, and his book is one of the minor English classics. Richard Jefferies was a true nature lover, but his interests rarely take a scientific turn. Our Thoreau was in love with the natural, but still more in love with the supernatural; yet he prized the fact, and his books abound in delightful natural history observations. We have a host of nature students in our own day, bent on plucking out the heart of every mystery in the fields and woods. Some are dryly scientific, some are dull and prosy, some are sentimental, some are sensational, and a few are altogether admirable. Mr. Thompson Seton, as an artist and raconteur, ranks by far the highest in this field, but in reading his works as natural history, one has to be constantly on guard against his romantic tendencies.
The structure of animals, their colors, their ornaments, their distribution, their migrations, all have a significance that science may interpret for us if it can, but it is the business of every observer to report truthfully what he sees, and not to confound his facts with his theories.
Why does the cowbird lay its egg in another bird's nest? Why are these parasitical birds found the world over? Who knows? Only there seems to be a parasitical principle in Nature that runs all through her works, in the vegetable as well as in the animal kingdom. Why is the porcupine so tame and stupid? Because it does not have to hunt for its game, and is self-armed against all comers. The struggle of life has not developed its wits. Why are robins so abundant? Because they are so adaptive, both as regards their food and their nesting-habits. They eat both fruit and insects, and will nest anywhere—in trees, sheds, walls, and on the ground. Why is the fox so cunning? Because the discipline of life has made him cunning. Man has probably always been after his fur; and his subsistence has not been easily obtained. If you ask me why the crow is so cunning, I shall be put to it for an adequate answer. It seems as if nobody could ever have wanted his skin or his carcass, and his diet does not compel him to outwit live game, as does that of the fox. His jet black plumage exposes him alike winter and summer. This drawback he has had to meet by added wit, but I can think of no other way in which he is handicapped. I do not know that he has any natural enemies; yet he is one of the most suspicious of the fowls of the air. Why is the Canada jay so much tamer than are other jays? They belong farther north, where they see less of man; they are birds of the wilderness; they are often, no doubt, hard put to it for food; their color does not make them conspicuous,—all these things, no doubt, tend to make them more familiar than their congeners. Why, again, the chickadee can be induced to perch upon your hand, and take food from it, more readily than can the nuthatch or the woodpecker, is a question not so easily answered. It being a lesser bird, it probably has fewer enemies than either of the others, and its fear would be less in proportion.
Why does the dog, the world over, use his nose in covering the bone he is hiding, and not his paw? Is it because his foot would leave a scent that would give his secret away, while his nose does not? He uses his paw in digging the hole for the bone, but its scent in this case would be obliterated by his subsequent procedure.
The foregoing is one way to interpret or explain natural facts. Everything has its reason. To hit upon this reason is to interpret it to the understanding. To interpret it to the emotions, or to the moral or to the aesthetic sense, that is another matter.
I would not be unjust or unsympathetic toward this current tendency to exalt the lower animals into the human sphere. I would only help my reader to see things as they are, and to stimulate him to love the animals as animals, and not as men. Nothing is gained by self-deception. The best discipline of life is that which prepares us to face the facts, no matter what they are. Such sweet companionship as one may have with a dog, simply because he is a dog, and does not invade your own exclusive sphere! He is, in a way, like your youth come back to you, and taking form—all instinct and joy and adventure. You can ignore him, and he is not offended; you can reprove him, and he still loves you; you can hail him, and he bounds with joy; you can camp and tramp and ride with him, and his interest and curiosity and adventurous spirit give to the days and the nights the true holiday atmosphere. With him you are alone and not alone; you have both companionship and solitude. Who would have him more human or less canine? He divines your thought through his love, and feels your will in the glance of your eye. He is not a rational being, yet he is a very susceptible one, and touches us at so many points that we come to look upon him with a fraternal regard.
I suppose we should not care much for natural history, as I have before said, or for the study of nature generally, if we did not in some way find ourselves there; that is, something that is akin to our own feelings, methods, and intelligence. We have traveled that road, we find tokens of ourselves on every hand; we are "stuccoed with quadrupeds and birds all over," as Whitman says. The life-history of the humblest animal, if truly told, is profoundly interesting. If we could know all that befalls the slow moving turtle in the fields, or the toad that stumbles and fumbles along the roadside, our sympathies would be touched, and some spark of real knowledge imparted. We should not want the lives of those humble creatures "interpreted" after the manner of our sentimental "School of Nature Study," for that were to lose fact in fable; that were to give us a stone when we had asked for bread; we should want only a truthful record from the point of view of a wise, loving, human eye, such a record as, say, Gilbert White or Henry Thoreau might have given us. How interesting White makes his old turtle, hurrying to shelter when it rains, or seeking the shade of a cabbage leaf when the sun is too hot, or prancing about the garden on tiptoe in the spring by five in the morning, when the mating instinct begins to stir within him! Surely we may see ourselves in the old tortoise.
In fact, the problem of the essay-naturalist always is to make his subject interesting, and yet keep strictly within the bounds of truth.
It is always an artist's privilege to heighten or deepen natural effects. He may paint us a more beautiful woman, or a more beautiful horse, or a more beautiful landscape, than we ever saw; we are not deceived even though he outdo nature. We know where we stand and where he stands; we know that this is the power of art. If he is writing an animal romance like Kipling's story of the "White Seal," or like his "Jungle Book," there will be nothing equivocal about it, no mixture of fact and fiction, nothing to confuse or mislead the reader.
We know that here is the light that never was on sea or land, the light of the spirit. The facts are not falsified; they are transmuted. The aim of art is the beautiful, not over but through the true. The aim of the literary naturalist is the true, not over but through the beautiful; you shall find the exact facts in his pages, and you shall find them possessed of some of the allurement and suggestiveness that they had in the fields and woods. Only thus does his work attain to the rank of literature.
A BEAVER'S REASON
One of our well-known natural historians thinks that there is no difference between a man's reason and a beaver's reason because, he says, when a man builds a dam, he first looks the ground over, and after due deliberation decides upon his plan, and a beaver, he avers, does the same. But the difference is obvious. Beavers, under the same conditions, build the same kind of dams and lodges; and all beavers as a rule do the same. Instinct is uniform in its workings; it runs in a groove. Reason varies endlessly and makes endless mistakes. Men build various kinds of dams and in various kinds of places, with various kinds of material and for various kinds of uses. They exercise individual judgment, they invent new ways and seek new ends, and of course often fail.
Every man has his own measure of reason, be it more or less. It is largely personal and original with him, and frequent failure is the penalty he pays for this gift.
But the individual beaver has only the inherited intelligence of his kind, with such slight addition as his experience may have given him. He learns to avoid traps, but he does not learn to improve upon his dam or lodge building, because he does not need to; they answer his purpose. If he had new and growing wants and aspirations like man, why, then he would no longer be a beaver. He reacts to outward conditions, where man reflects and takes thought of things. His reason, if we prefer to call it such, is practically inerrant. It is blind, inasmuch as it is unconscious, but it is sure, inasmuch as it is adequate. It is a part of living nature in a sense that man's is not. If it makes a mistake, it is such a mistake as nature makes when, for instance, a hen produces an egg within an egg, or an egg without a yolk, or when more seeds germinate in the soil than can grow into plants.
A lower animal's intelligence, I say, compared with man's is blind. It does not grasp the subject perceived as ours does. When instinct perceives an object, it reacts to it, or not, just as the object is, or is not, related to its needs of one kind or another. In many ways an animal is like a child. What comes first in the child is simple perception and memory and association of memories, and these make up the main sum of an animal's intelligence. The child goes on developing till it reaches the power of reflection and of generalization—a stage of mentality that the animal never attains to.
All animal life is specialized; each animal is an expert in its own line of work—the work of its tribe. Beavers do the work of beavers, they cut down trees and build dams, and all beavers do it alike and with the same degree of untaught skill. This is instinct, or unthinking nature.
Of a hot day a dog will often dig down to fresh earth to get cooler soil to lie on. Or he will go and lie in the creek. All dogs do these things. Now if the dog were seen to carry stones and sods to dam up the creek to make a deeper pool to lie in, then he would in a measure be imitating the beavers, and this, in the dog, could fairly be called an act of reason, because it is not a necessity of the conditions of his life; it would be of the nature of an afterthought.
All animals of a given species are wise in their own way, but not in the way of another species. The robin could not build the oriole's nest, nor the oriole build the robin's nor the swallow's. The cunning of the fox is not the cunning of the coon. The squirrel knows a good deal more about nuts than the rabbit does, but the rabbit would live where the squirrel would die. The muskrat and the beaver build lodges much alike, that is, with the entrance under water and an inner chamber above the water, and this because they are both water-animals with necessities much the same.
Now, the mark of reason is that it is endlessly adaptive, that it can apply itself to all kinds of problems, that it can adapt old means to new ends, or new means to old ends, and is capable of progressive development. It holds what it gets, and uses that as a fulcrum to get more. But this is not at all the way of animal instinct, which begins and ends as instinct and is non-progressive.
A large part of our own lives is instinctive and void of thought. We go instinctively toward the warmth and away from the cold. All our affections are instinctive, and do not wait upon the reason. Our affinities are as independent of our reflection as gravity is. Our inherited traits, the ties of race, the spirit of the times in which we live, the impressions of youth, of climate, of soil, of our surroundings,—all influence our acts and often determine them without any conscious exercise of judgment or reason on our part. Then habit is all-potent with us, temperament is potent, health and disease are potent. Indeed, the amount of conscious reason that an ordinary man uses in his life, compared with the great unreason or blind impulse and inborn tendency that impel him, is like his artificial lights, compared with the light of day—indispensable on special occasions, but a feeble matter, after all. Reason is an artificial light in the sense that it is not one with the light of nature, and in the sense that men possess it in varying degrees. The lower animals have only a gleam of it now and then. They are wise as the plants and trees are wise, and are guided by their inborn tendencies.
Is instinct resourceful? Can it meet new conditions? Can it solve a new problem? If so, how does it differ from free intelligence or judgment? I am inclined to think that up to a certain point instinct is resourceful. Thus a Western correspondent writes: "At three different times I have pursued the common jack-rabbit from a level field, when the rabbit, coming to a furrow that ran at right angles to his course, jumped into it, and crouching down, slowly crept away to the end of the furrow, when it jumped out and ran at full speed again." This is a good example of the resourcefulness of instinct—the instinct to escape from an enemy—an old problem met by taking advantage of an unusual opportunity. To run, to double, to crouch, to hide, are probably all reflex acts with certain animals when hunted. The bird when pursued by a hawk rushes to cover in a tree or a bush, or beneath some object. Last summer I saw a bald eagle pursuing a fish hawk that held a fish in its talons. The hawk had a long start of the eagle, and began mounting upward, screaming in protest or defiance as it mounted. The pirate circled far beneath it for a few minutes, and then, seeing how he was distanced, turned back toward the ocean, so that I did not witness the little drama in the air that I had so long wished to see.
A wounded wild duck suddenly develops much cunning in escaping from the gunner—swimming under water, hiding by the shore with only the end of the bill in the air, or diving and seizing upon some object at the bottom, where it sometimes remains till life is extinct.
I once saw some farm-hands try to capture a fatted calf that had run all summer in a partly wooded field, till it had become rather wild. As the calf refused to be cornered, the farmer shot it with his rifle, but only inflicted a severe wound in the head. The calf then became as wild as a deer, and scaled fences in much the manner of the deer. When cornered, it turned and broke through the line in sheer desperation, and showed wonderful resources in eluding its pursuers. It coursed over the hills and gained the mountain, where it baffled its pursuers for two days before it was run down and caught. All such cases show the resources of instinct, the instinct of fear.
The skill of a bird in hiding its nest is very great, as is the cunning displayed in keeping the secret afterward. How careful it is not to betray the precious locality to the supposed enemy! Even the domestic turkey, when she hides her nest in the bush, if watched, approaches it by all manner of delays and indirections, and when she leaves it to feed, usually does so on the wing. I look upon these and kindred acts as exhibiting only the resourcefulness of instinct.
We are not to forget that the resourcefulness and flexibility of instinct which all animals show, some more and some less, is not reason, though it is doubtless the first step toward it. Out of it the conscious reason and intelligence of man probably have been evolved. I do not object to hearing this variability and plasticity of instinct called the twilight of mind or rudimentary mentality. It is that, or something like that. What I object to is hearing those things in animal life ascribed to reason that can be easier accounted for on the theory of instinct.
I must differ from the ornithologist of the New York Zoological Park when he says in a recent paper that a bird's affection for her young is not an instinct, an uncontrollable emotion, but I quite agree with him that it does not differ, in kind at least, from the emotion of the human mother. In both cases the affection is instinctive, and not a matter of reason, or forethought, or afterthought at all. The two affections differ in this: that one is brief and transient, and the other is deep and lasting. Under stress of circumstances the bird will abandon her helpless young, while the human mother will not. When the food supply fails, the lower animal will not share the last morsel with its young; its fierce hunger makes it forget them. During the cold, wet summer of 1903 a vast number of half-fledged birds—orioles, finches, warblers—perished in the nest, probably from scarcity of insect food and the neglect of the mothers to hover them.
In interpreting the action of the animals, we so often do the thinking and reasoning ourselves which we attribute to them. Thus Mr. Beebe in the paper referred to says: "Birds have early learned to take clams or mussels in their beaks or claws at low tide and carry them out of the reach of the water, so that at the death of the mollusk, the relaxation of the adductor muscle would permit the shell to spring open and afford easy access to the inmate." No doubt the advancing tide would cause the bird to carry the shell-fish back out of the reach of the waves, where it might hope to get at its meat, but where it would be compelled to leave the shell unopened. But that the bird knew the fish would die there and that its shell would then open—it is in such particulars that the observer does the thinking.
Two other writers upon our birds have stated that pelicans will gather in flocks along the shore, and by manoeuvring and beating the water with their wings, will drive the fish into the shallows, where they easily capture them. Here again the observer thinks for the observed. The pelicans see the fish and pursue them, without any plan to corner them in shoal water, but the inevitable result is that they are so cornered and captured. The fish are foolish, but the pelicans are not wise. The wisdom here attributed to them is human wisdom and not animal wisdom.
To observe the actions of the lower animals without reading our own thoughts into them is not an easy matter. Mr. Beebe thinks that when in early spring the peacock, in the Zoological Park, timidly erects its plumes before an unappreciative crow, it is merely practicing the art of showing off its gay plumes in anticipation of the time when it shall compete with its rivals before the females; in other words, that it is rehearsing its part. But I should say that the peacock struts before the crow or before spectators because it can't help it. The sexual instinct begins to flame up and master it. The fowl can no more control it than it can control its appetite for food. To practice beforehand is human. Animal practice takes the form of spontaneous play. The mock battles of two dogs or of other animals are not conscious practice on their part, but are play pure and simple, the same as human games, though their value as training is obvious enough.
Animals do not have general ideas; they receive impressions through their various senses, to which they respond. I recently read in manuscript a very clear and concise paper on the subject of animal thinking compared with that of man, in which the writer says: "There is a rudimentary abstraction before language. All the higher animals have general ideas of 'good-for-eating' and 'not-good-for-eating,' quite apart from any particular objects of which either of these qualities happens to be characteristic." It is at this point, I think, that the writer referred to goes wrong. The animal has no idea at all about what is good to eat and what is not good; it is guided entirely by its senses. It reacts to the stimuli that reach it through the sight or smell, usually the latter. There is no mental process at all in the matter, not the most rudimentary; there is simple reaction to stimuli, as strictly so as when we sneeze on taking snuff. Man alone has ideas of what is good to eat and what is not good. When a fox prowls about a farmhouse, he has no general idea that there are eatable things there, as the essayist above referred to alleges. He is simply following his nose; he smells something to which he responds. We think for him when we attribute to him general ideas of what he is likely to find at the farmhouse. But when a man goes to a restaurant, he follows an idea and not his nose, he compares the different viands in his mind, and often decides beforehand what he will have. There is no agreement in the two cases at all. If, when the bird chooses the site for its nest, or the chipmunk or the woodchuck the place for its hole, or the beaver the spot for its dam, we make these animals think, compare, weigh, we are simply putting ourselves in their place and making them do as we would do under like conditions.
Animal life parallels human life at many points, but it is in another plane. Something guides the lower animals, but it is not thought; something restrains them, but it is not judgment; they are provident without prudence; they are active without industry; they are skillful without practice; they are wise without knowledge; they are rational without reason; they are deceptive without guile. They cross seas without a compass, they return home without guidance, they communicate without language, their flocks act as a unit without signals or leaders. When they are joyful, they sing or they play; when they are distressed, they moan or they cry; when they are jealous, they bite or they claw, or they strike or they gore,—and yet I do not suppose they experience the emotions of joy or sorrow, or anger or love, as we do, because these feelings in them do not involve reflection, memory, and what we call the higher nature, as with us.
The animals do not have to consult the almanac to know when to migrate or to go into winter quarters. At a certain time in the fall, I see the newts all making for the marshes; at a certain time in the spring, I see them all returning to the woods again. At one place where I walk, I see them on the railroad track wandering up and down between the rails, trying to get across. I often lend them a hand. They know when and in what direction to go, but not in the way I should know under the same circumstances. I should have to learn or be told; they know instinctively.
We marvel at what we call the wisdom of Nature, but how unlike our own! How blind, and yet in the end how sure! How wasteful, and yet how conserving! How helter-skelter she sows her seed, yet behold the forest or the flowery plain. Her springs leap out everywhere, yet how inevitably their waters find their way into streams, the streams into rivers, and the rivers to the sea. Nature is an engineer without science, and a builder without rules.
The animals follow the tides and the seasons; they find their own; the fittest and the luckiest survive; the struggle for life is sharp with them all; birds of a feather flock together; the young cowbirds reared by many different foster-parents all gather in flocks in the fall; they know their kind—at least, they are attracted by their kind.
A correspondent asks me if I do not think the minds of animals capable of improvement. Not in the strict sense. When we teach an animal anything, we make an impression upon its senses and repeat this impression over and over, till we establish a habit. We do not bring about any mental development as we do in the child; we mould and stamp its sense memory. It is like bending or compressing a vegetable growth till it takes a certain form.
The human animal sees through the trick, he comprehends it and does not need the endless repetition. When repetition has worn a path in our minds, then we, too, act automatically, or without conscious thought, as we do, for instance, in forming the letters when we write.
Wild animals are trained, but not educated. We multiply impressions upon them without adding to their store of knowledge, because they cannot evolve general ideas from these sense impressions. Here we reach their limitations. A bluebird or a robin will fight its reflected image in the window-pane of a darkened room day after day, and never master the delusion. It can take no step beyond the evidence of its senses—a hard step even for man to take. You may train your dog so that he will bound around you when he greets you without putting his feet upon you. But do you suppose the fond creature ever comes to know why you do not want his feet upon you? If he does, then he takes the step in general knowledge to which I have referred. Your cow, tethered by a long rope upon the lawn, learns many things about that rope and how to manage it that she did not know when she was first tied, but she can never know why she is tethered, or why she is not to crop the shrubbery, or paw up the turf, or reach the corn on the edge of the garden. This would imply general ideas or power of reflection. You might punish her until she was afraid to do any of these things, but you could never enlighten her on the subject. The rudest savage can, in a measure, be enlightened, he can be taught the reason why of things, but an animal cannot. We can make its impulses follow a rut, so to speak, but we cannot make them free and self-directing. Animals are the victims of habits inherited or acquired.
I was told of a fox that came nightly prowling about some deadfalls set for other game. The new-fallen snow each night showed the movements of the suspicious animal; it dared not approach nearer than several feet to the deadfalls. Then one day a red-shouldered hawk seized the bait in one of the traps, and was caught. That night a fox, presumably the same one, came and ate such parts of the body of the hawk as protruded from beneath the stone. Now, how did the fox know that the trap was sprung and was now harmless? Did not its act imply something more than instinct? We have the cunning and suspicion of the fox to start with; these are factors already in the problem that do not have to be accounted for. To the fox, as to the crow, anything that looks like design or a trap, anything that does not match with the haphazard look and general disarray of objects in nature, will put it on its guard. A deadfall is a contrivance that is not in keeping with the usual fortuitous disarray of sticks and stones in the fields and woods. The odor of the man's hand would also be there, and this of itself would put the fox on its guard. But a hawk or any other animal crushed by a stone, with part of its body protruding from beneath the stone, has quite a different air. It at least does not look threatening; the rock is not impending; the open jaws are closed. More than that, the smell of the man's hand would be less apparent, if not entirely absent. The fox drew no rational conclusions; its instinctive fear was allayed by the changed conditions of the trap. The hawk has not the fox's cunning, hence it fell an easy victim. I do not think that the cunning of the fox is any more akin to reason than is the power of smell of the hound that pursues him. Both are inborn, and are quite independent of experience. If a fox were deliberately to seek to elude the hound by running through a flock of sheep, or by following the bed of a shallow stream, or by taking to the public highway, then I think we should have to credit him with powers of reflection. It is true he often does all these things, but whether he does them by chance, or of set purpose, admits of doubt.
The cunning of a fox is as much a part of his inherited nature as is his fleetness of foot. All the more notable fur-bearing animals, as the fox, the beaver, the otter, have doubtless been persecuted by man and his savage ancestors for tens of thousands of years, and their suspicion of traps and lures, and their skill in eluding them, are the accumulated inheritance of ages.
In denying what we mean by thought or free intelligence to animals, an exception should undoubtedly be made in favor of the dog. I have else where said that the dog is almost a human product; he has been the companion of man so long, and has been so loved by him, that he has come to partake, in a measure at least, of his master's nature. If the dog does not at times think, reflect, he does something so like it that I can find no other name for it. Take so simple an incident as this, which is of common occurrence: A collie dog is going along the street in advance of its master's team. It comes to a point where the road forks; the dog takes, say, the road to the left and trots along it a few rods, and then, half turning, suddenly pauses and looks back at the team. Has he not been struck by the thought, "I do not know which way my master is going: I will wait and see"? If the dog in such cases does not reflect, what does he do? Can we find any other word for his act? To ask a question by word or deed involves some sort of a mental process, however rudimentary. Is there any other animal that would act as the collie did under like circumstances?
A Western physician writes me that he has on three different occasions seen his pointer dog behave as follows: He had pointed a flock of quail, that would not sit to be flushed, but kept running. Then the dog, without a word or sign from his master, made a long detour to the right or to the left around the retreating birds, headed them off, and then slowly advanced, facing the gunner, till he came to a point again, with the quail in a position to be flushed. After crediting the instinct and the training of the dog to the full, such an act, I think, shows a degree of independent judgment. The dog had not been trained to do that particular thing, and took the initiative of his own accord.
Many authentic stories are told of cats which seem to show that they too have profited in the way of added intelligence by their long intercourse with man. A lady writing to me from New York makes the following discriminating remarks upon the cat:—
"It seems to me that the reason which you ascribe for the semi-humanizing of the dog, his long intercourse with man, might apply in some degree to the cat. But it is necessary to be very fond of cats in order to perceive their qualities. The dog is 'up in every one's face,' so to speak; always in evidence; always on deck. But the cat is a shy, reserved, exclusive creature. The dog is the humble friend, follower, imitator, and slave of man. He will lick the foot that kicks him. The cat, instead, will scratch. The dog begs for notice. The cat must be loved much and courted assiduously before she will blossom out and humanize under the atmosphere of affection. The dog seems to me to have the typical qualities of the negro, the cat of the Indian. She is indifferent to man, cares nothing for him unless he wins her by special and consistent kindness, and throughout her long domestication has kept her wild independence, and ability to forage for herself when turned loose, whether in forest or city street. It is when she is much loved and petted that her intelligence manifests itself, in such quiet ways that an indifferent observer will never notice them. But she always knows who is fond of her, and which member of the family is fondest of her."
The correspondent who had the experience with his pointer dog relates this incident about his blooded mare: A drove of horses were pasturing in a forty-acre lot. The horses had paired off, as horses usually do under such circumstances. The doctor's thoroughbred mare had paired with another mare that was totally blind, and had been so since a colt. Through the field "ran a little creek which could not well be crossed by the horses except at a bridge at one end." One day when the farmer went to salt the animals, they all came galloping over the bridge and up to the gate, except the blind one; she could not find the bridge, and remained on the other side, whinnying and stamping, while the others were getting their salt a quarter of a mile away. Presently the blooded mare suddenly left her salt, made her way through the herd, and went at a flying gallop down across the bridge to the blind animal. Then she turned and came back, followed by the blind one. The doctor is convinced that his mare deliberately went back to conduct her blind companion over the bridge and down to the salt-lick. But the act may be more simply explained. How could the mare have known her companion was blind? What could any horse know about such a disability? The only thing implied in the incident is the attachment of one animal for another. The mare heard her mate calling, probably in tones of excitement or distress, and she flew back to her. Finding her all right, she turned toward the salt again and was followed by her fellow. Instinct did it all.
My own observation of the wild creatures has revealed nothing so near to human thought and reflection as is seen in the cases of the collie and pointer dogs above referred to. The nearest to them of anything I can now recall is an incident related by an English writer, Mr. Kearton. In one of his books, Mr. Kearton relates how he has frequently fooled sitting birds with wooden eggs. He put his counterfeits, painted and marked like the originals, into the nests of the song thrush, the blackbird, and the grasshopper warbler, and in no case was the imposition detected. In the warbler's nest he placed dummy eggs twice the size of her own, and the bird proceeded to brood them without the slightest sign of suspicion that they were not of her own laying.
But when Mr. Kearton tried his counterfeits upon a ring plover, the fraud was detected. The plover hammered the shams with her bill "in the most skeptical fashion," and refused to sit down upon them. When two of the bird's own eggs were returned to the nest and left there with two wooden ones, the plover tried to throw out the shams, but failing to do this, "reluctantly sat down and covered good and bad alike."
Now, can the action of the plover in this case be explained on the theory of instinct alone? The bird could hardly have had such an experience before. It was offered a counterfeit, and it behaved much as you or I would have done under like conditions, although we have the general idea of counterfeits, which the plover could not have had. Of course, everything that pertains to the nest and eggs of a bird is very vital to it. The bird is wise about these things from instinct. Yet the other birds were easily fooled. We do not know how nearly perfect Mr. Kearton's imitation eggs were, but evidently there was some defect in them which arrested the bird's attention. If the incident does not show powers of reflection in the bird, it certainly shows keen powers of perception; and that birds, and indeed all animals, show varying degrees of this power, is a matter of common observation. I hesitate, therefore, to say that Mr. Kearton's plover showed anything more than very keen instincts. Among our own birds there is only one, so far as I know that detects the egg of the cowbird when it is laid in the bird's nest, and that is the yellow warbler. All the other birds accept it as their own, but this warbler detects the imposition, and proceeds to get rid of the strange egg by burying it under a new nest bottom.
Man is undoubtedly of animal origin. The road by which he has come out of the dim past lies through the lower animals. The germ and potentiality of all that he has become or can become was sleeping there in his humble origins. Of this I have no doubt. Yet I think we are justified in saying that the difference between animal intelligence and human reason is one of kind and not merely of degree. Flying and walking are both modes of locomotion, and yet may we not fairly say they differ in kind? Reason and instinct are both manifestations of intelligence, yet do they not belong to different planes? Intensify animal instinct ever so much, and you have not reached the plane of reason. The homing instinct of certain animals is far beyond any gift of the kind possessed by man, and yet it seems in no way akin to reason. Reason heeds the points of the compass and takes note of the topography of the country, but what can animals know of these things?
And yet I say the animal is father of the man. Without the lower orders, there could have been no higher. In my opinion, no miracle or special creation is required to account for man. The transformation of force, as of heat into light or electricity, is as great a leap and as mysterious as the transformation of animal intelligence into human reason.
READING THE BOOK OF NATURE
In studying Nature, the important thing is not so much what we see as how we interpret what we see. Do we get at the true meaning of the facts? Do we draw the right inference? The fossils in the rocks were long observed before men drew the right inference from them. So with a hundred other things in nature and life.
During May and a part of June of 1903, a drouth of unusual severity prevailed throughout the land. The pools and marshes nearly all dried up. Late in June the rains came again and filled them up. Then an unusual thing happened: suddenly, for two or three days and nights, the marshes about me were again vocal with the many voices of the hyla, the "peepers" of early spring. That is the fact. Now, what is the interpretation? With me the peepers become silent in early May, and, I suppose, leave the marshes for their life in the woods. Did the drouth destroy all their eggs and young, and did they know this and so come back to try again? How else shall one explain their second appearance in the marshes? But how did they know of the destruction of their young, and how can we account for their concerted action? These are difficulties not easily overcome. A more rational explanation to me is this, namely, that the extreme dryness of the woods—nearly two months without rain—drove the little frogs to seek for moisture in their spring haunts, where in places a little water would be pretty certain to be found. Here they were holding out, probably hibernating again, as such creatures do in the tropics during the dry season, when the rains came, and here again they sent up their spring chorus of voices, and, for aught I know, once more deposited their eggs. This to me is much more like the ways of Nature with her creatures than is the theory of the frogs' voluntary return to the swamps and pools to start the season over again.
The birds at least show little or no wit when a new problem is presented to them. They have no power of initiative. Instinct runs in a groove, and cannot take a step outside of it. One May day we started a meadowlark from her nest. There were three just hatched young in the nest, and one egg lying on the ground about two inches from the nest. I suspected that this egg was infertile and that the bird had had the sense to throw it out, but on examination it was found to contain a nearly grown bird. The inference was, then, that the egg had been accidentally carried out of the nest some time when the sitting bird had taken a sudden flight, and that she did not have the sense to roll or carry it back to its place.
There is another view of the case which no doubt the sentimental "School of Nature Study" would eagerly adopt: A very severe drouth reigned throughout the land; food was probably scarce, and was becoming scarcer; the bird foresaw her inability to care for four young ones, and so reduced the possible number by ejecting one of the eggs from the nest. This sounds pretty and plausible, and so credits the bird with the wisdom that the public is so fond of believing it possesses. Something like this wisdom often occurs among the hive bees in seasons of scarcity; they will destroy the unhatched queens. But birds have no such foresight, and make no such calculations. In cold, backward seasons, I think, birds lay fewer eggs than when the season is early and warm, but that is not a matter of calculation on their part; it is the result of outward conditions.
A great many observers and nature students at the present time are possessed of the notion that the birds and beasts instruct their young, train them and tutor them, much after the human manner. In the familiar sight of a pair of crows foraging with their young about a field in summer, one of our nature writers sees the old birds giving their young a lesson in flying. She says that the most important thing that the elders had to do was to teach the youngsters how to fly. This they did by circling about the pasture, giving a peculiar call while they were followed by their flock—all but one. This was a bobtailed crow, and he did not obey the word of command. His mother took note of his disobedience and proceeded to discipline him. He stood upon a big stone, and she came down upon him and knocked him off his perch. "He squawked and fluttered his wings to keep from falling, but the blow came so suddenly that he had not time to save himself, and he fell flat on the ground. In a minute he clambered back upon his stone, and I watched him closely. The next time the call came to fly he did not linger, but went with the rest, and so long as I could watch him he never disobeyed again." I should interpret this fact of the old and young crows flying about a field in summer quite differently. The young are fully fledged, and are already strong flyers, when this occurs. They do not leave the nest until they can fly well and need no tutoring. What the writer really saw was what any one may see on the farm in June and July: she saw the parent crows foraging with their young in a field The old birds flew about, followed by their brood, clamorous for the food which their parents found. The bobtailed bird, which had probably met with some accident, did not follow, and the mother returned to feed it; the young crow lifted its wings and flapped them, and in its eagerness probably fell off its perch; then when its parent flew away, it followed.
I think it highly probable that the sense or faculty by which animals find their way home over long stretches of country, and which keeps them from ever being lost as man so often is, is a faculty entirely unlike anything man now possesses. The same may be said of the faculty that guides the birds back a thousand miles or more to their old breeding-haunts. In caged or housed animals I fancy this faculty soon becomes blunted. President Roosevelt tells in his "Ranch Life" of a horse he owned that ran away two hundred miles across the plains, swimming rivers on the way to its old home. It is very certain, I think, that this homing feat is not accomplished by the aid of either sight or scent, for usually the returning animal seems to follow a comparatively straight line. It is, or seems to be, a consciousness of direction that is as unerring as the magnetic needle. Reason, calculation, and judgment err, but these primary instincts of the animal seem almost infallible.
In Bronx Park in New York a grebe and a loon lived together in an inclosure in which was a large pool of water. The two birds became much attached to each other and were never long separated. One winter day on which the pool was frozen over, except a small opening in one end of it, the grebe dived under the ice and made its way to the far end of the pool, where it remained swimming about aimlessly for some moments. Presently the loon missed its companion, and with an apparent look of concern dived under the ice and joined it at the closed end of the pool. The grebe seemed to be in distress for want of air. Then the loon settled upon the bottom, and with lifted beak sprang up with much force against the ice, piercing it with its dagger-like bill, but not breaking it. Down to the bottom it went again, and again hurled itself up against the ice, this time shattering it and rising to the surface, where the grebe was quick to follow. Now it looked as if the loon had gone under the ice to rescue its friend from a dangerous situation, for had not the grebe soon found the air, it must have perished, and persons who witnessed the incident interpreted it in this way. It is in such cases that we are so apt to read our human motives and emotions into the acts of the lower animals. I do not suppose the loon realized the danger of its companion, nor went under the ice to rescue it. It followed the grebe because it wanted to be with it, or to share in any food that might be detaining it there, and then, finding no air-hole, it proceeded to make one, as it and its ancestors must often have done before. All our northern divers must be more or less acquainted with ice, and must know how to break it. The grebe itself could doubtless have broken the ice had it desired to. The birds and the beasts often show much intelligence, or what looks like intelligence, but, as Hamerton says, "the moment we think of them as human, we are lost."
A farmer had a yearling that sucked the cows. To prevent this, he put on the yearling a muzzle set full of sharpened nails. These of course pricked the cows, and they would not stand to be drained of their milk. The next day the farmer saw the yearling rubbing the nails against a rock in order, as he thought, to dull them so they would not prick the cows! How much easier to believe that the beast was simply trying to get rid of the awkward incumbrance upon its nose. What can a calf or a cow know about sharpened nails, and the use of a rock to dull them? This is a kind of outside knowledge—outside of their needs and experiences—that they could not possess.
An Arizona friend of mine lately told me this interesting incident about the gophers that infested his cabin when he was a miner. The gophers ate up his bread. He could not hide it from them or put it beyond their reach. Finally, he bethought him to stick his loaf on the end of a long iron poker that he had, and then stand up the poker in the middle of his floor. Still, when he came back to his cabin, he would find his loaf eaten full of holes. One day, having nothing to do, he concluded to watch and see how the gophers reached the bread, and this was what he saw: The animals climbed up the side of his log cabin, ran along one of the logs to a point opposite the bread, and then sprang out sidewise toward the loaf, which each one struck, but upon which only one seemed able to effect a lodgment. Then this one would cling to the loaf and act as a stop to his fellows when they tried a second time, his body affording them the barrier they required. My friend felt sure that this leader deliberately and consciously aided the others in securing a footing on the loaf. But I read the incident differently. This successful jumper aided his fellows without designing it. The exigencies of the situation compelled him to the course he pursued. Having effected a lodgment upon the impaled loaf, he would of course cling to it when the others jumped so as not to be dislodged, thereby, willy nilly, helping them to secure a foothold. The cooperation was inevitable, and not the result of design.
The power to see straight is the rarest of gifts; to see no more and no less than is actually before you; to be able to detach yourself and see the thing as it actually is, uncolored or unmodified by your own sentiments or prepossessions. In short, to see with your reason as well as with your perceptions, that is to be an observer and to read the book of nature aright.
GATHERED BY THE WAY
I. THE TRAINING OF WILD ANIMALS
I was reminded afresh of how prone we all are to regard the actions of the lower animals in the light of our own psychology on reading "The Training of Wild Animals," by Bostock, a well-known animal-trainer. Bostock evidently knows well the art of training animals, but of the science of it he seems to know very little. That is, while he is a successful trainer, his notions of animal psychology are very crude. For instance, on one page he speaks of the lion as if it were endowed with a fair measure of human intelligence, and had notions, feelings, and thoughts like our own; on the next page, when he gets down to real business, he lays bare its utter want of these things. He says a lion born and bred in captivity is more difficult to train than one caught from the jungle. Then he gives rein to his fancy. "Such a lion does not fear man; he knows his own power. He regards man as an inferior, with an attitude of disdain and silent hauteur." "He accepts his food as tribute, and his care as homage due." "He is aristocratic in his independence." "Deep in him—so deep that he barely realizes its existence—slumbers a desire for freedom and an unutterable longing for the blue sky and the free air." When his training is begun, "he meets it with a reserved majesty and silent indifference, as though he had a dumb realization of his wrongs." All this is a very human way of looking at the matter, and is typical of the way we all—most of us—speak of the lower animals, defining them to ourselves in terms of our own mentality, but it leads to false notions about them. We look upon an animal fretting and struggling in its cage as longing for freedom, picturing to itself the joy of the open air and the free hills and sky, when the truth of the matter undoubtedly is that the fluttering bird or restless fox or lion simply feels discomfort in confinement. Its sufferings are physical, and not mental. Its instincts lead it to struggle for freedom. It reacts strongly against the barriers that hold it, and tries in every way to overcome them. Freedom, as an idea, or a conception of a condition of life, is, of course, beyond its capacity.
Bostock shows how the animal learns entirely by association, and not at all by the exercise of thought or reason, and yet a moment later says: "The animal is becoming amenable to the mastery of man, and in doing so his own reason is being developed," which is much like saying that when a man is practicing on the flying trapeze his wings are being developed. The lion learns slowly through association—through repeated sense impressions. First a long stick is put into his cage. If this is destroyed, it is replaced by another, until he gets used to it and tolerates its presence. Then he is gently rubbed with it at the hands of his keeper. He gets used to this and comes to like it. Then the stick is baited with a piece of meat, and in taking the meat the animal gets still better acquainted with the stick, and so ceases to fear it. When this stage is reached, the stick is shortened day by day, "until finally it is not much longer than the hand." The next step is to let the hand take the place of the stick in the stroking process. "This is a great step taken, for one of the most difficult things is to get any wild animal to allow himself to be touched with the human hand." After a time a collar with a chain attached is slipped around the lion's neck when he is asleep. He is now chained to one end of the cage. Then a chair is introduced into the cage; whereupon this king of beasts, whose reason is being developed, and who has such clear notions of inferior and superior, and who knows his own powers, usually springs for the chair, seeking to demolish it. His tether prevents his reaching it, and so in time he tolerates the chair. Then the trainer, after some preliminary feints, walks into the cage and seats himself in the chair. And so, inch by inch, as it were, the trainer gets control of the animal and subdues him to his purposes, not by appealing to his mind, for he has none, but by impressions upon his senses.
"Leopards, panthers, and jaguars are all trained in much the same manner," and in putting them through their tricks one invariable order must be observed: "Each thing done one day must be done the next day in exactly the same way; there must be no deviation from the rule." Now we do not see in this fact the way of a thinking or reflecting being, but rather the way of a creature governed by instinct or unthinking intelligence. An animal never learns a trick in the sense that man learns it, never sees through it or comprehends it, has no image of it in its mind, and no idea of the relations of the parts of it to one another; it does it by reason of repetition, as a creek wears its channel, and probably has no more self-knowledge or self-thought than the creek has. This, I think, is quite contrary to the popular notion of animal life and mentality, but it is the conclusion that I, at least, cannot avoid after making a study of the subject.
II. AN ASTONISHED PORCUPINE
One summer, while three young people and I were spending an afternoon upon a mountain-top, our dogs treed a porcupine. At my suggestion the young man climbed the tree—not a large one—to shake the animal down. I wished to see what the dogs would do with him, and what the "quill-pig" would do with the dogs. As the climber advanced the rodent went higher, till the limb he clung to was no larger than one's wrist. This the young man seized and shook vigorously. I expected to see the slow, stupid porcupine drop, but he did not. He only tightened his hold. The climber tightened his hold, too, and shook the harder. Still the bundle of quills did not come down, and no amount of shaking could bring it down. Then I handed a long pole up to the climber, and he tried to punch the animal down. This attack in the rear was evidently a surprise; it produced an impression different from that of the shaking. The porcupine struck the pole with his tail, put up the shield of quills upon his back, and assumed his best attitude of defense. Still the pole persisted in its persecution, regardless of the quills; evidently the animal was astonished: he had never had an experience like this before; he had now met a foe that despised his terrible quills. Then he began to back rapidly down the tree in the face of his enemy. The young man's sweetheart stood below, a highly interested spectator. "Look out, Sam, he's coming down!" "Be quick, he's gaining on you!" "Hurry, Sam!" Sam came as fast as he could, but he had to look out for his footing, and his antagonist did not. Still, he reached the ground first, and his sweetheart breathed more easily. It looked as if the porcupine reasoned thus: "My quills are useless against a foe so far away; I must come to close quarters with him." But, of course, the stupid creature had no such mental process, and formed no such purpose. He had found the tree unsafe, and his instinct now was to get to the ground as quickly as possible and take refuge among the rocks. As he came down I hit him a slight blow over the nose with a rotten stick, hoping only to confuse him a little, but much to my surprise and mortification he dropped to the ground and rolled down the hill dead, having succumbed to a blow that a woodchuck or a coon would hardly have regarded at all. Thus does the easy, passive mode of defense of the porcupine not only dull his wits, but it makes frail and brittle the thread of his life. He has had no struggles or battles to harden and toughen him.
That blunt nose of his is as tender as a baby's, and he is snuffed out by a blow that would hardly bewilder for a moment any other forest animal, unless it be the skunk, another sluggish non-combatant of our woodlands. Immunity from foes, from effort, from struggle is always purchased with a price.
Certain of our natural history romancers have taken liberties with the porcupine in one respect: they have shown him made up into a ball and rolling down a hill. One writer makes him do this in a sportive mood; he rolls down a long hill in the woods, and at the bottom he is a ragged mass of leaves which his quills have impaled—: an apparition that nearly frightened a rabbit out of its wits. Let any one who knows the porcupine try to fancy it performing a feat like this!
Another romancer makes his porcupine roll himself into a ball when attacked by a panther, and then on a nudge from his enemy roll down a snowy incline into the water. I believe the little European hedgehog can roll itself up into something like a ball, but our porcupine does not. I have tried all sorts of tricks with him, and made all sorts of assaults upon him, at different times, and I have never yet seen him assume the globular form. It would not be the best form for him to assume, because it would partly expose his vulnerable under side. The one thing the porcupine seems bent upon doing at all times is to keep right side up with care. His attitude of defense is crouching close to the ground, head drawn in and pressed down, the circular shield of large quills upon his back opened and extended as far as possible, and the tail stretched back rigid and held close upon the ground. "Now come on," he says, "if you want to." The tail is his weapon of active defense; with it he strikes upward like lightning, and drives the quills into whatever they touch. In his chapter called "In Panoply of Spears," Mr. Roberts paints the porcupine without taking any liberties with the creature's known habits. He portrays one characteristic of the porcupine very felicitously: "As the porcupine made his resolute way through the woods, the manner of his going differed from that of all the other kindreds of the wild. He went not furtively. He had no particular objection to making a noise. He did not consider it necessary to stop every little while, stiffen himself to a monument of immobility, cast wary glances about the gloom, and sniff the air for the taint of enemies. He did not care who knew of his coming, and he did not greatly care who came. Behind his panoply of biting spears he felt himself secure, and in that security he moved as if he held in fee the whole green, shadowy, perilous woodland world."
III. BIRDS AND STRINGS
A college professor writes me as follows:—
"Watching this morning a robin attempting to carry off a string, one end of which was caught in a tree, I was much impressed by his utter lack of sense. He could not realize that the string was fast, or that it must be loosened before it could be carried off, and in his efforts to get it all in his bill he wound it about a neighboring limb. If as little sense were displayed in using other material for nests, there would be no robins' nests. It impressed me more than ever with the important part played by instinct."
Who ever saw any of our common birds display any sense or judgment in the handling of strings? Strings are comparatively a new thing with birds; they are not a natural product, and as a matter of course birds blunder in handling them. The oriole uses them the most successfully, often attaching her pensile nest to the branch by their aid. But she uses them in a blind, childish way, winding them round and round the branch, often getting them looped over a twig or hopelessly tangled, and now and then hanging herself with them, as is the case with other birds. I have seen a sparrow, a cedar-bird, and a robin each hung by a string it was using in the building of its nest. Last spring, in Spokane, a boy brought me a desiccated robin, whose feet were held together by a long thread hopelessly snarled. The boy had found it hanging to a tree.
I have seen in a bird magazine a photograph of an oriole's nest that had a string carried around a branch apparently a foot or more away, and then brought back and the end woven into the nest. It was given as a sample of a well-guyed nest, the discoverer no doubt looking upon it as proof of an oriole's forethought in providing against winds and storms. I have seen an oriole's nest with a string carried around a leaf, and another with a long looped string hanging free. All such cases simply show that the bird was not master of her material; she bungled; the trailing string caught over the leaf or branch, and she drew both ends in and fastened them regardless of what had happened. The incident only shows how blindly instinct works.
Twice I have seen cedar-birds, in their quest for nesting-material, trying to carry away the strings that orioles had attached to branches. According to our sentimental "School of Nature Study," the birds should have untied and unsnarled the strings in a human way, but they did not; they simply tugged at them, bringing their weight to bear, and tried to fly away with the loose end.
In view of the ignorance of birds with regard to strings, how can we credit the story told by one of our popular nature writers of a pair of orioles that deliberately impaled a piece of cloth upon a thorn in order that it might be held firmly while they pulled out the threads? When it came loose, they refastened it. The story is incredible for two reasons: (1) the male oriole does not assist the female in building the nest; he only furnishes the music; (2) the whole proceeding implies an amount of reflection and skill in dealing with a new problem that none of our birds possess. What experience has the race of orioles had with cloth, that any member of it should know how to unravel it in that way? The whole idea is absurd.
To what lengths the protective resemblance theory is pushed by some of its expounders! Thus, in the neighborhood of Rio Janeiro there are two species of hawks that closely resemble each other, but one eats only insects and the other eats birds. Mr. Wallace thinks that the bird-eater mimics the insect-eater, so as to deceive the birds, which are not afraid of the latter. But if the two hawks look alike, would not the birds come to regard them both as bird-eaters, since one of them does eat birds? Would they not at once identify the harmless one with their real enemy and thus fear them both alike? If the latter were newcomers and vastly in the minority, then the ruse might work for a while. But if there were ten harmless hawks around to one dangerous one, the former would quickly suffer from the character of the latter in the estimation of the birds. Birds are instinctively afraid of all hawk kind.
Wallace thinks it may be an advantage to cuckoos, a rather feeble class of birds, to resemble the hawks, but this seems to me far-fetched. True it is, if the sheep could imitate the wolf, its enemies might keep clear of it. Why, then, has not this resemblance been brought about? Our cuckoo is a feeble and defenseless bird also, but it bears no resemblance to the hawk. The same can be said of scores of other birds.
Many of these close resemblances among different species of animals are no doubt purely accidental, or the result of the same law of variation acting under similar conditions. We have a hummingbird moth that so closely in its form and flight and manner resembles a hummingbird, that if this resemblance brought it any immunity from danger it would be set down as a clear case of mimicry. There is such a moth in England, too, where no hummingbird is found. Why should not Nature repeat herself in this way? This moth feeds upon the nectar of flowers like the hummingbird, and why should it not have the hummingbird's form and manner?
Then there are accidental resemblances in nature, such as the often-seen resemblance of knots of trees and of vegetables to the human form, and of a certain fungus to a part of man's anatomy. We have a fly that resembles a honey-bee. In my bee-hunting days I used to call it the "mock honey-bee." It would come up the wind on the scent of my bee box and hum about it precisely like a real bee. Of course it was here before the honey-bee, and has been evolved quite independently of it. It feeds upon the pollen and nectar of flowers like the true bee, and is, therefore, of similar form and color. The honey-bee has its enemies; the toads and tree-frogs feed upon it, and the kingbird captures the slow drone.
When an edible butterfly mimics an inedible or noxious one, as is frequently the case in the tropics, the mimicker is no doubt the gainer.
It makes a big difference whether the mimicker is seeking to escape from an enemy, or seeking to deceive its prey. I fail to see how, in the latter case, any disguise of form or color could be brought about.
Our shrike, at times, murders little birds and eats out their brains, and it has not the form, or the color, or the eye of a bird of prey, and thus probably deceives its victims, but there is no reason to believe that this guise is the result of any sort of mimicry.
V. THE COLORS OF FRUITS
Mr. Wallace even looks upon the nuts as protectively colored, because they are not to be eaten. But without the agency of the birds and the squirrels, how are the heavy nuts, such as the chestnut, beechnut, acorn, butternut, and the like, to be scattered? The blue jay is often busy hours at a time in the fall, planting chestnuts and acorns, and red squirrels carry butternuts and walnuts far from the parent trees, and place them in forked limbs and holes for future use. Of course, many of these fall to the ground and take root. If the protective coloration of the nuts, then, were effective, it would defeat a purpose which every tree and shrub and plant has at heart, namely, the scattering of its seed. I notice that the button-balls on the sycamores are protectively colored also, and certainly they do not crave concealment. It is true that they hang on the naked trees till spring, when no concealment is possible. It is also true that the jays and the crows carry away the chestnuts from the open burrs on the trees where no color scheme would conceal them. But the squirrels find them upon the ground even beneath the snow, being guided, no doubt, by the sense of smell.
The hickory nut is almost white; why does it not seek concealment also? It is just as helpless as the others, and is just as sweet-meated. It occurs to me that birds can do nothing with it on account of its thick shell; it needs, therefore, to attract some four-footed creature that will carry it away from the parent tree, and this is done by the mice and the squirrels. But if this is the reason of its whiteness, there is the dusky butternut and the black walnut, both more or less concealed by their color, and yet having the same need of some creature to scatter them.
The seeds of the maple, and of the ash and the linden, are obscurely colored, and they are winged; hence they do not need the aid of any creature in their dissemination. To say that this is the reason of their dull, unattractive tints would be an explanation on a par with much that one hears about the significance of animal and vegetable coloration. Why is corn so bright colored, and wheat and barley so dull, and rice so white? No doubt there is a reason in each case, but I doubt if that reason has any relation to the surrounding animal life.
The new Botany teaches that the flowers have color and perfume to attract the insects to aid in their fertilization—a need so paramount with all plants, because plants that are fertilized by aid of the wind have very inconspicuous flowers. Is it equally true that the high color of most fruits is to attract some hungry creature to come and eat them and thus scatter the seeds? From the dwarf cornel, or bunch-berry, in the woods, to the red thorn in the fields, every fruit-bearing plant and shrub and tree seems to advertise itself to the passer-by in its bright hues. Apparently there is no other use to the plant of the fleshy pericarp than to serve as a bait or wage for some animal to come and sow its seed. Why, then, should it not take on these alluring colors to help along this end? And yet there comes the thought, may not this scarlet and gold of the berries and tree fruits be the inevitable result of the chemistry of ripening, as it is with the autumn foliage? What benefit to the tree, directly or indirectly, is all this wealth of color of the autumn? Many of the toadstools are highly colored also; how do they profit by it? Many of the shells upon the beach are very showy; to what end? The cherry-birds find the pale ox-hearts as readily as they do the brilliant Murillos, and the dull blue cedar berries and the duller drupes of the lotus are not concealed from them nor from the robins. But it is true that the greenish white grapes in the vineyard do not suffer from the attacks of the birds as do the blue and red ones. The reason probably is that the birds regard them as unripe. The white grape is quite recent, and the birds have not yet "caught on."
Poisonous fruits are also highly colored; to what end? In Bermuda I saw on low bushes great masses of what they called "pigeon-berries" of a brilliant yellow color and very tempting, yet I was assured they were poisonous. It would be interesting to know if anything eats the red berries of our wild turnip or arum. I doubt if any bird or beast could stand them. Wherefore, then, are they so brightly colored? I am also equally curious to know if anything eats the fruit of the red and white baneberry and the blue cohosh.
The seeds of some wild fruit, such as the climbing bitter-sweet, are so soft that it seems impossible they should pass through the gizzard of a bird and not be destroyed.
The fruit of the sumac comes the nearest to being a cheat of anything I know of in nature—a collection of seeds covered with a flannel coat with just a perceptible acid taste, and all highly colored. Unless the seed itself is digested, what is there to tempt the bird to devour it, or to reward it for so doing?
In the tropics one sees fruits that do not become bright colored on ripening, such as the breadfruit, the custard apple, the naseberry, the mango. And tropical foliage never colors up as does the foliage of northern trees.
Many false notions seem to be current in the popular mind about instinct. Apparently, some of our writers on natural history themes would like to discard the word entirely. Now instinct is not opposed to intelligence; it is intelligence of the unlearned, unconscious kind,—the intelligence innate in nature. We use the word to distinguish a gift or faculty which animals possess, and which is independent of instruction and experience, from the mental equipment of man which depends mainly upon instruction and experience. A man has to be taught to do that which the lower animals do from nature. Hence the animals do not progress in knowledge, while man's progress is almost limitless. A man is an animal born again into a higher spiritual plane. He has lost or shed many of his animal instincts in the process, but he has gained the capacity for great and wonderful improvement.
Instinct is opposed to reason, to reflection, to thought,—to that kind of intelligence which knows and takes cognizance of itself. Instinct is that lower form of intelligence which acts through the senses,—sense perception, sense association, sense memory,—which we share with the animals, though their eyes and ears and noses are often quicker and keener than ours. Hence the animals know only the present, visible, objective world, while man through his gift of reason and thought knows the inward world of ideas and ideal relations.
An animal for the most part knows all that it is necessary for it to know as soon as it reaches maturity; what it learns beyond that, what it learns at the hands of the animal-trainer, for instance, it learns slowly, through a long repetition of the process of trial and failure. Man also achieves many things through practice alone, or through the same process of trial and failure. Much of his manual skill comes in this way, but he learns certain things through the exercise of his reason; he sees how the thing is done, and the relation of the elements of the problem to one another. The trained animal never sees how the thing is done, it simply does it automatically, because certain sense impressions have been stamped upon it till a habit has been formed, just as a man will often wind his watch before going to bed, or do some other accustomed act, without thinking of it.
The bird builds her nest and builds it intelligently, that is, she adapts means to an end; but there is no reason to suppose that she thinks about it in the sense that man does when he builds his house. The nest-building instinct is stimulated into activity by outward conditions of place and climate and food supply as truly as the growth of a plant is thus stimulated.
As I look upon the matter, the most wonderful and ingenious nests in the world, as those of the weaver-birds and orioles, show no more independent self-directed and self-originated thought than does the rude nest of the pigeon or the cuckoo. They evince a higher grade of intelligent instinct, and that is all. Both are equally the result of natural promptings, and not of acquired skill, or the lack of it. One species of bird will occasionally learn the song of another species, but the song impulse must be there to begin with, and this must be stimulated in the right way at the right time. A caged English sparrow has been known to learn the song of the canary caged with or near it, but the sparrow certainly inherits the song impulse. One has proof of this when he hears a company of these sparrows sitting in a tree in spring chattering and chirping in unison, and almost reaching an utterance that is song-like. Our cedar-bird does not seem to have the song impulse, and I doubt if it could ever be taught to sing. In like manner our ruffed grouse has but feeble vocal powers, and I do not suppose it would learn to crow or cackle if brought up in the barn-yard. It expresses its joy at the return of spring and the mating season in its drum, as do the woodpeckers.
The recent English writer Richard Kearton says there is "no such dead level of unreasoning instinct" in the animal world as is popularly supposed, and he seems to base the remark upon the fact that he found certain of the cavities or holes in a hay-rick where sparrows roosted lined with feathers, while others were not lined. Such departures from a level line of habit as this are common enough among all creatures. Instinct is not something as rigid as cast iron; it does not invariably act like a machine, always the same. The animal is something alive, and is subject to the law of variation. Instinct may act more strongly in one kind than in another, just as reason may act more strongly in one man than in another, or as one animal may have greater speed or courage than another of the same species. It would be hard to find two live creatures, very far up in the scale, exactly alike. A thrush may use much mud in the construction of its nest, or it may use little or none at all; the oriole may weave strings into its nest, or it may use only dry grasses and horse-hairs; such cases only show variations in the action of instinct. But if an oriole should build a nest like a robin, or a robin build like a cliff swallow, that would be a departure from instinct to take note of.
Some birds show a much higher degree of variability than others; some species vary much in song, others in nesting and in feeding habits. I have never noticed much variation in the songs of robins, but in their nesting-habits they vary constantly. Thus one nest will be almost destitute of mud, while another will be composed almost mainly of mud; one will have a large mass of dry grass and weeds as its foundation, while the next one will have little or no foundation of the kind. The sites chosen vary still more, ranging from the ground all the way to the tops of trees. I have seen a robin's nest built in the centre of a small box that held a clump of ferns, which stood by the roadside on the top of a low post near a house, and without cover or shield of any sort. The robin had welded her nest so completely to the soil in the box that the whole could be lifted by the rim of the nest. She had given a very pretty and unique effect to the nest by a border of fine dark rootlets skillfully woven together. The song sparrow shows a high degree of variability both in its song and in its nesting-habits, each bird having several songs of its own, while one may nest upon the ground and another in a low bush, or in the vines on the side of your house. The vesper sparrow, on the other hand, shows a much lower degree of variability, the individuals rarely differing in their songs, while all the nests I have ever found of this sparrow were in open grassy fields upon the ground. The chipping or social sparrow is usually very constant in its song and its nesting-habits, and yet one season a chippy built her nest in an old robin's nest in the vines on my porch. It was a very pretty instance of adaptation on the part of the little bird. Another chippy that I knew had an original song, one that resembled the sound of a small tin whistle. The bush sparrow, too, is pretty constant in choosing a bush in which to place its nest, yet I once found the nest of this sparrow upon the ground in an open field with suitable bushes within a few yards of it. The woodpeckers, the jays, the cuckoos, the pewees, the warblers, and other wood birds show only a low degree of variability in song, feeding, and nesting habits. The Baltimore oriole makes free use of strings in its nest-building, and the songs of different birds of this species vary greatly, while the orchard oriole makes no use of strings, so far as I have observed, and its song is always and everywhere the same. Hence we may say that the lives of some birds run much more in ruts than do those of others; they show less plasticity of instinct, and are perhaps for that reason less near the state of free intelligence.