Dr. Edward Thorndike's interesting account, in our August number, of his investigations touching the reasoning power of animals has brought us a large number of letters questioning some of the main conclusions set forth in the article, and criticising the method of the inquiry. Not having room for all these communications, we print one of them, and add extracts from two others. These represent the principal objections urged by the various writers against the conclusions drawn by the author of the article from his experiments.
Editor Popular Science Monthly:
Sir: The first reading of Dr. Thorndike's article Do Animals Reason? in the August Popular Science Monthly, gave the impression, which has been deepened by subsequent perusal, that his experiments were not only inadequate to solve the question, but unfairly chosen.
A dog or a cat, utterly hungry, is placed in a box, from which it can escape "by performing some simple (?) action, such as pulling a wire loop, stepping on a platform or lever, clawing down a string, or turning a wooden button."
In the first place, what tends to destroy the reasoning power more than utter hunger? This intense physical craving begets frenzy rather than reason. The more intense this primeval desire, the greater the demand upon primitive instinct for its satisfaction. In the open the cat will jump at a bird, the dog at a bone. If the bird be up a tree, the cat will climb; if the bone be buried, the dog will burrow. Climbing and burrowing are deep-rooted developments of the feline and the canine nature.
Put a dog or a cat, utterly hungry, in a box and hang a piece of meat outside. Instinct prompts a jump through the bai's of the box at the meat, and the greater the number of unsuccessful attempts the less the likelihood of the animal with a gnawing stomach sitting down to scrutinize the mechanical construction of the box to the point of perceiving that by stepping on a lever if will open a door. How many millions of years did it take two-legged man to arrive at the perception of the use of the lever? Did the shaggy biped arrive at that perception by sitting down when utterly hungry and looking at a lever; or did he, through countless generations, by some such chance as lifting a stone with a stick, come to the knowledge of weight and fulcrum?
Put an anthropoid ape, some several degrees nearer man in intelligence than a cat, in a modern office elevator that moves by the push of an electric button, suspend the elevator between two stories, and what do you suppose that anthropoid ape will do?
Put a schoolgirl fresh from belleslettres and matinées in the cab of a locomotive and tell her to run it to the next station. She can not but know that steam will make the wheels go round, but what will she do in the maze of throttles, handles, disks, and rods that confronts her? What will she do if utterly hungry?
Take a laborer from his pick and shovel on the railway embankment and put him at the desk of the general manager. He can read and write. Let the messenger boys and clerks shower him with the letters and telegrams that bombard that desk every day, and let him try to settle the questions to which they give rise.
Now, why can not the schoolgirl run the locomotive, the laborer the railroad? Because the relations of things necessary to the tasks have never been imprinted upon their registering cells; because, in the latter case at least, of the lack of power of co-ordination—that is, the lack of the power of abstract reasoning that the task involves.
Why can not anybody do anything as well as anybody else? Because certain relations have been more deeply impressed upon certain brains than upon others; because of the greater power of certain brains to co-ordinate certain relations, their greater ability to give concrete manifestation of the result of such co-ordination through the efferent nerves. Otherwise any one of us could design a bridge, compose a symphony, or organize a trust.
The oftener relations are impressed upon the registering cells, the more readily are those relations co-ordinated, provided the brain structure be of the requisite caliber. Reiterated impression through the ages of the relations between their needs and sur-