Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 61.djvu/132

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.




THE exquisite skill and accurate knowledge observable in the lives of the lower animals, which men generally have regarded as instinctive—born with them—have ever been subjects of wonder. In the hands of the natural theologian, whose armory has been steadily impoverished in proportion as mystery has given way before science, instinct is still a powerful weapon. When the divine expatiates on the innate wisdom and the marvelous untaught dexterity of beasts, birds, and insects, he is in little danger of being checked by the men of science. His learned enemies are dumb, when in triumph he asks the old question:

Who taught the nations of the field and wood
To shun their poison and to choose their food?
Prescient, the tides or tempests to withstand,
Build on the wave, or arch beneath the sand?

The very little that our psychologists have done for instinct may be told in a few words. The only theory of instinct, of the nature of an explanation, is that put forward by Mr. Herbert Spencer as part of his philosophy of evolution; but, as a theory, it is only beginning to be understood and appreciated among scientific men; while some eminent thinkers question the reality of the phenomena to be explained. Professor Bain, our other psychologist, and his able following of trained disciples, simply discredit the alleged facts of instinct. Unfortunately, however, instead of putting the matter to the test of observation and experiment, they have contented themselves with criticizing the few accidental observations that have been recorded, and with arguing against the probability of instinctive knowledge. In defending the Berkeleian Theory of Vision, Professor Bain, in answer to the assertion that the young of the lower animals manifest an instinctive perception of distance by the eye, contends that 'there does not exist a body of careful and adequate observations on the early movements of animals.' Writing long ago on the same subject, Mr. Mill also, while admitting that 'the facts relating to the young of the lower animals have been long felt to be a real stumbling-block in the way of the theory,' maintains that 'our knowledge of the mental operations of animals is too imperfect to enable

  1. Reprinted from Macmillan's Magazine, February, 1873.