Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/November 1888/Four-Handed Sinners: A Zoological Study



EDMOND ABOUT used to tell a good story of a Spanish prelate who studied anatomy for the special purpose of describing the fragments of a miraculous skeleton, but who was so astounded by the discovery of a rudimentary tail-bone that he relinquished his study in dismay, and declined to specify the results of his investigation.

In a similar way the comparative study of human and animal psychology would often surprise a close observer. There was a time when the mere suggestion of such studies would have been overruled by the prevalent tenet which denied the affinity of our mental apparatus to any part of the animal organism, the attribute of "reason" being reserved for the primate of the animal kingdom, while the actions of his humble fellow-creatures were supposed to be prompted by a blind and semi-automatic agency, called "instinct." Intelligence, we were told, might be compared to a "keyed instrument, from which any music it is capable of producing may be called forth at the will of the performer," while the modus operandi of instinct was supposed to resemble that of a "barrel-organ, which plays with the greatest exactness a certain number of tunes that are set upon it, but can do nothing else." The mechanism of that living barrel-organ was, moreover, believed to act chiefly in the interest of the species, while reason subserved the interests and momentary caprices of individuals.

The subjective motives of that view were, however, clearly identical with the prejudice which long denied the analogies between the physical organism of men and brutes. Every step in the progress of comparative anatomy has more plainly demonstrated the fact that the alleged contrasts in the construction and the functional characteristics of human and animal bodies are mere differences of degree, and a similar conclusion must force itself upon the unprejudiced observer of animal soul-functions. Even our domestic birds often manifest symptoms of passions, whims, and moral aberrations, clearly analogous to those of their biped proprietors; and in the higher animals those manifestations become so unmistakable that a student of moral zoölogy is often tempted to indorse the view of that school-girl who defined a monkey as "a very small boy with a tail."

According to Arthur Schopenhauer's theory of moral evolution, the conscious prestige of our species first reveals itself in the emotions of headstrong volition that make a little baby stamp its feet and strike down its fists, "commanding violently before it could form anything like a clear conception of its own wants. ... Untutored barbarians," he adds, "are apt to indulge in similar methods of self-assertion, and, in settling a controversy, prefer menacing gestures to rational explanations."

That tendency, however, is not confined to infants and savages. The black-faced Cynocephalus maurus (the "Cutch baboon" of the New York pet-dealers) resents the slightest misunderstanding of his desires, and, after reaching out for a glittering toy, can not be placated by an offered tidbit, but slams down his fist with the dogmatic emphasis of a colored revival-preacher. In his controversies with his cage-mate (a female spaniel) my pet Cutch will lay hold of the dog's tail and enforce his theories with a peremptory pull that never fails to provoke a rough-and-tumble fight; but, long after the dog has relapsed into sullen silence, her antagonist will shake the cage with resounding blows, and every now and then steal a look at the by-standers, to invite their attention to his "best method of dealing with heretics."

Egotism has been defined as the "stout stem of which altruism is the tender flower," and our Darwinian relatives can claim a healthy share of that moral substratum. Faust-Recht, the law of the strong hand, is the recognized code of every monkey community. Without the slightest pretext of preliminary explanations the president of a simian syndicate will snatch away the shares of the weaker stockholders and ignore the shrieks of his victims with the eupeptic equanimity of a retired railway nabob. The mere sight of alien property is apt to excite the covetousness of a privileged four-hander. My pig-tail monkey (Macacus nemestrinus) can not see a dog gnaw a bone without plotting the appropriation of the unknown dainty, and, even after a series of vain attempts to utilize his booty, will guard his prize in the vague hope of discovering the secret of its value. He sleeps in a tub, but has failed to adopt the cynic tenet of attaining happiness by a reduction of his desires; and whenever he succeeds in pulling the staple of his chain, his barrel gets stuffed with an accumulation of miscellaneous plunder, including such objects of rather limited utility as kite-tails, empty bottles, ice-hooks, feathers, and potsherds. He is fond of taking an inventory of his property by spreading his collection on an open porch, but at such moments regards every intruder with nervous suspicion, and at the approach of a street Arab makes a determined rush to obviate a possible depreciation of his stock.

The acquisitive energy of a monkey-swarm must be witnessed to be credited. In the banana-gardens of the tierra caliente a Mexican capuchin monkey will exhaust his business opportunities with the dispatch of a Cincinnati bank-cashier; but, in his attempt to reach the Canadian side of the hedge with a good armfill of plunder, so often falls a victim to the pursuing dogs that monkey-trappers frequently rent an orchard for the special purpose of capturing the retreating marauders.

An equally effective method is that of the Abyssinian pet-hunters, who decoy baboons by imitating the squeal of their youngsters. In spite of their mischievous petulance, nearly all the Old World species of our four-handed kinsmen are emotionally sympathetic, and ever ready to rescue their wounded friends at the risk of their own lives. At the cry of a captured baby-baboon, the whole tribe of passionate four-fisters will rush in, regardless of consequences, and a similar tendency of co-operation may have given our hairy forefathers a superior chance of survival and secured their victory in their struggle for existence against their feline rivals. Their list of original sins may have included gluttony, covetousness, and violence of temper, but hardly a penchant for wanton bloodshed. With the exception of the fox-headed lemurs and the ultra-stupid marmosets, nearly all our simian relatives evince symptoms of a character-trait which might be defined as an instinctive aversion to cruelty. Menagerie monkeys indulge their love of gymnastics by frequent scuffles; but the sight of a bona-fide fight awakens a chorus of shrieks expressing a general protest rather than an emotion of fear or even of partisan interest, for in an open arena the stouter members of the obstreperous community are sure to rush in and part the combatants. That result, at least, forms a frequent intermezzo of the circus-fights at the capital of Baroda (British India), where the sport-loving prince pits all sorts of beasts and birds in single combat, and often diversifies the proceedings by introducing an able-bodied ape.

Like Buddha Sakyamuni, my Cutch baboon extends his compassion to all suffering fellow-creatures. Orphaned kittens or whining puppies straying within reach of his arm risk their lives in his sympathetic embraces. He will hug even crippled rabbits and half-drowned rats, and in his anxiety to relieve their ailments will often resort to the expedient of instituting an entomological inquest, searching their hides for vermin as a possible cause of their distress. One of his temporary playmates, a pot-bellied young Chacma baboon, aggravated his unpopularity by an incurable penchant for peculation; but the occasional penalties of his misdeeds were more than outweighed by the demonstrative sympathy of his kinsman, who would snatch up the squealing little monster and coddle him for hours, every now and then voicing his protest against human methods of discipline in a shrill scream, which his young protégé never failed to accompany with an approbative grunt.

In Hindostan, where three varieties of sacred monkeys enjoy the freedom of every town, those four-handed pensioners often assist the police in enforcing the riot-laws by charging en masse for the scene of every dog-fight and school-boy scuffle. They will rescue worried cats, and, for greater security, deposit them on the next roof, or suppress rowdyism in general, the stout Rhesus baboon, for instance, being physically as well as morally qualified to quell the aggressive disposition of the fiercest cur. On the platform of a public warehouse the British residents of Agra, a few years ago, witnessed a scene which put that character-trait in even a stronger light. A little street Arab had spread his pallet in the shade of a stack of country produce, and had just dropped asleep, when the proprietor of the Planters' Hotel strolled up with a pet leopard that had learned to accompany him in all his rambles. A troop of tramp monkeys had taken post on the opposite end of the shed, and, like the beggar boy, seemed to enjoy a comfortable siesta, but at sight of the speckled intruder the whole gang charged along the platform like a squadron of spahis, and, instantly forming a semicircle about the little sleeper, faced the leopard with bristling manes, evidently resolved to defeat the suspected purpose of his visit.

Our four-handed cousins apparently credit their biped kinsmen with reciprocative tendencies. Three years ago a New York pet-dealer shipped me a bonnet-macaque to Tallulah, Ga., where my guest happened to arrive during the temporary absence of the regular express agent. His assistants, in trying to feed the interesting stranger, managed to break the top of the box, and, after taking to their heels, made matters worse by attacking the deserter with stones and brickbats, till he evaded their missiles on the turrets of a three-story hotel. Here a literal "steeple-chase" was kept up for hours, with the co-operation of an ever-increasing number of volunteers, till the approach of night obliged me to adopt the plan of a veteran squirrel-hunter, who offered to recapture the fugitive by a "crease-shot"—i.e., to cripple him just enough to compel his surrender. The expedient led to the desired result; but from that day our prisoner behaved like a captive wild cat, bristling up at the approach of every visitor, and wearing out his teeth in a series of desperate attempts to break his wire chain. By dint of perseverance he at last effected his purpose, and once more enacted a declaration of independence; but this time fate was too close on his heels, and, before he had run more than a hundred yards, the dogs obliged him to take refuge in the top of a small pine-bush. On my arrival the leader of his pursuers, a big deer-hound, was assailing that bush with leaps that speedily threatened to make the hostile position untenable, and was just bracing himself for another spring, when the deserter suddenly leaped upon my shoulder, and, clasping my neck with both, arms, invoked my protection in a mumble so expressive and persistent that I had to gratify him by stampeding the dogs.

In the art of gaining allies in a perilous emergency, our fourhanded cousins can, indeed, rival the tricks of a Turkish diplomat. Whenever my little Chacma incurred the displeasure of his big relative, he would make common cause with the spaniel by patting his back and expurgating his fur with feverish haste, and, at the approach of the vindictive Cutch, often managed to push his ally to the front and make him stand the brunt of the inevitable scuffle; and when my negro boy-of-all-work once caught him on the top shelf of a cupboard, he at once made a rush for the lap of an incidental visitor, and with screams and excited gestures urged him to treat the young African as a common enemy.

A less pleasant character-trait was his tendency to vent his resentments on impartial by-standers. His morbid passion for chewing-tobacco often induced him to pick the pockets of my mail-carrier, and, after the consequent spanking, he repeatedly sneaked up on the porch to "take it out" of an old tabby who made the corner of the veranda her favorite roost and submitted to such outrages with the patience of a poor servant-girl bearing the vicarious brunt of a family squabble. A similar display of spite often makes existence a burden to the cage-companions of a Hanuman ape, a chief saint of the zoölogical pantheon of Brahmanism. In Hindostan the undisputed prestige of that eupeptic demi-god secures him a constant surfeit of tidbits, and in Western menageries the lack of appreciation and cream-pies often provokes him to snub his secular fellow-captives with the vindictive arrogance of an exiled abbot.

In the semi-human apes the concupiscent curiosity of the genus often takes the form of abstract inquisitiveness—the root of all heresies. A young chimpanzee, that accompanied me on my last return trip from Antwerp, would examine the construction of a padlock with the interest of an amateur mechanic, and once passed a whole hour in the vain endeavor to solve the enigma of a baby-rattle—a perforated shell inclosing a number of metal pellets. After scrutinizing the marvel from all possible points of view, he made a cautious attempt to open the shell with his teeth, but the reprimand of a spectator at once made him relinquish that plan. He then deposited the shell on a rug, and, turning it over and over, frequently stopped to listen, as if comparing the results of his various experiments. My Cutch baboon, too, will examine a picture-book, page for page, and occasionally use his fingers to verify the impression of a striking illustration—an expedient which apparently fails to dispel the illusion of a looking-glass, for, after the experience of a hundred séances, he still persists in making a grab at the empty air behind the frame, in the obstinate hope of corroborating the material existence of his Doppelgänger. After thoroughly familiarizing himself with the contents of my sitting-room, he has ceased to overhaul my shelves; but the introduction of any novel object at once re-excites his curiosity, and for similar reasons the wary four-handers of the South American tropics promptly emerge from their hiding-places at sight of a speckled dog—a zoölogical phenomenon too wondrous to be ignored from motives of discretion. An unfamiliar sound, the tinkling of a cow-bell in a new clearing, or the whirr of a buzz-saw, is equally sure to attract the attention of the four-handed aborigines. They will pursue the strolling bell-ringer for miles, and often stop to compare notes in a sort of solemn whisper.

But that scientific enthusiasm of our tree-climbing cousins is apt to be dampened by the first drop of night-dew. In daytime the restless vigilance of the tree-man enables him to hold his own against his wiliest foes; but after sunset the owl-eyes of the prowling Felidæ give them a fatal advantage, and the instinct of night-fear may thus deeply, and perhaps indelibly, have impressed itself upon the mental organism of our forefathers, A petted four-hander of the bolder species, the East Indian Rhesus, for instance, will contract a habit of pursuing his penchant of free inquiry to any length, even through the door of a shooting-gallery, which he will push wide open to ascertain the cause of the abnormal detonations; but after dark the same investigator will flee from the rustle of a dry leaf, and watch the shadow of a fluttering curtain with the rapt expectancy of a second adventist.

Inveterate habits persist. The progress of evolution has changed our spooks from hairy bugbears into soft-handed familiars, and may yet change them into kid-gloved exquisites; but, with or without claws, ghosts will probably continue to appear after sunset.