Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/February 1893/The Aesthetic Sense and Religious Sentiment in Animals

1198724Popular Science Monthly Volume 42 February 1893 — The Aesthetic Sense and Religious Sentiment in Animals1893Edward Payson Evans


By Prof. E. P. EVANS.

DR. WILKS reduces the chief difference between man and brute to the "smallness of knowledge of the fine arts possessed by the latter"; and a passing remark made by Prof. Huxley, in one of his essays, would seem to imply a disposition to draw the line of separation between animal and human intelligence at this point. Prantl regards the phrase "die Kunsttriebe der Thiere" as a metaphorical expression involving a confusion of terms, since animals, with all their apparent artistic ability and taste shown in constructing and decorating their habitations, do not seek to embody ideas in material forms—an assumption which begs the very question in dispute. Schiller, in his well-known poem, Die Künstler, makes man's pre-eminence consist solely in his artistic faculty:

"In Fleiss kann dich die Biene meistern,

In der Geschicklichkeit ein Wurm dien Lehrer sein,
Dein Wissen theilest du mit vorgezogenen Geistern,
Die Kunst, o Mensch, hast du allein."

In diligence the bee can master thee,
In skillfulness a worm thy teacher be,
Knowledge thou dost with higher spirits own,

But art, O man, thou dost possess alone.

Herbart, however, does not recognize this demarcation. "If one asks for a specific characteristic of mankind, which is not physical, but spiritual, original, and universal, and does not resolve itself into a more or less, I confess," he says, "that I do not know of any such distinction and do not think it exists." He then enumerates the advantages possessed by man—namely, hands, speech, and a long and helpless infancy, to the use and influence of which are due the extraordinary growth of the human brain in size and complexity and the corresponding development of intellectual power. In the acuteness of his senses and in many peculiarities of physical structure man is inferior to some of the lower animals. He has not, says Prof. Cope, kept pace with other mammals in the development of his teeth, which are "thoroughly primitive"; his nose is less serviceable than that of the dog; the eagle has a far better eye; the ankle joint of the sheep is, as a piece of mechanism, stronger and less liable to derangement than the corresponding joint in man; the horse's foot consists of a single compact elastic toe, on which the animal runs while its heel is carried in the air and never touches the ground, thus attaining a springiness and swiftness of motion beyond the reach of the human plantigrade. Whatever lightness and elasticity of step man possesses is due less to the perfection of his bodily organism than to the uplifting influence of his intellect. With the decay of his mental powers Homo sapiens slouches like a bear, as may be observed in the ungainly and unsteady gait of cretins and idiots, however vigorous they may be physically.

The objection urged by Prof. Kedny against the doctrine of evolution—namely, that man's helpless infancy proves him to be different in kind from other animals—ignores the fact that the soko and many other species of the genus simia pass through a period of infant helplessness almost as long as that of some savage tribes. The babyhood of the anthropoid apes is much longer and more helpless than that of the cynopithecoids, the platyrhines, or the lemurs; and the higher the order of the monkeys, the more they resemble man in this respect. Mr. Wallace captured a young orang-outang, which had to be fed and cared for like a human infant, lay rolling on the ground with all fours in the air, and could hardly walk when it was three months old; whereas a macacus of the same age seemed to have already acquired full use of its limbs and mental faculties. The long duration of this complete dependence on parental care in the case of the human infant, so far from disproving the doctrine of evolution, furnishes one of the strongest arguments in its favor, since it helps to explain how man gradually attained his intellectual primacy among the primates. The American platyrhines, marmosets, and other smaller long-tailed monkeys reach maturity in three or four years, whereas the African dog-headed apes require ten or twelve years for their full development, and with the larger anthropoids this period of growth is nearly as long as with human beings.

The fact that quadrumana have flexible organs of prehension, can grasp and handle things and imitate human actions, gives them a great advantage over quadrupeds. A dog may be as intelligent as a chimpanzee, but he is unable to "show off" as well; he can not untie knots with his paws, nor put on clothes, nor eat with knife and fork, nor uncork bottles, nor drink wine by lifting the glass to his lips, nor use a toothpick, nor perform a variety of tricks which make the monkey appear to be relatively far more richly endowed with mental gifts than is actually the case, and throw into the shade the most conspicuous exploits of the poodle and the collie.

Nevertheless, this manual and digital dexterity can scarcely be overestimated as a means of disciplining the mind and increasing the volume of the brain; and if chimpanzees, orang-outangs, and sokos had enjoyed the thousands of years of domestication and thorough breeding and training, from which dogs have so immensely profited, there is no knowing what advances in knowledge and acquisitions of intellectual culture they might not have made. It is wonderful how much they learn through observation and very slight instruction during a few months' intercourse with human beings, discharging with evident pleasure the duties of body servant or waiter, answering the door bell, showing visitors into the parlor, fetching water, kindling the fire, washing dishes, turning the spit, and doing all sorts of chores in and about the house. "Such an ape," said Brehm, "one can not treat as a beast, but must associate with as a man. Notwithstanding all the peculiarities it exhibits, it reveals in its nature and conduct so very much that is human, that one quite forgets the animal. Its body is that of a brute, but its intelligence is almost on a level with that of a common boor. It is absurd to attribute the actions of such a creature to unthinking imitation; it imitates, to be sure, but as a child imitates an adult, with understanding and judgment."

That the plastic and progressive period of the monkey's individual development is short, and that its faculties become set and stationary at a comparatively early age, is undeniable; but the same holds true of the negro, who loses his educability and ceases his mental growth much earlier than the Caucasian. The longer or shorter duration of this formative season in the mental life of man is, to some extent, a matter of race, but in a still greater degree the resultant of civilization.

The hand is also a valuable instrument for the cultivation of the æsthetic sense, and the more flexible and sensitive this instrument becomes, the greater are the results achieved by it in this direction. But there are animals without hands that show an appreciation of the beautiful. Mr. Darwin has proved conclusively that birds take pleasure in sweet sounds and in brilliant colors, and that the sentiment thus awakened and appealed to plays an important part in the preservation and perfection of the species through natural selection. The struggle for existence is not always carried on by fierce combat and the triumph of brute force, but quite as frequently takes the form of competition in beauty, addressing itself either to the ear as alluring song or to the eye as attractive plumage; and the bird that possesses these characteristics in the highest degree carries off the prize in the tournament of love, and propagates its kind.

There is no doubt that birds take delight in the gorgeousness of their own feathers, and the more brilliant their hues the greater the vanity they display. Conspicuous examples of this love of admiration and fondness of parading their finery are the peacock and the bird of paradise.

The decoration of its boudoir by the bower bird, as described, by Mr. Gould in his History of the Birds of New South Wales, indicates a decided and discriminative preference for bright and variegated objects, and evinces no small amount of æsthetic feeling and artistic taste in selecting and arranging them. The bower is built of sticks and slender twigs gracefully interwoven, so that the tapering points meet at the top, and adorned with the rose-colored tail feathers of the inca cockatoo and the gay plumes of other parrots, tinted shells, bleached bones, rags of divers hues, and whatever gaudy or glittering trinkets may please the bird's fancy. Sometimes the space in front of the bower is covered with half a bushel of things of this sort, laid out like a parterre with winding walks, in which the happy possessor of the garnered treasures struts about with the pride and pleasure of a connoisseur in a gallery of paintings, or a bibliophile who has his shelves filled with incunabula and other rare editions. These objects have often been brought from a great distance, and are of no possible use to the bird except as they gratify its love of the beautiful and appeal to what we call in man the æsthetic sense. Its conduct can be explained in no other way; for the bower is not a nest in which eggs are laid and hatched and young ones reared; it is a salon or place of social entertainment, and thus serves a distinctly ideal purpose.

The singing of birds, as a means of sexual attraction, implies a certain appreciation of melody. Indeed, many of them do not confine themselves to the songs of their species, but learn notes from other birds and snatches of tunes from musical instruments. Canaries can be taught a variety of airs by playing them repeatedly on a piano or on a hurdy-gurdy. They listen with attention and imitate the strains which take their fancy. If harmony or the concord of sweet sounds, as distinguished from melody or the simple succession of sweet sounds, does not enter into bird music, the same may be said of the music of primitive man and of all early nations. Savages, like feathered songsters, sing in unison, but not in accord.

Not only do some species of monkeys, like the chimpanzees and sokos, get up concerts of their own in the depths of the forest, but dogs, which are generally supposed to be decidedly unmusical, also discriminate between tunes and express their preferences or aversions in an unmistakable manner. A friend of mine, who had a magnificent St. Bernard dog, was fond of playing the violoncello. The dog used to lie quietly in the room with closed eyes, and appeared to pay no attention to the music until his master struck up a certain tune, when the dog immediately and invariably sat up on his haunches and began to howl. If the tune which called forth such emotions had been written on a very high key, or characterized by shrill tones or harsh dissonances, the conduct of the dog might be easily explained. But such was not the case. There was nothing in this piece more than in any other, so far as any one could observe, that ought to grate the canine ear. Many incidents of this kind might be cited to prove that even dogs are not indifferent to musical compositions, and show a nice discrimination between them, having their likes and dislikes, as well as human beings.

The fertilization and propagation of many plants depend upon the existence of a sense of color in insects, and the exercise of choice in the selection of flowers. This preference implies a pleasure in certain hues, and consequently the possession of a rudimentary perception of beauty. Plants whose fecundation depends upon the action of the wind do not develop such a variety of colors as those in which this depends upon the agency of insects. Nature can trust her ill-favored daughters to the wooing of the wind, but if she wishes to attract a nicer class of suitors she must endow her children with brilliant qualities.

The power of distinguishing between colors has been denied not only to the lower animals, but also to the lower races of mankind. But a more extended and accurate knowledge shows that the conclusion is incorrect in both cases. We know that the American aborigines discriminate between the seven primary colors, and it is absurd to infer that this faculty was wanting to the Homeric men merely because we do not find all these colors mentioned in the Homeric poems. It has also been asserted that the ancient Assyrians could not distinguish green from blue or yellow, because no word was found for it in the remains of their language. But the tiles discovered at Nineveh prove that they had a very clear conception and æsthetic appreciation of the distinction between yellow, green, and blue, and probably did not confound any colors of the solar spectrum. The evidence of language on this point is purely negative and necessarily defective.

Even the religious sentiment, which has been assumed to be the peculiar possession of man, is faintly foreshadowed in the lower animals. The unanimity of opinion among those who have made the most careful study of this subject, and whose views are therefore entitled to the greatest consideration, is quite remarkable. M. A. de Quatrefages, in his Rapport sur le Progrès de l'Anthropologie (Paris, 1867, p. 85), maintains that "domestic animals are religious, since they readily obey those who appeal to them with the rod or with sugar." In other words, they are amenable to rewards and punishments, doing the will and seeking to win the favor of superior beings, on whom they are dependent, propitiating and fawning upon them, creeping and groveling on the ground in abject adoration, in order to assuage their anger or to secure their kind regard. "There is no difference," adds the same author, "between the negro who worships a dangerous animal, and the dog who crouches at his master's feet to obtain pardon for a fault. . . . Animals fly to man for protection as a believer does to his god."

This is precisely the feeling of the savage in respect to the superior skill and power of the civilized man. Taguta kipini te Atua—doctor all the same as God—are the words in which the Morioris, or aborigines of the Chatham Islands, expressed their sense of dependence on a higher agency, whose beneficent workings they perceived but could not comprehend. Among rude tribes the sentiment of devotion to a chief does not differ essentially from that of devotion to a god; the Romans, at the height of their civilization, paid divine honors to their emperors; and in modern monarchies kings are officially addressed in terms of reverential awe and superlative adulation as all-wise and all-powerful beings, whose favor one can not sufficiently implore with servile words and suppliant knee.

"The feeling of religious devotion," says Darwin, "is a highly complex one, consisting of love, complete submission to an exalted and mysterious superior, a strong sense of dependence, fear, reverence, gratitude, hope for the future, and perhaps other elements. No being could experience so complex an emotion until advanced in his intellectual and moral faculties to at least a moderately high level. Nevertheless, we see some distinct approach to this state of mind in the deep love of a dog for his master, associated with complete submission, some fear, and perhaps other feelings."[1]

Comte held that the higher animals are capable of forming fetichistic conceptions, and of being strongly influenced by them. Herbert Spencer denies the truth of this statement in its absolute form, because it does not fit into his theory of the origin and evolution of religious ideas, but admits, what is essentially the same thing so far as the present discussion is concerned, that "the behavior of intelligent animals elucidates the genesis" of fetichism, and gives two illustrations of it. "One of these actions was that of a formidable beast, half mastiff, half bloodhound, belonging to friends of mine. While playing with a walking-stick, which had been given to him and which he had seized by the lower end, it happened that in his gambols he thrust the handle against the ground, the result being that the end he had in his mouth was forced against his palate. Giving a yelp, he dropped the stick, rushed to some distance from it, and betrayed a consternation which was particularly laughable in so large and ferocious-looking a creature. Only after cautious approaches and much hesitation was he induced again to lay hold of the stick. This behavior showed very clearly that the stick, while displaying none but the properties he was familiar with, was not regarded by him as an active agent, but that when it suddenly inflicted a pain in a way never before experienced from an inanimate object, he was led for the moment to class it with animate objects, and to regard it as capable of again doing him injury. Similarly, in the mind of the primitive man, knowing scarcely more of natural causation than a dog, the anomalous behavior of an object previously classed as inanimate suggests animation. The idea of voluntary action is made nascent, and there arises a tendency to regard the object with alarm, lest it should act in some other unexpected and perhaps mischievous way. The vague notion of animation thus aroused will obviously become a more definite notion as fast as the development of the ghost theory furnishes a specific agency to which the anomalous behavior can be ascribed."

This conduct of the dog, which every one must have observed under similar circumstances, corresponds to that of the savage who worshiped an anchor which had been cast ashore, and on which he had hurt himself when he first came in contact with it. Superstitious fear of this sort prevails most among men of the lowest order of intelligence, or in that stage of society in which human beings are psychically least removed from beasts. In proportion as they rise in the scale of existence and unfold their mental faculties, the more they free themselves from the tyranny of the supernatural. The terror of the dog hurt by the stick was out of all proportion to the pain inflicted, and arose solely from the fact that it was produced by a mysterious cause; it was fear intensified by the intervention of a ghostly element, and thus working upon the imagination it assumed the nature of religious awe. The case is analogous to that of a big, burly, brutal savage trembling before a rude stock or stone, or a Neapolitan bandit cowering before an image of the Virgin or kissing devoutly the feet of a crucifix.

The other illustration given by Herbert Spencer is that of a retriever, who, associating the fetching of game with the pleasure of the person to whom she brought it, would often fetch various objects and lay them at her master's feet; and "this had become in her mind an act of propitiation."

Still more interesting and instructive are Mr. Romanes's experiments with a Skye terrier. This dog, which was exceedingly intelligent and therefore an excellent subject for psychological study, "used to play with dry bones, by tossing them in the air, throwing them to a distance, and generally giving them the appearance of animation, in order to give himself the ideal pleasure of worrying them. On one occasion, therefore, I tied a long and fine thread to a dry bone and gave him the latter to play with. After he had tossed it about for a short time I took the opportunity, when it had fallen at a distance from him and while he was following it up, of gently drawing it away from him by means of the long, invisible thread. Instantly his whole demeanor changed. The bone, which he had previously pretended to be alive, began to look as if it were really alive, and his astonishment knew no bounds. He first approached it with nervous caution, but, as the slow receding motion continued and he became quite certain that the movement could not be accounted for by any residuum of force which he had himself communicated, his astonishment developed into dread, and he ran to conceal himself under some articles of furniture, there to behold at a distance the 'uncanny' spectacle of a dry bone coming to life." In this instance we have the exercise of close observation, judgment, reason, and imagination culminating in the exhibition of superstitious fear—all the elements, in short, which constitute religious sentiment in its crudest form.

Animals are afraid of darkness for the same reason that children are. Thunder, lightning, and other violent meteorological phenomena, which inspire the primitive man with awe and therefore play a prominent part in the evolution of early mythology, produce a similar impression upon many of the lower animals, simply because they are mysterious noises which appeal to the imagination and stimulate the mythopœic faculty. Mr. Romanes states that "on one occasion, when a number of apples were being shot out of bags upon the wooden floor of an apple-room, the sound in the house as each bag was shot closely resembled that of distant thunder." A setter was greatly alarmed at the noise until he was taken to the apple-room and shown the cause of it, after which "his dread entirely left him, and on again returning to the house he listened to the rumbling with all cheerfulness." Dogs and horses can be completely cured of their fear of thunder by being present at artillery practice; they imagine that they now know what produces the dreadful roar, and are henceforth free from all apprehension concerning it.

To some extent this sense of the supernatural seems to enter into the sphere of pure imagination and to excite in the minds of animals those vague feelings of anxiety and alarm arising from mere figments of the brain and characterized as superstition. The following incident, "illustrating the instinctive fear of death and consciousness of its presence manifested by birds," is related by Buist: "A hen canary died, was buried, the nesting establisliment broken up, the surviving cock bird removed to a new cage, and the hatching cage itself thoroughly cleansed and purified, and put aside till the following spring. Never, however, could any bird afterward endure being placed in that cage. They fought and struggled to get out, and, if all in vain their efforts, they moped, huddling close together, thoroughly unhappy, refusing to be comforted by any amount of sunshine, companionship, or dainty food." The experiment was tried with foreign birds, that had not been in the house when the death of the hen occurred, and could not, therefore, have known anything of the melancholy event by observation. The result, however, was always the same. "For the future that cage to them was haunted."

It is a common belief that many animals can see ghosts and future events. Justinus Kerner declares (Die Seherin von Prevorst, i, 125) that they are endowed with second sight, and that numerous facts can be adduced in proof of it. This uncanny faculty is supposed to be especially strong in dogs and horses. Storks, too, are known to have foreseen the burning of houses on which they had been wont to build their nests, and to have abandoned them, taking up their abode on other buildings or on trees in the vicinity. No sooner had the anticipated conflagration taken place, and a new house been erected on the same site, than they returned and built their nests on it as heretofore. That Balaam's ass perceived the angel, which was beyond the ken of the prophet, ought to suffice to convince every believer in the plenary inspiration of the Bible of the specter-seeing powers of the lower animals. The ghost stories told of dogs and horses are quite as numerous and well authenticated as those which have been told of men. There is no psychological theory of apparitions that does not explain these strange phenomena as satisfactorily in beasts as in human beings. The night side of Nature casts its gloom over both.

Of course, if religion is a direct and special revelation to man, then no sentient creature prior and inferior to him could have any share in it. The hypothesis of a pure primitive monotheism, of which all polytheistic systems of belief are mere distortions and degradations, would also tend to exclude the lower animals from the possession of religious sentiment by showing that the religious history of the race has been a downward instead of an upward movement, a corruption instead of an evolution. Its growth would not correspond to the growth of intelligence, and it could no longer be studied as a psychological phenomenon, but would be removed at once from the province of scientific investigation. There can be no science of the supernatural, since science recognizes only the operation of natural laws. A miracle that can be explained, as the rationalistic school of theology has attempted to do, ceases thereby to be a miracle. The essence of religion is mystery; the sole aim of science is to clear up and thus do away with mysteries—a goal which it is always tending toward but will never reach, for the same reason that an asymptotic line never meets the curve which it is constantly approaching.

  1. The Descent of Man. London, 1374, p. 95.