Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/November 1892/Reasoning Animals



THE question as to whether animals reason or not is a disputed one. For myself I am convinced that they do, and with more logic sometimes than some of the genus homo. The notion that what we observe as mind in animals is all instinct and no reason ought to have taken its departure with the discovery that the animal had a brain and nervous system quite similar to that of man, and subject to the same general mental and physiological laws. The truth is, man has both reason and instinct, and so has the animal. Instinct acts spontaneously without thought, while reason reflects and adapts means to ends. When we wink with lightning rapidity to protect the eye from something flying into it, or when we start back in fright from a sudden and threatened danger, we act instinctively; the animal does the same. On the other hand, when we act from reflection and adapt means to ends, we exercise reason; the animal does the same thing. In our daily contact with our domesticated animals we find ample proof of this. I mention the horse, the cow, the dog, and the honey-bee, not because they are the only animals that reason, but because most people are specially interested in these domestic animals, and are familiar with their characters and habits. Many other animals exhibit a high degree of intelligence.

A most remarkable case of bovine intelligence which recently came to my knowledge, and for the truth of which I can vouch, has prompted the writing of this paper. A cow and steer—the latter two to three years old—were the only occupants of the barnyard where the occurrence took place. A baiting of hay was put out to them, the cow taking possession. The steer wished to share it; but the cow, like some higher animals, was selfish and was bent on taking the whole of it, and as often as he would manoeuvre around from side to side to get a bite she would drive him off at the point of her horn. The steer was so persistent that at last the old cow's patience gave way, and making a determined and vicious charge on him, punished him severely, though he was her own offspring. The steer felt badly hurt, not only in body but evidently in mind as well, and immediately started out of the yard and off down the lane toward the pasture where were the rest of the stock, bellowing vengeance at every step in a language which was unmistakable to the bystander and which the mother well understood, as she ceased eating and listened intently to the threatenings of what was to come. When these died away in the distance she resumed her ration, but with evident apprehension. In due time the steer was seen returning, bringing with him a companion larger and stronger than himself. As they approached, the rumblings of rage and revenge could be again heard, which grew louder as they came nearer. The cow took in the situation at once and was now terror-stricken. As her assailants rushed into the yard, she dodged them and rushed out at life-and-death speed, and away toward the rest of the stock in the field, with her pursuers close in her track.

Now, I submit that this is one of the cases which furnish incontrovertible proof that animals do reason. No amount of mere instinct could avail that steer in conceiving and carrying out the complex "plan of campaign" which he adopted to take revenge on the selfish and cruel old mother who refused to share her ration with him and punished him besides. The plan he so readily adopted required not only feeling to prompt it, but thought and reason to carry it out. The end to be attained was the punishment of his assailant, which he was not able to inflict himself, and he adopted the means necessary to accomplish the end. This was thought and reason, and not only so, but there was language as well, for what else were the threatening sounds he uttered and which the mother well understood; and how else could he have communicated his grievance and desires to his companion in the field? It will also be noted here that the steer exhibited in this case not only a measure of what is called man's highest faculty—reason—but a good deal of another passion which often rankles in the human breast—viz., revenge. It would be no loss to us to allow the "lower animal" to monopolize this "animal propensity."

The horse, as we all know, is even more of a reasoning animal than the cow. I knew of a horse who would leave his pasture under cover of darkness, and go some distance off over several fences into a field of grain, where he would help himself, and invariably return before daylight to his own pasture without disturbing a single rail on any of the fences he jumped. Others have had a similar experience. Here is not only reason, but a high degree of shrewd cunning worthy of a James or a Scotland Yard detective! I once had a wise, motherly old brood-mare who had lost an eye. In the case of her first foal after that loss I noticed that she would at first hurt the young colt when it happened to be on her blind side and she would make a move in that direction, sometimes knocking it down and hurting it with her feet. But very soon I perceived that when the colt was out of her sight on her blind side she would not stir till she first looked around for it to ascertain if it was in danger, and when she would not be able to get her head round far enough to see it, she would move slowly and with the utmost caution till she could see it. Here were manifested not only intelligence, but what the phrenologists call cautiousness, locality, and philoprogenitiveness.

We now come to the dog, which perhaps exhibits as high a degree of intelligence as any of the other "lower animals," and a higher order sometimes than the human. As an instance of this we may take the historical case (which seems to be well authenticated) of the human imbecile (not insane) and the Newfoundland dog and child on the bank of the river. As often as the imbecile would put the child in the water the dog would bring it out to save it from drowning; and when at last the child's life was in danger through exhaustion, the dog forcibly restrained the idiot from again putting it into the water. Here was a degree of reason, fidelity, and affection in the so-called "dumb animal" much higher than that in the human specimen before him.

A short time since a gentleman of the highest veracity related to me the following, which he personally witnessed: A child fell into a canal. The father's dog was present and immediately jumped in to save the child. As it came up the second time he caught it and kept it above the water. Finding, however, that he could not properly keep it up without some support, he swam with his charge to a beam which crossed the canal just above the water, and, placing his two fore paws upon the beam, rested there and kept the child's head above water till both were rescued.

Now, in this case, instinct or training might impel the dog to jump in after the child, but it would not enable him to adapt himself to the circumstances (new to him) and utilize the beam as he did. This required perception and reason.

It was the late Henry Ward Beecher, I think, who related and vouched for the following: A large and a small dog happened to start from opposite sides of a stream at the same time to cross it over a narrow board which spanned it. They met in the middle. Both came to a stop, for they could not pass each other on the narrow board. The little dog sat down on the board, held up his head, and began to whine. The big dog stood a moment, apparently cogitating what to do, when suddenly a thought struck him. He spread his fore legs apart to the outer edges of the board, also his hind legs, and then looked at the little dog as much as to say, "Now is your time!" whereupon the little fellow shot through between the big dog's legs and safely reached the other side, wagging his tail with delight and approval of so clever a trick; while the big fellow walked philosophically over to his side, no doubt well satisfied with himself, as he certainly had good reason to be.

Dogs, of course, could be trained to do that as well as many other things, but these had not been so trained. The circumstances were new and quite accidental, and the big dog who solved the difficulty had neither the necessary instinct nor training to aid him, but had to fall back on his own mental resources, and he proved himself quite equal to the occasion.

We now come to the honey-bee—last in the list, and the smallest, but by no means the least. Insignificant in size as she is, the honey-bee can put any or all of these other big animals to flight in very short metre! In her marvelous powers of delicate mechanism she can also distance them all, and even cast us in the shade. Hers is one of the fine arts in animal mechanics. As diminutive as she is, she, too, has a brain and nervous system, with ganglions similar to those of the human brain, and with nervous tissue equal to ours in proportion to weight. We need not, therefore, so much wonder that this industrious little insect thinks and reasons, and lays out her work with mathematical accuracy, exercising that exquisitely fine little brain with such extraordinary results. After watching, admiring, handling, and studying the honey-bee for thirty years no one need tell me that this wonderful little creature is void of reason and intelligence and is guided solely by what is called instinct. She, of course, acts much from instinct, as that word is popularly understood, the same as the higher animal does. But new conditions and exigencies arise in which there has been no experience, and where there is, therefore, no instinct adequate to guide. It is then we see unmistakably the exercise of reason in the bee to adapt herself to the new environment.

But the honey-bee, like human beings with reason, makes mistakes; and, indeed, these very occasional mistakes furnish evidence of my contention, for, if the bee were solely guided by an "unerring instinct," she would make no mistakes. Allow me to note here one or two of her natural blunders. A colony of bees left to themselves will, for instance, swarm themselves to death—that is, they will cast so many swarms in the one season that the parent stock is left so weak that it dies in the winter; and the last two swarms cast (say of four altogether) are also so weak and late as to be unable to gather enough stores for winter, and they, too, perish. This, of course, is a great mistake; for, did they swarm but once or twice, all would be strong and in good condition to face the winter. This mistake they make in a state of nature, in a hollow tree in the woods, as well as in the model hive of modern bee-keeping.

I once had a colony which, in the latter part of winter, being dissatisfied with its queen, began to raise young queens to supersede the old one long before there was any prospect or possibility of having drones to mate with the young queen. This certainly was a mistake, as it meant the depopulation and extinction of the colony; whereas the old queen could have carried them safely through to the proper time to supersede her. I may say here, by way of explanation, that when a colony of bees finds its queen failing in fecundity, from age or other causes, the workers, seeing a gradual depopulation of the hive, set about warding off the impending ill by superseding their mother and queen—that is, by rearing a young queen to take her place. In the case just noted the object was all right and the means to attain it all right, but, like ourselves sometimes, they were doing their work at the wrong time.

A normal colony of bees consists of one queen, some drones—more or less—and from 30,000 to 50,000 workers. The queen is the mother of the whole family—of the workers, the drones, and even her rivals, the young queens, which are to take her place in the hive, and they sometimes dispatch her in superseding her. The workers, as their name implies, do all the work of gathering honey, rearing brood, etc. The drones, like the drones in the human hive, do next to nothing, but do it well, with this difference, that the human drone fails to do well what little he does do.

The conclusion I have reached is this: the horse, the cow, the dog, the honey-bee, and other animals have a certain degree of reason and intelligence as well as instinct, and also have, some of them, strong social and domestic feelings, and are therefore entitled to greater consideration and kinder treatment at the hands of man than they sometimes get. I have also come to the conclusion, viewing the multitude of mistakes and follies of the higher animal, man, that his superior reason and more exalted faculties are not on the whole turned to as good account as the inferior reason and faculties of the so-called "brute beasts."