Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/February 1898/Education in the Animal Kingdom



LIKE man, animals, especially those of the higher orders, are born with a latent, inherited education, the effects of which are manifested in the course of individual development. Our organs, for instance, which have been slowly built up during the evolution of the various specific types, act of themselves, each in its own way. They have their own memory. The digestive, circulatory, and respiratory organs, the senses, etc., discharge their functions spontaneously and without waiting for lessons from any master. The young animal left to its own impulses usually comes very soon to take care of itself in the great world, to avoid its enemies, and find food and a comfortable bed. Except in species that live in larger or smaller societies, parents drive away their young as soon as they have arrived at a stage in which they can take care of themselves. This fact is easily observable in birds, even when they are domesticated. The solicitous care of turtledoves for their young gives way to pecking and wing striking as soon as the latter are developed. Eagles drive their grown-up young from the nest, and even from the neighborhood. Some other species take care for the future of their offspring, and before sending them away teach them to fly, or swim, or hunt, or fish. Dureau de la Malle saw falcons, high up in the air, drop dead mice and swallows in order to teach their young to spring upon their prey when in rapid flight, and to estimate distances; and when the little hawklets were somewhat larger, they dropped living birds instead of dead game. American crested ducks teach their young to find seeds and to snap at flies and aquatic insects.

It is generally the female that exercises this care for her offspring, while the male concerns himself little about the matter. The female wild duck leads her brood to the water, and takes care to choose places of no very great depth for this first lesson, and trains the little ones to hunt flies, mosquitoes, and beetles. The female of the eider duck gently carries her ducklings one by one in her beak, escorts them to the deep water, and teaches them to dive for fish. When they are tired she glides under them, takes them on her back, and carefully carries them to the shore. It is undoubtedly very largely by virtue of instinct and ancestral education that birds swim or fly, and the mother has only to invite them to the act by her example; but, for a more complete training, the lessons are very useful, if not necessary. These lessons given by the parent birds to their young are the more impressive because birds have a vocal language, developed to a certain extent, and the example is enforced by admonitions, encouragements, reproaches, and appeals, calculated to stimulate the natural tendency to imitation. With some species of birds this language too is taught; the individuals collect every morning and evening in chattering groups, and the young, enjoying the benefit of a social conversation, easily learn to sing and chatter. Singing birds sometimes, too, give one another lessons without thinking of it. Some birds sing badly when they have grown up alone, without the fellowship of companions of their species; others readily learn the songs of strange species, and even of man. Dureau de la Malle taught a starling to whistle the Marseillaise, and the bird in turn taught its fellow starlings of the neighborhood. These abnormal acquisitions, however, have not the fixity of hereditary instincts, and are easily forgotten unless constant care is exercised to preserve them—being, in this respect, very much like what is learned in the schools for the examinations.

Numerous facts similar to those we have cited have been collected by naturalists, travelers, and observers concerning education among mammals. The mother bear, for example, takes great pains in the training of her cubs; she teaches them to walk, climb, and eat, and inflicts punishments in the shape of cuffs and bites to insure success; and the cubs never resist, even if they are larger and stronger than their mother. A female elephant has been seen giving swimming lessons to her calf, and correcting it when it blundered. Working animals instruct their young by associating them in their labors. A female beaver has been observed to cut down a willow, gnaw the bark, and trim off the branches, while her young imitated her, and finally helped her carry a limb to the water.

When lions were still numerous and easily observed in southern Africa, they were sometimes seen instructing one another in voluntary gymnastics, and practicing their leaps, making a bush play the part of the absent game. Moffat tells the story of a lion, which had missed a zebra by miscalculating the distance, repeating the jump several times for his own instruction; two of his comrades coming upon him while he was engaged in the exercise, he led them around the rock to show them how matters stood, and then, returning to the starting point, completed the lesson by making a final leap. The animals kept roaring during the whole of the curious scene, "talking together," as the native who watched them said. By the aid of individual training of this kind, industrial animals become apter as they grow older; old birds, for instance, constructing more artistic nests than young ones, and little mammals like mice becoming more adroit with age. Yet, however ancient in the life of the species these acquisitions may be, they have not the solidity of primordial instincts, and are lost rapidly if not used.

While among the mammals this business of training is usually intentional and a family matter, attended to by the mother, with such invertebrates as bees and ants, in which the females are simply egg-laying machines, the mother's educational function is null, and the care of the young rests with the sterile workers. Yet the mental side of the maternal function subsists in mother ants in a latent state, and virgin females have been seen, according to Huber, busying themselves with the eggs and the larvæ. But as a rule the training in the nest is a grand social affair, committed to the female workers, who devote themselves with complete abnegation to their task, and seem to enjoy themselves in performing it. When the young have gone through their metamorphoses, their nurses, now become instructors, keep with them, guiding them through the labyrinth of the city in all its windings; and this education is probably carried much further than observers are able to follow it, for the working ants must be trained for their duties. Their industry is too complicated to be purely mechanical and blindly instinctive as is often supposed. But the observation of this training requires distinctions between individual ants which the human eye is hardly competent to make. Among the slaveholding ants the education consists largely in transforming certain inveterate tendencies. They make war upon another species, the brown ants, capture their young, and bring them up to be their own slaves, in ignorance of the species to which they belong, and of its traits. An equivalent to this transforming tendency of education may be found among the vertebrates, where, if we take the young early enough, we can disturb their hereditary functional manifestations to a considerable extent. Young chickens, raised apart, do not learn to drink by filling their beak and raising their head, but plunge their bill into the full vessel. Newborn babes soon lose the faculty of sucking if they are fed with the spoon.

All this is because, notwithstanding morphological differences, all living beings have something in common at the bottom; so that the physiological psychology of one species may illustrate that of others, and even of man. In short, we have good grounds for saying that all animals, whether vertebrates or not, but possessing nervous centers, however little developed, are susceptible of education; with all a suitable training long enough continued can to a certain extent derange the hereditary tendencies which we call instinctive, and even create new ones. These perturbations, these metamorphoses of native tendencies, are observable with special ease in domestic animals. We have a right to be surprised that, after having so successfully adapted the few animals with which we are acquainted to his service and use, man has not tamed many others. We may suppose theoretically, and it is made probable by numerous experiments, that there are few among the superior species that would resist a methodical and persistent training. It should be remarked that except the cat, which is largely indocile, most of our really domestic animals belong to social species which in the natural state lived in larger or smaller hordes or companies, and whose communal life had taught them to submit to the more or less despotic will of their stronger companions. But there are social species which man has not domesticated, and there are other species which only require a longer education. In fact, various solitary and ferocious animals, as the wolf, bear, lion, panther, etc., have more than once been tamed or broken in by special education; and during the prevalence of the amorous passion the females of the wildest animals permit themselves to be approached by man, and even ask to be caressed. Experience has shown that all training is relatively easy when addressed to the young. By judicious application to the business, by being severe or kind upon occasion, animals of the most ferocious species have been tamed. A panther has been taught to use its paws gently as a cat, simply by rewarding it with a little lavender water, the odor of which is delicious to it. But it should be said by way of caution that with animals as well as with man, a too brutal education destroys the character by developing a malicious cunning, only partly dissimulated by an apparent submission.

Vicious horses are generally the result of a violent, barbarous training, and when the greater number of the horses in any country are tricky and hard to manage, it means that they belong to a brutal population. From time immemorial the contrary has been the case among the Arabs, where colts are brought up and exercised with almost maternal solicitude. The child amuses itself by petting and playing with the colt of which he is some day to be the rider, and the horse and his cavalier grow up together. The earliest education of the young animal begins in the family, in the same tent. The colt is constantly looked after and caressed, and is never chastised except for acts of malice or disobedience. He is given the choicest dainties of food, and is gradually accustomed to make himself useful. When the bit is put in his mouth the iron is covered with wool, so that it shall not bruise his lips, the wool having been dipped in salt water to give it a pleasant flavor and make him like it. The animal's education is thus always carried on with constant discretion, and even after it is completed the trainers never indulge in blows or hard words. By such association a real bond of friendship is formed between the beast and his rider.

The art of falconry alone is enough to prove that it is possible by a proper mixture of severity and kindness to tame to a certain extent, if not to render amiable, fierce animals of moderate intelligence; and the argument is of more force because the training in falconry was given to adult birds. Very little was done with birds taken from the nest. They were doubtless more readily taught, but became only indifferent hunters. The old books on falconry explain in great detail the methods of proceeding in training adult falcons or haggards; and some tell how one should keep them company and make friends with them.

When it comes to more intelligent animals, like the elephant and the dog, the process of education is much less awkward, but its nature is at bottom the same. Our dog has so long been the associate of man that we may truly say it is born domesticated, and nothing is left to be done but to train it for various useful purposes. But it is different with the elephant, which is captured wild and adult; and the processes to which recourse is had in training it are, therefore, of particular interest to us. If the education of the adult elephant can be effected without very great trouble and in a fairly short time, it is because we have to do with an intelligent and even reflecting animal, which holds an accurate recollection of events, and is capable of reasoning about them—which, in short, acts almost as a man would do.

As much might be said of some of the monkeys—of that chimpanzee, for example, which the French naval officer Grandpré saw on a ship working at the capstan, assisting in the management, stoking the furnace, etc.; or of those primates which are utilized at Sierra Leone for the performance of many labors of man. If the larger monkeys had been domesticated by man, and associated with him for thousands of years as the dog has been, it would not be unreasonable to suppose that they would have been still more modified, morally and physically, than that animal. They would probably have made a closer approach to the inferior human races; for the dog, different as he is from man, has been remarkably humanized by his contact. This mental humanization of the dog is an extremely important fact, as showing how powerful education may be; how, if time enough is taken, it may modify the organization. The domestic dog is evidently descended from one or several canidian ancestors similar to the wolf, very wild and not very intelligent, but endowed with a social instinct. Many centuries have been required to change it into the devoted companion and worshiper of man that it is, to acquire its expressive bark instead of the wolf's howling, and to assimilate the many qualities and capacities it exhibits so foreign to its nature. Its civilization has not taken place all at once. We still find half-wild dogs among the Australian hordes and other lower races, that do not know how to bark, that have no affectionate relations with their masters, and are nothing more than selfish auxiliaries in hunting or fierce sentries of the camp or village.

The qualities we prize in our domestic dog are those traits it has acquired by education, and correspond to artificial cerebral impressions not yet made fully permanent; for they are easily effaced when the animal, deprived of human society, relapses into savagery. This development of the dog in so remarkable a manner is the result of his having been the first mammal domesticated; hence man has been more occupied with him, has demanded a greater variety of services from him, and has taken more lively care of his moral and mental education. Other animals, on the other hand, domesticated simply for the butcher's handling, like the ox, the sheep, and the pig, have degenerated rather than gained by the association with man. They have lost the qualities they acquired during their ages of liberty without replacing them by others, and have fallen back toward the vegetative life.

Domestic animals sometimes acquire special educations of themselves, by the mere force of spontaneous imitation. Such are the dogs which, raised by cats, have learned to lick their paws and wash their face and ears, like their nurses. So several birds in a cage will imitate one another's cries, and even those of mammals; and parrots, as we all know, imitate the human voice. The brighter birds even do this spontaneously, without special training. This fact leads us to consider the faculty of language in animals, and the degree of development that may be given it by education.

It can hardly be pretended at this period that spoken language forms an impassable barrier between man and animals. There are many kinds of languages, and human speech does not differ essentially from the tactile and antennal language of ants. The mode of communication, indeed, varies according to the organization of the animal species; but it may always be found to originate in reflex actions, determined by a need, a desire, a feeling, an emotion, or an idea. Spoken language, which has, scientifically, been associated with the cry, the interjection, or the imitative onomatopæia, is at bottom nothing but a reflex action, a laryngeal gesture. A comparison of human and animal language is therefore legitimate, and is of interest in that it shows how the latter can be perfected by exercise and education.

It is evident that the particular form of language will be imposed by the organization of a species. Thus ants, organically aphonal, have devised for communication among themselves the antennal language, which places all the members of their city or nest in intimate communication. With birds, mammals, and men it has been more convenient to acquire a vocal language; but on occasion men, too, have recourse to the tactile language. I once knew an elderly woman, deaf and blind, who could be conversed with in silence by touching one finger or the other, or this or that joint, to designate the different letters of the alphabet and even certain words and punctuation points. Travelers in the Orient, especially Chardin, have described a similar language as used by Persians and Arabs in making their bargains, so as to evade the impertinent curiosity of the crowd.

Singing birds have the advantage in language over all other animals except man. Among them, Syme has distinguished six classes of expressions: the call of the male in spring, the noisy sounds of mistrust, the warning uttered when a bird of prey is seen, the call of parents and the response of the young, the warbling or cooing of love, and cries of fear or of alarm for the nest. It is not necessary to suppose that this language of birds is inborn. It results, on the other hand, from acquisitions made during the life of the species which are not completely transmitted by heredity. Young birds have to go through a process of teaching to sing well. Their first efforts may be compared with the prattle of children. Singing language is the property only of particular species of birds. The crow does not sing like the nightingale, although it has a similar larynx. Young birds learn to sing by spontaneous imitation and practice, and of course take the song of their parents; but in aviaries they often copy the songs of other species, just as our children learn foreign languages by hearing them spoken. It therefore seems clear that the artistic talent of singing birds has been slowly acquired. The dog did not learn to bark till he fell into the society of man. He does not, indeed, imitate human language; but, desiring to express novel feelings, he has created a language of his own in order to communicate with his master: barking, four or five tones rich. The domestication of the dog is further so ancient a thing that it is pertinent to ask whether man himself had at that time any other language at his disposal than modulated cries. But although they do not speak as we do, dogs very well understand some words and phrases, and by training this intelligent comprehension of language can be greatly enriched. Their mental condition may be compared in this respect to that of our children between the ages of ten and twelve months, who understand a considerable number of words, but are not yet able to articulate them. So, likewise, an adult man going into a foreign country learns to understand the words of the new language before he begins to speak them.

Our dogs understand, too, the languages of animals of different species with which they are associated. The dogs Houzeau kept in Texas to guard his poultry yards responded to the cries of the fowl