Popular Science Monthly/Volume 69/August 1906/Fact and Fable in Animal Psychology




MAN has ever been ready to show his esteem of animal ways, even to the veneration that in early times took the form of animal worship. The cunning and courage of animals, their passions and endurance, their keenness of sense and mastery of instinct, appealed to the man of nature as enviable qualities. The wolf that he feared, or the horse that be subdued was equally to him a fellow being. He was aware that the animal scent was truer, the animal sense of direction surer, than his own. Matching his wits against theirs, he knew that he might be outwitted by animal wile, might be overcome by animal daring. In his mythology he constructed beings endowed with superhuman qualities by fantastic combinations of the animal and the human form; and in his fables, from Æsop to B'rer Rabbit, he gave to his favorite animal the hero's part in his simple plots. He placed himself under the protection of some sacred animal as a totem, and held it as likely that the souls of an animal could be made to inhabit the bodies of a man, or that by some magic he could be transformed into their semblance.

It is quite possible that some obscure and disguised variety of this same instinctive feeling may still affect our estimates of what animals do, and of how they feel and think. We know so intimately how our domestic pets enter into the routine of our lives, share our moods and occupations, that it seems plausible to suppose that only a lack of speech prevents them from expressing a knowledge of our thoughts and sympathy with our feelings. But when we reflect upon the matter more soberly, we realize that we must not allow our prejudices to affect our judgment of what their behavior justifies us in concluding in regard to their intelligence. In considering what kinds of minds they have and how they use them, we must never forget how different are their needs from ours, how easily an action on their part may seem to be full of meaning to us (because if performed by us it would be done for definite reasons and purposes), and yet may be for them a rather simple trick to gain our favor. This, indeed, is the difficulty of the whole problem. We can judge what animals think only from what they do; yet what they really do may be wholly different from what they apparently do. It is we who unintentionally read into the action the meaning that it has for us. The way out of this difficulty is not very simple nor very direct; and it is the psychologist's business to determine by all the various kinds of evidence and reasoning that he can bring to bear upon the data, just what kinds of thinking the most favored animal can and can not master. The last particularly must be carefully considered; yet, both for animal capacities and animal limitations, is it of prime importance to note that, like ourselves, animals will only learn to do such things as enter profitably into the scheme of their lives. They will under ordinary natural circumstances acquire an intelligent appreciation of such of the goings on in the world about them as they can put to use; and even though we furnish our pets with decidedly different conditions of life and teach them much that they would have no occasion to learn for themselves, yet the manner of their learning will still remain of the same kind and require the same combination of powers as governs their natural behavior. So, in the end, the question of how animals think is one that psychology may hopefully consider. The answer will never be wholly complete; but there is no reason, so far as it goes, why it should not be sound and convincing—setting forth clearly and precisely what types of intelligent action animals share with us, and how much greater a range of even our simple thinking and doing lies wholly outside of both their interests and their capacities.

Such reflections are brought home to the psychologist whenever he observes how willing people are to be convinced that the multiplicationtable and reading and spelling fall as readily within the powers of the exceptional animal as they do within those of an ordinary small boy. Let us consider a group of performances that within recent years have been triumphantly heralded as proving the vast possibilities of animal education, and have been accepted by the vast majority of people for what they pretend to be. A wise horse, 'Kluge Hans,' has mystified Berlin audiences; and 'Jim Key,' another equine sage, has done the same for the American public, by going through a program that includes adding and subtracting, and multiplying and dividing, reading and spelling, telling time and the days of the week, indicating people's ages, or sorting their letters, revealing their professions and their peculiarities, knowing the value of coins and bills, and even pointing out passages from the Bible or reasoning that a circle has no corners! In analyzing such performances, it is indispensable to remain undistracted by what the exhibitor asserts or pretends that the animal does, but calmly to observe what really takes place and to decide not necessarily how the trick is done, but what kind of thinking is concerned in the steps that the animal really takes. Such an exhibition may, however, offer an equally interesting study of the psychology of the audience as of the performer—a study of what people are ready to believe and why they are so disposed.

It does not require a deep psychological insight to make it clear that the calculating and spelling, time-telling and letter-sorting horse would be as much of a miracle as a Centaur, or a Pegasus, or a Unicorn. All these creatures belong, and with equal obviousness, to the world of fable; and the one falls as far outside the realm of actual psychology as does the other escape the ken of the zoologist. If one is inclined to regard that so obvious a proposition would at once command assent, he need only overhear the talk of those who come away from these 'marvelous' performances to be assured that the calculating horse and the unicorn are in popular estimation horses of very different colors. The latter is at once put aside as belonging to the world of myth; but the former, though not to be met with in every stable, is regarded as falling within the occasional possibilities of mundane horsedom.

If we forget for the moment that there is absolutely nothing in a horse's life that would supply the least occasion for developing so remarkable a talent as is needed for counting or spelling, we may bring ourselves to consider what kind of a miracle the calculating horse would stand for. An extravagant admirer of the Berlin horse, in maintaining that 'Hans's' education is about on a par with that of a boy (even a Berlin boy) of twelve years, has at least the courage of his convictions; nothing less would suffice to fit that genius of a horse to handle numbers and words and the abstract relation of things as his friends allege. And if a Zulu or an Esquimau were, after an equally brief schooling, to turn out a Newton or a Darwin, it would be rather less of a marvel.

To gain a common-sense view of the matter, observe a bright child of three years of age: note how it gives a hundred evidences for every hour of its waking existence, of a ceaselessly busy occupation with all sorts of ideas and little mental problems; how it sets up in its play one situation after another, sees new relations, devises a new use for an old toy, and creates a little world of its own imagining, for which it makes rules and breaks them, pretends that things are happening and gives reasons for their doing so; and so hour after hour proves itself possessed of a very acute little mind to which ideas and relations and situations are very interesting and familiarly handled mental tools or playthings. It is very true that much of this we know only because the child keeps up a constant chatter in its play, and speaks for itself as well as its toy or dolls, reveals its inventions in words, and thus tells the story, which without the explanation we could in our grown-up remoteness from such occupation but feebly understand. But the very possibility of learning all this language and of using it is itself a direct tribute to the intelligence that animates the little brain and reveals its finer quality, its greater possibilities. Language helps, most decidedly helps, the mind to grow in scope and power; but it does not create the capacity which its use requires. We have, moreover, some very interesting accounts of the cleverness of young children, who from early infancy were both deaf and blind, and who from their dark and silent world into which language could but sparsely enter, gave equally convincing proof of how busy their brains were with much the same kind of thoughts and purposes and interests as make up the mental lives of their more fortunate playmates. Naturally their doings were decidedly hampered, and their thinkings decidedly limited by the slightness of the bond—the single highway of touch—that connected them with their fellow beings. Such a child, in almost as languageless a condition as a dog and with far less chance of finding out what was going on in the world and of participating therein, develops into a rational creature of just that special kind of rationality that even in its simplest terms the brightest dog seems never to achieve. And now consider what a slow and weary path this bright child, equipped with all its sense and senses, and at the expense of much patient teaching, must tread before it comprehends the message of the letters, and gets to look upon 'twice two is four' as something more than a rather stupid bit of memory exercise, that, like virtue, if persisted in, brings its own reward. With an inconceivably great start beyond the dog or the horse, with a tremendously greater aptitude for just this sort of mental acrobatics, the human child must await some years of ripening of its powers, and upon that favorable foundation expend some further years of initiation and schooling to exhibit a simple proficiency in getting meaning out of those crooked black marks on white paper, and in putting two and two together so as to comprehend the manner of its strange transformation into four. Surely, the accomplishment merits our profound admiration. To this understanding of how much is involved in bringing an apt mind to the point at which reading and calculating becomes a bare possibility, of how great a world is already conquered when the three E's begin to play even the most modest of parts, let us add one point more: When the child begins to show (and not wholly by language) that the letters and numbers have some meaning, it shows the fact so variously that we have constant means of testing how real its knowledge may be. We gain a pretty fair idea in each case, how far the accomplishment is a mere mechanical trick, or a really comprehended operation. Everywhere the limitations are conspicuously obvious; and we know how gradually we must add to the complexity of the business, how readily, by only a slight change in the setting of the problem, we sink the struggling mind beyond its depth. All this is a very sound lesson in psychology to take with us, when we attend a 'show' in which a horse or a dog is put through some steps which are supposed to prove for the star performer a real comprehension of the message of the letters and the operations of the multiplication-table.

With so much of preamble, let us look at the actual performance, first as it is presented on the show-bills, and then as it appears from behind the scenes. The program that advertises the learned performances of 'Jim Key' includes among its dozen numbers such items as these: 'Jim shows his proficiency in figuring, adding, multiplication, division and subtraction for any number below thirty.' 'He spells any ordinary name asked him.' 'He reads and writes.' 'Gives quotations from the Bible where the horse is mentioned, giving chapter and verse '; and in addition acts as a post-office clerk or handles a cash-register. When these problems are reduced to equine terms, they prove to be simple variations of a single theme. To aid the figuring, the numbers are placed in natural order on large frames, five in a row, and five rows; and the letters, in alphabetical order, are similarly displayed. The numbers to be added or subtracted are proposed by some one in the audience, and repeated by the showman. The horse then proceeds to the card bearing the number that indicates the result, takes that card between his teeth and gives it to his master. The same is done for words composed of letters, each letter being selected in turn.

This is absolutely the whole performance; and even when most generously interpreted bears a decidedly remote resemblance to what the posters describe. The interesting part of it all is that so many who witness this simple exhibition are quite ready to conclude that before 'Jim Key' chooses his card, he goes through those mental processes which each one of the audience performs when he works out the answer to the problem as announced. This assumption is not alone wholly uncalled for, but is actually preposterous. One of the elementary facts that students of mind, whether of human or of animal minds, clearly grasp, is that there are vastly different ways in this complex world of ours, of doing the same thing. The same result is reached by wholly different means. To neglect this distinction would be to conclude that because one man—or, if you like, a horse or a squirrel—avoids a certain mushroom on account of its unpleasant odor, and the botanist does so by recognizing it as a specimen of Amanita muscaria, that all have displayed the same kind of intelligence, have used the same reasoning, because in the end they reach the same result—the avoidance of the fungus. To the simple, but comprehensive statement that the horse gives not the slightest indication of going through any of these processes in order to select his card, it need only be added that he gives decided indication of going through a very different land of process. It is not at all necessary to know precisely what special sign the horse observes in guiding his selections, in order to determine (which is the important thing) that it is some kind of simple sign, an operation that falls within this general type. The type of 'Jim Key's' operation is simply that of learning to go first to a certain one of five rows, that is either the middle, or the top, or the bottom, or the one between middle and top, or the one between middle and bottom; and then in turn to select one of five cards arranged horizontally that offer a similar choice. Whether the cards bear numbers or letters or Chinese characters or the Weather Bureau signals or any other markings, and whether these markings have any meaning, is as wholly indifferent to the horse as it is unnecessary for him to go through any reasoning process in order to select the card that he is to present as his answer. As to the precise association that an animal comes to establish between a certain sign and a certain action, and the number and complexity of such associations that he can master, there is doubtless some variation among animals, though again hardly as much as amongst men. It is also interesting to determine the nature of the signs, whether noted by the ear or the eye, that a dog or a horse most readily learns; but all these details do not at all modify the general nature of the operation, which mainly needs be considered. The actual indication that 'Jim Key' follows to reach first the right frame, and then the right row, and then the right letter, seems to be given by different positions of the master's whip. The ability to learn even this simple association is probably very limited, and in this case seems never to exceed 'five.' Upon this slender basis of actual achievement, does 'Jim Key' attain his reputation as a learned thinker.

The performances of 'Kluge Hans' so far as they may be gathered from the printed descriptions, are of no more complex character. The method of response is simpler and consists of nothing more than in pawing continuously one stroke after another, and of stopping when the number of strokes corresponds to the answer of the arithmetical problem that has been set. Alphabets and 'yes' and 'no' must also be reduced to numbers before they fall within 'Hans's' repertory. Here again, as announced, the program is most versatile and startling. There is the same proficiency in multiplying and dividing and adding and spelling; and by an ingenious variation of the question, 'Hans' will tell how many of the admiring company are over fifty years of age, or are members of a certain profession, and will paw 'yes' or 'no' in answer to any question of which his master knows the answer. The claims put forth on behalf of the Berlin horse—and that on the part of men otherwise versed in scientific matters—is indeed remarkable, positively astounding; for one of these attributes to 'Hans' a perfect acquaintance with fractions, the ability of distinguishing colors as well as playing-cards, to tell the coins of the realm, to differentiate geometrical figures, to give the time upon any watch-face, to name musical tones and tell which are discords. The method by which these answers are indicated is never more nor less than that of pawing until the correct number is reached. The more complicated replies are in the form of words: for this purpose the elementary sounds are reduced to 42—allowing for combinations of vowels and consonants. Accordingly, any one of these sounds is indicated by occupying one of seven places on one of six rows; thus for 'j,' Hans' stamps first 3 times and then 4; and for 'St,' first 5, then 6. Under this system,-the horse is actually supposed to distinguish between the ordinary 's' and the 'long s' at the end of the word, between 'äu' (with the Umlaut) and 'au' without it, and so on. Such, at all events, is the claim set forth for 'Hans's' miraculous intelligence. As a fact it is, of course, completely a matter of indifference to 'Hans' what the questions may be; they could with equal success be put in Greek or Sanskrit, so long as he can catch the right signal and stop pawing at the right time. And so again the gap between fact and fable is world-wide; and the assumption equally groundless that any measure of the human kind of reasoning intervenes to make possible the horse's replies.

Surely there is nothing in either of these performances, except the pretences of the showman, that in the least suggests the use of any of the powers that the developing child must first acquire to gain an actual knowledge of numbers and letters. And, if we look, we shall find many indications of the quite different processes that are really concerned. The best of these lies in the nature of the mistakes that are likely to occur. For 'Jim Key,' these take the form of selecting a neighboring letter—an 'x' for a 'y'—a kind of mistake which no mind that really was doing any spelling would be in the least tempted to commit; while 'Hans's' mistake consists in not seeing the signal quickly enough, and in pawing once too often or in anticipating through the getting ready of the signal, and stopping too soon, again a type of mistake that has no relation to the actual operation of those who calculate and read. So also the scope of the questions that these marvelous animals at once attack without preliminary training shows how unrelated is the finding of the answer to the consideration of the problem. If we add considerably to the difficulty of the problem that we set to a calculating child, we must be prepared to accustom its powers gradually to the increased difficulty and to take small steps repeatedly with much chance for mistake in the newer processes. But these calculating horses jump at once into fractions and square-roots, into propositions in geometry, and equations in algebra, when some enterprising questioner proposes them. This at all events is true for 'Hans's' master, who easily prepares the result; though in 'Jim Key's' case, one sometimes suspects that the calculating possibilities of the master are not immeasurably in advance of those of the horse.

And once more—it certainly seems strange that so exceptionally educated an animal should find no other occasion to exercise his remarkable powers, should not spontaneously exhibit some original evidences of his genius, that would distinguish him from the ordinary horse. We are even tempted to pity so talented an animal with no outlet for its vigorous mind, condemned to the monotonous round of oats and hay, varied only by the tit-bits of carrot and sugar which, however, seem to be appreciated as rewards of learning by these educated animals quite as keenly as by their untutored kind. It is also pertinent, though possibly unnecessary, to point out the inherent contradiction between the operations that a successful reply is supposed to involve and the absurdity of the failures or wrong answers that occasionally occur. Thus, this most intelligent Berlin horse, who is supposed to be acquainted with difficult mathematical relations, occasionally makes mistakes. Now when a child makes a mistake, it is in regard to some operation just beyond its capacity, while the simpler additions and subtractions are readily accomplished. On the other hand, Hans, immediately after giving an answer in square-root, fails to count the buttons on an officer's coat, and insists, until repeatedly corrected, that a man has three ears and not two; or again, after making the minute distinctions of German orthography, puts K for J; and further, if this miraculous horse really distinguished the sounds and converted them into letters, why should he not be phonetically misled and occasionally substitute, let us say, a ck for a k, which would mean all the difference between 2 pawings followed by 1, and 3 followed by 5. Yet such objections are indeed superfluous, or would be were they not so commonly disregarded by the prejudice in favor of taking such absurd pretences at their face value. In brief, it is difficult seriously to investigate these limitations in any other spirit than that of pointing out how unmistakably they indicate an unreasoning, unrelated method of reaching the answer through some system of signs.

This statement of the facts of the case does not at all imply that in this performance we have reached the limits of the horse's education. Very likely the intelligent horse may be taught to go very much farther than this in the direction of his natural ability to associate signs with actions. It would, for example, be very interesting to know whether 'Jim Key' could be taught, in selecting one after the other the letters that spell his name, to go of his own accord for the 'I' after he has been led to the 'J' and then to the 'M' and so on; that is, whether he could learn to perform a series of selections by associating each with the one following. This would still be a task of the same order, but a more complicated one; and in investigations of this kind earnest students of animal intelligence have obtained important evidence as to the capacities and limitations of animal thinking. Such psychological questions are asked in a different temper from that which prompts the stage performances, and lead to far more useful results.

And so we come last to the other side of our inquiry, why this kind of a performance is so generally accepted at its face value, why educated persons will attribute to the horse (as they do to the Berlin horse), the insight to recognize that 27 divided by 7 gives 3 with a remainder of six, that 14 must be added to make a unit out of 34, or that at 12:17 one must wait 43 minutes for one o'clock! Indeed, so wide-spread were the misleading accounts of this learned animal, that a commission of inquiry was appointed to investigate the whole affair; and upon this commission sat a professor of psychology of the University of Berlin. Though the foregone conclusion was reached that the performance did not exhibit 'a scintilla of anything that may be regarded as thought' it certainly seems incongruous that so serious an inquiry should have become desirable. Only one point of interest seems to have been elicited, namely, that the horse's master or the bystanders may have frequently been honestly unaware of giving the sign which the keen senses of the horse caught as the indication to stop pawing. Perhaps we need not too pointedly raise the question as to how far these exhibitions intentionally deceive their audiences. Wherever systematic training enters, it follows that the trainer must realize how wide is the gap between what is done and what is pretended. Self-deception on the part of the showman can not be held accountable for more than a slight portion of this discrepancy. Yet still truer is it that if people were not ready to credit such remarkable powers to the horse or the dog, such exhibitions would find no favor. It is partly because animals can really do many things that are wonderful in themselves and, if performed by men, would require considerable rational powers, that we are inclined to credit them with capacities for learning similar to our own. This tendency can be held in check only by an appreciation of the complexity of even a simple piece of true reasoning, of how essential it is to appraise an action in terms of the process that led to it, and how indirect is the revelation of process that comes from the knowledge of the result alone. When this simple lesson in psychology is clearly recognized as furnishing a sound basis for judgment, there will be less tendency to believe that horses can take unto themselves brains with a capacity to multiply and read, as to believe that a horse has suddenly sprouted wings, even though such a Pegasus is pictured on the posters displayed in front of the exhibition hall.

People would also less easily succumb to such deception if they stopped to consider that in regard to these animal performances they must earn the right to an opinion by some simple measure of initiation into the arrangements of what impresses the uninitiated as a remarkable exhibition. The first attitude is naturally that of wonder, and in lack of any detailed knowledge of what the trick may be, the tendency is strong to credit, at least in part, the explanations that are advanced. Once this attitude is overcome and the kind of training that prepares for the performance is understood, the whole affair loses its marvelous aspect and becomes a mildly interesting demonstration of animal training. A brief glimpse of the mechanism behind the scenes is quite sufficient to balance the glare of the footlights and leave the spectator in possession of his usual measure of human intelligence that enables him to appraise sympathetically but sanely the intelligent powers of animals.