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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 70/January 1907/Comparative Psychology



COMPARATIVE psychology has arrived. We have had our Descartes and our psychic epiphenomenalists; and their descendants, the vital mechanicians, are still with us. And no Luther has arisen to shatter at a stroke their gods (of tin and other artificers' materials) and proclaim the reformation of psychology in a single revolutionary coup. No Darwin has struck off a hypothesis of psychogenesis full grown and puissant to drive its decadent rivals from the field by virtue of its own all-assimilating vitality. But the leaven of Darwinism has been slowly permeating, even into the dusty meal bins of speculative psychology. In spite of fervid anathemas from the citadels of the categorical intuitionalists, the steady growth of genetic ideas has by natural process begun to corrode the very foundations of these strongholds of conservatism; for have we not already begun our natural history of the intuitions and their genesis?

It has been pointed out as a most hopeful sign that this new psychology (unlike that sometimes falsely so called) does not come bearing as its ikons a glittering array of brass instruments of precision and tomes of statistics; but, like the kingdom of Heaven, it cometh not with observation, as a change of mental attitude among both psychologists and naturalists.

There is apparently no general recognition of the revolutionary character of this feature, which is implicit in many movements now current in science and philosophy—movements bearing as diverse labels in the philosophical vernacular of the day as 'experimental evolution' 'genetic psychology' (in a score of mutually antagonistic forms), 'pragmatism,' 'functional philosophy,' 'paidology,' 'dynamic monism' etc., etc. So far as the genetic element in these systems is true, it is destined to outlive its ephemeral and sometimes bizarre setting, and the day when we shall have a generally accepted doctrine of psychogenesis and psychic evolution is certainly not far off, though it would be folly to assert that this day has yet dawned.

One of the most valuable features of the remarkable book by Stanley Hall on the psychology of adolescence is the emphasis which he places on the study of the past of mind as a corrective to the morbid speculations on its future which comprise the larger part of the current doctrines of the soul. The ages of psychic evolution through which we have passed have not only cast their shadows down the ranks of time to our own day, but their life is now coursing in our mental pulses as literally as in our corporeal. He goes on to say:

The best and only key to truly explain mind in man is in the animals he has sprung from and in his own infancy which so faintly recapitulates them; for about every property of the human mind is found in animal mind, as those of higher animals are found in the powers of the lower. . . . The conscious adult person is not a monad reflecting the universe, but a fragment broken off and detached from the great world of soul, always maimed, defined by special limitations, like, yet different from, all others, with some incommensurability parting it off as something unique, well fitted to illustrate some aspects and hopelessly unable to exemplify or even know other regions in the cosmos of soul.

But the trouble is that as soon as a professional philosopher approaches the problems of the cosmic past of mind he is clapped automatically into some metaphysical pigeon hole, whose rigid and often misshapen walls determine that every effort which he puts forth must be molded by past tradition. The very assimilation of the newer data of science, which are the philosopher's meat and drink, involves their incorporation into a metaphysical system already thoroughly organized, and so we read our metaphysics backward through the cosmic process.

The naturalists, accordingly, are calling for a new Naturphilosophie which shall be 'anti-metaphysical,' and yet every new such attempt on their own part seems to present more serious metaphysical vices than the preceding. It is obvious that the hope for an anti-metaphysical philosophy is vain, for human philosophic systems flow into metaphysics as the sparks fly upward.

But what shall be the foundation of that metaphysic and the manner of its building is the naturalist's own problem. Shall it be an a priori system based upon ancient and mediæval dialectic or shall it be an organic growth whose roots sink deep into the soil of scientific observation and induction? This is a very burning question; for while we can have a practically efficient hod-man type of science without metaphysics, there can be no hope of a future for any metaphysics which is not built up and sustained by the progress of science.

This, of course, can only mean that our metaphysics can not be bound down by the rigid categories of formal logic (which is but a crystallization of the past workings of the human mind); it too must be alive with the lusty vigor of active growth. That such a metaphysic is not unattainable is evident. Certain present tendencies are nothing less than revolutionary in the direction of a really vital metaphysic, and not a few men of science are making their contributions to the same end.

And herein lies the great hope and promise of an immediate fruitfulness in the field of comparative psychology. For the first time in the history of thought, we have both a scientific and a philosophic public sentiment ripe for a serious attempt at a correlation in scientific channels of mental and physical evolution and of mind and body in the broader view.

But how imperfectly are we able to enter into the inner life of even the higher animals whose minds are most like our own! And yet, who knows how many of the powerful, though subconscious springs of our own impulse and motive may lie concealed in inherited vestiges of long-vanished and far more remote ancestral mental powers? Who knows what may be the mental life of a catfish, whose barbels and whole outer body surface are covered with organs of taste and whose gustatory nerves and centers are the biggest in the brain, or of a shark which has an elaborate system of sense organs (the lateral line canals), totally unknown to our own experience, which reach the extreme dimensions of the body and serve as a sort of intermediary apparatus between the organs of touch and the labyrinth of the ear, which is likewise highly developed, though the fish is apparently nearly or quite deaf?

The first task of comparative psychology, then, is to define as accurately as we may with the imperfect means at command the sensori-motor life of the whole range of lower organisms. And this task is fortunately not only approachable, but intrinsically attractive to every lover of nature. The study in field and laboratory of the sensory life of animals, while not all of comparative psychology, is a necessary introduction to its larger correlations and is receiving a rapidly increasing attention by naturalists of all schools; for the development of a true comparative psychology is, as we have seen, bound up with some of the greatest of the current movements in both science and philosophy.