VII. THE DAWN OF MIND
In the story of evolution there is no chapter more interesting than the emergence of mind in the animal kingdom. But it is a difficult chapter to read, partly because "mind" cannot be seen or measured, only inferred from the outward behaviour of the creature, and partly because it is almost impossible to avoid reading ourselves into the much simpler animals.
Two Extremes to be Avoided
The one extreme is that of uncritical generosity which credits every animal, like Brer Rabbit—who, by the way, was the hare—with human qualities. The other extreme is that of thinking of the animal as if it were an automatic machine, in the working of which there is no place or use for mind. Both these extremes are to be avoided.
When Professor Whitman took the eggs of the Passenger Pigeon (which became extinct not long ago with startling rapidity) and placed them a few inches to one side of the nest, the bird looked a little uneasy and put her beak under her body as if to feel for something that was not there. But she did not try to retrieve her eggs, close at hand as they were. In a short time she flew away altogether. This shows that the mind of the pigeon is in some respects very different from the mind of man. On the other hand, when a certain clever dog, carrying a basket of eggs, with the handle in his mouth, came to a stile which had to be negotiated, he laid the basket on the ground, pushed it gently through a low gap to the other side, and then took a running leap over. We dare not talk of this dog as an automatic machine.
A Caution in Regard to Instinct
In studying the behaviour of animals, which is the only way of getting at their mind, for it is only of our own mind that we have direct knowledge, it is essential to give prominence to the fact that there has been throughout the evolution of living creatures a strong tendency to enregister or engrain capacities of doing things effectively. Thus certain abilities come to be inborn; they are parts of the inheritance, which will express themselves whenever the appropriate trigger is pulled. The newly born child does not require to learn its breathing movements, as it afterwards requires to learn its walking movements. The ability to go through the breathing movements is inborn, engrained, enregistered.
In other words, there are hereditary pre-arrangements of nerve-cells and muscle-cells which come into activity almost as easily as the beating of the heart. In a minute or two the newborn pigling creeps close to its mother and sucks milk. It has not to learn how to do this any more than we have to learn to cough or sneeze. Thus animals have many useful ready-made, or almost ready-made, capacities of doing apparently clever things. In simple cases of these inborn pre-arrangements we speak of reflex actions; in more complicated cases, of instinctive behaviour. Now the caution is this, that while these inborn capacities usually work well in natural conditions, they sometimes work badly when the ordinary routine is disturbed. We see this when a pigeon continues sitting for many days on an empty nest, or when it fails to retrieve its eggs only two inches away. But it would be a mistake to call the pigeon, because of this, an unutterably stupid bird. We have only to think of the achievements of homing pigeons to know that this cannot be true. We must not judge animals in regard to those kinds of behaviour which have been handed over to instinct, and go badly agee when the normal routine is disturbed. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred the enregistered instinctive capacities work well, and the advantage of their becoming stereotyped was to leave the animal more free for adventures at a higher level. Being "a slave of instinct" may give the animal a security that enables it to discover some new home or new food or new joy. Somewhat in the same way, a man of methodical habits, which he has himself established, may gain leisure to make some new departure of racial profit.
When we draw back our finger from something very hot, or shut our eye to avoid a blow from a rebounding branch, we do not will the action; and this is more or less the case, probably, when a young mammal sucks its mother for the first time. Some Mound-birds of Celebes lay their eggs in warm volcanic ash by the shore of the sea, others in a great mass of fermenting vegetation; it is inborn in the newly hatched bird to struggle out as quickly as it can from such a strange nest, else it will suffocate. If it stops struggling too soon, it perishes, for it seems that the trigger of the instinct cannot be pulled twice. Similarly, when the eggs of the turtle, that have been laid in the sand of the shore, hatch out, the young ones make instinctively for the sea. Some of the crocodiles bury their eggs two feet or so below the surface among sand and decaying vegetation—an awkward situation for a birthplace. When the young crocodile is ready to break out of the egg-shell, just as a chick does at the end of the three weeks of brooding, it utters instinctively a piping cry. On hearing this, the watchful mother digs away the heavy blankets, otherwise the young crocodile would be buried alive at birth. Now there is no warrant for believing that the young Mound-birds, young crocodiles, and young turtles have an intelligent appreciation of what they do when they are hatched. They act instinctively, "as to the manner born." But this is not to say that their activity is not backed by endeavour or even suffused with a certain amount of awareness. Of course, it is necessarily difficult for man, who is so much a creature of intelligence, to get even an inkling of the mental side of instinctive behaviour.
In many of the higher reaches of animal instinct, as in courtship or nest-building, in hunting or preparing the food, it looks as if the starting of the routine activity also "rang up" the higher centres of the brain and put the intelligence on the qui vive, ready to interpose when needed. So the twofold caution is this: (1) We must not depreciate the creature too much if, in unusual circumstances, it acts in an ineffective way along lines of behaviour which are normally handed over to instinct; and (2) we must leave open the possibility that even routine instinctive behaviour may be suffused with awareness and backed by endeavour.
A Useful Law
But how are we to know when to credit the animal with intelligence and when with something less spontaneous? Above all, how are we to know when the effective action, like opening the mouth the very instant it is touched by food in the mother's beak, is just a physiological action like coughing or sneezing, and when there is behind it—a mind at work? The answer to this question is no doubt that given by Prof. Lloyd Morgan, who may be called the founder of comparative psychology, that we must describe the piece of behaviour very carefully, just as it occurred, without reading anything into it, and that we must not ascribe it to a higher faculty if it can be satisfactorily accounted for in terms of a lower one. In following this principle we may be sometimes niggardly, for the behaviour may have a mental subtlety that we have missed; but in nine cases out of ten our conclusions are likely to be sound. It is the critical, scientific way.
Bearing this law in mind, let us take a survey of the emergence of mind among backboned animals.