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On Instinct*

Nature volume 6, pages 485486 | Download Citation



WITH regard to instinct we have yet to ascertain the facts. Do the animals exhibituntaught skill and innate knowledge? May not the supposed examples of instinct be after all but the results of rapid learning and imitation? The controversy on this subject has been chiefly concerning the perceptions of distance and direction by the eye and the ear. Against the instinctive character of these perceptions it is argued that, as distance means movement, locomotion, the very essence of the idea is such as cannot be taken in by the eye or ear; that what the varying sensations of sight and hearing correspond to, must be got at by moving over the ground by experience. The results, however, of experiments on chickens were wholly in favour of the instinctive nature of these perceptions. Chickens kept in a state of blindness by various devices, from one to three days, when placed in the light under a set of carefully prepared conditions, gave conclusive evidence against the theory that the perceptions of distance and direction by the eye are the result of assoc iations formed in the experience of each individual life. Often, at the end of two minutes, they followed with their eyes the movements of crawling insects, turning their heads with all the precision of an old fowl. In from two to fifteen minutes they pecked at some object, showing not merely an instinctive perception of distance, but an original ability to measure distance with something like infallible accuracy. If beyond the reach of their necks, they walked or ran up to the object of their pursuit, and may be said to have invariably struck it, never missing by more than a hair's-breadth; this, too, when the specks at which they struck were no bigger than the smallest visible dot of an i. To seize between the points of the mandible at the very instant of striking seemed a more difficult operation. Though at times they seized and swallowed an insect at the first attempt, more frequently they struck five or six times, lifting once or twice before they succeeded in swallowing their first food. To take, by way of illustration, the observations on a single case a little in detail:—A chicken at the end of six minutes, after having its eyes unveiled, followed with its head the movements of a fly twelve inches distant; at ten minutes, the fly coming within reach of its neck, was seized and swallowed at the first stroke; at the end of twenty minutes it had not attempted to walk a step. It was then placed on rough ground within sight and call of a hen, with chickens of its own age. After standing chirping for about a minute, it went straight towards the hen, displaying as keen a perception of the qualities of the outer world as it was ever likely to possess in after life. It never required to knock its head against a stone to discover that there was “no road that way.” It leaped over the smaller obstacles that lay in its path, and ran round the larger, reaching the mother in as nearly a straight line as the nature of the ground would permit. Thus it would seem that, prior to experience, the eye—at least the eye of the chicken—perceives the primary qualities of the external world, all arguments of the purely analytical school of psychology to the contrary, notwithstanding.

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