Letter | Published:

“Mental Evolution in Animals”

Abstract

MR. ROMANES' comment on my communication in NATURE of February 7 (p. 335) is not quite satisfactory. I do not suppose that he has any spite against my skate; but as he does not know me, and did not see the incident in the Manchester Aquarium, I think it is very possible that he may have been naturally predisposed to underrate the significance of the story. I do not admit that I can be reasonably blamed for saying that a repetition of the conditions would have been useful, if possible, while at the same time pointing out that the result would not necessarily have settled the question. Test experiments are always useful, even if they do not settle the main question. Mr. Romanes' terrier story was not necessary to make clear what he means by “accident,” and there is no analogy between it and my skate story. In one case a trained, or at least tamed, dog did as he was told, and the conditions of success were prearranged; in the other, a fish spontaneously did something for his own advantage. As for the fish smelling the food, this does not harmonise with the circumstances as I described them, and had Mr. Romanes seen the incident I do not think this explanation would have occurred to him; the whole series of actions was too rapid, and had too much the appearance of co-ordination. The propulsion of the food into the ready mouth was the work of an instant. Had the mouth not been ready, as the cricketer's bat is the instant the ball leaves the bowler's hand, the morsel would have been missed. Finally, Mr. Romanes tells us (“Animal Intelligence,” p. 351) that the bear observed by Mr. Hutchinson was a Polar bear. Now this species is “almost marine in its habits.” It lives upon seal-flesh and also upon dead meat which it finds floating in the water. It is not infrequently cast adrift on an ice-floe or an iceberg. It is therefore not at at all improbable that the method of fishing described may be an instinct developed hereditarily. The fact that two bears behaved in precisely the same manner strengthens this supposition. Mr. Darwin does not say whether the bear observed by Mr. Westropp in Vienna was a Polar bear or not, but he observes that the action in question “can hardly be attributed to instinct or inherited habit,” as it would be “of little use to such an animal in a state of nature.” It seems to me that such action would be very useful to Polar bears in a state of nature.

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