Thursday, November 17, 2016

Men and Brutes

Of the many scientific controversies which excite the attention of unscientific people, few are more interesting than those which relate to the distinction between men and brutes. Perhaps even to scientific men there may be some interest in knowing how the matter resents itself to a purely unscientific person, ignorant enough to have been capable of going to his grave without the remotest notion whether he had a hippocampus or not if Mr. Owen and Mr. Huxley had never discussed the subject, and ignorant enough, even now, to have considerable doubts whether his highest interests are bound up in the belief that he has a hippocampus and that apes have not, or that apes have a hippocampus and that he has not——subject always to the further question what the hippocampus is. To such a person the question of the distinction between men and brutes, considered by the light of common unsystematic observation, runs into various singular speculations when the usual rhetoric has been strained out of the subject. The most obvious distinction is that of outward form, but this is obviously not a fundamental one. To say nothing of the great hippocampus put cases which show how imperfect a question, it is easy to test this would be. Imagine a nation of creatures, like the wolf-children said to be known in some parts of India. They would be men and women in every particular as far as outward appearance goes, but in all essential points they would be animals. If a traveller were attached by such a creature, he would shoot him like any other wild beast, and no one would think it wrong to put a chain round his waist and send him to the Zoological Gardens.  Or put the matter the other way, and suppose that in some remote part of the world we discovered a community of elephants perfectly reasonable, able to speak, acquainted with arts and sciences, and sharing our moral and religious feelings--should we not concede to them the possession of rights, respect their persons and property, and perhaps send out missionaries to preach to them?  No doubt there would be a difficulty about intermarriage, but for most other purposes they would stand to us in the relation of fellow-creatures.  The history of Houynhnms and Yahoos does not prove much, but it certainly does show that a good man in the shape of a horse is preferable to a vicious brute in the shape of a man.

If, then, the distinction between men and brutes is to be found in their invisible endowments, on which of them can we rely? Though it may, at first sight, seem paradoxical to say so, much is to be said for the proposition that the difference between the man and the brute is mainly a difference of degree in the intellectual faculties, of which difference the power of speech is, beyond all comparison, the best-marked outward sign. One of the many uses to which Coleridge used to put his favourite doctrine of the difference between the reason and the understanding (of which Mr. Carlyle felicitously observed that if you could understand it, which you never could, all mysteries would be explained) was to draw a line between men and the lower animals. Men, he said, have both reason and understanding. Beasts have understanding only. If this proposition has a meaning, it is one which it is extremely difficult to express in any other words, or to convey by any crucial illustration. Perhaps the best notion of its meaning may be obtained by comparing the first steps of the education of children with those of other young creatures. A kitten or a puppy is perfect, as far as it goes, at any given moment. By judicious management you may teach it a variety of habits, which in course of time it will acquire almost to perfection; but there is one thing of which it never shows any signs. No brute ever seems to have thou his which exceed its powers of expression. All children have. Parents know by painful experience that there is a certain age at which children become fractious, ill-tempered, and difficult to manage, to the most unpleasant degree. It is the age at which they have learnt more or less to think, but not to speak. They know perfectly well what they want, try in vain to explain themselves, and are as irritated and angry at not succeeding as a certain description of Englishman is apt to be with the stupid brutes of foreigners who, as he observes, cannot speak a word of any rational language. A child at this period is not a pleasing creature, but it is a very odd and instructive one. What is passing in its mind? How does it think? Does it say to itself, in words, I want this or that—what a fool my nurse must be not to see what I want, and give it me? If it does not say this, what does it say? It certainly says or thinks something, if gestures, expressions of countenance, and half-articulate sounds have any significance at all. A complete answer to these questions would solve the deepest of all problems respecting human knowledge. Such an answer is probably not to be had; yet there is strong reason to believe that at this troublesome stage of its life a child is, for the first time, learning to exercise the distinctively human faculty, whatever its proper name may be. It is the power of thinking in general terms, of which the power of speech is the outward and visible sign Many animals, such as parrots and starlings, can speak perfectly as far as the mere articulation of sounds goes; but there is no instance of an inferior animal which ever learnt the meaning of a single word of the commonest kind, such as “horse ” or “dog.” Human beings--even if they are idiots, and, what is still more curious, if they are deaf, dumb, and blind—are capable of learning to communicate with their fellow-creatures by vocal or other signs expressing general abstract meanings.

The side of this truth which separates us from all other animals is sufficiently well known. The side of it which connects us with them is not so familiar, and not so pleasant to dwell upon. Examine the matter carefully, and it will appear that the words which men use, and which children learn so fluently, though no doubt far more definite than the sounds by which the brutes express their wants, are infinitely less definite than the things which they represent. The commonest word, if pursued far enough, is found to be destitute of precision. What, for instance, is the meaning of the word dog? Does it take in a wolf or an Australian dingo? Of the hundreds of millions of persons who use it and its equivalents in other languages, are there an appreciable minority who attach to it any more accurate signification than that vague general impression which may not unreasonably be supposed to be present to the memory of every member of the species when he recognises his brother by sense of smell under those wide external differences which separate a mastiff from a poodle? Indeed, the progress of every science depends upon and furnishes new illustrations of the fact that language is essentially tentative and experimental. In a few simple cases, in which it is possible to give an accurate conventional meaning to words (mathematics furnish the great illustration), words really correspond with things; but this is the rarest of exceptions. An infinite number of questions are begged by the more use of the word “man,” the word “I,” the word “thing," the word “person.” The more we learn the more we see that a word is, after all, only a guess, the record of an impression which is certainly incomplete, and probably incorrect. Facts, however, most unquestionably make an impression of some sort upon brutes, and there is reason to believe that some of them can in some way record, and even exchange, their impressions. Every one knows the story of the dog who got his friend to go with him to revenge him on another dog; and the cries and gestures by which animals express their feelings, though infinitely less definite than language, are quite as emphatic. The big dog says to the little dog, “You had better mind what you are about,” by a growl or a shrug of the lip, quite as effectively as if he used the words. The big boy who uses the words to a little boy has no precise meaning beyond that which the dog conveys equally well. Hence, even the power of speech hardly constitutes the fundamental distinction between men and beasts. The distinction lies in the man's consciousness of the imperfection of his instruments, in his dim perception of something lying behind and beyond his words--something which he is always trying to grasp, and which always more or less eludes him. Hence the assignable difference is a difference of degree of intellectual power. The real difference is unassignable; it is one for which we have no name, though thoughtful men may be conscious of its existence, and may more or less successfully try to find names for it.

To many persons the moral distinction between men and brutes may appear roader than the intellectual ones. Brutes, it may be said, have no sense of right and wrong; they stand to each other in no social relations; they have no feeling of decency. All these are not only distinctively, but exclusively, human gifts. Plausible as this may appear, it is by no means satisfactory. Morality consists of two distinct elements. It may be described as a system of rules for the management and regulation of certain passions. These passions are ultimate facts in our nature, beyond which we cannot go. A man and woman are thrown in each other’s way, being of certain characters, of a certain manner, appearance, age, &c. The feelings of pleasure in each other's company, of desire for each other's society, of admiration, &c., which arise in their minds are as little voluntary as the feeling of pain arising from a blow. A vast system of rules is founded upon these feelings, which people may understand or not, and may act upon or violate as they choose. No doubt the existence of these rules acts upon the original feeling on which they are founded, but they are founded on it and are distinct from it. The formation of rules is an exclusively intellectual task, and all morality, so far as it is a matter of rule —the legal element, so to speak, of morality--is a matter of intellect. The intellect alone can judge what is the object of morality, and whether or not particular rules are calculated to promote that object. Hence the enormous moral difference between men and other animals may be referred to the difference in degree between the human and the merely animal intellect. Many animals have all, all animals have some, of the passionate elements of morality. If a dog could speak, he might be taught a great deal of morality. For instance, a dog has the strongest affections, not only for his master, but at times for other dogs. All animals have strong parental feelings. A dog has, upon certain subjects, a strong sense of shame; he knows when he has done wrong and deserves to be flogged, and he views deserved punishment quite differently from wanton cruelty. How far this goes, it is almost impossible to say, by reason of our lack of sympathy with animal understanding. Whether, for instance, an animal has any notion of love, as we understand it, may fairly be questioned; but love is rather a compound of several other feelings than a simple elementary passion. Animals have preferences of some sort for individuals of their own species; and whether, if their intellects were more active, they might not in time learn to combine their preferences with other feelings, and give the result a specific name, is an insoluble question.

It is a singular proof of the presumptuous rashness with which people speculate, that almost every one assumes the necessity of finding some broad distinction between men and beasts if any elevated views are to be maintained as to the condition of men here and their prospects hereafter. It is constantly assumed to be a fatal objection to particular theories that they do not distinguish men from beasts. It scarcely seems to occur to people to ask, why should such a line be drawn? Why are we to start with the assumption that a beast has nothing lofty about him, that he has no duties and no soul? We are absolutely ignorant on the whole subject. Indeed, as regards ourselves, we are not blind with excess of light, and, for aught we know, the lower animals may be immortal in their own way as well as men. There is certainly one fact about them which is not without its lessons to those who wish to think highly of themselves and their destiny. Whatever may be the case with men, it is perfectly certain that a Positivist dog would be under a great mistake. Such an animal would sturdily refuse to move a step beyond the circle of his own little world. He would put entirely on one side the possibility that he might form a part of a larger system than he could comprehend, and be under the direction of a being superior to him in every respect, and yet by no means cut off from sympathy or even from communication with him. He would reduce everything to a canine standard, and leave human matters on one side as things indifferent to him. Such an animal would not be the best or wisest kind of dog, nor would he learn the highest lessons which his circumstances, properly considered, would be capable of teaching him.

Saturday Review, November 7, 1863.

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