GROOVES OF HABIT IN MEN AND ANTS.
TN his interesting address to the Anthropological Section of the
British Association last Saturday, Professor Huxley made a remark on the chief characteristics of the history of invention, which applies to a very much wider field of experience than that to which even he applied it. He said that General Fox's museum of tools and weapons at Bethnal Green was one of the most extraordinary exemplifications he knew of the ingenuity, and at the same time of the stupidity, of the human race. "Their ingenuity appears in the invention of a given pattern or form of weapon, and their profound stupidity in this, that having done so, they always kept in the old groove, which prevented them from ever getting beyond it in their objects and in their ornamentation. One of the most singular things that is shown in that museum is the wonderful tendency of the human mind, when once it has got into a groove, to stick there. The great object of scientific investigation is to run counter to that tendency." That is a very just remark, and applies not merely to the intelligence of human beings, but to the intelligence of other races of animals. Sir John Lubbock on the same day illus- trated how the intelligence,—if it be intelligence,—of ants, comes to a sudden end, when it is necessary to follow a new method in order to attain an object. "He suspended some honey half an inch over the nest, which could only be reached by a paper bridge ten feet long. He then made a small heap of earth by which they could reach it ; they soon swarmed over the earth and began to eat, but when he removed some of the earth it never occurred to them to heap it up again, though they tried to stretch up to the honey, and then went round by the bridge. He made a similar experiment by placing honey which could only be reached by crossing a chasm, over which he had laid, as a bridge, a bit of straw. He slightly moved the bridge, and they tried in vain to stretch over, but never thought of putting the straw back, which they could easily have done." In other words, the ants, like human beings, when once they have got into a groove, stick there. They can do a good deal of engineering in a very skilful fashion, in the way of building galleries in the earth, but to mound the earth for the purpose of reaching a little higher than they otherwise would, does not occur to them. It is not in the groove of their accustomed engineering. And so with the moving of the drawbridge. If they had only had to run a mine through the earth to reach the honey, though it had cost ten times the labour, they would probably have done it cheerfully, but the notion of turning the straw so as to make it touch the other side, when at the moment it did not touch the other side, never occurred to them. If, then, the ants have them- selves elaborated their present system of life, the great ideas of their organisation must have come from ants of genius ; and if an ant of genius had been present when Sir John Lubbock tried his experiment, possibly the order to turn the straw would have been conceived and given. No doubt it took a man of genius to see that bronze was better suited for human implements than flakes of flint, and iron and steel better than bronze. Uncounted genera- tions went on doubtless using the stone-flakes, before it occurred to any one to try bronze ; and many generations probably went on using bronze, before it occurred to any one to try the relative worth for the same purposes of iron, even after iron ore had been dis- covered. It is the power to conceive a new groove more efficient than the old one, which measures the originating force of all intelli- gence. At the same time, we must not depreciate in any degree the immense importance of the habit of sticking to the old groove till the new groove is ready and has been tested. It is still more essential to recognise the all-importance of having grooves of some kind,—that is, of fixed ways and methods of doing things which all may use and trust to,—than even to recognise the great advantage of exchanging an inferior groove of habit for a superior one. To have a groove at all, is the first great step. The reason the earth is so much better suited for locomotion than the air, is that we can establish fixed grooves on the earth,—roads, canals, railways,—and cannot establish fixed grooves in the air. Steam travelling especially was all but impossible, till grooves were invented for the locomotives and carriages to run in. And so, too, nothing solid, political or social, really comes to exist, till you furnish society with a constitutional or moral groove,—a common method which keeps ordinary people straight, and prevents them from running against all sorts of obstacles,--in which it is easy and safe for the average mind to move. Without grooves, velocity of any kind would be as dangerous, as it would be for express trains to go steaming about in ordinary roads and streets. With a given groove in which society moves towards a given end, you know what to expect and when to expect it ; but if it were too easy to desert the groove, we should have nothing but dangers, collisions, and the wrecks of overturned hopes. What is the discipline of an army, or indeed of any service, but a groove, in strict adherence to which efficiency essentially consists ? What is ' law ' itself but a groove established by authority, within which all individual liberty must move, if anarchy is not to take the place of liberty ?
No doubt, however, Professor Huxley's remarks on the extra. ordinary stupidity of mankind in adhering obstinately to any groove into which they have once fallen, applies much more to
the comparatively open field of invention and ornamentation,—
where there is no real necessity for discipline or identity of method,—than to the field of moral and social conduct. There is clearly no danger in quitting, for example, the groove of trusting to the force of the human arm for missile-sending, and substituting for it that due to the sudden unbending of an elastic wood,—in other words, in substituting bows and arrows for spears and javelins ; yet it is probable that the groove of invention which trusted wholly to the human arm for missive force, was long per- severed in before any one thought of suggesting the new groove, that is, of seeking additional force from the recoil of a bent bow. And it is quite certain that the groove of invention which took the recoil of an elastic substance for its chief auxiliary force, pre- ceded by a great many centuries that invention which used, for the same purpose, the force supplied by the sudden expansion of an explosive material into the voluminous gases which had been previously condensed in it. But this is only another way of saying that till a scientific class arise who obtain some general insight into the resources and methods of nature, it is a very much greater feat, a feat implying much more originality and imaginative power, to tame a new force and adapt it to human wants, than to perfect the adaptation of a force the uses of which have been long familiar. The latter process is a mere rounding-off of the obstacles and imperfections in a method with which you have become intimately acquainted ; the former im- plies rising into a new plane of thought, conceiving a completely new process. And the latter is, of course, a far rarer power than the former. The power of running in a fixed groove is, as we all know, hereditary. And the power of slightly improving the construction and the bore of the fixed groove, in which our ancestors have been running, is, if not hereditary,—which a power of change for the better can hardly be,—at least a very slight advance on the hereditary power. But the power of going out of the fixed groove altogether, of conceiving and constructing a new groove, involves a power not only of original imagination and conception, but also, to some extent, of defying and resisting hereditary instincts :—which is clearly a power of the individual intelligence, and not one which is inherited from the race.
What are we to say, then, as to the origin of this power of originating a new groove? Shall we say that Sir John Lubbock's ants, which could not contrive the erection of a mound or the turning of a straw, in order to get at a new stock of honey, were degenerate descendants of the ants which first organised the galleries of the ant-hill, and filled their stalls with aphides whose milk would be useful to them in the spring and summer, (though all the winter they had to be care- fully tended, without yielding any such reward) ? Are modern ants like the Chinese or Egyptians, who have inherited a body of scientific tradition to which they have lost the key ? Shall we suppose that ants, and bees, and beavers, and numbers of other ingenious animals, bad originally a power of initiative to some small extent like that of men of science, but that the initiative once turned to account in the organisation of habits useful to the tribe, the power of initiative died out, and only the instinct of tradition and imitation remained ? If this be so, you must assume for animal life a law of degeneracy which the scientific school are never tired of telling you, is completely false in relation to human life. In human affairs, at least, there is nothing like this to be seen. As far as we know, though centuries of inferior inventive power, and of what we call therefore stationary life, have intervened between each great start made by an inventive race, and a second start of the same kind, yet there is no trace in human history of a primmval condition of life so much more fertile in invention than that of later days, that an organisation, relatively to human powers, as elaborate as that of the architecture of ants and bees, could be as- cribed to it, while later generations of the same beings had totally lost the power of adapting themselves to even the smallest changes of condition. We think it is hardly possible that if there had been originally a great power of initiative, a great power of modifying and changing the hereditary conditions of life, that power could so entirely disappear that it would become impossible in future ages to conceive anew the most insignificant adaptation of means to ends. We believe that where the hereditary prin- ciple hands down a very elaborate system of grooves of art and habit, but where there appears to be hardly the least power of varying these grooves, even for the purpose of slight im- provements, it is hardly credible that such instincts were the gradual growth of constructive intelligence. Such an in- telligence could hardly have crystallized into so rigid a frame- work of habit, and yet retained so little of the pliancy and elas- ticity of intelligent purpose. Common as it is to find human beings stick, as Professor Huxley says, in the old groove, instead of varying it and trying a new one, it is not common to find them leaving that groove itself unimproved and unvaried. They do at least conceive changes of detail in the plane of the old tradition, though they have not the originality to invent a new method. But in the case of animals which reach a certain very high stage of organisation, and yet seem quite unable to vary their habits even so as to exercise a far less degree of intelligence than must have been needful for the organisation of these habits, the natural inference seems to be that the organisation of these habits was not due to their own intelligence at all, but rather to the intelligence of the Power external to themselves, which set them going in a groove of elaborate habit, without the ability to depart intelli- gently from it. The point illustrates a curious conflict in the scientific tendencies of the day, which ought to be more fully dis- cussed than it is. On the one hand, all our best science is proving with more and more adequacy that human life has intellectually been a progress, not a degeneration. Consequently, in reasoning about the most curious instincts of animals, there has been no small tendency to assume that the same principle is true,—that the highest exercise of what seems like intelligence must have grown out of lesser exercises of the same kind. But clearly, if this be so, we ought to find the same thing true of these creatures in their later history, which is true of men in all historical states of society, that you may assume the presence of at least something like the same capacity for self-modification which the origin of the transmitted habits shows. Could a creature which has inherited any share at all of the old organising power of the ant, have been unequal to the tests of ingenuity Sir John Lubbock set? If not, in- stinct must have some other origin than constructive intelli- gence. But if, on the other hand, you are to maintain that ants capable of originating intelligently all that ants now do, might have transmitted to their descendants no power at all of adapting themselves to new circumstances, then surely you mast assume for animal life a law of deterioration for which no fair parallel at all can be found in any record of the history of man. Such analogies as those of so-called stationary civilisations are clearly unequal to the explanation of a loss of intelligent power so complete as this. And, indeed, since the very complicated instincts which preserve the young of most creatures from destruction,—which is the first con- dition of any hereditary law at all,—are clearly not due to conscious intelligence, we hardly know why so many modern men of science ignore, even for a moment, the existence of highly elaborate in- stincts, which are due to the activity of an intelligence outside the organisations which they control.