Read CHAPTER VI - PARENTAL AFFECTION of The Dawn of Reason / Mental Traits in the Lower Animals, free online book, by James Weir, on

It has been claimed that one of the main objections to the doctrine of kinship, which, undoubtedly, exists between all animals, is the wide difference that is to be noted between the solicitude that animals evince for their young, and the tender love of the human mother and father for their children. This difference is more apparent than real; for the ethical love, the refined affection of civilized human parents for their offspring, is but a psychical culmination of the material and matter-of-fact solicitude of the lower animals for the preservation of their kind.

There is a vast difference between the psychical habitudes of a civilized mother and those of an Aleutian squaw or a Niam-niam “pot-boiler”: the love of a civilized mother for her child extends throughout its life and even beyond the grave, while the solicitude of her savage sisters (I use the word in its maternal sense) for their offspring ceases as soon as the infant toddler is “tall enough to look into the pot.” The latter emotion is closely akin to the maternal solicitude of the higher and lower animals, while the former in its refined ethical excellence shows that it is the result of unnumbered thousands of years of evolutionary growth and development.

The love of kind-preservation is inherent in all animals; it ranks next in psychical strength to self-preservation, and, in some instances, even surpasses this so-called “first law of nature.” For it very frequently happens that the mother, both brute and human (and I use the word brute as the antithesis of the word human, and mean it to embrace all creatures other than man), will lay down her life in defence of her young, seemingly, utterly forgetting this “first law” in her aim to save her offspring from destruction. Thus the spider whose egg-bag I had taken away ran here and there and everywhere in search of it, seemingly totally oblivious of my presence. When I extended it to her, clasped between the blades of a small forceps, she seized it with her mandibles and vainly tried to take it away. When she discovered that this was impossible, she turned with fury on the forceps’ blades and bit and tore at them in a perfect frenzy of despairing agony. I removed two of her front legs, yet, even when thus maimed and suffering, she never for an instant forgot her beloved bag in whose silken meshes so many of her young lay hidden. She continued her efforts to drag the bag away, and was so persistent and showed such high courage, that my calloused sensibilities, hardened by much biological research, were touched, and I gave her her treasure, which she bore away in triumph.

I, on one occasion, severed an earwig at the injunction of the thorax and abdomen; the upper portion (the head and thorax) gathered together its brood of young and safely conducted them into a haven of safety beneath the bark of a tree.

In crustaceans we probably find the first unmistakable evidences of maternal love. The female crayfish, with the under surface of her tail covered with impregnated eggs or newly hatched young, will fight to the death in their behalf. I have, time and again, reared crayfish, and have succeeded in taming them to such a degree that they would take food from my fingers; whenever the females of these crustaceans became mothers, however, they became timid and suspicious and would seek out the darkest spots in the tanks where they were kept. If I attempted to handle them they would nip me with their sharp mandibles at the first opportunity that offered; they would allow no interference with their precious offspring if they could possibly prevent it. This is true of the lobster also. This giant crustacean, with her enormous forceps-like claws, generally wages a winning fight with the would-be ravishers of her young.

I once owned a monkey which was exceedingly fond of shell-fish. On one occasion I gave him a gravid lobster and came very near losing him thereby. Usually he seized the lobster or crayfish by its back and then broke off its forceps; he would then proceed to suck out its juices and extract its meat. On this occasion, however, the lobster was rendered bold and pugnacious by her burden of young, and managed in some way to close her forceps on one of the monkey’s thumbs. He squalled out, and hammered the lobster on the bars of his cage in a vain endeavor to rid himself of his painful encumbrance. I finally loosened her grasp, but not until the flesh on the thumb had been cut to the bone. The wounded hand became inflamed, erysipelas set in, and the poor animal became very sick indeed. He eventually recovered, and ever afterward was exceedingly careful how he handled shell-fish. He approached them with caution, keeping a watchful eye on the dangerous forceps, until, by a quick and sudden dart of his hand, he could seize and tear them off.

It is a mistaken, though quite generally accepted, conclusion that wasps never behold their young, hence can readily be instanced, along with the butterfly and some other insects, as being creatures that evince solicitude for offspring which they never behold. I am quite confident that in the tropics certain of the butterflies live to see their young, for, on one occasion, Dr. Filipe Miranda told me that he was absolutely certain that many of the Papilioninae and Euplocinae of the Amazon valley lived at least a year and a half. I have kept alive in my room specimens of Heliconidae for six and eight months, while mud-dauber wasps have repeatedly wintered in my room, and have witnessed the outcomings of spring broods. Thus, it not infrequently happens that these insect mothers are gratified by a sight of their offspring, though sometimes they evince painstaking care and solicitude toward creatures which they will never see.

The pond catfish, so common to the ponds and creeks of the middle and southern states, evinces maternal solicitude in a very marked degree. I have frequently seen a school of newly hatched catfish under the guardianship of an anxious and solicitous mother. She would swim around and about her frisky and unruly herd, carefully pressing forward all loiterers and bringing back into the school all stragglers. If a stick were thrown among the little fishes, she would dart toward it, and, seizing it in her mouth, would bear it fiercely away, and would not loose her hold of it until she had borne it some distance from her brood of young ones. Bass, white perch, and goggle-eye carefully guard their eggs and drive away all intruders; they likewise keep watchful eyes on the young for several days after they have been hatched. During such times these fish can be easily taken, for they will seize anything that comes near their nests.

Baker says of the stickleback, that when the fry made their appearance from the eggs, “Around, across, and in every direction the male fish, as the guardian, continually moved.” There were three other fish in the aquarium, two tench and a gold carp. As soon as these fish saw the fry, they endeavored to devour them, but were driven off by the brave little father, which seized their fins and struck with all his might at their eyes and heads.

“The well-known habit of the lophobranchiate fish, of incubating their eggs in their pouches, also displays highly elaborated parental feeling. M. Risso says when the young of the pipe-fish are hatched out, the parents show them marked attachment, and that the pouch then serves them as a place of shelter or retreat from danger."

An experimenter, whose name escapes me, on one occasion caught a number of recently hatched catfish and placed them in a glass jar, close to the water’s edge. The mother fish soon discovered the presence of her young ones and swam to and fro in front of the jar, evidently much harassed and worried. She eventually came out on dry land and attempted to get into the jar where her young were imprisoned. Truly, a wonderful example or instance of mother love when self was entirely forgotten in solicitude for the offspring!

The Surinam toad hatches her eggs and then carries her young about with her on her back until they are old enough to shift for themselves; the “horned toad” of the southwestern states and Mexico acts in a similar manner toward its young.

I had been informed that snakes evinced parental love for their offspring, but never until a recent spring had I been able to verify this information and give it my unqualified endorsement. In March (1896), on one of the bright warm days of that phenomenal month, one of my dogs attracted my attention by his manoeuvres on my lawn. I noticed him walking “stiff legged” about a circumscribed spot, now and then darting his muzzle towards the ground. On going to him I discovered that he had found a lot of snakes, which, influenced by the summer-like weather, had abandoned their den and had crawled out and were enjoying a sun-bath. These snakes were knotted together in a ball or roll, but I quickly discovered that they were all yearlings save one the mother. I resolved then and there to test the maternal affection of the mother snake for her young, so I killed two of them and dragged their bodies through the grass to the paved walk which ran within a short distance of the nest. The old snake and the remainder of her brood took shelter in the den; I then retired to a little distance and awaited developments. In a very short time the mother emerged from the nest, and, after casting about for a moment or so, struck the trail of the young ones which had been dragged through the grass, and followed it to the dead bodies lying on the pavement. Here she met her fate at the hands of my iceman (whom I had called to witness the great sagacity of this lowly creature), for he had killed her ere I could prevent him.

On one occasion I saw a copperhead (Ancistrodon contortrix) in the midst of her young, and they seemed to be subservient to her beck and call. Before, however, I could satisfy myself positively that the old snake really held supervision over her brood, the gentleman with whom I happened to be came upon the scene, whereupon the interesting family disappeared beneath the undergrowth of the forest.

The higher animals sometimes show, unmistakably, that the maternal love of offspring has taken a step upwards, and that it has become, in a measure, refined by the addition of an aesthetic, if not ethical, element. For instance, a dog acquaintance of mine, on the advent of her first puppies seemed to be exceedingly proud of them; she not only brought them, one by one, to her mistress for admiration, but she also brought them in to show to her master, and yet again, to myself, who happened to be visiting her owner at the time. She deposited them, one by one, at the feet of the person whose regard she solicited, and, after they had been admired, she returned them to the kennel. Here, in my opinion, was an instance of pride, which has its prototype or exemplar in the pride of the young human mother who thinks that her baby is the handsomest child that was ever born! The dog’s actions cannot be translated or interpreted otherwise. Again (and in this instance, strange to relate, the proud parent was the male), a cat brought his offspring, one by one, from the basement to my room, two stories above, in order to exhibit them! He brought them, one at a time, and, after each had been admired, carried them back to their box in the basement. Loud were his purs and extravagant were the curl of his tail and the arch of his back! No father of the genus Homo could more plainly evince his pride in his baby than did this cat in his kittens. The mother cat came with him on his first trip; she evidently did not quite comprehend, at first, the intentions of her spouse. She soon found out, however, that he meant no harm to her young, so she allowed him to work off his superabundance of pride without let or hindrance.

Birds will defend their young to their uttermost abilities and will often yield up their lives in unequal combats with the ravagers of their nests. Last summer I saw two jays whip in a fair fight a large cat, which had attempted to rob their nest. They seemed to have arranged the order of combat with one another before they attacked the would-be ravisher of their home. The male bird confined his attack to the cat’s head, while the female went at its body with beak and talons. The song-sparrow which remembered the boy who killed the snake which was about to devour its young, and whose story I have told elsewhere, undoubtedly cherished and loved its young. The gratitude which could change the timid, wild nature of a bird in such a manner must have had its origin in a feeling, the depths of which can only be equalled in the psychical habitudes of the most refined of human beings! As we ascend higher in the scale of animal life, we find that new and refining elements are added to this love for the preservation of kind, until finally, in the civilized human being, it has lost its strictly material function and has become wholly and entirely ethical and aesthetic. Yet, far back in the beginning, the maternal love or parental love of the civilized human being was, fundamentally, based on no higher emotion than that engendered by an inherent love for kind-preservation.

Animals very frequently turn to man when they find themselves in difficulties and need assistance. The following instance of maternal love and trust in man in a horse was related to me not long ago, by a farmer in whose probity and truthfulness I have implicit confidence. The horse in question, a mare, had been placed in a field some distance from the house, in which there was no other stock. The animal was totally blind, and, being in foal, it was thought best to place her there in order to avoid accidental injury to the colt when it was born. One night this gentleman was awakened by a pounding on his front porch and a continuous and prolonged neighing. He hastily dressed himself, and, on going out, discovered this blind mare, which had jumped the low fence surrounding the front yard, and which was pawing the porch with her front feet and neighing loudly. She whinnied her delight as soon as she heard him, and at once jumped the fence as soon as she ascertained its locality. She then proceeded toward the field, stopping every now and then to ascertain if he were following, and, when they arrived at the field, the horse jumped the fence (a low, rail structure), and proceeded toward a deep ditch which extended across one corner of the lot. When she came to the ditch or gully she stopped and neighed once or twice. The farmer soon discovered the trouble; the colt had been born that night, and, in staggering about, it had accidentally fallen into the ditch. He got down into the gully and extricated the little creature, much to the delight of its loving mother, which testified her joy and thankfulness by many a grateful and heartfelt whinny.

As I have indicated in the first part of the chapter, parental affection is an acquired emotion which has reached its acme in the civilized human being; yet the germs of this highly developed psychical manifestation are to be observed in creatures low in the scale of animal life. As psychos develops, we observe that this emotion becomes purer and more refined, until, in some of the higher animals, such as the monkey and the dog, it can hardly be distinguished from the parental affection of certain savages, who leave their children to shift for themselves as soon as they are “tall enough to look into the pot”; or, until, as Reclus declares of Apache babies, “they can pluck certain fruit by themselves, and have caught a rat by their own unaided efforts. After this exploit they go and come as they list."

We have seen in previous chapters that the lower animals possess one or all of the five senses, sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch, that they evince conscious determination; that they possess memory and clearly indicate that the emotions, in the majority of them at least, are highly developed; that they likewise give evidence of aestheticism both inherited and acquired; and, finally, that they show, unmistakably, that they have acquired, to a certain extent, that most refined of all acquired feeling parental affection. Now, taking these facts into consideration, it would be reasonable to suppose that creatures so highly endowed psychically would present evidences of ratiocination.

That many of the lower animals do present such evidences is a fact beyond dispute, as I will endeavor to show in the following chapter.