Read CHAPTER I of The Meaning of Infancy, free online book, by John Fiske, on


What is the Meaning of Infancy? What is the meaning of the fact that man is born into the world more helpless than any other creature, and needs for a much longer season than any other living thing the tender care and wise counsel of his elders? It is one of the most familiar of facts that man alone among animals, exhibits a capacity for progress. That man is widely different from other animals in the length of his adolescence and the utter helplessness of his babyhood, is an equally familiar fact. Now between these two commonplace facts is there any connection? Is it a mere accident that the creature which is distinguished as progressive should also be distinguished as coming slowly to maturity, or is there a reason lying deep down in the nature of things why this should be so? I think it can be shown, with very few words, that between these two facts there is a connection that is deeply in-wrought with the processes by which life has been evolved upon the earth. It can be shown that man’s progressiveness and the length of his infancy are but two sides of one and the same fact; and in showing this, still more will appear. It will appear that it was the lengthening of infancy which ages ago gradually converted our forefathers from brute creatures into human creatures. It is babyhood that has made man what he is. The simple unaided operation of natural selection could never have resulted in the origination of the human race. Natural selection might have gone on forever improving the breed of the highest animal in many ways, but it could never unaided have started the process of civilization or have given to man those peculiar attributes in virtue of which it has been well said that the difference between him and the highest of apes immeasurably transcends in value the difference between an ape and a blade of grass. In order to bring about that wonderful event, the Creation of Man, natural selection had to call in the aid of other agencies, and the chief of these agencies was the gradual lengthening of babyhood.

Such is the point which I wish to illustrate in few words, and to indicate some of its bearings on the history of human progress. Let us first observe what it was then lengthened the infancy of the highest animal, for then we shall be the better able to understand the character of the prodigious effects which this infancy has wrought. A few familiar facts concerning the method in which men learn how to do things will help us here.

When we begin to learn to play the piano, we have to devote much time and thought to the adjustment and movement of our fingers and to the interpretation of the vast and complicated multitude of symbols which make up the printed page of music that stands before us. For a long time, therefore, our attempts are feeble and stammering and they require the full concentrated power of the mind. Yet a trained pianist will play a new piece of music at sight, and perhaps have so much attention to spare that he can talk with you at the same time. What an enormous number of mental acquisitions have in this case become almost instinctive or automatic! It is just so in learning a foreign language, and it was just the same when in childhood we learned to walk, to talk, and to write. It is just the same, too, in learning to think about abstruse subjects. What at first strains the attention to the utmost, and often wearies us, comes at last to be done without effort and almost unconsciously. Great minds thus travel over vast fields of thought with an ease of which they are themselves unaware. Dr. Nathaniel Bowditch once said that in translating the “Mécanique Celeste,” he had come upon formulas which Laplace introduced with the word “obviously,” where it took nevertheless many days of hard study to supply the intermediate steps through which that transcendent mind had passed with one huge leap of inference. At some time in his youth no doubt Laplace had to think of these things, just as Rubinstein had once to think how his fingers should be placed on the keys of the piano; but what was once the object of conscious attention comes at last to be well-nigh automatic, while the night of the conscious mind goes on ever to higher and vaster themes.

Let us now take a long leap from the highest level of human intelligence to the mental life of a turtle or a codfish. In what does the mental life of such creatures consist? It consists of a few simple acts mostly concerned with the securing of food and the avoiding of danger, and these few simple acts are repeated with unvarying monotony during the whole lifetime of these creatures. Consequently these acts are performed with great ease and are attended with very little consciousness, and moreover the capacity to perform them is transmitted from parent to offspring as completely as the capacity of the stomach to digest food is transmitted. In all animals the new-born stomach needs but the contact with food in order to begin digesting, and the new-born lungs need but the contact with air in order to begin to breathe. The capacity for performing these perpetually repeated visceral actions is transmitted in perfection. All the requisite nervous connections are fully established during the brief embryonic existence of each creature. In the case of lower animals it is almost as much so with the few simple actions which make up the creature’s mental life. The bird known as the fly-catcher no sooner breaks the egg than it will snap at and catch a fly. This action is not so very simple, but because it is something the bird is always doing, being indeed one out of the very few things that this bird ever does, the nervous connections needful for doing it are all established before birth, and nothing but the presence of the fly is required to set the operation going.

With such creatures as the codfish, the turtle, or the fly-catcher, there is accordingly nothing that can properly be called infancy. With them the sphere of education is extremely limited. They get their education before they are born. In other words, heredity does everything for them, education nothing. The career of the individual is predetermined by the careers of his ancestors, and he can do almost nothing to vary it. The life of such creatures is conservatism cut and dried, and there is nothing progressive about them.

In what I just said I left an “almost.” There is a great deal of saving virtue in that little adverb. Doubtless even animals low in the scale possess some faint traces of educability; but they are so very slight that it takes geologic ages to produce an appreciable result. In all the innumerable wanderings, fights, upturnings and cataclysms of the earth’s stupendous career, each creature has been summoned under penalty of death to use what little wit he may have had, and the slightest trace of mental flexibility is of such priceless value in the struggle for existence that natural selection must always have seized upon it, and sedulously hoarded and transmitted it for coming generations to strengthen and increase. With the lapse of geologic time the upper grades of animal intelligence have doubtless been raised higher and higher through natural selection. The warm-blooded mammals and birds of to-day no doubt surpass the cold-blooded dinosaurs of the Jurassic age in mental qualities as they surpass them in physical structure. From the codfish and turtle of ancient family to the modern lion, dog, and monkey, it is a very long step upward. The mental life of a warm-blooded animal is a very different affair from that of reptiles and fishes. A squirrel or a bear does a good many things in the course of his life. He meets various vicissitudes in various ways; he has adventures. The actions he performs are so complex and so numerous that they are severally performed with less frequency than the few actions performed by the codfish. The requisite nervous connections are accordingly not fully established before birth. There is not time enough. The nervous connections needed for the visceral movements and for the few simple instinctive actions get organized, and then the creature is born before he has learned how to do all the things his parents could do. A good many of his nervous connections are not yet formed, they are only formable. Accordingly he is not quite able to take care of himself; he must for a time be watched and nursed. All mammals and most birds have thus a period of babyhood that is not very long, but is on the whole longest with the most intelligent creatures. It is especially long with the higher monkeys, and among the man-like apes it becomes so long as to be strikingly suggestive. An infant orang-outang, captured by Mr. Wallace, was still a helpless baby at the age of three months, unable to feed itself, to walk without aid, or to grasp objects with precision.

But this period of helplessness has to be viewed under another aspect. It is a period of plasticity. The creature’s career is no longer exclusively determined by heredity. There is a period after birth when its character can be slightly modified by what happens to it after birth, that is, by its experience as an individual. It becomes educable. It is no longer necessary for each generation to be exactly like that which has preceded. A door is opened through which the capacity for progress can enter. Horses and dogs, bears and elephants, parrots and monkeys, are all teachable to some extent, and we have even heard of a learned pig. Of learned asses there has been no lack in the world.

But this educability of the higher mammals and birds is after all quite limited. By the beginnings of infancy the door for progressiveness was set ajar, but it was not all at once thrown wide open. Conservatism stilt continued in fashion. One generation of cattle is much like another. It would be easy for foxes to learn to climb frees, and many a fox might have saved his life by doing so; yet quickwitted as he is, this obvious device never seems to have occurred to Reynard. Among slightly teachable mammals, however, there is one group more teachable than the rest. Monkeys, with their greater power of handling things, have also more inquisitiveness and more capacity for sustained attention than any other mammals; and the higher apes are fertile in varied resources. The orang-outang and gorilla are for this reason dreaded by other animals, and roam the undisputed lords of their native forests. They have probably approached the critical point where variations in intelligence, always important, have come to be supremely important, so as to be seized by natural selection in preference to variations in physical constitution. At some remote epoch of the past we cannot say just when or how our half-human forefathers reached and passed this critical point, and forthwith their varied struggles began age after age to result in the preservation of bigger and better brains, while the rest of their bodies changed but little. This particular work of natural selection must have gone on for an enormous length of time, and as its result we see that while man remains anatomically much like an ape, be has acquired a vastly greater brain with all that this implies. Zoologically the distance is small between man and the chimpanzee; psychologically it has become so great as to be immeasurable.

But this steady increase of intelligence, as our forefathers began to become human, carried with it a steady prolongation of infancy. As mental life became more complex and various, as the things to be learned kept ever multiplying, less and less could be done before birth, more and more must be left to be done in the earlier years of life. So instead of being born with a few simple capacities thoroughly organized, man came at last to be born with the germs of many complex capacities which were reserved to be unfolded and enhanced or checked and stifled by the incidents of personal experience in each individual. In this simple yet wonderful way there has been provided for man a long period during which his mind is plastic and malleable, and the length of this period has increased with civilization until it now covers nearly one third of our lives. It is not that our inherited tendencies and aptitudes are not still the main thing. It is only that we have at last acquired great power to modify them by training, so that progress may go on with ever-increasing sureness and rapidity.

In thus pointing out the causes of infancy, we have at the same time witnessed some of its effects. One effect, of stupendous importance, remains to be pointed out. As helpless babyhood came more and more to depend on parental care, the correlated feelings were developed on the part of parents, and the fleeting sexual relations established among mammals in general were gradually exchanged for permanent relations. A cow feels strong maternal affection for her nursing calf, but after the calf is fully grown, though doubtless she distinguishes it from other members of the herd, it is not clear that she entertains for it any parental feeling. But with our half-human forefathers it is not difficult to see how infancy extending over several years must have tended gradually to strengthen the relations of the children to the mother, and eventually to both parents, and thus give rise to the permanent organization of the family. When this step was accomplished we may say that the Creation of Man had been achieved. For through the organization of the family has arisen that of the clan or tribe, which has formed, as it were, the cellular tissue out of which the most complex human society has come to be constructed. And out of that subordination of individual desires to the common interest, which first received a definite direction when the family was formed, there grew the rude beginnings of human morality.

It was thus through the lengthening of his infancy that the highest of animals came to be Man, a creature with definite social relationships and with an element of plasticity in his organization such as has come at last to make his difference from all other animals a difference in kind. Here at last there had come upon the scene a creature endowed with the capacity for progress, and a new chapter was thus opened in the history of creation. But it was not to be expected that man should all at once learn how to take advantage of this capacity. Nature, which is said to make no jumps, surely did not jump here. The whole history of civilization, indeed, is largely the history of man’s awkward and stumbling efforts to avail himself of this flexibility of mental constitution with which God has endowed him. For many a weary age the progress men achieved was feeble and halting. Though it had ceased to be physically necessary for each generation to tread exactly in the steps of its predecessor, yet the circumstances of primitive society long made it very difficult for any deviation to be effected. For the tribes of primitive men were perpetually at war with each other, and their methods of tribal discipline were military methods. To allow much freedom of thought would be perilous, and the whole tribe was supposed to be responsible for the words and deeds of each of its members. The tribes most rigorous in this stern discipline were those which killed out tribes more loosely organized, and thus survived to hand down to coming generations their ideas and their methods. From this state of things an intense social conservatism was begotten, a strong disposition on the part of society to destroy the flexible-minded individual who dares to think and behave differently from his fellows. During the past three thousand years much has been done to weaken this conservatism by putting an end to the state of things which produced it. As great and strong societies have arisen, as the sphere of warfare has diminished while the sphere of industry has enlarged, the need for absolute conformity has ceased to be felt, while the advantages of freedom and variety come to be ever more clearly apparent. At a late stage of civilization, the flexible or plastic society acquires even a military advantage over the society that is more rigid, as in the struggle between French and English civilization for primacy in the world. In our own country, the political birth of which dates from the triumph of England in that mighty struggle, the element of plasticity in man’s nature is more thoroughly heeded, more fully taken account of, than in any other community known to history; and herein lies the chief potency of our promise for the future. We have come to the point where we are beginning to see that we may safely depart from unreasoning routine, and, with perfect freedom of thinking in science and in religion, with new methods of education that shall train our children to think for themselves while they interrogate Nature with a courage and an insight that shall grow ever bolder and keener, we may ere long be able fully to avail ourselves of the fact that we come into the world as little children with undeveloped powers wherein lie latent all the boundless possibilities of a higher and grander Humanity than has yet been seen upon the earth.