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Vital Dynamics: Instinct And Intelligence

( Originally Published 1913 )

THE study of Animal Life starts, as we have seen, from the localization of the two capital properties—Contractility and Sensibility in two fundamental tissues—the muscular and nervous. How little this fundamental position is understood by the majority of Biologists may be gathered from the fact, that while most of Bichat's successors have believed Contractility to be a property of all the tissues, differing only in degrees of intensity, even the writers of the present day are divided on the question. In the last edition of (Quain's Anatomy, the editors modified their opinion during the progress of the work through the press ; at first inclining to the belief that contractility had been observed where no muscular fibres could be traced, and only giving up that opinion in obedience to more recent and conclusive experiments. That Contractility is the special property of a special tissue is the final result of the most recent investigations. The reader is referred to Longet's Traité de Physiologie, and to Todd and Bowman's Physiological Anatomy, for ample evidence; meanwhile here is one important fact : Muscular tissue is composed of Fibrine, and Fibrine in the blood, immediately after coagulation, manifests contractility.

The Positive nature of this conception will be better appreciated by seeing how even so excellent a physiologist as Dr. Carpenter, while virtually accepting it, nevertheless wanders into the Metaphysical path, and gives a vague expression where precision was so needful. " Various attempts," he says, have been made to show that the contraction of Muscle is an electrical phenomenon ; but no proof has been given that such is the case ; and every probability seems to be in favour of its being one of the manifestations of the Vital Force." What business this mysterious entity, Vital Force, has here, only a Metaphysician could imagine. The positive thinker, using the term Vital Force as the generalized expression of all the properties of organic beings, must conclude, that it is reasoning in a circle to call contractility " one of the manifestations of the Vital Force ;" whereas, by calling it the special property of a special tissue, he does no more than record observed facts ; and should at any future time contractility be resolved into an electrical phenomenon, the discovery will leave the speciality unaltered, since the special manifestation of electricity, known as muscular contraction, will always remain associated with a special tissue known as the muscular tissue.

It may be said, therefore, that in the perfect correspondence of the two ideas of Tissue and Property, a positive basis is given to Biology.

We are as yet but on the threshold of this science. The minute researches of thousands of inquirers are still necessary before some of the most capital problems can be solved; but the whole history of science tells us with what accelerated rapidity discoveries are made when once the right Method is thoroughly followed. Nature answers if we but know how to question. Her treasures are open if we know where to look.

Motion and Sensation are the two capital functions of Animal Life. We have only to consider either of them a moment to be aware of the immensity of work still to be done before these processes are reduced to scientific law. Of Muscular actions, for example, some are notoriously voluntary, some involuntary. This broad distinction is as perceptible as the distinction between a Plant and an Animal. But as, on closer inspection, it is difficult to draw the lines of demarcation between plants and animals, so, also, is it to ascertain precisely what actions are voluntary, and what involuntary. To take a striking example : when you hurt a frog's foot, and the frog leaps away, and leaps as often as you irritate it,-does not this seem clearly a case of voluntary action? It is not, however—at least not always, if ever ; it is no more voluntary than your winking when a hand is passed rapidly before your eyes. You must accept this paradoxical assertion ; for to prove it would require an examination of the nervous system quite beyond present limits.

Not only are the voluntary actions difficult to be demarcated from the involuntary, but there arises a further complication, inasmuch as actions which, in early life, are perfectly beyond control of the will, become afterwards so completely controllable, within certain limits, as to deserve the name of voluntary. The excretory actions, for example, are, in infmcy and certain diseases, wholly involuntary ; yet, by the influence of habitual resolution, they become voluntary actions. On the other hand, Dr. Carpenter luminously explains what, after Hartley, he calls " secondary automatic actions," viz., those actions which were at first performed voluntarily, requiring a distinct effort of the will for each, and become, by repetition, so far independent of the will, that they are performed when the whole attention of the mind is bestowed elsewhere.

Besides those actions which are automatic or involuntary, there is a class of actions I should be disposed to further distinguish as Organic, under which would range the Instinctive. Who that has watched mothers with their children, has not been struck with the remarkable sameness of their deportment, even to their very tricks and caresses? Who has not noticed how all children play alike ? They use the same muscular varieties, throw themselves into the same complicated postures, following the same routine. These, of course, depend on the identity of Organization ; and they form a proper introduction to the study of the more special actions, named Instincts. These instincts are also dependent on organization : they are functions of the organism. But metaphysicians, as usual, insist upon adding to the mystery of Instinct a mysterious entity, to explain it. They range all these organic actions under a general term—Instinct, and then convert that general term into an abstract entity, which fulfils in the zoological world a function analogous to that of Mind in the human world. This implanted mystery—this shadowy semi-spiritual entity—named Instinct, has long been discussed by puzzled Metaphysicians, who, denying to Animals the possession of Mind, solve all difficulties by a jugglery of words. The positive biologist sees in it a mystery indeed, and a mystery inexplicable, but not more so than any other organic phenomenon ; and, true to his principle of only occupying himself with laws, irrespective of essential causes, he treats it as a branch of physiology—a rudimentary reason.

De Blainville gives this definition,—L'instinct est la raison fixée; la raison est l'instinct mobile;—or, as the author of The Vestiges expresses it, they are " the same faculty in the one case definite, and in the other indefinite in its range of action."

After the Instinctive Actions, we pass on to the study of the special Senses, as a preliminary to that of Intelligence ; and here let me introduce Comte's criticism on one point of this investigation. " The only point in Method which can be regarded as scientifically established, is the order according to which the various kinds of sensation ought to be studied; and those notions have been furnished by comparative anatomy rather than by physiology. It consists in classing the senses according to their increasing speciality, beginning with the universal sense, that of contact, and successively considering the four special senses, taste, smell, sight, hearing. This order is determined by the analysis of the animal hierarchy, since those senses must be held to be more special, and more elevated, in proportion as they appear in the ascending scale. It is remarkable that this gradation corresponds exactly with the importance of each sense, if not in respect of intelligence, at any rate in respect of sociability. One must note, moreover, the luminous distinction of Gall between the passive and active states of each special sense. And an analogous consideration leads me to distinguish the senses themselves into active and passive, according as their action is essentially voluntary or involuntary. This distinction seems to me very marked between the senses of sight and hearing; the latter operating without our participation, and even in spite of it; the former requiring, to a certain degree, our participation. It seems to me that the more pro-found though more vague influence exercised over us by music, compared with painting, arises, in a great mea-sure, from this diversity."

From the Senses we pass to Intelligence, or the " positive study of the cerebral functions intellectual and moral." And here I feel that Positive Philosophy demands a modification of Comte's Classification, and instead of considering Psychology as a mere branch of Physiology, we ought to insert between Biology and Sociology another fundamental science, Psychology. I am glad to be able to cite John Mill on this point, as a balance against the authoritative weight of Auguste Comte. After alluding to Comte's objections to Mind as the object of observation, he says :

" But, after all has been said which can be said, it remains incontestable by M. Comte and by all others, that there do exist uniformities of succession among states of mind, and that these can be ascertained by observation and experiment. Moreover, even if it were rendered far more certain than I believe it as yet to be, that every mental state has a nervous state for its immediate antecedent and proximate cause, yet every one must admit that we are wholly ignorant of the characteristics of these nervous states ; we know not, nor can hope to know, in what respect one of them differs from another; and our only mode of studying their successions or coexistences must be by observing the successions and coexistences of the mental states of which they are supposed to be the generators or causes. The successions, therefore, which obtain among mental phenomena, do not admit of being deduced from the physiological laws of our nervous organization; and all real knowledge of them must continue, for a long time at least if not for ever, to be sought in the direct study, by observation and experiment, of the mental successions themselves. Since, therefore, the order of our mental phenomena must be studied in those phenomena, and not inferred from the laws of any phenomena more general, there is a distinct and separate Science of Mind. The relations, indeed, of that science to the Science of Physiology must never be overlooked or undervalued. It must by no means be forgotten that the laws of mind may be derivative laws resulting from laws of animal life, and that their truth, therefore, may ultimately depend upon physical conditions ; and the influence of physiological states or physiological changes in altering or counteracting the mental successions, is one of the most important departments of psychological study."

I think, however, that Comte is better met on his own ground; and if any one will turn to the section on Organic Chemistry, and consider the arguments which force a repudiation of the encroachment of Chemistry into the proper domain of Biology, he will see how irresistibly they apply to this encroachment of Biology into Psychology. The analogy seems complete.

Biology is separated from Chemistry, not because there is any essential distinction between organic and inorganic matter, but because there is so wide a distinction between the phenomena ; in like manner, we must separate Mind from Life, not because there is any essential (noumenal) separation—(the former is but the out-growth of the latter)—but because the phenomena of Thought are special ; they are not the same as the phenomena of Life. Organic matter is a higher degree of complexity of inorganic matter—which special degree causes a speciality in its phenomena. So Thought is but a higher degree of Life, its speciality creating special phenomena. Comte proposes this test whereby the chemist may distinguish whether a problem truly belongs to his domain :—Can the problem be solved by the application of chemical principles alone, without the aid of any consideration of physiological action what-ever? I put the same test to the Biologist, who certainly will not pretend to solve many psychical problems upon physiological principles. If the Organic world is to be separated from the Inorganic, then on the same grounds we must separate the Psychial from the Physiological.

It is proposed, therefore, to keep the Physical Sciences as Comte arranges them ; and to introduce a new fundamental science—Psychology—as the basis of Sociology; that is to say, to begin the Science of Humanity with a preliminary Science of Human Nature.

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