Consider the Ant

MOST intelligent people nowadays, so I am told, believe in the doctrine of free will. They believe that each human being is free to choose the right or the wrong road. If he prefers to get too little sleep, or ruin his digestion, or become a Holy Roller, or start a war, that is his privilege; it is not foreordained. He even has the right and the power to change his mind, turning back from the way he has chosen and setting his feet in another path.

But all the psychologists — at least as many as I can understand — tell me this is not true of the lower animals. Life is much easier for them. They are offered no choice between good and evil. They do instinctively and inevitably the thing that is right for them to do, without puzzling about it. In other words, there is no such thing as a wicked animal. Even those lions in the Roman arenas were neither good nor bad; they were just lions. It was right for them to eat when they were hungry, and whether they ate a Christian or a heathen was no concern of theirs, so long as he gave satisfaction.

If I am wrong in these few simple assumptions I should like to be corrected. The fact is, I have become so depressed of late by the behavior of human beings that I have turned to the contemplation of the lower animals, and am not getting very much comfort from them; so I should like to be sure that my opinions are based upon correct premises.

When a man forms a bad habit — that is, a habit which is really harmful to himself or others — he does so of his own volition; and if he forms enough of them he is certainly a bad man. But if an animal forms a bad habit we must assume that he did not choose to form it; else he would be a bad animal. Bad habits among us humans are undoubtedly contagious, and if an animal acquires one of ours it looks very much as though he had caught it from us. If it is possible for us to communicate our bad habits to the lower orders, a responsibility exists which I do not like to contemplate. But let us consider the evidence.

First of all, there are those squirrels on my lawn that have developed careless and unsystematic habits. Not only do they bury nuts anywhere, without marking the spot, but they are in such a hurry to come back for more that they do the job badly, and another squirrel comes along, sees the halfburied nut, and steals it. This would seem to be morally bad for both squirrels.

The more free food they get from me, the less they bother about feeding themselves. The oftener I give them soft-shelled nuts, the less interested they are in hard-shelled varieties; and if my family continues to feed them unshelled nut meats they wall soon become wholly indifferent to uncracked hickories and drop them anywhere without even a form of burial. Then sooner or later their teeth will grow too long for effective gnawing, and I shall become responsible for them as incompetent dependents.

A few years ago, when the State of Maine was notable for its long-established prohibition laws, I saw some regrettable behavior among Maine birds. Woodpeckers near a fishing camp had apparently destroyed a white birch tree. While the tree was in a dying state its sugary sap fermented, and woodpeckers and sapsuckers assembled from all that countryside for a riotous time. When that reservoir dried up they killed another birch tree. A surprising number of letters followed my published report of this incident, many of them highly emotional, ranging from scorn to anger. One would think that some of these reproaches might have been directed against the woodpeckers rather than at me.

But not all correspondents were disputatious, and a few offered further data. One told of robins in the South with a craving for berries that had fermented on the bush; another told of cows who became unsteady in the legs from eating apples fermenting on the ground, and somehow passed the word to other cows who shared the orgy. One wrote of woodpeckers in Pennsylvania that destroyed a church; while other woodpeckers were known to hammer resonant tin gutter pipes just outside bedroom windows in the early morning, though obviously there were no bugs or worms in the tin.

A week or so ago, sitting near my window, I was disturbed by a small persistent squawking sound. It was a young bird, but surprisingly well developed, with a voice that had matured even more rapidly than its feathers. It had the general appearance of a young robin or thrush, though almost too muddy in color. From its behavior I should think it might grow up into a grackle. I started for it, meaning to place it on some low branch, when I saw that it was up to something.

There were several small field sparrows feeding on the lawn, and this youngster had picked out one of them and was pursuing it with insistent cries. Back and forth across the grass went this strange little procession of two. Now and then the sparrow would pause in its own feeding, glance over its shoulder, find some bit of food, and thrust it down the young beggar’s throat. The receptive beak was so large and spread so widely that the sparrow’s head almost completely disappeared during the operation. I watched this business for quite a while until finally my sympathies were enlisted, but not on the side of the young bird; so I started out to catch it and give it some food. To my surprise it flew easily up into a tree. Next day I saw the same thing repeated, with several house guests as supporting witnesses. We stood in a semicircle and watched that depraved youngster pursuing another small adult bird and winning the same reward. The feedings first were done with a certain kindly tolerance which soon soured into impatience; finally it was the sparrow that flew away.

I don’t know why evidence of this sort seems to be accumulating especially against birds, unless it is that they have more opportunity to gain a sort of bird’s-eye view of human beings. They tell me now that there are a number of smaller birds that have taken to hitch-hiking. Hummingbirds in particular will thumb a ride on the back or under the wing of a larger bird to some distant flower garden, while other species cross wide bodies of water on the backs of wild ducks.

The conclusion toward which I am being forced must be fairly obvious. It is no mere coincidence that those bootlegging woodpeckers dwelt in the State of Maine, where for so long a time human beings have been finding ways of producing alcoholic content in homely things. Perhaps there is more than coincidence in the fact that squirrels in my own trees are becoming lazy and improvident. I am almost ready to believe that if dumb creatures in one neighborhood are given to miserly hoarding beyond any conceivable need, and in another are gayly prodigal, then there is something to be inferred about their human neighbors. Swearing parrots are obviously a reflection upon their owners. But there are also park deer that have learned to chew tobacco; and game fish have been spoiled by a perverted appetite for garbage, due to the bad habits of lakeside campers. How many dogs may have learned from their masters to bully littler dogs? How many race horses have reflected human turpitude and willfully pulled a race? The behavior of that young bird on my lawn was not due to any teachings up among the leaves and branches; for it is a fact that in our neighborhood at this very moment there are men working who are paid out of the public treasury. I have watched their deliberate motions with some annoyance, and it suddenly occurs to me that young birds, too, have been watching them.

Even a psychologist can have no way of guessing the strength and the effect of sympathetic currents that flow between ourselves and the animal life about us, shaping not only the habits but the very appearance of these humbler fellow creatures. For there is more than a fancied resemblance between an old Highlander and a Scotch terrier, or the expression on the face of an English bulldog and a well-trained British butler. As for a dachshund, look into his sentimental brown eyes and you can almost hear him reciting Heine. Word comes to me that some expert in our national Department of Agriculture has discovered that New England katydids and those in Washington and points south utter their cries with different intonations. I can well believe that the Georgia insect says ‘Kateh deeud.’ Some nature lover told me the other day of a sanguinary war that was going on between two neighboring ant colonies in his back yard. It is all very well to go to the ant and consider his ways; but we must realize that the ant may also be considering us.

We human beings have simply got to buck up! We have grown up in the belief that human society exercises a commendable restraint upon its members. There are many improper acts from which we refrain only because other people are looking at us; and that is as it should be. We have to set an example to our young, and to those of our contemporaries weaker of will than ourselves. Yet you and I do like to slip away from this surveillance now and again. We cannot be expected to carry on all the time as though the eyes of other humans were upon us.

But if I must also be aware that robins are looking at me, and cows and hens and ants and beetles are regarding me thoughtfully, it seems to me my responsibilities become a little heavier than I can bear. Life would be much simpler if I too were a lower animal.