Item of the Day: Philosophy of Natural History (1790)

Full Title: The Philosophy of Natural History. By Willieam Smellie, Member of the Antiquarian and Royal Societies of Edinburgh. Edinburgh: Printed for the Heirs of Charles Elliot; and C. Elliot and T. Kay, T. Cadell, and G. G. J. & J. Robinson, London, MDCCXC.

CHAPTER XVII.

Of the Docility of Animals.

OF all animals capable of culture, man is the most ductile. By instruction, imitation, and habit, his mind may be moulded into any form. It may be exalted by science and art to a degree of knowledge, if which the vulgar and uninformed have not the most distant conception. The reverse is melancholy. When the human mind is left to its own operations, and deprived of almost every opportunity of social information, it sinks so low, that it is nearly rivaled by the most sagacious brutes. The natural superiority of man over the other animals, as formerly remarked is a necessary result of the great number of instincts with which is mind is endowed. These instincts are gradually unfolded, and produce, after a mature age, reason, abstraction, invention, science. To confirm this truth, it would be fruitless to have recourse to metaphysical arguments, which generally mislead and bewilder human reason. A diligent attention to the actual operations of Nature is sufficient to convince any mind that is not warped and deceived by popular prejudice, the fetters of authorities, as they are called, whether ancient or modern, or by the vanity of supporting preconceived opinions and favourite theories. Let any man reflect on the progress of children from birth to manhood. At first, their instincts are limited to obscure sensations, and to the performance of a few corporeal actions, to which they are prompted, or rather compelled, by certain stimulating impulses unnecessary to be mentioned. In a few months, their sensations are perceived to be more distinct, their bodily actions are better directed, new instincts are unfolded, and they assume a greater appearance of rationality and of mental capacity. When still farther advanced, and after they have acquired some use of language, ans some knowlege of natural objects, they beginto reason; but their reasonings are feeble, and often prposterous. In this manner they uniformly proceed in improvement till they are actuated by the last instinct, at or near the age of puberty. After this period, they reason with some degree of perpicuity and justness. But, though their whole instincts are now unfolded and in action, every power of their minds requires, previous to its utmost exertions, to be agitated and polished by an examination of a thousand natural and artificial objects, by the experience and observations of those with whom they associate, by public or private instruction, by studying the writings of their predecessors and contemporaries, and by their own reflections, till they arrive at the age of thirty-five. Previous to that period, much learning may have been acquired, much genius may have been exerted; but,  before that time of life, judgment, abstraction, and the reasoning faculty, are not fully matured. This progress is the genuine operation of Nature, and the gradual source of human sagacity and mental powers. The same progress is to be observed in the powers of the body. It arrives, indeed, sooner at perfection than the mind. But, if the progress of the mind greatly preceded that of the body, what a miserable and aukward [sic] figure would human beings, at an early period of their existence, exhibit? Active and vigourous minds, stimulated to command what the organs of their bodies were unable to obey, would produce peevishness, anger, regret, and every distressing passion.

The bodies of men, though not so ductile as their minds, are capable, when properly managed by early culture, of wonderful exertions. Men, accustomed to live in polished societies, have little or no idea of the activity, the courage, the patience and the persevering industry of savages, when simply occupied in hunting wild animals for food for themselves and their families. The hunger, the fatique, the hardships, which they not only endure, but despise with fortitude, would amaze and terrify the imagination of any civilized Euopean. . . .

 

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Filed under 1790's, Natural Science, Philosophy, Posted by Caroline Fuchs, Reason

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