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Animals Imitate Language and Action

SIR William Temple, in his Memoirs, relates a story concerning an old parrot, belonging to the Prince Maurice, that readily answered to several questions promiscuously put to it. However singular the fact may appear, he assures us it was told him as such by the Prince himself.

Scaliger tells us that he saw a crow, in the French King’s court, that was taught to fly at partridges, or any other fowl, from the falconer's hand.

Cardinal Assanio had a parrot that was taught to repeat the Apostles Creed, verbatim, in Latin: and in the court of Spain there was one that could sing the Gamut perfectly.

In the Roman History an anecdote is recorded, the truth of which we have no reason to doubt. When the sovereignty of the world was depending between Cæsar and Antony, a poor man at Rome bred up two crows, and taught them to pronounce, in their prattling language, a salutation to the Emperor; and, that he might be provided against all events, one of them saluted Cæsar, and the other Antony. When Augustus was returning as the conqueror, this man, with the crow on his hand, met him; and it was an ingenious and agreeable flattery, to which Augustus was not insensible, to be saluted by a crow with the acclamations of victory. He rewarded the novel adulator munificently. The neighbour of the man, however, having in vain essayed to teach the same language to two crows he had destined for this purpose, stung with envy at his happier fate, revealed to Augustus that this man had another crow at his house, which he had intended to have saluted Antony, had Fortune favoured his party. This malicious intelligence intercepted the bounty of Augustus.

Perhaps nothing appears more wonderful than the sight of an unwieldy Elephant dancing. The manner of teaching this grave animal so ludicrous an action is thus cruelly practised—They bring a young Elephant upon an iron floor heated underneath; and play on a musical instrument, while he lifts up his legs, and shifts his feet about, by reason of the torture of the heat. This, frequently repeated, occasions him to dance at the least sound of music.

But let us not suppose, that animals that thus imitate the actions and language of Rational Creatures, possess, therefore, in some degree, rationality and mental intelligence: for when an Elephant, for instance, dances to music, it is not from any principles of reason, but from the concatenation of the two ideas of heat and music, to which custom has habituated him. So a Parrot may answer any question it is accustomed to hear; but this action needs not the aid of reason, since it may be effected by an habitual idea of things. Even the inferior ranks of animals receive their ideas by the senses. Such and such sounds often repeated, and such and such actions immediately preceding or immediately following those sounds, must necessarily form a complex idea both of the sound and action; so that, when either such action or such sound is repeated, an idea of the other must necessarily attend it. Thus Dogs are taught to fetch and carry; and Parrots speak more words than one together. These words, Poor Poll! for instance, being often repeated together, if one be mentioned, and the other left, there must necessarily be an idea of the other found, because custom and habit link them together. As two words are taught, so may three; and, if three, why not many? It is thus, by a complex idea, the Elephant dances; for, when he hears music, the idea of the heated floor occasions him to dance.

The arguments here alledged for the power which some animals shew in imitating our speech and actions, are chiefly drawn from an old Athenian Mercury.