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THE PHILOSOPHY OF BIRDS' NESTS.
Instinct or Reason in the Construction of Birds' Nests. BIRDS, we are told, build their nests by instinct, while man constructs his dwelling by the exercise of reason. Birds never change, but continue to build for ever on the self-same plan ; man alters and improves his houses continually. Reason advances ; instinct is stationary.
This doctrine is so very general that it may almost be said to be universally adopted. Men who agree on nothing else, accept this as a good explanation of the facts. Philosophers and poets, metaphysicians and divines, naturalists and the general public, not only agree in believing this to be probable, but even adopt it as a sort of axiom that is so self-evident as to need no proof, and use it as the very foundation of their speculations on instinct and reason. A belief so general, one would think, must rest on indisputable facts, and be a logical deduction from them. Yet I have come to the conclusion that not only is it very doubtful, but absolutely erroneous; that it not only deviates widely from the truth, but is in almost every particular exactly opposed to it. I believe, in short, that birds do not build their nests by instinct; that man does not con
struct his dwelling by reason ; that birds do change and improve when affected by the same causes that make men do so; and that mankind neither alter nor improve when they exist under conditions similar to those which are almost universal among birds.
Do Men build by Reason or by Imitation? Let us first consider the theory of reason, as alone determining the domestic architecture of the human race. Man, as a reasonable animal, it is said, continually alters and improves his dwelling. This I entirely deny. As a rule, he neither alters nor improves, any more than the birds do. What have the houses of most savage tribes improved from, each as invariable as the nest of a species of bird ? The tents of the Arab are the same now as they were two or three thousand years ago, and the mud villages of Egypt can scarcely have improved since the time of the Pharoahs. The palm-leaf huts and hovels of the various tribes of South America and the Malay Archipelago, what have they improved from since those regions were first inhabited ? The Patagonian's rude shelter of leaves, the hollowed bank of the South African Earthmen, we cannot even conceive to have been ever inferior to what they now are. Even nearer home, the Irish turf cabin and the Highland stone shelty can hardly have advanced much during the last two thousand years. Now, no one imputes this stationary condition of domestic architecture among these savage tribes to instinct, but to simple imitation from one generation to another, and .
the absence of any sufficiently powerful stimulus to change or improvement. No one imagines that if an infant Arab could be transferred to Patagonia or to the Highlands, it would, when it grew up, astonish its foster-parents by constructing a tent of skins. On the other hand, it is quite clear that physical conditions, combined with the degree of civilization arrived at, almost necessitate certain types of structure. The turf, or stones, or snow—the palm-leaves, bamboo, or branches, which are the materials of houses in various countries, are used because nothing else is so readily to be obtained. The Egyptian peasant has none of these, not even wood. What, then, can he use but mud? In tropical forest-countries, the bamboo and the broad palm-leaves are the natural material for houses, and the form and mode of structure will be decided in part by the nature of the country, whether hot or cool, whether swampy or dry, whether rocky or plain, whether frequented by wild beasts, or whether subject to the attacks of enemies. When once a particular mode of building has been adopted, and has become confirmed by habit and by hereditary custom, it will be long retained, even when its utility has been lost through changed conditions, or through migration into a very different region. As a general rule, throughout the whole continent of America, native houses are built directly upon the ground-strength and security being given by thickening the low walls and the roof. In almost the whole of the Malay Islands, on the contrary, the houses are raised on posts, often to a
great height, with an open bamboo floor; and the whole structure is exceedingly slight and thin. Now, what can be the reason of this remarkable difference between countries, many parts of which are strikingly similar in physical conditions, natural productions, and the state of civilization of their inhabitants? We appear to have some clue to it in the supposed origin and migrations of their respective populations. The indigenes of tropical America are believed to have immigrated from the north from a country where the winters are severe, and raised houses with open floors would be hardly habitable. They moved southwards by land along the mountain ranges and uplands, and in an altered climate continued the mode of construction of their forefathers, modified only by the new materials they met with. By minute observations of the Indians of the Amazon Valley, Mr. Bates arrived at the conclusion that they were comparatively recent immigrants from a colder climate. He says :-“No one could live long among the Indians of the Upper Amazon without being struck with their constitutional dislike to the heat. . . Their skin is hot to the touch, and they perspire little... They are restless and discontented in hot, dry weather, but cheerful on cool days, when the rain is pouring down their naked backs.” And, after giving many other details, he concludes, “How different all this is with the Negro, the true child of tropical climes! The impression gradually forced itself on my mind that the Red Indian lives as an immigrant or stranger in these hot regions, and that his constitution was not originally adapted, and has not since become perfectly adapted, to the climate.”
The Malay races, on the other hand, are no doubt very ancient inhabitants of the hottest regions, and are particularly addicted to forming their first settlements at the mouths of rivers or creeks, or in landlocked bays and inlets. They are a pre-eminently maritime or semi-aquatic people, to whom a canoe is a necessary of life, and who will never travel by land if they can do so by water. In accordance with these tastes, they have built their houses on posts in the water, after the manner of the lake-dwellers of ancient Europe; and this mode of construction has become so confirmed, that even those tribes who have spread far into the interior, on dry plains and rocky mountains, continue to build in exactly the same manner, and find safety in the height to which they elevate their dwellings above the ground.
Why does each Bird build a peculiar kind of Nest ?
These general characteristics of the abode of savage man will be found to be exactly paralleled by the nests of birds. Each species uses the materials it can most readily obtain, and builds in situations most congenial to its habits. The wren, for example, frequenting hedgerows and low thickets, builds its nest generally of moss, a material always found where it lives, and among which it probably obtains much of its insect food; but it varies sometimes, using hay or feathers when these