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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

Automatism of Animals (S245: 1874)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A letter to the Editor printed in the 22 October 1874 issue of Nature. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S245.htm

     [[p. 502]] Your correspondent, Mr. Wetterhan, has, I think, misunderstood Prof. Huxley's argument; which is, not that the adjusted motions he refers to never were the result of conscious and voluntary motion, but that they are not so now. His letter has, however, induced me to call attention to what has always seemed to me a real difficulty. As I understand automatic or reflex actions, they are those which have been so constantly repeated and which are so essential to the well-being of the individual, that the various nerves implicated have become so perfectly co-ordinated that the appropriate stimulus sets the whole machinery in motion without any conscious or voluntary action on the part of the individual. Thus we can quite understand how a paralysed limb would be drawn up when the sole of the foot is tickled or the toe pricked. If, however, any such irritation continues to be felt in the normal state, a man would stoop down and remove the irritating substance with his hand, or would place his foot upon the opposite knee, and, stooping down, endeavor to see the object which caused the irritation. But these are conscious, not reflex, acts. They are not repeated often enough, and are not sufficiently identical in form, to become automatic; and we are not told that a wholly paralysed human body does actually go through these various motions, as it certainly would do if not paralysed.

     Now, in the case of the frog I can quite understand the jumping, swallowing, swimming, and even the balancing; for all these are actions so essential to the animal's existence, and so often repeated during life, as to have become automatic. So, also, I can understand the drawing up of the foot to remove an irritation on the side of the body, for with the short-necked frog this too is an essential, and must have been an oft-repeated action. But we are further told that "if you hold down the limb so that the frog cannot use it, he will, by and by, take the limb of the other side and turn it across the body, and use it for the same rubbing process." Now, this seems to me not to be explicable by automatic or reflex action, because it cannot have been an action frequently if ever performed during the life of every frog. It is true that from the co-ordination of the movements of the opposite limbs, we might expect, if the irritation were continued, and the leg on the same side kept for some time in motion, that the other leg would begin to move in the same way. But what causes it to move in a quite different and unusual way, across the body to the opposite side; and this, as related, at once and without first trying its own side? The most usual motion of both legs is directly up and down, each on its own side. What is it that causes one of these legs, when it [[p. 503]] begins to move, not to move in the usual way (that which is automatic during life), but in an unusual manner, which must have been very rarely, if at all, used during life, and when used must have been purely conscious and voluntary? I think I cannot be mistaken in considering this to require some explanation. It may be that the frog is constantly, during life, crossing one foot over to rub the opposite side of the body; but we cannot accept this as an explanation unless it has been observed to be a fact. What puzzles me is, that Prof. Huxley, Dr. Carpenter, and Mr. Darwin, all refer to this case as an example of reflex action, and none of them see any difficulty in it, or seem to think that it requires any more explanation than the remaining quite intelligible cases. As others may, like myself, feel the difficulty I have endeavoured to point out, I hope some of your physiological correspondents will enlighten us if they can.

Alfred R. Wallace

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