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

Discussion of Dr. J. M'Cann's 'On the Origin of Instinct' (S258aa: 1876)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: As Chair of Section D, Biology, of the annual British Association for the Advancement of Science meetings in 1876 Wallace presided over the presentation of this paper. A third-person description of the paper and some comments on it (including some by Wallace) appeared in the 14 September 1876 issue of The Dundee Courier & Argus. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S258AA.htm

     The Rev. Dr. J. M'Cann read a paper "On the origin of instinct." He began his paper by stating that we would not take up the time of the section by defining instinct, but would follow the example of Mr Darwin, and use instinct in its common acceptation. The Darwinian theory maintained it was a result of accumulated experience from an ancestor who accidentally did something economically; and that this economical habit was gradually developed in the descendants until it assumed what is known in the present day as perfect instinct. He however wished to know what accumulated instinct the first bird would have that hatched its eggs, and also in the case of bees. Those bees that had descendants did not construct the cells, and, therefore, could not have any instinct to transmit; while the worker bees, who made the cells, had no descendants to whom to leave their legacy. The manufacture of a fresh queen bee was an illustration in point, as this must have been at some period for the first time, and therefore there could be no transmuted instinct in the matter. He concluded by stating his own conviction that instinct was a primary mental power given by the Creator for the purpose for which the animal now used it.

     Dr. Mitchell mentioned that he had tested bees as to colour, and had found that they had an appreciation of colour. The more he studied bees the more difficult he felt it to define what instinct was and what it was not.

     Mr Trevelyan (Tyneholm) said that after years of study he was satisfied that animals reason, more especially well-used animals such as horses, dogs, and cats. Animals which were not well used, like stupid children at school, who were much beaten, did not show the brightness of others. It followed that vivisectors dissect reasoning beings--(laughter)--and he believed that some of them would not object to vivisect their own species if it were not for the penalty of doing so. (Laughter.)

     The President remarked that the paper should have been in the Zoology Department rather than in this, and went on to observe that according to an American naturalist young birds do not make their nests so well as those of more experience. The writer of the paper had asked how the first bird knew to sit on its egg; but in reply to that it should be borne in mind that all birds did not sit on their eggs. There was a remarkable bird in the East, for instance, that treated its eggs as reptiles did theirs by burying them in the sand. (Laughter.)

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