New York World

Date: Aug. 20, 1923

Show Summary

Inventions and discoveries of practical value to the race were few and far between until the dawn of the nineteenth century. Then, it seemed, the floodgates opened and in rapid succession we acquired the cast-iron plow, the cotton gin, the high-pressure steam engine, the screw propeller, the electromagnet, the telegraph, vulcanized rubber, the sewing machine, the electric locomotive, the airbrake, celluloid, the quadruplex telegraph, the telephone, the talking machine, the typewriter, the incandescent lamp, the trolley car, the automatic knot-tying harvester machine, electric furnace reduction, the transparent photograph film, electric welding, calcium carbide, carborundum, electrolytic alkali production, the motion-picture machine, disk plows, high-speed steel, the airplane, wireless telegraphy—to say nothing of monstrous devices for havoc and destruction in war.1

During this period of a hundred years, it is certain that more inventions were registered in the patent offices than had appeared before in the history of the world, and it is incredible that in so short a time the inventive ability of the white race should have improved in proportion to the variety and complexity of these inventions. It means only that a greater number of men were working on these problems in a specialized way, with superior techniques, on the basis of a greater body of accumulated data.

It cannot be said that anthropologists have always shown an appreciation of how the principle of abstraction works, in their attempts to explain origins, particularly the origins of savage invention. Lippert, the distinguished culture historian, is responsible for the theory that man took the idea of a mill for grinding, with its upper and nether millstones, from the upper and lower molars in his own mouth. Pitt-Rivers says that the idea of a large boat might have been suggested in time of floods, when houses floated down the rivers before the eyes of men. Mason claims that the hawks taught men to catch fish, the spiders and caterpillars to spin, the hornet to make paper, and the crayfish to work in clay. It is frequently stated that the poisoned arrow was imitated from the tooth of the snake, etc.

These assumptions ignore the power of abstraction, which is able to detect resemblances among a variety of details. The idea of crushing, pounding, and rubbing is much too general to warrant us in saying that the idea of the mill is derived from the human mouth. When man has once a floating log, bark boat, or raft, he can enlarge it without assistance from floating houses. Man would have caught fish and spun and made pottery if there had been no hawks or spiders or crayfish. The snake is the most conspicuous user of poison in nature and no doubt was one source of imitation. But there are various poisons in nature. The curare with which the Guiana Indian tips his tiny arrow is a vegetable product. The Bushmen use animal, vegetable, and mineral poisons, and a mixture of all of them, and the Hottentots manufacture poisons from the entrails of certain insects and from putrifying flesh. In short, assuming poison in nature and the arrow in the hands of man, we can assume the development of a poisoned arrow point even if there had been no such thing as an envenomed serpent’s tooth. There have also been serious attempts to determine what was the first weapon used by man. Was it a round stone, a sharp-pointed stone, a sharp-edged stone, or a stick? But all we can really assume is prehensility and the general idea. The first weapon used was the object at hand when the idea occurred to man. Or, having any one of these objects in his hand, it used itself, so to speak, and the action was afterward imitated.

Viewed also from the standpoint of the premises from which the reasoning follows, the civilized anthropologist has certainly not always shown more than savage intelligence. Lippert has argued from the premise: "No race or group has ever risen to a high level of culture without the milk of domestic animals. Infant mortality is too high in the absence of milk, and the presence or absence of milk has sealed the fate of races and nationalities." But passing over the fact that the Chinese and Hindus have always rejected and abhorred milk, it is evident that no race has ever attained a considerable level of culture in the absence of iron and other metals. And it would be possible to name a number of things which races of high culture possess and races of low culture do not possess. McGee has argued from the premise that plants and animals were first domesticated in the desert rather than in humid areas, because in unwatered regions plants, animals, and men were more in need of one another and showed a greater tolerance and helpfulness. But the presence of plant life and the idea of renewing it are enough without a desert environment. In the Malay Peninsula custom requires the natives not to eat durian fruit under the tree from which it is gathered, but to move to a vacant spot. In this manner more durian trees will grow from the falling seeds, and this is one of the origins of the domestication of plants. Animals follow the camp for food, they are caught alive in traps, the buffalo calf follows home the hunter who has killed its mother, Malay women nurse orphaned wild pigs at the breast, and all this leads to domestication regardless of desert regions.

Another field of abstract or "as if" behavior is the use of symbols in language and numeral systems. It is probable that in the beginning the gesture (which is a crude pictorial representation) and vocal sounds were developed simultaneously, but the use of noises to designate objects has the advantage of relieving the hands of this responsibility and provides a vocabulary capable of an indefinite extension. Man is, among other things, a sound-systematizing animal.

1Steinmetz, C.P.n/an/an/an/a, , Aug. 20, 1923.

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Chicago: New York World in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed September 22, 2023,

MLA: . New York World, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 22 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: , New York World. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 22 September 2023, from