Monday, January 13, 2020

John Muir's Scientific Experiment with the Animals of the Forest

Almost every hour of every day, John Muir (see previous essay) was busy walking around and looking at everything in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, taking notes, making sketches. But one day he was resting out in the woods, and the animals started coming up to him. What a perfect time to perform an experiment! He had no hypothesis, but he just wanted to see how the animals would respond to different kinds of music. I describe this in my Darwin YouTube video.

First, he whistled and sang Scottish folk songs. (Muir’s parents were immigrants from Scotland.) The squirrels, chipmunks, and birds seemed to love it. One thrush even hopped out on a dead branch to within a few feet of him. “By this time my performance must have lasted nearly half an hour. I sang or whistled Bonnie Doon, Lass o’ Gowrie, O’er the Water to Charlie, Bonnie Woods o’ Cragie Lee, etc., all of which seemed to be listened to with bright interest, my first Douglas [squirrel] sitting patiently through it all, with his telling eyes fixed upon me...”

Then he sang the Old Hundredth, a famous Christian hymn. It begins, All people that on Earth do dwell... One of its middle-verse lines is the incomprehensible For it is seemly so to do. As soon as Muir began to sing this hymn, “he [the squirrel] turned tail and darted with ludicrous haste up the tree out of sight, his voice and actions leaving a somewhat profane impression, as if he had said, I’ll be hanged if you get me to hear anything so solemn and unpiny. This acted as a signal for the general dispersal of the whole hairy tribe...” Muir tested the hypothesis that animals do not like the Old Hundredth. (Muir never hesitated to make up a word, in this case unpiny.)

A scientist might wonder if this was just a singularity, something that happened once and would not happen again. When Muir sang, just one of the animals might have gotten spooked, for any reason or no reason, and started to run, provoking all the others to flee as well. Muir must have wondered the same thing. When he was later resting outside in the Coast Range, about 150 miles away from his original experiment, the animals paid quiet attention to him as he sang folk songs. “I then began to whistle as nearly as I could remember the same airs that had pleased the mountaineers of the Sierra. They at once stopped eating, stood erect, and listened patiently until I came to “Old Hundredth” when with ludicrous haste every one of them rushed to their holes and bolted in, their feet twinkling in the air as they vanished.” Muir had replicated the test of his hypothesis, and done so in a different forest with different species of animals.

Muir did not intend this as serious scientific investigation, any more than my video investigation of “Do Cats Like Mahler” here and hereBut one thing a scientist should not do is to extend his or her conclusions out too far. Muir did not conclude from his investigation that animals are agnostics. I bet that it was just that Muir was happy when he sang the folk songs, and sanctimonious and grand-voiced when he sang the Old Hundredth.

More than anything else, Muir was probably just playing with the animals because he loved them so much. Scientists, too, play with the natural world because we love it so much.

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