A Discourse of Wit (1686)



For Men considering the wonderful, and most skilful, and inimitable Actions of Apes, Elephants, Swallows, Bees, Dogs, &c. were loath to allow them to be endowed with some king of Reason, as if they should thereby range themselves among the Beasts.

– Abercromby, 1686, p. 10.

Nature. What does this word mean to you? For me, the first thing that comes to mind is the collective phenomena of the physical world; the plants, animals, insects, birds, mountains, sea, soil and so on. For most of us what does not generally come to mind are humans or the things that we create. Why is that? Are we truly not of nature? Are we something else? Is it just a cultural or linguistic thing?

We have been brought up to think in this way – conditioned if you will. Nature is commonly used as a shorthand to describe the non-human world. This, at least, is one description that the Oxford English Dictionary gives for Nature, but it is not the only one, nor the most prominent.

Nature means all kinds of things, things that most of us don’t really think about.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it can relate to the power or strength of a thing or person, sexual impulses and bodily functions, feelings, and senses. As the word cloud below suggests, nature means many things, to many people, but it seems that in all cases it relates to things that humans feel are somewhat out of their control.

Figure 1: Word cloud created from descriptions of ‘Nature’ (n) in the Oxford English Dictionary
Figure 1: Word cloud created from descriptions of ‘Nature’ (n) in the Oxford English Dictionary

It is the nature of things, we say when something happens that we can’t stop or easily change. Plants, animals and other aspects of the Earth are called Nature as they, too, are not easily controlled by us, although we do try.

Where nature does apply to humans it’s in the form of something that we call ‘human nature’. We tend to use this term most often as an excuse; a reason perhaps for excusing our own fallibility or to explain wayward or taboo patterns of behaviour. It is something negative. Is this a misunderstanding? Are we wrong to think of ourselves as something different than nature? As Satish Kumar, Editor Emeritus of the Resurgence & Ecologist Magazine argues, “Humans are as much part of nature as the mountains, the animals, the birds, and the butterflies”.

All of this suggests that Nature is a challenge to what we believe ourselves to be, rather, perhaps, than what we are. It suggests a separation of uncontrollable elements from our belief in ourselves as intelligent, unique, and civilised beings. We aspire to escape our natures and the uncontrollable physical world, by considering what we create and therefore control as not nature, but human.

None of this is new. In 1682, a Scottish physician and philosopher David Abercromby (d. 1701?) tried to argue that animals had reason and wit. In doing so, he went against established theories about the uniqueness of humans, and against beliefs that the animal realm was thoughtless, wild, and uncivilised. As one small part of that argument, Abercromby argued in his A Discourse of Wit, that Apes, Elephants, Swallows, Bees, and Dogs could all be demonstrated to show both reason and wit. He claimed that humans had been generally ‘loath’ to admit that these animals might have ‘some kind of Reason’ as that might suggest that, after all, we are little different than beasts. Indeed, Abercromby believed that humans were only a little different. He described animals as rational creatures, but did admit that they were ‘of a lower Rank, and less perfect than Men’ (Abercromby, 1682, 10). 

This was not the only reference that Abercromby made to Honey bees as displaying some form of wit and reason that demonstrated a limited uniqueness of humanity. A few pages later he described the honeycomb as a ‘Pleasure and Admiration, a very accurate, and regular piece of Fortification’ (Abercromby, 1682, 12). In other words, the regularity of shape, the effectiveness, and efficiency of its design, was proof enough that honey bees could be just as ingenious as humans.

Whilst I love this depiction of honeycomb as a kind of fortification, the wording is also telling and interesting. It accidentally reveals in Abercromby a very human appraisal of honeybees. Honeycomb is so many different things to the bees; it provides structure, nurseries for their young, storage for food, a means to regulate colony temperature, but also barriers from threats. It is the latter that Abercromby thinks about when he describes the beauty of honeycomb. He describes what he would have seen if he were a beekeeper when peering into a hive – a block perfectly formed that acts as a barrier to human inquisitiveness. At the very least this signalled to Abercromby that honeybees had capabilities that can equal or beat those of a human. He saw similar reflections in spiders’ webs and swallows’ nests. He saw pattern. Design. Intelligence. More to the point, Abercromby saw that what we would term as nature was not all that different from us, after all.

References

Bees      1

Honey   1

Wax      0

Further Reading

Paul Tomassi, ‘Abercromby, David (d.1701?), physician and philosopher’, ODNB (2004) [Retrieved 3 July 2019]. DOI: 10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001.

David Abercromby, A Discourse of Wit (London, 1686) – EEBO-TCP  

David Abercromby (d. 1701?): A physician and philosopher from Scotland, most probably, a member of the Abercromby’s’ of Seaton in the north-east. In his early life he was a staunch believer in the Roman Catholic faith, going as far as to join the Jesuits in France. Abercromby published on syphilis and the pulse, and, later in life, various religious works. At first, he defended his faith from Protestantism, but later he converted himself and began to attack his old faith. He did this, most prominently, in his A new and infallible method to reduce Romanists from popery to protestancy (1682).

His other interest was philosophy. Whilst studying with the Jesuits, Abercromby published A Discourse of Wit (initially in 1685, with the second edition in 1686), in which he sought to show that humanity was not all that different than animals as all shared properties of rationality.