As far as time is concerned, there has been more than enough for these habits to have become innate or converted into reflex actions; for they are common to most or all of the higher quadrupeds, and must therefore have been first acquired at a very remote period. Why the act of clearing the throat is not a reflex action, and has to be learnt by our children, I cannot pretend to say; but we can see why blowing the nose on a handkerchief has to be learnt.

[13] Muller remarks (`Elements of Physiology,' Eng. tr. vol. ii. p. 1311) on starting being always accompanied by the closure of the eyelids.

[14] Dr. Maudsley remarks (`Body and Mind,' p. 10) that "reflex movements which commonly effect a useful end may, under the changed circumstances of disease, do great mischief, becoming even the occasion of violent suffering and of a most painful death."

It is scarcely credible that the movements of a headless frog, when it wipes off a drop of acid or other object from its thigh, and which movements are so well coordinated for a special purpose, were not at first performed voluntarily, being afterwards rendered easy through long-continued habit so as at last to be performed unconsciously, or independently of the cerebral hemispheres.

So again it appears probable that starting was originally acquired by the habit of jumping away as quickly as possible from danger, whenever any of our senses gave us warning. Starting, as we have seen, is accompanied by the blinking of the eyelids so as to protect the eyes, the most tender and sensitive organs of the body; and it is, I believe, always accompanied by a sudden and forcible inspiration, which is the natural preparation for any violent effort. But when a man or horse starts, his heart beats wildly against his ribs, and here it may be truly said we have an organ which has never been under the control of the will, partaking in the general reflex movements of the body. To this point, however, I shall return in a future chapter.

The contraction of the iris, when the retina is stimulated by a bright light, is another instance of a movement, which it appears cannot possibly have been at first voluntarily performed and then fixed by habit; for the iris is not known to be under the conscious control of the will in any animal. In such cases some explanation, quite distinct from habit, will have to be discovered. The radiation of nerve-force from strongly-excited nerve-cells to other connected cells, as in the case of a bright light on the retina causing a sneeze, may perhaps aid us in understanding how some reflex actions originated. A radiation of nerve-force of this kind, if it caused a movement tending to lessen the primary irritation, as in the case of the contraction of the iris preventing too much light from falling on the retina, might afterwards have been taken advantage of and modified for this special purpose.

It further deserves notice that reflex actions are in all probability liable to slight variations, as are all corporeal structures and instincts; and any variations which were beneficial and of sufficient importance, would tend to be preserved and inherited. Thus reflex actions, when once gained for one purpose, might afterwards be modified independently of the will or habit, so as to serve for some distinct purpose. Such cases would be parallel with those which, as we have every reason to believe, have occurred with many instincts; for although some instincts have been developed simply through long-continued and inherited habit, other highly complex ones have been developed through the preservation of variations of pre-existing instincts-- that is, through natural selection.

I have discussed at some little length, though as I am well aware, in a very imperfect manner, the acquirement of reflex actions, because they are often brought into play in connection with movements expressive of our emotions; and it was necessary to show that at least some of them might have been Erst acquired through the will in order to satisfy a desire, or to relieve a disagreeable sensation.

The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals Page 20

19th Century English Literature

Charles Darwin

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Charles Darwin

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