This letter highlights the President’s interest in nature - and ability to justify his naturalist opinions - as well as any we’ve seen on the market
A century later TR was proven right, showing the depth of his understanding of wildlife
“I should be rather surprised if it proved true that the higher monkey did not occasionally teach its offspring on some point or other in a way analogous – even if somewhat remotely analogous – to the...
A century later TR was proven right, showing the depth of his understanding of wildlife
“I should be rather surprised if it proved true that the higher monkey did not occasionally teach its offspring on some point or other in a way analogous – even if somewhat remotely analogous – to the way in which a Bushman teaches his or her offspring… It seems to me that no harm will come from its being known that we differ on this point. It is a very interesting and important one, and the fact that there is this difference may serve all the more to attract attention to it.”
No U.S. president is more popularly associated with nature and wildlife than is Theodore Roosevelt – life-long naturalist, prodigious hunter, tireless adventurer, and visionary conservationist. As president, Roosevelt provided federal protection for almost 230 million acres of land, an area equivalent to the entire Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Florida. He initiated the U.S. Forest Service, and sat aside 150 national forests; he signed the Antiquities Act and pursuant to it created the first 18 national monuments, including the Grand Canyon and Muir Woods; an ardent ornithologist, he set up the first 51 federal bird reservations; he named five national parks, and added lands to a sixth – Yosemite; by executive order he established the first four national game preserves, including the National Range; and the instituted first 24 reclamation, or federal irrigation, projects. As a naturalist crusader, TR’s impact went far beyond the simple accomplishments; it resulted in changing the way people thought about the need to preserve America’s natural treasures.
Nature was Theodore Roosevelt’s first passion. The young TR started to write natural history essays, which are the first examples of serious scientific scholarship on his part. At age nine he wrote his first long-form essay, “The Natural History of Insects.” The area of zoology which interested him the most was ornithology. The family’s trip down the Nile in 1872 provided the fourteen year old Roosevelt with a unique opportunity. He approached the trip as an official scientific expedition for the collection of specimens for the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History. With his sister, TR prowled the shores of the Nile, observing and hunting its fowl (in fact, it was his desire to collect specimens that led to his interest in hunting). Often, he ventured further inland from the shore and the result was his essay, “Ornithology of Egypt Between Cairo and Aswan”. Roosevelt begins his essay by describing the unique ecosystem of the Nile and then launches into a detailed look at the nine “true desert birds.” He pays particular attention to coloration and daily behaviors of each species of bird and tries to compare the birds both to what he has read about them and to other birds he knows.
Roosevelt continued his natural history “hobby” throughout his life, writing articles and participating in debates even during his presidency. His two best known expeditions, Africa and South America, were both sponsored scientific expeditions that, in addition to affording TR an opportunity to hunt and obtain specimens for his own collection, gathered valuable natural history data for some of the world’s most prominent museums, including the Smithsonian Institution. So as happens sometimes, the youthful passions of one individual can result in the creation of some truly wonderful things. Roosevelt was well acquainted with the noted naturalists of the time. In 1903, he went with John Muir to Yosemite, camping and posing for pictures on Overhanging Rock at the top of Glacier Point . He had written Muir, “I want to drop politics absolutely for four days and just be out in the open with you.”
John Burroughs contributed to the American understanding of nature through his large literary output, which included works about Henry David Thoreau, and his friend Walt Whitman, whom he admired. In 1903, Burroughs published an article in The Atlantic Monthly that challenged the sentimental and improbable characterizations of animals then being published by those he termed “nature fakers.” A battle lasting half a decade ensued as naturalists sided with Burroughs or with those he criticized. Roosevelt became well acquainted with Burroughs. In April 1903, the two men toured Yellowstone Park together and Burroughs wrote about it in Camping and Tramping with Roosevelt. In planning the two-week trip to the park, Roosevelt had written Burroughs, “For the last 18 months I have taken everything as it came, from coal strikes to trolley cars, and I feel I am entitled to a fortnight to myself.” TR arrived in time to set the Roosevelt Arch’s cornerstone in a grand ceremony. Roosevelt esteemed Burroughs and called him Oom John (the Roosevelts were of Dutch extraction), an affectionate term meaning “uncle” in Dutch. John Burroughs continued to correspondent with TR for years.
In the years 1903-1905, TR and Burroughs engaged in a public debate on a very important question of animal behavior: Do animals consciously teach their young?
During that time, Burroughs was working on his book, Ways of Nature, a collection of essays published in 1905. In that book, Burroughs took the position he had been espousing to Roosevelt, that animals don’t consciously teach their young, and specifically stated that Roosevelt held a different opinion. Burroughs wrote: “I am convinced there is nothing in the notion that animals consciously teach their young. Is it probable that a mere animal reflects upon the future any more than it does upon the past? Is it solicitous about the future well-being of its offspring any more than it is curious about its ancestry? Persons who think they see the lower animals training their young consciously or unconsciously supply something to their observations; they read their own thoughts or preconceptions into what they see. Yet so trained a naturalist and experienced a hunter as President Roosevelt differs with me in this matter.”
Burroughs then quotes a letter that TR wrote to him prior to publication of Ways of Nature, disagreeing with Burroughs and staking out his position that animals do teach their young. TR: “I have not the slightest doubt that there is a large amount of unconscious teaching by wood-folk of their offspring. In unfrequented places I have had the deer watch me with almost as much indifference as they do now in the Yellowstone Park. In frequented places, where they are hunted, young deer and young mountain sheep, on the other hand,—and of course young wolves, bobcats, and the like,—are exceedingly wary and shy when the sight or smell of man is concerned. Undoubtedly this is due to the fact that from their earliest moments of going about they learn to imitate the unflagging watchfulness of their parents, and by the exercise of some associative or imitative quality they grow to imitate and then to share the alarm displayed by the older ones at the smell or presence of man. A young deer that has never seen a man feels no instinctive alarm at his presence, or at least very little; but it will undoubtedly learn to associate extreme alarm with his presence from merely accompanying its mother, if the latter feels such alarm. I should not regard this as schooling by the parent any more than I should so regard the instant flight of twenty antelope who had not seen a hunter, because the twenty-first has seen him and has instantly run. Sometimes a deer or an antelope will deliberately give an alarm-cry at sight of something strange. This cry at once puts every deer or antelope on the alert; but they will be just as much on the alert if they witness nothing but an exhibition of fright and flight on the part of the first deer or antelope, without there being any conscious effort on its part to express alarm. Moreover, I am inclined to think that on certain occasions, rare though they may be, there is a conscious effort at teaching. I have myself known of one setter dog which would thrash its puppy soundly if the latter carelessly or stupidly flushed a bird. Something similar may occur in the wild state among such intelligent beasts as wolves and foxes. Indeed, I have some reason to believe that with both of these animals it does occur—that is, that there is conscious as well as unconscious teaching of the young in such matters as traps.”
Early in the debate, in 1903, Roosevelt wrote Burroughs, defining their differences, and his opinion on the question of animals teaching their young. Typed letter signed, on White House letterhead, Washington, August 1, 1903, to Burroughs, saying he would be surprised if animals did not. “Dear Oom John: I return the papers herewith. You will notice that I have toned down what I have said so as to make it tentative rather than dogmatic. As regards the ‘unconscious teaching’ I think the difference between you and myself is largely one of mere terminology. Perhaps I did not formulate to myself quite what I myself meant; that is, whether I meant the communication of knowledge. On the other hand, is it not possible that emotion and knowledge are not yet clearly differentiated in the brute mind. Don’t you think that we are apt to lump all animals together. as opposed to man, in a very unwarranted way? Profound though the gulf is between the highest monkey and the highest man, I think the gap between the highest monkey and an African Bushman is in all respects far less than that between the same monkey and the herring… I should be surprised to find that the salamander or the herring ever in any shape or way did anything that remotely resembled teaching its offspring. On the other hand, I should be rather surprised if it proved true that the higher monkey did not occasionally teach its offspring on some point or other in a way analogous – even if somewhat remotely analogous – to the way in which a Bushman teaches his or her offspring.
“However, I have not data sufficient to be sure beyond question on the point of conscious teaching, and the examples I have given of unconscious teaching may refer to the communication of emotion rather than of knowledge. It seems to me that no harm will come from its being known that we differ on this point. It is a very interesting and important one, and the fact that there is this difference may serve all the more to attract attention to it. You are an infinitely more competent observer than I am, my dear Sir, but all honest observation by a man capable of seeing things at all as they are, may be of some service; and perhaps it is just as well that we who on most points agree so exactly should be set down as differing somewhat – even though the difference is more apparent than real on this matter. It may be a good thing to show that you are not quarreling with people because they differ in matters of opinion, though you think it necessary to controvert this opinion; that you are quarrel is with the people who deliberately falsify facts or put down sheer inventions and from these fortifications and inventions as premises deduce ridiculous conclusions. The day we passed at your house was one of the pleasantest we have passed this summer.”
A few months later Roosevelt wrote Burroughs again, clarifying his position further but sticking to it. “Where I speak of ‘unconscious teaching’, I really mean simply acting in a manner which arouses imitation…I think there has been preposterous exaggeration among those who speak of the conscious teaching by animals of their young but I fool that the balance of proof certainly is in favor of this being at least occasionally true.”
This fascinating debate was before its time. According to the National Wildlife Federation, only in 2006 was it firmly established that, at least as to some animals, Roosevelt was right. They do teach their young.
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