To a man who thinks, it is very interesting to observe that beasts have been led along gradually in the very same direction. All the common beasts, such as cats, dogs, rats, stoats, and so on, have five ordinary toes. On the hind feet there may be only four. But as soon as we come to those that feed on grass and leaves, standing or walking all the while, we find that the feet are shod with hoofs instead of being tipped with claws. First the five toes, though clubbed together, have each a separate hoof, as in the elephant; then the hippopotamus follows with four toes, and the rhinoceros with practically three. These beasts are all clodhoppers, and their feet are hobnailed boots. The more active deer and all cattle keep only two toes for practical purposes, though stumps of two more remain. Finally, the horse gathers all its foot into one boot, and becomes the champion runner of the world.
It is not without significance that this degeneracy of the feet goes with a decline in the brain, whether as cause or effect I will not pretend to know. These hoofed beasts have shallow natures and live shallow lives. They eat what is spread by Nature before their noses, have no homes, and do nothing but feed and fight with each other. The elephant is a notable exception, but then the nose of the elephant, becoming a hand, has redeemed its mind. As for the horse, whatever its admirers may say, it is just a great ass. There is a lesson in all this: "from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath."
There is another dull beast which, from the point of view of the mere systematist, seems as far removed from those that wear hoofs as it could be, but the philosopher, considering the point at which it has arrived, rather than the route by which it got there, will class it with them, for its idea of life is just theirs turned topsy-turvy. The nails of the sloth, instead of being hammered into hoofs on the hard ground, have grown long and curved, like those of a caged bird, and become hooks by which it can hang, without effort, in the midst of the leaves on which it feeds. A minimum of intellect is required for such an existence, and the sloth has lost any superfluous brain that it may have had, as well as two, or even three, of its five toes.
To return to those birds and beasts with standard feet, I find that the first outside purpose for which they find them serviceable is to scratch themselves. This is a universal need. But a foot is handy in many other ways. A hen and chickens, getting into my garden, transferred a whole flower-bed to the walk in half an hour. Yet a bird trying to do anything with its foot is like a man putting on his socks standing, and birds as a race have turned their feet to very little account outside of their original purpose. Such a simple thing as holding down its food with one foot scarcely occurs to an ordinary bird. A hen will pull about a cabbage leaf and shake it in the hope that a small piece may come away, but it never enters her head to put her foot on it. In this and other matters the parrot stands apart, and also the hawk, eagle, and owl; but these are not ordinary birds.
Beasts, having twice as many feet as birds, have learned to apply them to many uses. They dig with them, hold down their food with them, fondle their children with them, paw their friends, and scratch their enemies. One does more of one thing and another of another, and the feet soon show the effects of the occupation, the claws first, then the muscles, and even the bones dwindling by disuse, or waxing stout and strong. Then the joy of doing what it can do well impels the beast further on the same path, and its offspring after it.
And this leads at last to specialism. The Indian black bear is a "handy man," like the British Tar—good all round. Its great soft paw is a very serviceable tool and weapon, armed with claws which will take the face off a man or grub up a root with equal ease. When a black bear has found an ant-hill it takes but a few minutes to tear up the hard, cemented clay and lay the deep galleries bare; then, putting its gutta-percha muzzle to the mouth of each, it draws such a blast of air through them that the industrious labourers are sucked into its gullet in drifts. Afterwards it digs right down to the royal chamber, licks up the bloated queen, and goes its way.
But there is another worker in the same mine which does not go to work this way. The ant-eater found fat termites so satisfying that it left all other things and devoted its life to the exploiting of anthills, and now it has no rival at that business, but it is fit for nothing else. Its awkward digging tools will not allow it to put the sole of its foot to the ground, so it has to double them under and hobble about like a Chinese lady. It has no teeth, and stupidity is the most prominent feature of its character. It has become that poor thing, a man of one idea.
But the bear is like a sign-post at a parting of the ways. If you compare a brown bear with the black Indian, or sloth bear, as it is sometimes called, you may detect a small but pregnant difference. When the former walks, its claws are lifted, so that their points do not touch the ground. Why? I have no information, but I know that it is not content with a vegetarian diet, like its black relative, but hankers after sheep and goats, and I guess that its murderous thoughts flow down its nerves to those keen claws. It reminds me of a man clenching his fist unconsciously when he thinks of the liar who has slandered him.