But what ages of concentration on the thought and practice of assassination must have been required to perfect that most awful weapon in Nature, the paw of a tiger, or, indeed, of any cat, for they are all of one pattern. The sharpened flint of the savage has become the scimitar of Saladin, keeping the keenness of its edge in a velvet sheath and flashing out only on the field of battle. Compare that paw with the foot of a dog, and you will, perhaps, see with me that the servility and pliancy of the slave of man has usurped a place in his esteem which is not its due. The cat is much the nobler animal. Dogs, with wolves, jackals, and all of their kin, love to fall upon their victim in overwhelming force, like a rascally mob, and bite, tear, and worry until the life has gone out of it; the tiger, rushing single-handed, with a fearful challenge, on the gigantic buffalo, grasps its nose with one paw and its shoulder with the other, and has broken its massive neck in a manner so dexterous and instantaneous that scarcely two sportsmen can agree about how the thing is done.
I have said that the foot first appeared when the backboned creatures came out of the waters to live upon the dry land. But all mundane things (not excepting politics) tend to move in circles, ending where they began; and so the foot, if we follow it far enough, will take us back into water. See how the rat—I mean our common, omnivorous, scavenging, thieving, poaching brown rat—when it lives near a pond or stream, learns to swim and dive as naturally as a duck. Next comes the vole, or water-rat, which will not live away from water. Then there are water shrews, the beaver, otter, duck-billed platypus, and a host of others, not related, just as, among birds, there are water ousels, moorhens, ducks, divers, etc., which have permanently made the water their home and seek their living in it. All these have attained to web-footedness in a greater or less degree.
That this has occurred among reptiles, beasts, and birds alike shows what an easy, or natural, or obvious (put it as you will) modification it is. And it has a consequence not to be escaped. Just as a man who rides a great deal and never walks acquires a certain indirectness of the legs, and you never mistake a jockey for a drill-sergeant, so the web-footed beasts are not among the things that are "comely in going."
Following this road you arrive at the seal and sea-lion. Of all the feet that I have looked at I know only one more utterly ridiculous than the twisted flipper on which the sea-lion props his great bulk in front, and that is the forked fly-flap which extends from the hinder parts of the same. How can it be worth any beast's while to carry such an absurd apparatus with it just for the sake of getting out into the air sometimes and pushing itself about on the ice and being eaten by Polar bears? The porpoise has discarded one pair, turned the other into decent fins, and recovered a grace and power of motion in water which are not equalled by the greyhound on land. Why have the seals hung back? I believe I know the secret. It is the baby! No one knows where the porpoise and the whale cradle their newborn infants—it is so difficult to pry into the domestic ways of these sea-people—but evidently the seals cannot manage it, so they are forced to return to the land when the cares of maternity are on them.
I have called the feet of these sea beasts ridiculous things, and so they are as we see them; but strip off the skin, and lo! there appears a plain foot, with its five digits, each of several joints, tipped with claws—nowise essentially different, in short, from that with which the toad, or frog, first set out in a past too distant for our infirm imagination. Admiration itself is paralysed by a contrivance so simple, so transmutable, and so sufficient for every need that time and change could bring.
There remains yet one transformation which seems simple compared with some that I have noticed, but is more full of fate than they all; for by it the foot becomes a hand. This comes about by easy stages. The reason why one of a bird's four toes is turned back is quite plain: trees are the proper home of birds, and they require feet that will grasp branches. So those beasts also that have taken to living in trees have got one toe detached more or less from the rest and arranged so that it can co-operate with them to catch hold of a thing. Then other changes quickly follow. For, in judging whether you have got hold of a thing and how much force you must put forth to keep hold of it, you are guided entirely by the pressure on the finger-points, and to gauge this pressure nicely the nerves must be refined and educated. In fact, the exercise itself, with the intent direction of the mind to the finger-points, brings about the refinement and education in accordance with Sandow's principle of muscle culture.
For an example of the result do not look at the gross paw of any so-called anthropoid ape, gorilla, orang-outang, or chimpanzee, but study the gentle lemur. At the point of each digit is a broad elastic pad, plentifully supplied with delicate nerves, and the vital energy which has been directed into them appears to have been withdrawn from the growth of the claws, which have shrunk into fine nails just shielding the fleshy tips. In short, the lemur has a hand on each of its four limbs, and no feet at all. And as it goes about its cage—I am at the Zoo in spirit—with a silent wonder shining out of its great eyes, it examines things by feeling them with its hands.
How plainly a new avenue from the outer world into its mind has been opened by those fingers! But how about scratching? What would be the gain of having higher susceptibilities and keener perceptions if they only aggravated the triumph of the insulting flea? Nay, this disaster has been averted by reserving a good sharp claw on the forefinger (not the thumb) of each hind hand.
The old naturalists called the apes and lemurs Quadrumana, the "four-handed," and separated the Bimana, with one species—namely, Homo sapiens. Now we have anatomy cited to belittle the difference between a hand and a foot, and geology importuned to show us the missing link, pending which an order has been instituted roomy enough to hold monkeys, gorillas, and men. It is a strange perversity. How much more fitting it were to bow in reverent ignorance before the perfect hand, taken up from the ground, no more to dull its percipient surfaces on earth and stones and bark, but to minister to its lord's expanding mind and obey his creative will, while his frame stands upright and firm upon a single pair of true feet, with their toes all in one rank.