Issue 23 Fruits Fall 2006

The Beavers and the Bees

Irene Cheng

Plate XII in Morgan’s The American Beaver, also used in Rudofsky’s Prodigious Builders. This series of seven dams in a gorge was one of several examples that Morgan recorded of beavers adapting their design to specific circumstances.

Architects have long suffered from animal envy. Vitruvius speculated that humans learned the art of building by watching birds construct their nests—a claim echoed nearly two thousand years later by Bernard Rudofsky, best known today as the curator of the 1964 MoMA exhibition “Architecture without Architects.” Yet the two men differed on one key point: whereas Vitruvius asserted that men soon surpassed their animal teachers in skill, Rudofsky believed contemporary designers could learn something yet from the beavers and the bees. In The Prodigious Builders (1977), the Viennese emigré collected images of bower bird nests, termite hills, and beehives alongside photographs of Dogon cliff dwellings and wind-scoop structures in Pakistan, warning that if modern hominids wanted to preserve their “humaneness,” they “had better be informed about the finer points of animal architecture and engineering.” Specifically, it was the creatures’ instincts that Rudofsky envied. Modern men, he lamented, had lost touch with their intuitions as a result of over-civilization. Hence, “whereas man is unable to shape a tool or build a house without previous experience, most animals have an innate sense of construction.”1

To bolster his argument about the constructive virtuosity of animals, Rudofsky culled illustrations and references from numerous nineteenth-century books on natural history. Following the trail of footnotes in The Prodigious Builders leads to the discovery of a fascinating alternate discourse on animal architecture, one that absorbed philosophers and scientists from the natural theologian William Paley to Charles Darwin and William James. At issue for these thinkers was the question: Why do animals build? Was it instinct or intelligence that propelled spiders, birds, bees, and beavers to construct their wonderful creations? The answer, of course, had everything to do with that other burning question of the nineteenth century: What distinguishes animals from humans? The debates about animal architecture and consciousness were thus also disputes over the nature of the human mind. 

Lewis Henry Morgan and the American Beaver One of the most mysterious images in The Prodigious Builders is one that at first glance looks like an abstract diagram of hourglasses (or half-eaten apple cores) stacked on top of each other. The caption offers only minimal illumination: “A sequence of seven beaver dams at the entrance of a gorge, the largest of which forms a pond covering 10 acres. From The American Beaver and His Works by L. H. Morgan.” How and why would beavers have created something that, like crop circles, seems so clearly designed for an aerial view? And more important, who would write an entire monograph on beaver architecture? Intrigued, I dug up the source.

Lewis Henry Morgan, it turns out, was a consummate nineteenth-century polymath. A lawyer by trade, he served as a member of the New York State legislature, and in his spare time studied Native American kinship systems; his books on the Iroquois and other “ancient societies” earned him a claim to being one of the founders of American anthropology.2 But it was through his role as a shareholder and director of a railroad company that Morgan developed his interest in the genus Castor. In the 1850s, the railroad built a spur into the virgin iron regions south of Lake Superior—an area that turned out to be a rich construction site for beavers. Convinced that earlier naturalists in the mold of Georges Cuvier had focused excessively on anatomy and classification, Morgan sought to cast light on the mental lives of the beavers, or “mutes” as he called them. In 1861, he began studying the creatures, eventually publishing his findings in the book later cribbed by Rudofsky. Morgan was well aware of the potential tension between the beavers’ way of life and the railroad. A map of his study area indicated the locations of iron mines alongside beaver dams, lodges, and meadows—a fragile coexistence on paper that seemed to augur an impending confrontation between animal and machine, nature and industrial modernization.3

The beaver’s works were all the more remarkable considering its low position on the scale of mammals. A member of the humble rodent order, it was not an attractive animal, in Morgan’s estimation: “The smallness of the eyes and ears renders its physiognomy dull and uninteresting.” Yet the beaver was endowed with several anatomical features that facilitated its remarkable building activities, including a pair of sharp front incisor teeth, which Morgan compared to chisels, and a tail that he likened to a trowel for patting down mud. “It is in the beaver’s structural organization that we discover the possibility of his architectural skill,” he wrote. Or as an architecture theorist might put it, form followed anatomy.

The relationship between anatomy and building was not determinate, however. European beavers, Morgan observed, did not engage in dam-building, living instead in burrows dug into river banks. So why would their North American cousins go to such architecturally ambitious lengths? The dams were not absolutely necessary to the beaver’s existence, Morgan speculated, but rather served to “promote his happiness, and to secure his safety.” The objective was to create artificial ponds, the levels of which the animals maintained by regulating the flow of water through the dams. This allowed the beavers to flee from landbound predators into the underwater entrances of their lodges and burrows. Within the fifty-acre area of his study, Morgan counted sixty-three beaver dams ranging from fifty to five hundred feet in length. He compared the organization of dams and resulting ponds to a “net-work,” one subject to constant maintenance and supervision.4

Dismissing earlier romanticized accounts of beavers laboring in colonies, Morgan observed that the animals worked in pairs or single families.5 Generations of Castor acting independently over hundreds and even thousands of years led to the erection of extensive works such as the Great Beaver Dam at Grass Lake, Michigan, which measured a whopping 260 feet in length and created a seventy-acre lake. Beyond its scale, several features of the dam drew Morgan’s attention. First, it was curved at the center, against the direction of the water and at the point of greatest pressure. Second, the dam was flanked by two smaller barriers—one a hundred feet downstream, and the other just up the river. These, Morgan speculated, served to neutralize the water pressure acting on the large levee and to protect it from being overwhelmed by sudden rises in water level. As to whether these measures were part of a conscious engineering system, he refrained from venturing an opinion, adding only that he had found the same pattern repeated near other large dams. Morgan also recorded other examples of dams adapted to specific circumstances: solid-bank structures, a levee built in part out of a fallen tree, and a series of dams in a gorge (the last was the subject of the image Rudofsky borrowed). All of these structures Morgan took as evidence of the beaver’s ability to adjust its designs to varying circumstances rather than blindly following an unchanging model. 

The dams, impressive as they may be, were just the tip of the iceberg as far as the beaver’s oeuvre was concerned. That the natural residence of the animal was a humble burrow made their erection of dome-shaped wooden lodges all the more remarkable. Morgan thought that the idea of the lodge must have evolved over time, “in the progress of their experience, by natural suggestion.”6 The structures typically had two underwater entrances: one designed to admit beavers and the other a loading portal for wood. In the winter, the beavers transported cuttings from an underwater store into the lodge, ate the bark, and then placed the cuttings on the roof. In the late fall, the animals plastered the sides of the lodge with mud and removed decayed parts from within, causing it to grow gradually in size. Most important, like the dams, the forms of the shelters were adapted to a range of environmental circumstances, resulting in island, bank, and lake variants.

Yet the beavers’ highest demonstration of intelligence, in Morgan’s view, was their excavation of canals. By digging channels that collected runoff water in swampy areas, the beavers formed small streams on which to float deciduous hardwood from higher ground down to their lodges. In other instances, the animals dug shortcuts at the bends of streams or across islands. Viewed collectively, the beavers’ dams, lodges, canals, meadows, and slides represented an impressively large-scale artificial reshaping of the land. 

Nevertheless, the question remained: Was the beaver really a designer or merely a builder? How consciously did the mutes plan and undertake their architectural projects? Was it instinct or intelligence that compelled them to build? Morgan took up these problems in the final part of his treatise on beavers, in a chapter titled “Animal Psychology.” 

Morgan, it will be obvious by now, was a proponent of the theory of animal intelligence. He thought that the very concept of “instinct”—what the Scottish common-sense philosopher William Hamilton had defined as an “agent which performs ignorantly and blindly a work of intelligence and knowledge”—was illogical.7 If the act appeared to be a “work of intelligence and knowledge,” then why not simply attribute it accordingly? Metaphysicians had invented the idea of “instinct,” Morgan claimed, in order to assert the existence of an absolute distinction between humans and lower animals. 

In contrast, Morgan asserted that animals possessed a mental principle—one that was essentially the same as that of humans, any differences being a matter of degree rather than kind. If, as Cuvier had asserted, all vertebrates possessed a common nervous system, then it followed that they shared a set of mental faculties. Morgan cited countless anecdotes and examples of animal ingenuity to demonstrate that the lower species possessed all the same mental capacities as man: memory, reason, imagination, will, passions and appetites, and even the ability to go mad. Above all, however, it was the beavers’ ability to adapt their constructions to a variety of environmental conditions rather than follow a fixed type that demonstrated to Morgan the lower species’ possession of a “free intelligence.”

Plate VII in Morgan’s The American Beaver. The Great Beaver Dam at Grass Lake measured 260 feet in length and over 6 feet in height, and resulted in a lake covering seventy acres. Morgan took special note of the curve in the dam and two smaller dams above and below the large barrier.

Instinct versus Intelligence Morgan’s ideas about animal instinct and intelligence contributed to a debate with long roots. Before the nineteenth century, the dominant view of animal behavior, inherited in various forms from Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Descartes, was that the “brutes” operated according to innate instincts given by a divine source for their own welfare. Descartes in particular argued that only humans were endowed with reason; animals were essentially automatons that functioned according to the laws of physics. The principal opposition to the prevailing view of animal instinct came from the Sensationalists, most notably Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802), grandfather of Charles. In accordance with the Sensationalist belief that all ideas originate from sensory impressions and their related associations, Darwin argued in Zoonomia (1796) that seemingly instinctual behaviors such as nest building among birds resulted from observation, experience, and learning. Following a logic not unlike Lewis Morgan’s, Darwin attributed the variations in nest construction among birds of the same species to their accommodation of local circumstances.8

In the nineteenth century, the debate over animal instinct and intelligence intensified as scientific evidence mounted—and as the philosophical and theological stakes increased. The natural theologian William Paley (1743–1805) specifically refuted many of Erasmus Darwin’s claims, asserting that the wonders of nature could only be explained by recourse to a higher power. After all, he argued, an intelligent design was the sign of an intelligent designer: “There cannot be design without a designer; contrivance without a contriver; order without choice; … Arrangement, disposition of parts, subserviency of means to an end, relation of instruments to a use, imply the presence of intelligence and mind.”

The Perfection of Bee Architecture: Sydney Smirke and Charles Darwin As evidence of such purpose-driven design, Paley cited the beehive: “No person, who has inspected a bee-hive,” he wrote, “can forbear remarking how commodiously the honey is bestowed in the comb.”9 Indeed, beehives—and bee “societies”—had been a subject of marvel since ancient times and were frequently cited as evidence of divine design and as a model of social order.10 Beehives even attracted the attention of human architects, as evidenced by a paper delivered to the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1853 by Sidney Smirke (1798–1877).11 Although he prefaced his remarks with the qualification that the bees’ architectural instinct was “planted in them by that Hand which has shaped all things,” Smirke nevertheless went on to imagine what a bee would say if it could speak:

It is laid down for us by our great Master that the three main, co-ordinate, and dominant principles which should guide us in our construction are—convenience, strength, economy. We trouble ourselves but little about ornament, which those giants, men, have so much at heart: we are a mere drudging, practical, little people, well satisfied with what beauty may happen to result from order, symmetry, and simplicity.

Through a curious act of ventriloquism, Smirke thus became a kind of apiarian Vitruvius, reworking the traditional triad of firmitas, utilitas, and venustas by replacing beauty with economy.

The bulk of Smirke’s discourse centered on the mathematical perfection of the honeycomb. Noting that the hexagon was one of nature’s favorite geometric figures—one found in the shell of the echinus, on the scaly surface of many reptiles, the eyes of insects, in basalt, and soap bubbles—Smirke showed how the hexagonal structure of the honeycomb, with its rhomboidal base, was an eminently efficient form, enclosing the maximum of space with the minimum amount of wax. He concluded his essay by marveling—with a hint of wistfulness—at the “precision and truth with which the honey-comb is drawn and executed: the nice accuracy of the mitres; the exact coincidence of the angles; and the perfect regularity of all the forms.”12 Smirke quoted William Kirby’s Monographia Apium to underscore the lesson to be drawn; animal instinct—or, more precisely, divine wisdom as embodied in brute intuition—always surpassed human efforts: “Where is the architect … who can carry impressed upon the tablet of his memory the entire idea of the edifice he means to erect, and without rule, square, plumb-line, or compass, can cut out all his material to their exact dimensions, without making a single mistake or a single false stroke?”13

The architecture of beehives, as portrayed in François Huber’s seminal Nouvelles observations sur les abeilles, 1814.

Charles Darwin shared Paley’s and Smirke’s sense of wonderment regarding beehives. In fact, historian of science Robert Richards argues that Darwin saw the marvelousness of animal architecture and the problem of instinct as one of the strongest claims against his developing theory of evolution.14 In On the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin wrote that “so wonderful an instinct as that of the hive-bee making its cells will probably have occurred to many readers, as a difficulty sufficient to overthrow my whole theory.”15 Hence, he took special pains to develop a counter-theory to explain the architectural activities of the hive bee. Rather than dismiss the notion of instinct, Darwin instead co-opted the insights of the natural theologians, merely replacing the divine origin of innate impulses with a natural one. He argued that the refinement of the bee’s works resulted from natural selection—that is, through the accumulation of numerous successive, slight modifications of simpler instincts. One could witness this progress by comparing the nests of several types of bees: some, like the aptly named humble bee, made cruder, less mathematically rigorous cells, while others subject to greater selection pressures, like the hive bee, created combs that were superlative in economizing wax. The result was a flawless structure: “Beyond this state of perfection in architecture, natural selection could not lead.”16 It was, we might note, a curiously definitive statement from someone who is generally assumed to have divested nature of teleology.

The Beaver and the Bee: Two Theories of Architecture? Next to Darwin’s precise bees and their mathematically perfect hives, Lewis Henry Morgan’s beavers appeared downright brute-like and their dams primitive. As Morgan himself observed, the beavers’ piles of sticks and mud were built in haphazard fashion, only attaining an “artistic” appearance over time. Yet what Morgan admired about the beavers’ works was not the final form so much as the process of reasoning that allowed the animal architect to adapt its constructions intelligently. Unlike the bees, Morgan’s mutes built not out of base need, or driven by a “struggle for existence,” but to further their own well-being and happiness. He believed that the beaver had a fundamental awareness of its own creation: “When a beaver stands for a moment and looks upon his work, evidently to see whether it is right, and whether anything else is needed, he shows himself capable of holding his thoughts before his beaver mind; in other words, he is conscious of his own mental processes.”17 In contrast, Darwin did not give much credit to the bees for their artistry:

The bees, of course, [are] no more knowing that they swept their spheres at one particular distance from each other, than they know what are the several angles of the hexagonal prisms and of the basal rhombic plates. The motive power of the process of natural selection having been economy of wax; that individual swarm which wasted least honey in the secretion of wax, having succeeded best, and having transmitted by inheritance its newly acquired economical instinct to new swarms, … will have had the best chance of succeeding in the struggle for existence.18

It was this drone-like aspect of Darwin’s organisms that proved most threatening to nineteenth-century sensibilities. For although he refrained from stating them explicitly in the Origin, the implications of his theory were clear: men were essentially like bees, moved by natural forces beyond their control. In the years following the publication of Darwin’s revolutionary book, as the specters of a mechanistic world view and biological determinism crystallized, even supporters of the theory of natural selection sought ways to soften the blow by reintroducing mind as an agent in evolution. In the second half of the century, scientists like George Romanes, Conway Lloyd Morgan, and William James developed new methods in comparative psychology to demonstrate how consciousness—both human and animal—might play a role in directing adaptation.19 The mind was more than just brain—more than its material container, the latter Darwinists argued. Intelligence contributed to shaping the world and furthering human and natural development.

The question of mind is central to the distinction I am drawing between Lewis Morgan’s beaver and Darwin’s bee. In one case, the animal’s intelligence was seen as directing the activity of building; architecture therefore was an expression of consciousness. In the other account, beautiful forms developed accidentally, through agents working according to natural laws but with no awareness of the means and ends. The differences between the two thinkers should not be overstated—after all, Darwin cited Morgan’s study on beavers in The Descent of Man to argue for the fundamental similarity of human and animal mental faculties (although he thought Morgan might not give enough weight to instinct).20 Their approaches, although related, were also at odds; they were like two jousters aiming for the same spot and bypassing each other. Whereas Morgan sought to show that animals were intelligent, like humans, Darwin tried to demonstrate in The Descent of Man that humans operated on instinct, like animals. 

In a sense, Morgan’s fierce attachment to the agency of the animal architect ironically was reminiscent of Paley’s credo that where there was an intelligent design, there must be an intelligent designer. Unlike the theologian, however, Morgan thought that it was animal rather than divine intelligence that gave shape to material reality. And Morgan believed in the capacity of the mind—both human and animal—to progress through experimentation and experience.21 Thus, although the beaver was a “low animal in its structural organization, … by his sagacity, his industry, and his artificial erections, he has raised himself to a very respectable position, in human estimation, for intelligence and architectural capacity.” The principle of progress applied not only to the mutes but also to humans, as he hinted in the conclusion to The American Beaver: “If then an animal, with such inferior organization, manifests so large an amount of mental capacity, of how much more must those be capable whose organization is found to be so much superior!”22

Morgan’s words could be read as a challenge to human architects. If the humble beaver was capable of creating such extraordinary works—and more importantly, of developing his craft progressively over time—how much more might the mind of a human designer accomplish? Had he lived longer, then, Morgan might have been surprised to find himself included in Rudofsky’s Prodigious Builders, marshaled into an argument for the resurrection of animal instinct against the evils of human over-education. In showcasing examples of animal and primitive architecture, Rudofsky was inclined “to blame progress for about every evil that has befallen this planet” and found it “a comforting thought that, everything considered, we have not much progressed in those disciplines that proclaim most emphatically humanity’s humaneness: poetry, music, and the arts.”23 Against modern forms of architectural education, Rudofsky advocated a return to spontaneity, play, and instinct. 

Morgan, in contrast, was a wholehearted believer in progress through experience. It was a perspective that allowed him to embrace beaver dams as easily as he did locomotives. While Rudofsky, citing Darwin, would find much to admire about animals’ primal instincts, Morgan’s work on beavers suggests that the fascination of animal architecture lay in the brutes’ eminent powers of reason—a progressive intelligence that was nothing if not modern.

Plate II in Morgan’s The American Beaver. Morgan writes that the beaver “uses his tail to pack and compress mud and earth while constructing a lodge or dam, which he effects by heavy and repeated down strokes. It performs in this respect a most important office, and one not unlike some of the uses of a trowel.”

    The author wishes to thank Barry Bergdoll, Mary McLeod, Andrea Renner and Bernie Zernheld for their invaluable assistance.

  1. Bernard Rudofsky, The Prodigious Builders (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), pp. 57–58.

  2. While The American Beaver and His Works (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1868) is the volume discussed here, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1871) and Ancient Society (1877) are generally considered to be Morgan’s major anthropological works. Interest in his research on kinship spread far enough to reach Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels; Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) was subtitled In the Light of the Researches of Lewis H. Morgan.

  3. Morgan tells of a “conflict of interests [that] arose between the beavers, on the one hand, and one of the chief commercial enterprises of the country, on the other.” A family of beavers built a dam against a railroad embankment that passed parallel to a brook. In order to prevent the accumulation of water against the tracks, the track master cut the dam repeatedly, but each time, the beavers immediately repaired the breach. Finally, after ten or fifteen rounds, the animals desisted. See Morgan, American Beaver, p. 102.

  4. Ibid., pp. 48, 139, 18, 81.

  5. In his 1843 essay “Mind or Instinct,” Morgan repeated the myth, probably inherited from Buffon, that beavers worked in organized colonies. By 1868, after undertaking his own firsthand research into beavers, Morgan recanted this view.

  6. Morgan, American Beaver, p. 140.

  7. Sir William Hamilton, quoted in Morgan, American Beaver, p. 262.

  8. Robert J. Richards, Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 35.

  9. William Paley, Natural Theology, or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, 12th ed., (London: J. Faulder, 1809), pp. 11, 332.

  10. In the fourth century, the Alexandrine geometer Pappus wrote on the geometrical properties of bees, in a passage often excerpted as “The Sagacity of Bees.” Pappus cited the work of an even earlier mathematician named Zenodorus in observing that the honeycomb’s hexagonal structure enclosed the greatest amount of space with the least amount of material. See also Juan Antonio Ramirez, The Beehive Metaphor: From Gaudí to Le Corbusier (London: Reaktion Books, 2000).

  11. Smirke was the architect of the soon-to-be constructed round reading room of the British Museum (1857) and the Bethlem Royal Hospital in Southwark (1838), now the Imperial War Museum.

  12. Sydney Smirke, “Observations on the Architecture of the Honey Bee,” in Papers Read at the Royal Institute of British Architects, 1853–1854 (London: Royal Institute of British Architects, 1854), pp. 1, 5.

  13. William Kirby, quoted in Smirke, “Observations on the Architecture,” p. 5.

  14. Richards, Darwin, p. 144. 

  15. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964), p. 207.

  16. Darwin, On the Origin of Species, p. 235.

  17. Morgan, American Beaver, p. 256.

  18. Darwin, On the Origin of Species, p. 235.

  19. See Richards, Darwin. Richards argues, however, that Darwin, too, resisted a blindly mechanistic, materialist view of nature, and sought to reestablish man’s identity as a moral agent on a new biological basis.

  20. Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981), p. 105. Morgan met Darwin on a trip to England in 1871; see Carl Resek, Lewis Henry Morgan, American Scholar (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), p. 125.

  21. See Marc Swetlitz, “The Minds of Beavers and the Minds of Humans: Natural Suggestion, Natural Selection, and Experiment in the Work of Lewis Henry Morgan,” in George W. Stocking, ed., Bones, Bodies, Behavior: Essays on Biological Anthropology (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), p. 80. Swetlitz argues that Morgan was influenced by Scottish Common Sense philosophy in giving priority to the activity of mind in human progress: “Morgan agreed with his British sociocultural evolutionary contemporaries that, for the most part, human beings had thought their way from savagery to civilization.”(p. 58).

  22. Morgan, American Beaver, p. 267.

  23. Rudofsky, Prodigious Builders, pp. 9–10.

Irene Cheng is a doctoral student in the Architecture (History and Theory) program at Columbia University. She holds an M.Arch. from Columbia and a B.A. in Social Studies from Harvard. She has published articles on art and architecture in 32BNY, Surface, and A magazine and is coeditor of The State of Architecture at the Beginning of the 21st Century (The Monacelli Press, 2004).

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