Intellectual Reasoning vs. Instinct
It has been said from Plato onward that man’s reasoning is his highest faculty and makes him superior to animals. In the short story “To Build a Fire,” by Jack London, man’s intellectual reasoning ability is regarded as “second class” to that of the survival mechanism that is embedded within humans and animals alike. This survival mechanism is sometimes referred to as instinct.
If solely depended on, man’s intellectual reasoning may be clouded, imprudent and even detrimental, leading him to the wrong decision.
Instinct, on the other hand, is a natural reaction pre-programmed into man for survival and cannot be altered by reasoning, making it superior to reason. As the story opens, the man clearly understands that the “day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray,” and still he insists on continuing his journey (650). The fact that the temperature is below freezing did not seem to bother him. He is ignorant of the cold.
As he stands surveying the snow covered Yukon trail, “the mysterious, far-reaching hair-line trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all—made no impression on him” (651). He is determined to join the boys at camp to enjoy the warmth, food, and companionship regardless of the weather. The man is very observant about his surroundings, however, “he was without imagination” (651). The temperature is about seventy-five degrees below zero, which means that it is about one hundred and seven degrees below freezing.
To him, the air is cold and uncomfortable, and nothing more. He ignores the fact that he is a warm blooded creature and as such only able to survive at certain temperatures. Anything beyond that range requires not only intellectual reasoning ability but also instinct. The big native husky that accompanies him on his journey is his only companion. The animal can adapt to the cold weather, but on this occasion it is very apprehensive about traveling in the extreme cold. The dog’s instinct “knew that it was not time for traveling.
Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgment” (652). The dog does not understand how temperature is measured or even how a thermometer works. It inherited this instinctual ability from its ancestry. It relies on this innate ability for survival. It craves warmth, and knows that man can create fire and warmth. Its instinct for warmth and survival tells it this is not a time to be traveling. The man stops at each creek or river bend, and observes “the changes around the creek, the curves and bends and timber-jams” (653).
He knows if he walks on ice that is not frozen to the bottom he will crack the ice cap and break through it. Breaking through the ice will cause him to get wet. Under such an extreme, bitter cold temperature, being wet can be fatal. The man tries to compel the dog to go ahead. However, it hesitates. It will not go and stays back until “the man shoved it forward, and then it went quickly across” (653). The dog brakes through the ice and scampers back on land. Quickly, it begins to “lick off its legs, then dropped down in the snow and began to bite out the ice that had formed between the toes” (653).
This is not a matter of intellectual reasoning but rather instinct. Because the dog is now wet and cold, the dog is apprehensive about traveling further. The relationship between the man and the dog is like that of an owner to an animal. There is no “keen intimacy between the dog and the man, the dog made no effort to communicate its apprehension to the man” (654). When the man finally reaches the left fork on the other side of the creek, he did not see signs of any springs. Once again, the man is relies on his visual perception, but he fails to recognize the danger.
He thinks it is not necessary to send the dog ahead because he did not see any signs of danger. Unfortunately, at a place “where the soft, unbroken snow seemed to advertise solidity beneath, the man broke through” (655). He is now wet from the waist down to his foot-gear. He escapes from the water and quickly works to build a fire. Memories of old-timer on Sulphur Creek creep into his consciousness. The old-timer repeatedly warned him of extreme cold temperatures in the Klondike, cautioning him not to travel alone without a partner when the temperature is fifty below or colder.
The man laughed and thought, “the old-timer was rather womanish” (656). In his haste to start a fire, he did not notice that he built it under a spruce tree. The tree held the weight of the snow from many previous storms. Each time the man pulled on a twig, the tree moved. Finally, the branches released the snow, sending it falling down onto to man and extinguishing the fire. Standing in disbelief, he “heard his own death sentence. ” (656). Again, his memories returned to the old-timer on Sulphur Creek.
Maybe the older-timer is right—“after fifty below, a man should travel with a partner” (657). With his life at the mercy of nature, he recognizes his foolishness. His final attempt to rebuild a fire is unsuccessful. He sees the dog and remembers a tale of a man who was caught in a blizzard. This man survived by killing a steer and crawling inside the cavity to keep warm. Perhaps killing the dog and burying his hands in its body will thaw them so he can build a fire. He calls to the dog, but the dog senses a “strange note in his voice that frightened it” (658).
Its instinct senses danger – “it knew not what danger, but somewhere, somehow, in its brain arouses an apprehension of the man” (658). The dog stays clear of the man. Instinct is a natural part of every living creature. Its purpose is to alert its owner of impending danger, to override reason, to survive. The dog, through its instinct, is aware of the life-threatening conditions in the Yukon. The man, thinking he is smarter than nature, relies on his knowledge and ignores his instinct. By relying on his knowledge, mistakenly believing it to be his highest faculty, he ultimately forfeits his life.