Instinct: A study in social psychology

Chapter 2: The Controversy Regarding Instinct and Environment

Luther Lee Bernard

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There are two well-defined viewpoints in the social sciences regarding the importance of a theory of the instincts as a basis for the development of social theory. One group of writers and teachers contend that the instincts are of secondary importance in the motivation of social conduct and in the organization of institutionalized controls. They maintain that whatever instincts man possesses are too elementary and too decidedly biological in character to be primarily determinative of his social adjustments. They hold that the instincts are merely contributory, affording a basis for the building of this or that adaptation or for modifying some learned adjustment. They contend that the adjustments of a socialized or civilized individual to his social environment are the result primarily of experience—either of contemporary experience rationalized into a present-day adjustment, or of tradition embodying past experience or social selection acquired in the past and held intact by strong prejudices or convictions passed down from generation to generation. Civilized man, they hold, is a cultivated animal living in an artificial construction, society. This artificial organization, human society, is constantly becoming more artificial and derivative, even to the extent of suppressing in large measure the native im pulses of man. Man builds the society which his reason, his fears, his convictions, his experiences dictate. Under the artificial or civilized régime he selects other objects for expenditure of effort than those which would be dictated solely

(27) by his native impulses or instincts, if they were allowed to control his conduct.

Those supporting the opposing view contend that man is still the creature of instinct, although he has learned for the most part to guide his instinctive impulses into more efficient and socialized channels of expression in keeping with the expanded needs of civilization. The obvious reply to this view is that if this language is not a mere figure of speech it must of itself indicate that the instincts do not perform the directive role in civilized society, but that man's sense of values, reason, experience, scientific judgment at the best, perform this function by virtue of the fact that they guide the instincts in their expression. Those espousing the instinct theory further point out that man's great historic institutions are the product of the organized struggle for the satisfaction of his organic and animal impulses. They contend, for instance, that his economic institutions have grown out of his organic need for food and that the family is built upon an expanded and rationalized sex interest and upon the instinctive attitudes between parents and children. Other institutions, such as war, they would trace back to an instinct of combativeness, the political state to instincts of fear and gregariousness. In fact, they have an instinct for almost every well defined or institutionalized human activity. They argue that without some such strong organic impulse at the base of each social institution, social continuity would be impossible and the social world would be merely chaos, flitting from one type of organization or disorganization to another. Social conditions, without the cementing powers of instinct, would be so disorganized and social continuitv would be so interrupted that the individual would be unable to perceive society as a logical whole. Discreteness rather than organization would be the rule in the social fabric, and variation in social types and practices would be so great from age to age and from place to place that

(28) people could not understand each other or adjust their processes of action. Civilization would be impossible.

To this the opponents of the instinct theory of social organization reply that there is as much unity-compelling power in the environmental pressures which condition the development of a people and of all peoples together as there is in the sort of instincts which the instinctivists proclaim. In fact, they say, peoples do differ in their cultures, customs and institutions largely in response to the environmental pressures to which they are subjected. That there are peoples who do not understand one another, their motives and their manners, is not merely a theory but a reality. On the other hand, if human instincts were so rigid and well developed as to dominate the lives of men completely, all peoples would have to act as much alike as do ants and bees, without much regard to differences in environmental factors. This, they contend, would be a great misfortune, for it would prevent mankind from making such detailed adjustments as the great diversity of climate and temperature, soil, resources, topography and other physical conditions demand, and thereby the range and flexibility of human life would be greatly limited. As a matter of fact, they say, man's instincts are so rudimentary that they do not seriously interfere with the adjustment of his collective and individual activities to the most diverse environmental pressures. Consequently the state, the family, economic organization and procedure, moral standards and concepts and the like, vary from age to age and from place to place to meet the needs and conditions there encountered by men. The fact that all men of any one group in any one time are under essentially the same environmental pressures in the large—Physical, biological and social—is quite sufficient to guarantee that they will make about the same general adjustments and therefore adhere to the same typical institutions, permitting only the normal degree of deviation according to time

(29) and place, which is a matter of common observation and experience.

That a great deal of individual variation does occur, even within a limited locality, is well known; and this variation is greater among more advanced than among primitive peoples. This individual variation within limited areas is due, the environmentalists contend, to the uneven incidence of the environmental pressures, to which even primitive man with his relatively undifferentiated social life processes is subject. Modern man is even more liable to be confronted by unequal and unlike environmental pressures. He has facilities for coming under a great variety of physical environmental influences, even at a distance, by means of travel and an abstract comprehension and appreciation of these pressures which are not possible for the lower orders and the less cultured peoples. Although his character may possibly be somewhat modified directly in this way, physical environment usually influences man indirectly through its conditioning pressures upon institutions rather than directly through immediate modification of character or even through the less direct modification of his heredity. The most potent differentiating influence operating upon modern man is the great variety of cultural forces with which he may come in contact through travel and through the spread of the culture carriers in the form of the sciences and literatures. These influence him directly and markedly.

On the other hand, while variations between individuals are more marked in the modern world than among primitive peoples, differentiations between groups have diminished with the passage of time. This fact is to be explained by the widespread intercourse among modern peoples which mitigates the effect of the great differences of diverse physical conditions under which they live. Some have lands adapted to agriculture, others to grazing, others still have an abundance of natural resources, while some live on the seacoast in the line

(30) of the trade routes. Each develops a culture with its constituent institutions and associations in accordance with its environment. But under the influence of an ever-increasing unity of cultural environment arising from contact and from an international literature and science—and also from a quasi-transference of physical environments through travel and economic contacts—these national or group traits indigenous to their own particular environment and growing out of the adjustment of their peoples to their environmental limitations, tend to be diminished or to disappear. The environmentalists further point out that if by any chance a people occupy a territory with a variety of physical and economic environments, they do not possess a complete unity of culture, even though they should be of the same racial descent and therefore should possess the same native instincts. Since the coming of modern facile means of communication and transportation, the disunifying effects of varied physical conditions have, however, been mitigated. This, it is obvious, is due to the greater unity induced in the cultural environment bearing upon each individual, brought about through the fusion of underlying physical and social pressures, since the inherited factors or instincts remain the same.

Thus the environmentalists admit the contention of the instinctivists that the instincts afford a basis upon which man's adjustments to his social environment are made. They also admit the contention that man's great historico-social institutions, at least in their earlier stages of development, have arisen out of the endeavor to satisfy organic and animal impulses. But on the other hand they deny that these adjustments of man to his social environment are, in their more complex or institutional aspects, themselves purely instinctive acts or processes. The institutions are not now, in their present-day highly developed forms, mere simple and direct reactions to the organic needs of man. They are exceedingly

(31) indirect responses thereto and are in the main controlled either by ideals and highly conscious aims or by tradition, custom and convention rather than by simple appetites, as would be the case were they directed merely by instinct. Commerce and finance, though originating in the dim past from the need for food and the other physical wants of existence, are now only too often carried on to the confounding of empty stomachs and the piling up of bank accounts. Although the family may have originated in the sex impulses, it has grown so far away from its point of origin that the state demands that the satisfaction of sex desires be made secondary to the more rationalized interests of the family, including offspring, and of society, where the two aims conflict. It is therefore, according to the environmentalists, the social and institutional environment, that is, the psycho-social environment, rather than instinct and appetite, which functions primarily in modern civilized controls.

Those representing the two views concerning the importance of instinct here set down in opposition to each other have different objects in view as well as, in the main, different conceptions of the nature of instinct itself. They represent opposite types of determinism and not, as has sometimes been said, the conflict between determinism and non-determinism. We have heard much about economic or environmental determinism to which the one group of thinkers adheres. The instinctivists constitute a group adhering with equal tenacity to biological determinism. The biological determinists believe that human society is what it is primarily because of the inherent nature of man, although they make allowance for some mod ification from without. The environmentalists maintain that human society is what it is primarily because of the conditions under which man lives, although they do not deny that inherent characteristics necessarily place limits to extremes of social

(32) and individual development under the pressures of diverse environments. . The biological determinists are sometimes called the conservatives of social science, because they deprecate attempts to disregard "orignal nature" or the instincts, and refer to reformers of a radical sort as idealists, zealots, demagogues, bolsheviks, anarchists and the like. They maintain that man's organized contacts and fundamental relationships are basically the same in all times, and that it is futile to seek to disregard the limitations set by "orignal nature" in planning a social order. Some maintain that we have gone too far in this direction now and that we should go back to "fundamental" types of adjustment, rather than forward to new evils. They even condemn much modern effort to establish an ameliorated social order, including charity and institutional care, and even in some extreme cases, the soft virtues of Christianity, maintaining that only a rigid selection on the basis of primitive biological values will benefit the race in the long run. In its extreme and most uncritical form this biological view of society becomes the cult of the Nietzschean super-man, or of the ruthless group selection and military survival of the fittest set forth by the Bernhardis and similar preachers of salvation by the sword.

Often, like their opponents, the biological determinists use the same argument to justify decidedly contradictory policies. For example, one group of instinctivists maintains that the "maternity instinct" and the "instinct of monogamy" demand that woman give up her attempt to get out into the world and sever her ties with the traditional home.[1] While another group maintains that the dominant role of the "reproductive instinct" and the "male polygamous instinct" rebels against the restraints upon sex freedom, to which mischievous, artificial modern religion, science and morals have subjected

(33) us.[2] Likewise private property, organized society, the truth of historic religions, the canons of art, individualism and anarchism, socialism, and almost every other "ism," are both condemned and justified by means of an appeal to the reputed instinctive nature of man. Obviously, what adherents to this brand of determinism hope to accomplish in social control through the propaganda of their type of determinism depends primarily upon what their reason, traditions and experiences (themselves forms of environmental pressures or the products of such) have taught them to consider desirable. One cannot avoid observing that a conscious ideal or principle or convention has justified the social or individual "necessity" of monogamy, or of freedom of sexual relationships, or of any other "ism" before instinct is invoked in its support, although in some cases (not in all) the principle may be formulated in response to the demand of appetite or of instinctive impulse.

Thus, in the case of so-called instinctive determination of social principles and attitudes, we have an interesting example of the influence of environment itself. The environmental pressures, especially of the psycho-social type, have in reality, in many cases at least, determined what the instinctivists wish society to be and have molded their attitudes towards, or theories of, the instincts and their importance accordingly.

The environmentalists contend that within certain limitations set by human intellectual capacity and physical energy on the biological or inheritance side and of physical and social conditions on the environmental side—both of which types of limitations are vast in the aggregate—man may in the long run make his own world. They say "in the long run," not in a day, for one of the environmental factors which must be contended with is the psycho-social environment, which arises out

(34) of the past as well as the present. This great body of tradition, custom, conventional attitude and opinion can be moved and changed but slowly. New ideas, however scientifically justifiable and defendable, once injected into the body of the cultural environment take effect and work a transformation only by degrees. Our means of communicating ideas, vastly developed and improved in recent centuries and decades, still are far from perfect. Also, the soil for propagating new ideas is poor, because our educational system does not as yet sufficiently emphasize training in science, especially in the social sciences, for the masses of mankind. Likewise the physical environmental limitations, which translate themselves at the margins of social adjustment into economic terms, oppose a definite barrier to rapid transformation of social structure and aim. When it is remembered, we are told, that man has been socially conscious, that is, reflective about his institutions and their directive power over him, only a short period of his history and has therefore but recently learned to plan for social reorganization and readjustment, it is not surprising that more radical changes have not been made. Thus the psycho-social environment, in the form of customs and institutions, has almost the tenacity, rigidity and endurance of true instincts.

That certain institutions, such as the family, the state and private property, may never be dispensed with in human society, regardless of what other changes may take place, would be admitted as a possibility or even as a probability by the environmentalists. They would deny, however, that the stability and permanence of such institutions are due wholly or even primarily to the presence of instincts in man which demand these institutions for his subjective satisfaction or which rigidly organize his activities in ways which constitute collectively these social institutions. They would explain this imputed permanency of institutions as being due to the fact

(35) that the conditions of human existence—economic, political, biological and the like—are fairly constant and that therefore survival in the world in which we find ourselves is best promoted by means of such relatively continuous and permanent institutions. The environmentalists would go even further and contend that whatever instinctive or subjective adjustments of an inherited character we have in these institutions, whether primitive or recent, were developed through a selective process as a means of adaptation to these environmental pressures. In fact they would consider our development of these types of institutions as a selective and survival process, somewhat biological and hereditary in nature, but primarily of a social and rational, or at least experiential, adjustment character. The institutions themselves merely had their inception, in their most rudimentary forms, as unreflective attempts to satisfy instinctive demands or needs. They were developed and perfected through the accumulation of experience on the one hand and a sort of blind selection and survival of the fittest among adjustments on the other; and the term fittest here refers to the demands of the environment as well as to those of the individual.

To the environmentalist the problem of what changes can in the future be made in the structure of society, in its institutions, does not depend for its solution primarily upon the extent to which the instincts can be modified. This is a r secondary question. He takes it for granted that the inborn propensities, in so far as they are specific to any one institution (which rarely, if ever, they are), can be made to conform to a rational organization of society, even of a moral character different from that in which they first appear. The innate limitations which he fears most are the general rather than the specific ones, especially the biological limitations set upon attention, learning, activity, and the expenditure of energy generally. In many instances we already appear to

(36) have reached some of these limitations. Our usual resort in such cases has been to substitute mechanical appliances and technique and natural forces for human activity and energy. To what further extent we can continue to make this substitution does not yet appear.

Perhaps a more serious limitation upon future rational change and social reoganization will be imposed by the scarcity of natural resources, especially of the inorganic resources, such as coal and iron, which are at the basis of our mechanical and industrial development. Also the degree to which the organic environment, especially that of germ life, which contributes so many of the diseases, may be subjected to human control is one of the serious problems of the future of human life and survival, especially as the conditions of living become ever more crowded and the margin between nature's bounty and man's collective needs tends to disappear. The regulation of population in such a way as to strike the most effective balance between production and consumption, not alone of economic goods, but of all values, is an environmental problem which must be met before human progress can be indefinitely extended or even indefinitely maintained. Problems such as these seem to the environmentalist much more important in the matter of future social control than do those relating merely to the instincts or inheritance, especially since he has been taught to regard the contribution of natural selection to human superiority as about completed.

But the environmentalist cannot safely disregard the instincts. Although they are primitive and simple and fixed, changing but slowly—certainly changing but little within the human epoch, and possibly not at all within historic timestheir very fixity and settledness constitute them a quantum which he must include in his calculations. From this basic factor he must start in his social analysis and in his program of reconstruction. Also he must recognize that the fixity of

(37) instinct is a statistical rather than an individual fact. Individuals vary, at least to some degree, in their instinctive equipment, while the masses of mankind remain at somewhat near the same average inheritance level. Already attempts are being made to analyze the native equipment of man.[3] There is great need of a corresponding analysis of man's acquired equipment or technique. It is also necessary to work out the method of acquiring characters as completely as the method of inheritance has already been analyzed and synthesized by Mendel and Weismann and their successors.


  1. For this point of view see W. C. D. and C. D. Whetham, Heredity and Society, esp. chs. 6-8.
  2. See Nietzsche, Will to Power, etc.; also Bertrand Russell, Political Ideals. The Dial characterizes Thomas Hardy as holding that " the fundamental, elemental relation between man and woman is the only relation which, in the end, profoundly matters."—Loc. cit., 63:222.
  3. For two outstanding representatives of two types of emphasis in this analysis see E. L. Thorndike, The Original Nature of Man, and William McDougall, Introduction to Social Psychology. These books undoubtedly include much that is acquired as well as inherited in their accounts of man's native equipment. This is particularly true of the type of writing on instincts of which McDougall is a leading representative, for his supposed instincts are in reality complexes, in which the learned neuro-psychic organization is predominant.

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