Instinct: A study in social psychology

Chapter 10: Origins of Usage of Instinct

Luther Lee Bernard

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In the preceding chapters the confusing of acquired habits with instincts in the current literature of the social sciences has been made apparent. In subsequent chapters typical instances of these so-called instincts will be examined in detail and the acquired or learned element in them will be indicated, as a supplement to the general arguments put forth above and in the summary chapter at the end of the volume. In the present chapter an explanation of the origin of the current erroneous and confused terminology with respect to the instincts is attempted.

The present popular and pseudo-scientific view of instincts attributes any activity which is general and widespread in society to inheritance. Even writers of high scientific attainment are apparently victims of the same general confusion. Ellwood, for example, says, "The belief in God and the belief in the immortality of the soul seem especially to have the marks of instinctive beliefs, [1] since in one form or another, they are found among practically all peoples, and we may safely conclude, therefore, that they are an outcome of certain

(222) instinctive tendencies of man in interaction with his self-consciousness and reason." [2] By the same token we should speak of belief in a republican form of government as instinctive among the people of the United States and belief in monarchy as instinctive among the German or Austrian peoples,[3] although the facts would seem to indicate that the European peoples lose their "instinct for monarchy" upon coming into

(223) the environment of the United States. Or, perhaps, the explanation is that certain immigrants migrate because the " monarchical instinct " is not strong in them. Using the universality of a practice as an argument in support of its instinctive character would get us into all sorts of difficulties. On such a ground, we should stop sending missionaries to convert followers of Mohammed, or Buddha, the Shintoists, and others, for the universality of these religions within their territories would show that they are instinctive. Instead of argument and persuasion we should use eugenic methods and breed their religions out of them, unless indeed we hold that the fact that their religion is instinctive is sufficient justification either for leaving their religious views unmolested or for slaughtering the holders of the "instinctive" religions. Such a theory should give great comfort to the advocates of the use of fire and sword as a method of converting the heathen (religious or otherwise), for it would seem to justify the extermination of peoples with supposedly inferior instincts as a more economical and effective method than conversion.

We might even push this obliging interpretation or criterion of the instinctive— the universality of the practice or attitude— to the point of explaining the supposed French addiction to absinthe, the English predilection for "ale," the German delight in beer, the Dutch love of gin, the reputed Italian and Spanish affinity for wines, the Scotch attachment to whiskey and the Irish attitude of tolerance for anything except teetotalism, as instincts characterizing these several peoples. That within historic periods these adaptations to national drinks have been modified and that now a tendency to prohibition is spreading over the western world without the aid of the breeding process to select it in, would not necessarily trouble a resourceful instinctivist. By the same logic it should probably be urged that the Chinese have an instinct for eating birds' nests, the Mediterranean peoples for garlic, the Brah-

( 224) -minic-worshiping peoples against animal food, the ancient Hopi against turkey, the Hebrews against swine, and the Italians in favor of spaghetti. Why not also speak of the various national forms of greeting, or wedding ceremonies, funeral ceremonies, habits of eating, gesticulating, walking, speaking, or a thousand other practices which are well-nigh universal within the limits of the same nationality, as instinctive? This of course was formerly the method of explanation in common use in accounting for such practices. Whatever practice was general in families or in larger groups was attributed to heredity, in the days when the prevailing notions of the nature of inheritance were crude and when practically nothing was known in a scientific way of social or environmental transmission through imitation. The oriental's interest in speculative religion and philosophy and magic and the western practical predilection for science have been accounted for as instinctive, especially in the days before oriental peoples began to take over western science and while our historic memories were yet poor with regard to the scholasticism of the west in the middle ages and with respect to the curricula of our more modern universities and colleges addicted to classical education. It is but recently that the Mendelian and Weismannian theories have made untenable a wholesale application of the universality argument by demonstrating that inheritance is by unit characters and does not apply, in any great degree at least, to acquired characters. As yet, however, the far-reaching significance of these theories for the theory of the instincts has not been very generally recognized, not even by the biologists and the near-biologists— the behaviorists— themselves.

Of course it may be objected by the defenders of the free use of instinct that these cases go too far afield; that the supposed instinctive belief in God, [4] for example, has a much bet-

( 225) -ter basis than the popularly, if erroneously, reputed instinctive tendencies of the French to drink absinthe, to embrace each other in greeting and to produce pornographic literature. In the first place it may be contended that all peoples believe in God, or at least in gods, and in the immortality of the soul. This, however, is not quite true. A more accurate statement is that all peoples, except possibly some rationalists in all relatively late epochs, the number of whom has increased in very recent times, appear to have had some attitude toward the supernatural, even if, according to some of the anthropologists and psychologists of religion, they create their own divinities.[5] But the content of this belief varies greatly from people to people, and from age to age. Early peoples in the pre-animistic stages of religious development did not believe in gods, much less in God. They had the most crude and as yet undifferentiated attitudes toward natural forces or powers which they pictured as fetiches, or spirits or even more crudely still. Only more recently do these spirits develop into the true personalities of polytheistic divinities, and still later are the personalities merged into something like monotheistic deities.[6]

In like manner also the concept of the after life appears to have grown up gradually, perhaps not being at all apparent, or at least appearing exceedingly indefinite and amorphous, among the most primitive peoples, becoming stronger among the higher savages, very marked among most barbarian and early civilized people addicted to ancestor worship, and apparently tending again to weaken or disappear among many peoples who think in a scientific instead of in a theological

( 226) terminology.[7] In all of these variational types of belief in the supernatural or in the theological hereafter, quite different neural correlations or structures are involved. Since only physical or biological structures, and not ideas apart from neural structures, can be inherited, the nature or content and form of the inheritance would necessarily differ according to each different mode of belief. This would, consequently, necessitate a separate instinct for each type of religious belief, a supposition which reduces to the same sort of absurdity as the hypothesis of instinctive adaptations to national drinks, foods, costumes and the like. Since man's religious beliefs have changed markedly within historic times— a period much too brief for the reforming of his instincts by means of selection through inheritance— it must be quite patent that these beliefs are matters of tradition and custom rather than of instinct.

But, if there is not an instinct of belief in God, may there not be some other instinct which leads man necessarily to develop by the help of his reason, as Ellwood says, a belief in God? Aristotle speaks of an inborn tendency of some people to be masters and of others to be slaves;[8] and present day psychologists and sociologists refer to an instinct of self-abasement.[9] If there is such an instinct may not this inherited feeling or attitude of man, that he is unequal to the tasks and problems of the world in which he lives, constitute a basis upon which he constructs the idea of a divine or supernatural power and comes to believe in that idea as a reality? Doubtless many would hold that such is the origin of the idea of su-

( 227) -pernatural agents, a stop-gap explanation of a great moral and physical mystery— the physical mystery of how things came to be and the moral mystery of how they could be as they are in human relationships— compelling the hypothesis of a mysterious and all-wise purpose beyond the powers of man's intellect to unravel and indicating faith as the necessary refuge from a destructive belief in an anarchistic or malevolent universe.

Whether such a hypothesis of the origin of the belief in supernatural powers is true or untrue is no task of this work to decide. It is stated here as a possible alternative to the view earlier put forth to the effect that belief in God is a true instinct, a unit character in itself. The question which concerns us at this point, as an aid to accounting for men's belief in God, is whether this attitude of self— a basement, this feeling of inability to cope unaided with the problems of life and death, is inherited or is acquired from man's experience; whether it is an instinct or an acquired habit complex due to experience with the difficulties of adjustment one inevitably encounters in this world. The latter would seem to be the more credible explanation. . If we assume the inheritance of such an attitude we must face the logical fact of assuming the inheritance of the neural correlate or disposition or "set" which corresponds to this attitude. But such a neural correlate is not a fixed or unitary organization which can be inherited as a unit character. It varies according to its object, or the cause of the difficulty before which the human spirit bows down. In the case of humility before a hated monarch, for example, the neural disposition or content must be very different from what it is in the case of humility before the fact of a disappointing career. In other Words, humility is a class term, an abstraction. There are humilities or self-abasements, but no humility or selfabasement in general from a concrete neurological standpoint. Consequently, it is a mistake to speak of the inheritance of

( 228) humility or of an attitude of self-abasement as an instinct. Such general inheritance is an impossibility.

On the other hand, if we speak of the inheritance of separate instincts of self-abasement, each being characterized by the object toward which it is directed— God, parents, kings, the police, among others— we are back upon the other horn of the dilemma, a belief in God which is a true instinct. This view we were earlier forced to reject because of the difficulties which it presented to us. Our only alternative, therefore, is to explain the attitude of self-abasement as a habit complex developed out of a multifold experience of the hardships of life on the one hand and of the superiority of other beings, including God, on the other hand. This would tend to explain why the attitude is more prominent in some than in others, and in the same person at one time than at another. It varies according to the difficulties which one has experienced in adjustment, difficulties arising both out of the external environment and out of the personal health, native powers and requirements of the individual making the adjustments.[10] It is a fact of common observation that the poor and the ignorant and the oppressed have everywhere and at all times been most superstitious, or, in the popular and less discriminating sense of the term, most religious.

In either case we are driven from the hypothesis of an instinctive belief in God or in immortality.[11] Yet we might well

( 229) consider that as strong a case can be made out for an instinctive belief in God on the universality hypothesis as for any ' belief or social practice or attitude. That is why this particular "instinct" has been taken for analysis and illustration. Shall we not, therefore, have to seek another explanation than that of heredity for universal practices? Such a substitute explanation would not appear to be difficult to find. Any practice which can be acquired can be made universal if the proper environmental conditions for stamping in or inducing the practice exist. The form of the family, the beliefs about the cause, cure and prevention of disease, attitudes with respect to property ownership, are but a few examples among countless numbers of attitudes and practices which have grown up because of their survival value under favorable environmental conditions. These attitudes and practices have tended to universalize themselves for the same reason that they appeared in the first place. We may expect any of these to undergo further modification under varying environmental pressures, understanding by environment the psycho-social environment quite as much as the biological and anthropogeographical environments. In the face of such facts we cannot consistently speak of the universality of a fact as being in itself conclusive evidence of its inherited or instinctive character. We must use

(230) other criteria for determining the nature or identity of the instincts.

An equally prolific, and certainly a more excusable source of the current misconceptions regarding the nature of instinct, is to be found in the survival of the old uncritical notions regarding the nature of heredity already referred to. Formerly it was supposed that any characteristic with which people were born was inherited. Before the development of the theories of Mendel and Weismann there were no data for correcting this erroneous impression. Although these facts now exist, many of those who received their training in the theory of heredity before these later discoveries became current in our thinking have not since revised their notions in regard to these fundamental principles of inheritance.[12] Others, like the workers in the social sciences, who get their knowledge of biology at second hand and often from traditional sources, have not yet come to apply consistently the principles of Mendelism and Weismannism to their own subjects. While they accept the conclusions of these men generally and in principle, they find it difficult to revise their theories with reference to the concrete facts of the new science. Even some very reputable

( 231) physicians and embryologists and engenicists still speak of diseases which are due to germ infections and of bodily and mental conditions originating in the prenatal conditions of the development of the child as inherited.[13]

This looseness in speaking of the inheritance of physical and neural traits carries over to mental and moral and social characteristics as well. Inheritance being conceived of as such an indefinite and general process, it does not appear to the uncritical thinker that any violence is done to logic in speaking of the inheritance of any trait which can be established as common to both parent and child. This faulty reasoning gives rise to the post hoc, propter hoc or associational error of attributing a hereditary or instinctive origin to traits. Hitherto, and for that matter, even yet, for the great majority of writers on the instincts, the fact of the coexistence of traits in the line of descent has been assumed as sufficient to establish their hereditary nature and origin. Thus, if both parent and child were alcoholic, the fact was regarded as establishing the inheritance of an impulse or instinct to drink intoxicants. In the same way we have uncritically explained the appearance of various types of immorality, ability, religious and political attitudes, in fact, of practically all of the social and moral attitudes and intellectual proclivities in the offspring of people who themselves possessed these traits. This tendency still persists, although somewhat diminished in repute, in spite of a growing analysis and exposition of the methods by means of which such attitudes and practices are acquired.

This naïve method of reasoning in regard to inheritance has been used by practically all the writers on eugenics. Davenport, in constructing his elaborate list of inherited tendencies or adaptations, and Pearson, in his various studies of hereditary traits among special groups, have not gone beyond the statistical method in studying heredity. These writers and

( 232) their assistants have collected and counted cases of correspondence of traits in parent and child among selected groups and then have assumed— not proven— a hereditary relation between them. In other words, they have not vitalized the Mendelian theory of inheritance by taking the trouble to establish the existence of the supposedly inherited trait as a unit character. Nor have they sufficiently respected the doctrine of the non-inheritance of acquired characters of Weismann by taking care always to show how traits— in particular, social and moral traits of recent origin— could have appeared as unit characters at so late a date, when they had not previously existed in the race and when, moreover, some of them would probably have destroyed the race if they had existed as definite hereditary traits of which all offspring were likely to become possessed through biological inheritance. To seek refuge in the assumption that highly complex moral and social technique may be explained as mutations is really going beyond the realm of the probable, even in eugenics thinking, which is said to open up to us a new world of possibilities in human improvement.

This assumption, that traits are inherited because they appear in both parent and child, has been given more currency than would otherwise be the case, because of the general lack of appreciation of the methods of environmental control. The science of environment is just beginning to be developed.[14] Some sort of knowledge of heredity, though of course pseudoscientific in the main, has existed from very early times. Men, since the development of pastoral industry, have been breeders

( 233) of animals. This practice of controlling reproduction grew in time into an art and more recently into a science. The easily observable fact that colors, textures, shapes and other physical factors are regularly transmissible has familiarized man from remote times with the great outline methods of inheritance. In fact, but little that was new was added to the very early theory until near the end of the nineteenth century. In the absence of a detailed knowledge of environmental controls it has been inevitable that it should be supposed that mental, moral and social traits are transmissible in the same way as are the biological. The fact that such traits do generally follow the line of descent from parent to child, thus apparently paralleling biological inheritance, has constituted an exceedingly strong presumption for the inheritance of such traits. The fact that these moral and social traits may be transmitted laterally, that is, contemporaneously from group to group and from person to person regardless of blood relationship, age or condition, has become strikingly apparent only as we have developed a science of environmental controls and pressures, and especially since we have developed modern group life with a great diversity of traits which are constantly being mixed and fused through suggestion and imitation. As long as group life was homogeneous, as was largely the case in earlier times, before there was much mixture of distant cultures and the diffusion of knowledge and suggestion over wide areas, it was not possible to observe this lateral transmission in marked degree.

The science of environment has itself developed slowly because of its necessarily abstract character. The main surface facts of animal breeding, including the transmission in general of physical traits, are concrete enough to he observed and understood in broad outline by every one, and they are known to peoples of fairly low culture. But the facts of lateral or social transmission of traits have not generally been so easily

(234) observed. Until recently the home and the immediate community life have been practically the only institutions engaged in rapidly shaping moral and social traits. The problem has been complicated by the fact that these institutions have also been blood relationship groups, thus affording a most excellent basis for confusion of the hereditary and the educational or environmental origin of characteristics. Also, the mechanism of the social transmission of traits has not been well understood. There is still much discussion in regard to the relative merits of imitation and instinct in the learning process. To be sure, some of the methods of sympathetic magic early presupposed a lateral transmission of characters, but the methods attributed to this magical transmission were supernatural rather than natural and psychological or physical. It is only recently that we have reduced the methods of magic to the psychology of suggestion; and not every one has as yet become convinced of the validity of this substitute explanation. We have developed a psychology of imitation only comparatively recently, and the fact that imitation is psychological, or invisible, and abstract, while inheritance is biological and more concrete and visible, has doubtless been a matter of considerable determinative importance in the delayed development of an understanding of environmental controls.

The science of environment has developed rapidly under the fostering influence of the later scientific equipment for measuring differences in environmental pressures and methods of calculating the effects and relations of these. Thus we have developed the sciences of anthropogeography, ethnography, plant ecology, economic zoölogy, meteorology, and the like, in the physico-biological realms of phenomena. With the passage of education from the status of a primitive art into a modern science, and with the development of modern methods of re-educating offenders, the retarded and the psychoneurotic, we have developed the science of environment in ap-

( 235) -plication to the production of mental, moral and social traits. With the development of institutions and organizations for reforming character and for controlling instruction in groups of a non-consanguineous character— which in fact have cut across the old consanguineous groupings— we have been able to distinguish the sources of character to a better advantage than was possible in the family or the consanguineous community. At the same time we are working out, with the aid of applied psychology, the mechanics or technique of the transmission of characteristics by social and psychical means. With this growth of a science of environmental controls we are coming to revise our cruder notions of the applicability of the theory of heredity to all sorts of transmission and control processes. Consequently we are revising our old theories of the instincts, which are inherited traits. At the same time we are substituting explanations in the terminology of social transmission for explanations in the terminology of hereditary transmission. An interesting illustration of the effect of the earlier establishment of the inheritance view of the acquisition of characters, which we are accustomed to speak of simply as heredity, is to be found in the fact that the term social heredity is still so generally applied, by analogy with biological inheritance, to the process of environmental transmission. It would be much better to leave the term heredity to be applied to biological transmission only, that is, to those traits which come down through the chromosomes and which are fixed at the point of fertilization. But such is the dominance of our biological modes of thinking that we borrow the term heredity from the description of the well-known biological mechanisms of transmission to be applied by analogy to the little known process of environmental transmission. We should simply speak of environmental or cultural transmission to cover this latter fact, instead of using the phrase social heredity.


Another source of error in the current views regarding instinct is the failure of so many writers sufficiently to take into account the fact that heredity is strictly a biological process. There is no such thing as the inheritance of mental attitudes, ideas, moral qualities, social traits, beliefs, and the like, apart from the biological structures upon which they are based. The old dictum, "no psychosis without neurosis," is entirely sanctioned by modern experimental psychology. In the matter of the inheritance of biological traits there is no great difficulty in making a consistent correlation between terminology and facts. But in the matter of the supposed inheritance of mental and moral and social traits a very great difficulty arises for the writer who is accustomed to make extensive use of the terminology of the instincts. To speak of the inheritance of a moral or social trait, such as truth-telling or pauperism or criminality,[15] is meaningless, unless one is willing to assume the inheritance of the corresponding biological structures. The biological structure which corresponds to a mental or moral trait is, as was shown in an earlier chapter, primarily neural, and it is generally spoken of as the neural correlate. At first thought it might appear to be a simple enough matter to assume the inheritance of the neural correlate of a moral or social trait as a unit character. But such is not the case. As already intimated in this chapter, such traits are abstractions. They are terms used to describe a group of similar or related reactions. They are not, on the neural side, fixed and unitary processes. Each separate act of truth-telling, for example, may differ very widely in the neural organization back of it from that back of another act of truth-telling. If I tell the truth about the German theory of militarism I shall perform neurally quite a different act from that involved in telling the truth about Greek mythology. Besides, what is truth re-

(237) -garding these matters in one situation or at one time may be false at another time or in some other situation. Or, to put it more positively, what is truth under one condition and in one relationship may be falsehood in another relationship and under other conditions. Yet the neural processes and organization may be identical in the two cases. The same is true whether my truth-telling is about the fallen cherry tree or the missing watermelon. Morally and abstractly the acts can be classified together, but, neurally, not necessarily so.

How then can we speak of the inheritance of an instinct for truth-telling? That is a moral term which means different things neurologically under different circumstances. Obviously, therefore, truth-telling is not a unit character, from the standpoint of biological heredity, whatever degree of unity there may be to it abstractly and morally considered. We might, of course, speak of each act of truth-telling as being in itself a unit character biologically, as for example, telling the truth about the cat, telling the truth about John, etc. But even these cases would have to be broken up and classified under the minute circumstances in which each act of telling the truth occurs. To speak of instincts in such a sense as that would be meaningless, for such acts, identical in nature neurologically, would probably never be repeated, either in the experience of the same individual or in that of his offspring. They are not typical of the experiences of the race and therefore could not have been selected into the inheritance process as instincts. That is, the conditions of telling the truth about the cat and about John and Mary, now that we have small apartment-house back yards and movies and automobiles, are not the same as they were in early times. And the cat and John and Mary are not the same. Hence, there is lacking that phylogenetic continuity so necessary to the evolution of instincts, but not of ideas and abstract values.

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A similar source of error is to be found in the common failure to recognize that the moral or social character of an act is dependent upon external or social circumstances and evaluations rather than upon the neural content of the act. Thus the same act of shooting a dog may be highly moral under one set of social circumstances and highly immoral or anti-social under another set. Being strongly sexed was a valuable trait, socially speaking, among colonists settling a new country, because of the value placed upon offspring. But such a trait may lead to acts which are regarded both as immoral and as socially injurious in an over-stocked population. Much study into the history of a sacred literature is judged to have good or bad effects, and is therefore considered to be socially desirable or undesirable, according to the state of public opinion. In different places and times it is rewarded accordingly. The same act varies greatly in moral and social values from place to place and from age to age. If we suppose, therefore, that we inherit the mechanism for this act (leaving the question of the physical possibility of such inheritance aside), do we thereby establish the inheritance of any variable moral or social trait based upon the act? Such does not necessarily follow, for the social or moral attribute of the act shifts or varies with reference to the act itself as much as the act varies with reference to the moral and social qualities. One does not inherit a criminal trait if (supposedly) he inherits an instinct to kill dogs or even merely an instinct to kill. The social and moral quality is determined by the valuations which function in environment and is relative to circumstances. Killing dogs may or may not have moral implications, according to the social values of the act, even though the physical character of the act may remain the same, when the values differ. Whether the biological structure or mechanism of an act so general and purposive as the ones mentioned above may itself be inherited will be discussed in a later chapter.


If one undertakes to analyze such "instincts" as predominate in the lists of the preceding chapter into their underlying structural or neural equivalents and then observes the shifting character of the structure in relation to the abstract or evaluational content, the lack of both a logical and a biological justification for classifying these acts as instinctive becomes apparent. Until such an analysis is undertaken it will be difficult to make completely clear the error of this usage.

Another source of the current erroneous usage of instinct is to be found in the old doctrine of natural rights. This theory is an ancient one, but it had a remarkable expansion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when it came to be used as a justification for revolt against the inequitable established order of the times. The first great battles of modern democracy were fought on the philosophic basis of the theory of natural rights.[16] The artificial social order which piled up privileges for the classes and exercised tyranny over the masses in the name of some externalized shibboleth, such as the divine right of kings, or the four fundamental relationships of Aristotle,[17] was opposed by an equally externalized plea that man, the masses of men, were endowed with certain rights, such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which proceeded from the nature of things, that is, from natural law. Thus the metaphysical doctrine of natural law was invoked in defense of democracy against the theological doctrine of divine right of the classes. Both of these appeals were, in their nature, to abstract metaphysical concepts, and their defenders had in time to render them concrete and demonstrable or acknowledge logical defeat. The natural rights doctrine has found its concrete equivalent in the theory of instincts. It is now man's

(240) nature, human nature, rather than natural rights bestowed from an external natural order, which justifies the democratic masses in resisting governmental absolutism when it serves a privileged order. Similarly, in the economic sphere, there is rising up a protest, also in the name of instinct, against the dominant industrial order.[18] This newer brand of psychological and sociological economists repudiate with telling criticism the old intellectualistic concept of the "economic man," so long used as the bulwark of reaction and privilege. But in their haste they rush to the opposite extreme and embrace another absolute, the "biological man" or "instinctive man." They largely ignore the great middle ground of learned adaptation, of custom and tradition and convention, in whose relative and shifting content the preponderating mass of human action and social truth lies.

The general theory of natural law, or metaphysical essences, underlying the theory of natural rights, has itself been one of the most effective and potent sources of the modern instinctive theory of behavior. But it is connected with present usage indirectly rather than directly and therefore is not commonly recognized as such a source. According to this theory of natural law, which was in good standing even well into the nineteenth century,— but especially during the middle ages and early modern times,— certain essential principles or forces dominated all action and existed as the basic and dominating principle in all organization, cosmic and human. It was natural law which held the universe together, which kept the

( 241) sun and planets and the stars in their courses. And this was one with the nous or universal order and intelligence of the Greeks, the "tao" of the Chinese Taoists, the universal reason of the stoics, the divine harmony of the middle ages, the pantheistic principle of the metaphysical theologians of the less recent modern times and the Nature of the Physiocrats and the force that made for progress of the Age of Enlightenment and the principle which makes for righteousness or good in the universe in the faith of Matthew Arnold. This principle or essence which dominated the universe and kept it in order also manifested itself in the individual as reason or as conscience. It was the violation of this principle which produced the remorse which William Morris believed was the most effective preventive of wrongdoing.[19] From it also sprang the natural propensities made so much of in the metaphysical theories of society set forth by such men as Fourier and the anarchists. It is likewise, though more distantly, the forerunner of and logical sanction for the theory of instincts, made emphatic by the Scotch metaphysicians of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and by the modern Scotch school of metaphysical psychology. The doctrine of instinct, along with vitalism and the theory of innate conscience or knowledge of moral values, to say nothing of the doctrine of a metaphysical soul and of mental and spiritual powers and propensities, auras and ectoplasms, advocated by the mystics and the mystified, is a surviving aspect of the doctrine of innate essences which control individual action and social adjustment. While there are of course inherited action patterns, of more or less definiteness of structure, the still dominant concept of instinct—of inherited values and abstract essential powersset forth in the citations of the previous chapters is essentially metaphysical and carries on the spirit and tradition of natural law.


In all the concerns of society and social thinking we view the same general tendency of a movement away from the metaphysical, and therefore no longer tenable, doctrine of natural rights over to the more concrete, and at present more popular, theory of instinct as a basic defense of democratic aspirations. In this movement we see a shifting of terminology, though scarcely a shifting of fact. The natural right concept is merely brought down to earth and its sanction is transferred from the vague "nature of things " to the relatively concrete "human nature." The name also is changed and instead of "natural rights" we have " instinctive needs." The general term "human nature" has itself been broken up into countless "instincts," typical representatives of which are presented in the preceding chapter. On the other hand, and in a very similar manner, the forces of economic and political reaction have followed parallel tactics. They have, except in a few isolated instances, given up the claim to justification on theological grounds [20] and have turned to a metaphysical justification in the form of natural rights. Property now defends itself with the legally sanctioned natural right of freedom of contract, which has been appealed to in our courts with excessive frequency in the last decade. Strange as it may seem, the conservatives and the privileged have stolen the thunder of the radicals of the fourth estate, and natural rights, once the defense of democracy, is now the bulwark of conservatism.[21] But this has occurred only as the radicals are abandoning the metaphysical doctrine of natural rights [22] for the apparently more scientific doctrine of human

(243) nature and the instincts, its lineal descendant in the evolution of terminology. But even here the radicals are being hard pressed, for even instinct or human nature is now being appealed to in behalf of class distinctions and is being used to justify social and political inequality, including many of the economic distinctions of the existing industrial system.[23] The time is already at hand when the defenders of democracy and the opponents of special privilege will have to turn from the predominantly biological or instinct justification to one based on social analysis and imbedded in social needs. The justifications of social programs in the future will not be primarily individualistic, whatever may be the philosophy underlying the individualism in question, but they will be based upon the demands of a rationally and scientifically organized society.

To these origins should, perhaps, be added a more general source of the current usage of instinct, the dominance of the biological method of interpretation in recent times. Since the work of Darwin and his brilliant contemporaries and successors in the field of biology, the methods of this science have been in the ascendency, and its interpretations have been assimilated as far as possible by the other sciences, especially the newer ones, which have not yet achieved a sufficient standing of their own as efficient methods of interpretation. This fact of the ascendency of some one science in the thinking of men engaged in the solution of problems is to be expected, because it is in keeping with the principles of social suggestion. It has always been true that the science

( 244) or discipline or set of beliefs which has for one reason or another, including degree of perfection of technique, achieved great prestige with thinking people becomes at that time a sort of model for the imitation of other sciences, disciplines or beliefs. The Aristotelian logic, which had supplanted the largely magical and mystical methods of interpretation previously dominant, held sway until the methods of experimentation advocated by Roger Bacon and put into practice by himself and his successors had in turn taken precedence. With the rise of the experimental and quantitative methods of observation and measuring, the methods of physics and chemistry for a long period of time held sway over thinking minds with scientific interests. This was because the physical sciences developed first, their subject-matter being more in the attention of man and their phenomena being subject to simpler correlations. Even as late as the first writings of Herbert Spencer this great philosopher, who might properly be called the scientific weather vane of the nineteenth century, was under the dominating influence of the methods of the physical sciences.

It was the doctrine of evolution which attracted the attention of the intellectual public and of the scientists to the methods of biology. This doctrine opened up a new view of the whole world of life and it was soon perceived that its general methods and principles could be applied to the vast fields of social phenomena, such as religion, government, industry, domestic institutions and many others. It took the scientific world by storm. But its triumph was not by any means ungrudged or undisputed. All of those forces and interests which were tied up with a static interpretation of life and society, with a quick intuition for the dangers which assailed them, began merciless warfare upon this new theory. The ossified forms of ecclesiasticism, the nobility which rested upon tradition and privilege, inherited wealth, the classicists,

(245) the defenders of the scholastic viewpoint everywhere, generally and for the most part were hostile. This opposition was an immediate and effective challenge to the defenders of the theory. They responded with numerous detailed and painstaking investigations in its defense, emulating the patient thoroughness and devotion of Darwin himself in their zeal. Soon they had a body of data and a wealth of interpretation which was the wonder of modern science. No other recent science could compare with the showing and technique of biology. All of the other sciences had lent their aid and had made their supporting contributions. Each was skewed or distorted in the general direction of biology. Geology developed largely the aspects of paleobotany and the paleontology of animal life. Chemistry emphasized the carbon compounds and split off the new division of organic chemistry. Geography became dominantly the study of the distribution of races and animal and plant forms, verging largely toward its economic aspects. Psychology developed the experimental method and plunged into the fields of physiological and comparative psychology and the sciences of biophysics and biochemistry, which came on the scene in the eighteen hundred nineties. Anthropology for a long time dominated sociology, religion, ethics, jurisprudence and history, in fact all of the social sciences and disciplines. The science of eugenics was invented and developed, at first under the dominance of the theory of the inheritance of acquired characters and later under the discipline of the biological theories of Weismann and Mendel.

It is largely through this biological channel, of eugenics on the one hand and of comparative psychology on the other hand, that the instinct interpretation of conduct makes specific connection with the dominant biological interpretation and method. It makes its more general connection through the prestige of that method. The modern scientific mind has

(246) come to think primarily in terms of inheritance where human action or animal life is concerned. It would be very surprising if the sociologist and the social psychologist had not, largely unconsciously, but also at times quite consciously and purposively, come under the spell of the biological prestige. Only those sociologists who have collected data and observed social processes for themselves, instead of depending primarily upon biology and other antecedent sciences for their subject-matter and ideas, have come to realize the competing influence of environment as a dominant sociological factor.

No one of the factors discussed in this chapter is individually and solely responsible for, or constitutes an accepted historic or logical justification of, the current usage of instinct in the minds of those who employ the term so loosely and with such frequency. The more popular writers, as well as many of the more scientific ones, have not, of course, troubled themselves about a justification. They have more or less unconsciously adopted present usage, without taking the trouble to examine the merits of the question. They have not thought out and digested the theory of instinct. At the most they have accepted the theories of McDougall or some other writer as a convenient support to their practice, and perhaps have attempted to employ the treatises of such men to give order and system to their own usage. This fact is particularly well illustrated by the usage of the instinct concept by the psychoanalysts.[24] These writers have perhaps been more especially under the influence of the recent biological prestige. But all factors have contributed directly or indirectly to predispose toward the present practice of employing the instinct interpretation of human conduct in social situations,

( 247) or to the justification of such usage when it is employed. This usage can be corrected only by making clear its origins on the one hand and by displaying the weaknesses of the theory from a scientific and critical standpoint on the other. A more scientific method of social interpretation is possible only in so far as we can work out and present its details. This is attempted in the later chapters of this book.


  1. It may be remarked incidentally that there should be no occasion, from a theological standpoint, of appealing to instinct as a justification of the belief in the existence of God, if belief in revelation as set forth in the Hebrew scriptures remains intact. possibly a weakening of the theological interpretation of history has, after the manner explained by Comte Positive Philosophy, Bk. VI, ch. 6 ff.) brought the metaphysical interpretation into play, especially among the philosophers. Hence the employment of instinct as a category of explanation. This category is being criticised by those who appeal to scientific analysis in opposition to metaphysical assumptions.
  2. Sociology in Its Psychological Aspects, 239. The universality criterion is frequently made use of. McDougall says, "The fact that these religions have gained so wide acceptance shows that they appeal to some universal element of the human mind while the specially strong appeal of Christianity to the feminine mind, the Catholic cult of the Mother and Infant, and the unmistakably feminine cast of the whole system as compared with Mohammedan and other religions, shows that we are right in identifying this element with the parental, the primarily maternal, instinct." (Introduction to Social Psychology, 8th ed., 276.) Woodworth also is inclined to use the universality criterion, but with more or less caution. His method of argument apparently involves a particularly transparent fallacy. He says that it is not probable that sex attraction is an acquired taste, "because the attraction between the sexes is so universal not only among mankind but among birds and mammals and indeed, practically throughout the animal kingdom. Fighting is a similar case. Not so universal as the sex instinct, it still appears almost universally among birds and mammals." (Psychology, 97.) Again he says, "The criterion of universality . . . comes down to this: That when all individuals having the same descent show o; trait in common, that trait is to be regarded as belonging to their native constitution— unless evidence can be brought forward to the contrary." (Ibid., 98.) But that frequently evidence can be brought forward to the contrary Woodworth admits: "Smoking is universal among the Malay peoples, but we know, as a historical fact, that it was introduced among them after the discovery of America, not very many generations ago. Superstition is universal among some peoples, but we see the superstitious beliefs and practices taught by the older to the younger generation. Similarly with any specific language. It may very well be true in such cases that the universal practice appeals to some native tendency of the people; but the specific practice is handed down by tradition and not by inheritance," (Ibid). The fallacy of which Woodworth is guilty in citing the universality of sex attraction as an evidence of its instinctive character consists in giving precedence to the inheritance theory over all other unproved explanations. It illustrates well the dominating prestige of the biological interpretation as a factor discussed at the close of this chapter. In a world, where acquired traits are so much more common, as Woolworth himself says (Ibid., 296), than inherited traits, why should not the assumption, except in purely biological or physiological functions be against inheritance and in favor of habit?
  3. This sentence was written in the spring of 1918. Presumably the German and Austrian governmental instincts have changed since that date without the intervention of the biological processes of hereditary selection!
  4. This particular belief is selected merely at random for convenience of discussion. A hundred other examples might have been used as appropriately.
  5. See I. King, The Development of Religion, especially Ch. 9. This theory that men create their divinities in their own images as the result of purely natural and easily explainable psychological processes is, of course, as old as the history of scientific thinking. We find it even in Lucretius and Vico, to say nothing of more recent writers.
  6. See L. L. Bernard, "Religion and Theology," The Monist, Jan., 1922.
  7. See James H. Leuba, The Belief in God and Immortality, esp. 250-281. The findings summarized in this volume support the contention made above. See early chapters of this work for illustrations of changes in character and content of beliefs with advance in culture.
  8. Politics, Bk. I, ch. 5.
  9. See W. McDougall, Introduction to Social Psychology, chs. III and XIII.
  10. Leuba, in the work above cited, gives concrete instances which support this statement. See, for example, p. 235.
  11. See I. King, The Development of Religion, 26, 36, 339. He says, "To hold that religion is an instinct, or that it develops from an instinct, can mean only that it is some physiological adjustment to the environment necessitated by the life-process or, possibly, that it is some conscious attitude aroused by the failure of such an adjustment to function properly. In either case, however, we are involved in a serious confusion. In no intelligible way can the religious consciousness or religious acts be thought of as directly related to the biological struggle for existence. If religion is to be called an instinct, it would certainly necessitate a new definition of instinct. As was suggested in a foregoing paragraph, however, the real thought which those writers who have described reli gion as an instinct have meant to convey is that religion is something original, or innate, in man. The use of the term offers, under a thin disguise of science, a point of view that is utterly opposed to all that is scientific. The scientist cannot be satisfied to regard anything as innate. His so-called ultimate data r are ultimate only for the philosopher or for the non-scientific mind. The `instinct theory' really belongs to the philosophy rather than to the psychology of religion . . . . The religious consciousness is, then, first of all an attitude rather than an instinct . . . . Our point of view in these studies has continually been that the religious attitude is a fairly determinable psychological complex which has been built up in the, course of the life process and which, therefore, hears definite relation to the physical and social environment within which it has taken shape. Since it is thus a psychical complex rather than an elementary instinct, it is not necessarily always present as a definite attitude in a given individual, and it is further quite conceivable that in some persons it may never be dearly organized at all."
  12. An interesting example of this continuance of the old usage by one who is conversant with the new facts is to be found in the definition of heredity taken from a semi-popular work by a biologist who discusses the Mendelian theory in the same work. "By heredity is meant the degree of likeness between parents and their offspring. Originally the term implied succession in tenure, but as in the case of so many scientific words, the original significance has been altered and the alteration established by custom. In its modern sense heredity is a measure of the resemblance between two or more generations of the same family."— F. W. Gamble, The Animal World, 230. Although the author recognizes alteration of the original significance of the term, such alteration apparently has nut entered into his own thinking as a result of the newer theories appearing since his own early training was received. Councilman, Disease and Its Causes, p. 197, also says, "By heredity is understood the transference of similar characteristics from one generation of organisms to another [presumably ascending]." See also W. M. Feldman, Principles of Ante-Natal and Post-Natal Child Physiology, 11.
  13. See, for example, S. J. Holmes, The Trend of the Race, 67, 166, 307.
  14. For beginnings in the science of environment see L. J. Henderson, The Fitness of the Environment; G. R. Davies, Social Environment; E. A. Ross, Social Psychology; E. C. Semple, Influence of Geographic Environment; and Lester F. Ward, Applied Sociology, and the works of Bagehot, Tarde, Ross and Cooley, among more recent writers on this subject. See also paper by the writer in Publications of the American Sociological Society, 1921.
  15. For examples of such usage see Ellwood, op. cit., 223 and C. B. Davenport, Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, 80, 83.
  16. Earlier struggles for democracy were justified on a theological basis. See Louis Wallis, Sociological Study of the Bible.
  17. Politics, Bk. I.
  18. See the highly significant paper of C. H. Parker, "The Motives in Economic Life," in Publications of the American Sociological Society, Vol. XII. The author of this paper has attempted to list and classify the human instincts which are, in their insistent demand for satisfaction, destined to overturn the established economic order, unless it takes account of instinctive human nature. See also Taussig, Inventors and Money-makers and Wallas, The Great Society. Helen Marot's Creative Impulse in Industry and Ordway Tead's Instincts in Industry develop a similar theory, and the doctrines of psychoanalysis are based upon cognate assumptions.
  19. News From Nowhere, 114.
  20. Mr. Baer, one of the anthracite coal mine operators, is said to have defended his refusal some years ago to arbitrate the demands of the miners on the ground that the operators held their possessions in the form of a trust from God. Also the German emperor is reported to have claimed a similar alliance for himself.
  21. See E. Barker, Political Thought in England from Spencer to Today, 120, 248.
  22. Some of the equal suffragists were quoted as arguing still for the vote for women on the grounds of natural rights when the nineteenth amendment passed, apparently unaware that times have changed in the world of philosophy.
  23. See W. Bateson, Biological Fact and the Structure of Society; also C. B. Davenport, op. cit. It is scarcely necessary to mention in this connection the extreme and erratic views of Nietzsche, which condemn democracy in the most unequivocal terms on biological grounds. Professor F. H. Giddings, Studies in the Theory of Human Society, 244 ff., appears to take a position almost as little complimentary to the equalitarian aspirations of the masses of mankind.
  24. See Bernard, "Instinct and the Psychoanalysts," Journal of Abnormal Psychology and Social Psychology, Jan.-Mar., 1923.

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