Instinct: A study in social psychology

Chapter 13: A Reductio Ad Absurdum

Luther Lee Bernard

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Some of the writers on heredity and eugenics refer to the most complex social and moral attitudes and characteristics as inherited. Many examples of such treatment have already been cited in previous chapters. Mr. C. B. Davenport lists 102 traits as hereditary in human families.[1] Some of these traits are confessedly social in character, that is, they are synthetic mental and moral characteristics representing a learned adjustment of the individual to his psycho-social environment, and therefore primarily social and only secondarily biological in character. Instead of representing definite internal biological unit structural organizations which remain constant, as instincts or inherited traits necessarily must, they represent varying syntheses of biological (predominantly neurological) complexes and dispositions which have only a nominal constancy, one which exists in their meaning rather than in their structural organization. That is, their unity is a varying unity with regard to the time and space elements and we are able to give them a constant or permanent title only through a process of abstract or conceptual syntheses of functions. Their unity and identity are social and conceptual rather than biological.

Take, for example, the fact of criminality, which Daven port speaks of as being inherited [2] and which many other writers, especially the criminologists, list among the instincts or "born" traits. It must be clear upon reflection that criminality is an abstract class term and does not represent any one

(306) concrete act or neuro-muscular organization. It stands for an abstract synthesis of a great many acts of a certain social (not biological) similarity, that is, acts having a certain common element of meaning or social adjustment significance. Even this similarity of meaning is social, or abstract and synthetic, rather than concrete or biological; for exceedingly dissimilar acts from the standpoint of their biological and physiological nature and organization are classed together as criminal. They are grouped thus together because they produce similar social effects and therefore have similar moral values when reflected upon abstractly. Crimes may be committed by a stroke of the pen or by a stroke of the arm or foot. Criminality may be simply an act of omission, involving merely a neural complex and no positive overt act apart from the daily routine; or it may consist of the most diabolical physical acts, such as poisoning, bombing, shooting and the like. The particular neural complexes and muscular responses involved in these several acts may be altogether different, in fact would almost necessarily be different. It would, therefore, be absurd to group all of these acts together as a single unit biological character which is inherited as such and which we call criminality. And yet that is just what is done when one speaks of criminality as inherited or instinctive or of the "born" criminal, as the writers on criminology so frequently do.[3]

The fact of the great complexity and diversity of the acts classified as criminal can be well illustrated in the diagram on page 307:

To begin with, we observe that there is a great variety of major or code classifications of crimes, such as murder, theft, arson, treason, assault and battery, defaulting, obtaining money under false pretenses, indecent exposure, rape, libel,

( 307) obscenity, etc., etc. All of these classes of criminality differ greatly from each other in the types of neural organization and mental content, as well as of muscular execution and accessory implements and technique utilized in their per-

classification of criminality

-formance. Therefore, as pointed out above, they cannot be grouped together as a single unit act. Hence the necessity of speaking of criminality as an abstraction, as a synthetic or social and moral unity rather than as a biological or structural unity. But it should also be noted that these particular types or classes of crimes, such as murder, theft, arson, are not themselves concrete or unified biological types of activity.

(308) They also are abstractions representing social and moral unities or similarities synthesized on the basis of a social or moral valuation rather than on the basis of a biological and structural identity. They are made into a common whole through the process of assembling a great many acts, not biologically but sociologically and morally (that is, abstractly) related, into one common group and covered by a common term, because they possess a similar meaning or value for society.

The truth of this contention can be illustrated by taking one of the classes of crime and further analyzing it. If we select murder, for example, we shall discover upon investigation that murder may be committed through a great variety of acts and omissions. Some of these are listed in the above diagram. To these might be added many more methods of committing murder, such as burning, flaying, stoning, starvation, liming, disemboweling, making corrupt judicial decisions, desertion, defamation, etc. Each of these general methods in turn differs greatly from the others in its neural, muscular, and ideational conscious aspects. Also, they in turn are discovered to lack internal biological or neurological unity, however much they may possess social or moral unity of value or meaning. Any one of these methods of murder here set forth may, from the standpoint of the bodily or neural structure and organization involved, be subdivided into a number of sub-classes depending on the instrument, occasion, circumstance, position, etc., in which the act is consummated. If we select shooting as the type of murder which we desire to analyze into its elements, we discover a great variety of instruments by means of which one may be shot. But this analysis into the instrumental mechanisms is only one phase of the divisibility. We must also take into consideration whether the shooting was intentional or purposive, whether it was socially justifiable or not, what the other circumstances of light, position, provocation, etc., are. All of

(309) these considerations have some effect, sometimes a profound effect, upon the final classification of the act from neural and from muscular standpoints, that is, as an act physically speaking,— the only sort of an act which can conceivably be inherited.

If we suppose the shooting to have been accomplished by means of a revolver, as is most commonly the case in times of peace, we must still discover what kind of revolver was used; for upon the determination of this fact will depend in large measure the neural and muscular dispositions, that is, the physical character of the act. A cap and ball revolver requires a decidedly different muscular manipulation as well as set of mental concomitants from those involved in the use of an automatic. If we further raise the question as to whether the act was purposive or merely accidental, we shall find that the neural correlations will necessarily be decidedly different in either and every case, for memory, accessory acts and plans and the like may play a considerable part in the act, according as it is intentional or otherwise. Likewise, the act will differ greatly whether performed by an amateur or by a professional gunman. In the one case it would have to be more carefully planned or be more truly an accident of a blundering character, while in the other case a very slight altercation might conceivably result in an almost automatic act of murder, because the nervous system was so definitely habituated to shooting as a form of argument and needed only the emotion of anger with a definite object to set it off into action. The act will also differ widely on its physical or biological side, whether the revolver is withdrawn from a pocket or holster or is taken from a drawer or picked up from a table, or whether it is gone after or sent for. Again the act must vary in nature according to whether the person fires from an elevation or depression, toward or from the light, at close or long range, and the like.

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While this analysis of the criminal act might be extended even further in regard to the details of conditions, instruments, antecedents, etc., enough doubtless has been said to indicate the great diversity, neuro-muscularly speaking, of criminal acts, and consequently to demonstrate the absurdity of speaking of an abstraction, such as criminality, as a unit biological character. The value of such an analysis as this is twofold, depending upon the fact that action patterns which we call instincts are either unit characters or they are not instincts and that inheritance is biological or physical (not merely mental or moral or social) or it is not inheritance, strictly speaking. That is to say, we must inherit structures if we inherit anything. There is no such thing as the inheritance of ideas as such, certainly not the inheritance of abstract ideas or mere abstractions. That we may conceivably inherit neural structures which predispose us to a certain line of mental development will be generally admitted, and some may even contend, though rather uncritically, that we may inherit the neural structures of ideas. All scientific psychologists now accept the principle of "no psychosis without neurosis." Yet they may contend that this very principle establishes the fact of a neural structure back of each idea and therefore they may challenge us to prove that this neural organization is not, in many cases, inherited instead of acquired. If such a question is raised, we can only fall back upon the question of fact. The mere assumption that a neural disposition back of an idea or an act is inherited or acquired settles no controversy at issue. Can we through analysis or experimentation get at the facts of the case? In many instances we can.

We have already demonstrated the fact that an abstract idea (such as criminality) cannot be inherited, because neurologically it does not represent a unit act or organization. It stands for a synthetic valuation of acts with a certain similarity

(311) of social and moral significance, when viewed in relation to certain results. It is a conceptual fact rather than an overt or neuro-muscular act. But if we cannot speak of an instinct of criminality, nor of shooting, nor of shooting with a revolver, etc., because of the abstract or general and synthetic character of such facts, may we not at least speak of some specific act of murder as instinctive, taking care to describe the act in detail? Thus may we not say that this man had an instinct to kill a man with a Colt revolver which he drew from his hip pocket and sighted or leveled at his enemy? Once stated in this form we are able to raise the question of fact. Has anyone such an instinct? It seems altogether improbable, even impossible, since Colt revolvers and hip pockets are fairly recent inventions and therefore have not had a chance to select out and broadcast generally the particular imputed instinct here described— unless we are' prepared to believe in a form and rapidity of inheritance of acquired characters which would stagger even Lamarck himself.

Those who have not followed this analysis and argument closely will probably raise a question somewhat as follows: "But why do we bring the hip pocket and the make of the revolver into this matter? Cannot a man inherit simply a tendency to shoot?" The less critical may even go further and ask if we may not inherit a tendency to murder, or to kill, even if w e do not inherit the structure of the act as such. These are two very different questions, although they have a common basis of misunderstanding, and they must be answered in turn. These questions must be answered because of the large number, even among the psychologists, who will ask them.

In the first case, it may be said that the make of the revolver and the hip pocket and such similar details must be brought into the matter because they are a part of the con-

( 312) -ditions of the act. The source from which the revolver is obtained (in this case the hip pocket) determines the initial movements of the act of murder (if we omit the less obvious, though not less important, preliminaries leading up to this stage). The flexions of the arm involved and the balancing of the body, the coördination of the forward extension of the arm with the eye movement, the flexion of the finger upon the trigger in correlation with the completion of the arm-eye coördination, the grasping of the butt of the revolver, etc., all constitute one serial or chain set of neural and muscular dispositions which must further be correlated with another set of memory images, moral and social valuations, emotion of anger, computation of the opponent's probable skill, of distance, light, etc., to complete the act of murder in this hypothetical case. Since the organization and incidence of all these correlations and coördinations must shift and be different under varying conditions, we cannot properly speak of the various acts as being identical or of the group of similar acts of shooting as being a unit. Yet, such unity is necessary for the act to be an inherited one, that is, for it to be truly an instinct. If we accept, as we must, the principle that we inherit as an identical and unitary act only structures which function uniformly, that is, without changing the content or organization of the structure, we must include all these details as above described in the act which we speak of as instinctive. This is so, because all of the details are essential parts or conditions of the act. Any other structural organization means another act, unless indeed we admit that we define the act from the standpoint of its social and moral significance instead of from its biological organization. In such a case the organisation of the act must be acknowledged to be social and not biological. It must therefore be apparent that it is an acquired rather than an inherited act, in so far as its organization as an act is concerned, because its organiza-

(313) - tion is external to the structure instead of identical with the unitary neuro-muscular organization. This imputation of the acquired character of the act would still remain true even though all the component structures organized into the whole of the act or adjustment complex were themselves inherited structures, an assumption in the latter case, which would rarely if ever be true. The characteristic of an instinct is that its organization, including all component structures or adjustments, as well as the component structures or psychophysical dispositions, is inherited and internally and organically organized. The fact of the external or social and abstract organization of the act deprives it of its instinctive character, making it acquired; for the definition of the act depends upon its organization.

So much is clear and will necessarily be accepted. The defender of the instinctive explanation, having thus abandoned the theory that John Smith's murderer acted because of an instinct of criminality or even because of a general instinct or tendency to shoot, may now substitute some such formula as: he acted from an instinct to withdraw a Colt revolver (previously loaded, etc., and placed in some specified position or receptacle) and to extend the arm to a position coördinating with the eye (known as sighting) and to flex the forefinger (causing the discharge). This deadly instinct to do all these things in series we may be assured caused the death of the much lamented John Smith. We may accept this statement temporarily as representing the facts. What shall we name this instinct? Shall we call it the instinct to murder by doing as above described? The followers of Lombroso and his school may be strongly tempted to do so because of their penchant for the "born" criminal, and to them a crumb may seem better than no bread at all. But unfortunately the murderer of John Smith probably went through exactly the same activities in shooting at a knot on a tree before he had

( 314) even heard of John Smith and had his quarrel with him. What instinct was he exercising then? Surely it was not the the instinct to murder by means of a Colt revolver drawn from a hip pocket. Evidently we must eliminate the phrase "to murder " from this instinct altogether, unless we desire further to complicate the process by bringing in additional phrases descriptive of neural processes connected with the whole emotional and ideational content of the situation. That is, the moral or social description of the end result has no place in the description of the instinct, for reasons already fully discussed. Then our instinct would be stated somewhat as follows, abbreviating those phrases already frequently stated: "an instinct to murder by (describing the manipulation of the instrument used in the murder) upon experiencing the emotion of anger aroused by certain acts (definitely and fully stated) of the object of the anger and now recalled in memory." Or, it may be that there was no anger at all, but pity for his suffering which it seemed desirable to end or because he was insane and consequently attacking the person shooting, or some other similar hypothetical situation. In such cases we should have several instincts to murder, some of them perhaps merely instincts to kill (where no moral obloquy was attached to the deed), for they would be different acts, neurologically speaking, in the several instances.

It should be noted, however, that the completing terms in these expanded "instincts" would ordinarily represent activities growing out of new or recently developed social and industrial situations and therefore most probably not inherited acts at all. Thus the cause of the offense may have been theft of mining property or a political libel, both things of recent origin. In such cases some terms in the reputed instinct would obviously not be instinctive at all. We would not commit murder because of such offenses against us until we had learned through a process of social or environmental

( 315) assimilation to value such external objects or elements of character. We have no instinctive or inherited sense of valuation for such abstract elements of character as may be subject to libel or for such a newly devised form of property as mining stock. We have to acquire such a sense of values for these as would cause us to commit murder in their defense or as a means to acquiring possession of them. In such cases we should have the anomalous situation of describing an instinct which obviously is not all instinct. Indeed, the use of the Colt revolver and of the hip pocket was earlier objected to because of the impossibility of the activity elements centering around these objects being truly instinctive. Therefore, we may safely conclude that this whole complex structure of so-called instinct, in this particular case at least, has become top-heavy with acquired elements and must fall of its own weight.

Once complex syntheses of acts are analyzed out into their unit elements of structures and reduced to a basis of concrete neural and muscular dispositions, the problem of whether the act is instinctive or acquired becomes merely a question of fact. The fact itself is determinable, not so much on the basis of the degree of concreteness and unity of the act as on the basis of whether the act is known to have been learned or acquired and whether it is possible from the standpoint of past social history for this particular structural complex of neurons and muscles to have been selected into the hereditary traits of the type and broadcasted to a large section of humanity. Granting that the possibility of selecting such a structural organization into the hereditary equipment of the individual and its broadcasting, as, in some of the simpler cases, may be maintained with a considerable show of truth, at least with respect to the selection if not with respect to the broadcasting— then we should expect to find the human animal possessed of a number of instincts almost beyond

( 316) comprehension. Consider, for instance, how many criminal instincts, or instincts which could at least be used for criminal situations, could be fashioned from the analysis of criminality above constructed. But we have already shown, at least by inference, that most of the concrete serial acts isolated in that analysis could not possibly have been inherited, social evolution being what it has been. The same may presumably be said of the results of the analysis of any other abstract or synthetic social attitude, such as morality, religiosity, love of democracy, and the like, into its concrete activity contents.

If the serial act (such as the one described in detail above), as it appears in its final analysis, is not truly inherited or instinctive in its complete form, may it not at least contain some instinctive core which gives general direction to the act? it is often asked. The answer here depends on what is meant to be included under the term core and how much directive power is assumed for it. If it is some metaphysical or mystical entity which is conceived of as directing the act, but which cannot be reduced to anything definite and concrete like a neural correlate or neuro-muscular or neuro-glandular or other structural disposition, then the question must be dismissed, for it means nothing intelligible and definable. If, on the other hand, by core is meant that some important or dominant part of the act, or rather of the structure resulting in the act, is inherited, the question may sometimes, perhaps, be answered in the affirmative. But here we must guard against assuming too large a constituency for the core. Perhaps relatively few acts are wholly learned acts. Practically all acts contain some inherited basis or basic elements, more or less removed from the original form of activity of the organism, upon which acquired or learned adjustments are built or based. In the more complex and advanced or distinctively

( 317) social adjustments these inherited bases of structure and functioning are covered up by the overlying acquisitions to such an extent that they are not easily isolated or separated and recognized. Even in the action of murdering with a Colt revolver drawn from the hip pocket of a cowboy or other ferocious member of our species there are instinctive elements. The murderer's bodily structure is for the most part inherited, with the result that within certain limits the kind of flexion of the arm, the method of grasping the butt of the revolver, the ability to look along the barrel of the revolver in the act of sighting, are predetermined in large degree by hereditary structures, organs and characteristics. But the acts of flexion, extension, of sighting and of coördination have to be learned through the development of localization and recognition as developed through the organism's sensory equipment. Grasping is a native reflex and so is the tendency to flex the arm, but grasping and flexing with a purpose, or in the service of a willed end, as is here described, is always part of a learned process. Furthermore, the correlating of a string or group of dissimilar acts, such as has been described in this and other chapters, into a connected series having moral or social (but not inherited neuro-muscular) unity and meaning, giving rise to acts possessing social and moral significance or value, is certainly the results of learning or environmental pressures or molding, and not of heredity.

Thus it becomes apparent that the so-called core or cores of a complex act are relatively simple, as compared with the whole of the act. They are generally rudimentary, constituting merely the foundation stones of the completed structure of socially significant activities. Not only are these cores rudimentary, but they are also interchangeable, appearing as basic elements in a great many acts. In fact, a varying number of them appear in practically all acts. It is clearly seen that it is not these basic or rudimentary inherited

( 318) elements, common to large numbers of distinct activities, which give determinative character to the completed acts. Rather, it is the variable or learned additions that give character, that is, which separate them off in character from other acts, and it is upon the basis of such characteristics that we name the act. Consequently it is a matter of misrepresentation or confusion to speak of the act, which obviously often consists primarily of learned elements, and which is always organized externally into its unity of meaning, as an instinct.

The other general question as to whether we may not inherit a tendency to criminality, to saintliness, to truth telling or to lying, to religiousness, to superstition, or to some other general social or moral trait or traits, or to the performance of some corresponding set of acts (although we do not y' inherit the complete activity itself, or its overt structural basis) is based either upon a misconception of the nature of heredity or upon a failure to distinguish the thing inherited from the act under consideration. If by tendency is meant some magical or mystical internal control without concrete neural content the proposition must be dismissed as in the similar case of the core discussed above. It may be repeated that there is no psychosis without neurosis. Neither is there inheritance of "tendencies," which are even less tangible than ideas and abstract syntheses which we have shown cannot be inherited. However, if by tendency is meant, as is sometimes said, a desire to do that particular act, we can discuss the proposition only when we have reduced the desire to a concrete biological and actual neural basis. Now, desire is merely the vague or more or less definitely conscious recognition of the absence of an activity or adjustment which the organism is prepared or equipped for. That is to say, the desire corresponds to a neural and otherwise internal structural or biochemical organization of the individual

( 319) which at that moment is seeking overt expression but, which, because of some obstruction or inhibition, is not realized in overt action. If the inner organization seeking for activity expression were realized completely in action, without interrupting factors or "hitches" or inhibitions, all desire would pass. Even consciousness itself ceases with perfectly automatic activity. Thus the desire, considered as a biological or structural fact, reduces to a biological (primarily a neural) correlate, which is identical with the act, or the part of the act, unperformed or incompletely consummated. Whether this structural organization is inherited or acquired must be determined by the processes of analysis and investigation described above. At the same time it becomes clear that we cannot shift the problem of instinct merely by substituting the term tendency. The two problems are not separate, but identical. Both instincts and tendencies involve equally internal organization of neural structures.

Sometimes by the word tendency is meant some core or inherited unit in the structure or organization which predisposes to the act and which further predisposes toward the development of certain types of social or learned adjustments under specific circumstances. Thus people inheriting feeblemindedness or deafness or some other defect of a radical sort (assuming that such characteristics are the result of inheritance rather than of prenatal or preconceptual environmental influences— a supposition not yet completely verified)[4] may be spoken of as inheriting a tendency to criminality.[5] A person born with an unstable nervous equipment may be

( 320) characterized as having an inherited tendency toward insanity. In such cases it is clear that the unfortunate person may more easily develop criminality, or insanity, for example, than would some one who was perfectly normal in his inherited physiological and neurological make-up. In the same way he would be more liable or "predisposed" to develop poverty, illness or some other radical maladjustment in society. But the correlation here is not, as is commonly assumed, an inherited one. The secondary characteristic is produced because the primary characteristic renders the possessor less able to develop a normal adjustment to the social environment, because of his handicap. What particular secondary characteristic is actually developed, out of a number of possibilities, depends upon the direction in which adverse environmental pressures warp him. Thus, it is apparent that such secondary characteristics are of environmental rather than of hereditary origin, are acquired instead of instinctive, and to speak of the inheritance of a tendency in this sense is decidedly misleading.

On the basis of the preceding analysis of a typical case of the imputation of the character of instinct to a complex or abstract quality, it has been possible to indicate some of the prevalent errors of usage in regard to instinct. The ease with which acquired habits and abstract value concepts can be confused with instincts or truly inherited characteristics has been pointed out, though only a single detailed example has been used by way of illustration. The reader may easily make a similar analysis of other group activities or abstractions or social and moral valuations which he finds characterized as instincts and arrive at similar results. In this way the absurdity of much current writing and speaking regarding "instincts, " which are really social value concepts or acquired complexes of activity, can easily be demonstrated.


  1. Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, ch. 3.
  2. Ibid., 83-92.
  3. The number of writers who still speak of the "born criminal" is large, although there appears to be a growing conception of the inappropriateness of the term. See C. A. Ellwood, Sociology and Modern Social Problems, 3d ed., 327 ff.
  4. See tentative classification of such early environmental influences in a paper by the author in Vol. XVI of the Publications of the American Sociological Society (1921).
  5. Many of the writers employing the terms "instinctive criminal," "born criminal," etc., evidently have such a meaning vaguely in mind. See Ellwood, op. cit., 327 ff.; also Parmelee, Criminology, and in fact most of the writers on criminal traits.

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