Instinct: A study in social psychology
Chapter 14: Some False Instincts Exposed — Maternal, Paternal and Parental
Luther Lee Bernard
In the two preceding chapters some of the activity complexes which have been named in terms descriptive of their social significance and which have been most commonly regarded as instincts were analyzed. This analysis was undertaken for a twofold purpose: to illustrate widely prevalent erroneous theories regarding instincts and to demonstrate that these particular activity complexes or series were not organized on the basis of biological heredity. They are organized on the basis of environmental pressures and they are even named after socially significant processes or functions.
In the present chapter three reputed instincts, all in the repertoire of the contemporary social psychologists and sociologists, will be subjected to an analysis and criticism in the light of the methods worked out in the preceding chapters. When it is stated that these activity series or complexes are organized on the basis of environmental pressures, it is not maintained that they necessarily originate exclusively in contemporary interests. Many of 'them have a historical aspect, a "social heredity," as it is sometimes termed by analogy, which often is difficult to distinguish superficially from biological heredity. Such is the case, for instance, in connection with the so-called maternal instinct. It is difficult to distinguish what the mother does for the child because of traditional or customary motives from her activities in its behalf on an experience and on an instinctive basis. All three groups or
(322) sources of impulsions operate. Along with her inherited organic responses in yielding food to the child at her breast and in responding to its cries, go activities which in her own childhood she picked up unconsciously or subconsciously (or at least the source of which she has forgotten) by observing mothers attend to their infants, and other activities which she has learned by trial and error or which she has obtained from books, bulletins and class instruction and lectures.
This traditional element in child-care is particularly likely to be mistaken for instinct. Its acquisition is for the most part an unconscious process, or at least an unreflective one. Children are busy in their early years with imitating their elders in all conceivable practices. The child does, at least crudely, in act or in imagination, for her doll all those things the mother performs for a younger child and for her. She masters in the rough all the remedial and medicinal applications, the hygienic and sanitary processes, undertakes educational and corrective supervision over the "life" of the doll and even gives to it the same quality of treatment, in approbation and disapprobation, which she herself receives from her parents. She practices language on it and even plays games with it; assigns other personalities to it and to herself and then imitates these into her own character when there are not sufficient and frequent enough models of actual people about her for imitation. All these activities, while conscious within a limited sphere, are "forgotten," that is, crowded further back under the veil of the subconscious, as the child grows older and confronts new problems of adjustment, problems which are real rather than "make believe." But they remain planted in the nervous system to be called forth again into practice when some cue in the form of a similar experience in connection with an actual child pricks the dormant complexes of the associative memory.
There are those who deplore bitterly the passage of this
( 323) phase of experience out of the lives of children, maintaining that it diminishes the interests of adult women of the future generations in motherhood. There are of course losses and gains to be reckoned in this connection. There is a certain loss of sentiment for the child and there is also a lack of technical ease of manipulation when the newborn child appears. Of the two the former loss is the more serious, since practice play with dolls predisposes toward the child and makes it appear to be desirable. On the other hand much of the traditional care of infants which comes down from mother to child through such channels as these might better be forgotten, provided more scientific instruction is ready at hand. Traditional methods of child care are of course also handed down in a more conscious way from experienced to inexperienced mothers. Until recently practically the whole content of the maternal "instinct" was of this mixture of traditional and inherited methods. With the development of sciences pertaining to infant care and hygiene and nutrition generally, a highly conscious learning process and a wholly obvious learned or acquired content have been introduced into this fundamental "instinct" through the propagation of scientific methods and information. Those who now maintain (what was at one time a most common contention) that the mother's instincts or her inborn knowledge of the child's needs is the best guarantee of its welfare are regarded as hopelessly antiquated in their thinking. No person even casually acquainted with the distribution of infant mortality rates in relation to scientific training for baby care would make such an argument to-day.
The sociologists and others interested in the child and the family still continuo to speak of "the maternal instinct." Probably what they mean by this usage is not very clear to
( 324) themselves. Many writers on social questions have not taken the trouble to make a definition of instinct as a check upon their use of the term. Others who have accepted some one of the current definitions have not tested their usage by means of their definition or have not tested their definition with a reference to the facts. In the former of these respects, at least, they are like those biologists described in a previous chapter who have memorized the Mendelian principles of heredity and who set them forth neatly in their books, but do not make use of them in their thinking and writing. It is therefore largely on the basis of customary usage, which has not been corrected by critical analysis, that the sociologist and the publicist continue to speak of the "maternal instinct" as if they believed that the care of the infant is an instinctive activity. Others, still, do not realize that an instinct is a structural fact and speak of an instinct as an attitude or a quality, remaining comfortably ignorant that they are under any obligation to prove the inheritability of the thing they have called an instinct. The various constituent processes of infant care need but be analyzed, much as criminality was analyzed in the preceding chapter, to show that it is not a unit character or even a unit activity and cannot be inherited as such; that it is an abstract synthesis of activities evaluated and organized by the social environment (in so far as it has been organized into one single activity process at all  ) rather than by biological heredity; and finally that it is composed of unit activities, some of which are of very recent origin and could not have been selected into the inheritance of the racial type and broadcasted by any conceivable process whatever. This will be admitted by most sociologists upon reflection. They all even contend that they do not understand by an in-
(325) -stinct that all of the component activities are inherited, but that only the directive or determinative elements in the activity complex or series have been inherited. They rightly contend that if we hold that all of the activity must be inherited to constitute it an instinct we can have no complex social instincts at all, since there is no socially constituted activity which does not contain acquired elements. Therefore, they maintain that the maternal activity complex is an instinct because its central directive force is inborn or inherited, even though most of the acts performed for the child by the mother are learned acts. Let us examine these contentions in some detail.
It may be repeated that there is no definite, stable unit activity which we may speak of as maternal care or infant care or "maternal instinct." There are as many varieties as there are mothers and as many general groupings of varieties as
( 326) there are schools and class and national customs of infant care. But, for the sake of argument at least, we may assume that any one woman's methods of infant care at any particular time constitute hey "maternal instinct." Does, therefore, the second contention hold, that the inborn element in this activity series, which characterizes this particular woman's methods of infant care, directs the whole complex? Among females of the animals other than human it very probably does: but it is doubtful if such can be claimed even for savage mothers of the human type. As remarked above, it is difficult to separate early acquirements through the imitation process from biological inheritance without considerable intensive investigation. But it is doubtful if more than the response to touch, temperature and odor stimuli from the child by fondling, holding and licking or kissing, a more or less vague unorganized emotional response to its cries, which chiefly manifests itself in movement toward the child, vague answering cries and the discharge of milk upon certain definite stimuli of pressure upon the breast, can be said to be inherited by the human mother. This is all that the animal mother also inherits. But such an instinctive equipment is sufficient for the care of the animal young, because it is born with sufficient development of structure and function to enable it to respond to and take advantage of such instinctive aids.
The human infant is born with such incomplete development, due to its prolongation of the period of infancy far beyond the point of birth, that it could not exist without a greater degree of responsiveness from the mother than her animal instincts provide for. Consequently a new technique of infant care must be developed or acquired by her, through the use of her intelligence, which will enable her offspring to survive. Very probably the prolonged period of infancy in
( 327) the child has been selected into the race because of the greater adaptive intelligence of the human mother. Rather it would be more nearly correct to say that a prolonged period of infancy, involving the birth of the child prematurely from the standpoint of lower animal life, and immediate survival efficiency, has been selected into the race because of the ultimate survival value of a longer learning period or a more varied capacity to make adjustments (greater flexibility of characters) which permits the acquisition of a vastly greater store of adjustment technique. On the other hand, the mother's greater intelligence, supplanting the fixity of instinct and thereby offering a substitute for the child's instincts upon which he would otherwise be more dependent, has served as the necessary condition, making this prolonged infancy possible. The mother meets the greater demands of the less capable infant by building up a substitute and acquired adjustment technique in herself. Most of this technique serves also in other capacities, as well as in the care of the infant. Her vague emotional responses become organized into definite cuddling and fondling activities. The inarticulate but quieting or exciting cries of the animal mother are through human intelligence expanded into language and song which not only soothe or excite the human child but which later on serve to guide and instruct it. Her hands not only replace the tongue of the animal in rendering minor services on an instinctive basis, but she learns to render the most complex services
(328) through this medium. But these services were rendered in other connections long before they were tendered to the child and they do not appear for the first time in connection with child care. In this instance intelligence quite manifestly replaces instinct.
To what extent the mother's intelligence has been developed as a means of responding to the growth of the period of human infancy is an unsettled question, but it would seem that such adaptive response would be a rather indirect method of securing flexibility of character in the infant. It presupposes flexibility in the mother as a means to its development in the infant. In fact the factors producing greater intelligence in the mother are the same as those demanding it in the child— the growing complexity of an environment which is constantly re-formed through the pressures of changes in the density of population and an advance in the technical arts. The great complexity of acquired technique which the highly intelligent and civilized mother has developed to supplement instinct in the care of infants born immature is rather an offshoot from this general fund of intelligence or acquired mental technique than the cause of it. Infant care is a derivative or composite science and art. Its usefulness has been amply demonstrated by the lowering of the infantile death rate, because of its aid, to a mere fraction of what it remains where no science, but only instinct and tradition, are employed in the art.
Because, therefore, of the need of greater flexibility of response in the child to an increasingly complex and more rapidly changing environment, mother care of the infant has gradually been substituted for instinctive self-direction by the young infant in the early adjustment process. The child is born before its organic and basic neural structures are com-
( 329) -pleted, with the result that these may be organized very largely under the pressures or controls of the external environment— in man, mainly under the direction of the psycho-social environment. Thus the substitution of mother care of the child for instinctive self-direction by the child has gradually broken up and selected out of the heredity some of the old instinctive processes which enabled the offspring to be functionally active at birth. Some of these instincts are merely pushed further along in the postnatal developmental process and are called delayed instincts. Others still apparently are disrupted or disorganized and tend to disappear or to become vestigial. That is, they break down into constituent reflexes, which are later organized under the influence of maternal care or other environmental pressures into habit complexes more flexible and much more adaptable to the survival or variable adjustment needs of the growing organism. In this way the heredity of the child is being selected in conformity with the new environmental fact of mother care. This is especially true of human types, but it is also apparently to some extent true also of the higher and more domesticated animals. In the case of domesticated animals, human care often takes the place of intelligent mother care.
We are now ready to turn to the question as to whether the series of acts of child-care, which at any particular time may conceivably be spoken of as a woman's "maternal instinct," is really directed or dominated by the instinctive elements in the whole complex of child-care acts. Obviously this is the only serious claim the instinctivists can advance to maintain the rightfulness of their contention that the complex of child-care acts constitutes an instinct. The activity elements of the child-care complex which are probably true instincts are mentioned above. To what extent do they control the other acts
( 330) of the mother which are directed to the real or intended service of the child? It is not conceivable that the instinct or reflex to discharge milk upon characteristic stimulation could function in any other way than as it does. The instincts to respond by voice and by motion to the cry of the child are capable of expansion to a wider application than that which they have among lower animals or savage women. The same appears to be true of the affective response or responses which the mother gives to the child and which apparently are derived from her sensory contacts with the child, especially the temperature, tactual, olfactory and auditory ones. Let us consider each of these separately.
The vocal responses to the child's cries— the responses of the mother as well as the cries of the child which are instinctive— apparently have in their native form merely the power to produce useful movement or silence or vocal action in the offspring or to frighten off the enemies of the child. Silence produced by soothing monotony in the mother's voice or by the shock from the shrillness of her cries may have survival value for the child. The young of some animals scurry hastily to cover upon hearing the mother give a certain signal, which is evidently effective because of its emotional significance. Other signals call the young to partake of food. Certain signals from the young start the mother into a rage if she beholds the threatening intruder or into a condition of great excitement if she does not locate the danger and thus have an opportunity for the organization of her activity or emotional expression about a definite object. Other signals between adults have sex significance which apparently produces a response instinctively.
All of these responses are in the main or wholly instinctive: No doubt, however, the mother does learn methods of expressing her rage more effectively and the young learn to seek cover to advantage or to cause their instinctive appeals for
( 331) food or aid to take on a more effective emotional content. Some animals, such as the dog, can be observed to teach their young to play and to go through sham fighting movements, which are identical with the real acts of fighting except in the matter of intensity. Also the instinctive emotional response is organized about its object and largely characterized by that object, as suggested above, and varies as the object varies. Diffused excitement and nervousness are transformed into concentrated rage by a normal process of emotional synthesis when the intruder is finally discovered or perhaps the whole response merges into fear and flight. Furthermore the attack upon the intruder, or the flight from his presence, varies in its method according to what sort of object it is. Thus it is apparent that such responses have a learned element in them even this far down in the scale— unless indeed we assume an infinitude of similar instincts to correspond to every object of attack and under every conceivable condition. In that case, for instance, we should have the instinct of the hen to fight a snake attacking her young, the instinct to fight a dog attacking her nest, the instinct to fight a human being (young, old, male, female, timorous and brave) interfering with her young, and the like, ad infinitum. She acts differently in each case and therefore if her actions are true instincts she must have as many instincts as she has actions or action patterns. We
(332) can escape the difficulty here only by finding the instinctive element further back than the complete and complex activity which appears on the surface.
Wherever we place the instinct, at the point where we observe the completed action or back in some of its constituent elements, the real question is, does the instinct determine the more complex activity built upon it? Does the cry of the
( 333) young call forth instinctively more than the answering cry and forward motion  which is instinctive in the mother? Do her instincts to respond in these definite ways cause the development of language as we now know it, which gets expression in lectures and books and bulletins on child welfare, infant feeding and child labor and in the congressional enactment (nominally at least made by the male members of the species) establishing the Children's Bureau? Have the primitive instinctive forward movement and fondling caresses of the mother in response to the cry of the child expanded into activities under the direct control of the instinct, resulting in the construction of homes for orphan children and in making diphtheria antitoxin? This seems unlikely. It is not easy to see how these definite instincts would be able to go over into these admittedly cultural activities without being directed from the object end or environmental control aspect of the process. There is nothing in forward movement which would of itself end in the manufacture of diphtheria antitoxin and there is no germ of a children's code (except in the imagination of the instinctivist) in the savage warning cry of the mother. A high degree of scientific and social organization, built more out of
(334) things and for ends not directly connected with child welfare, is much more obviously responsible for these developments than these primitive instinctive responses to the presence of the child.
But may we not say that the mother's affective attitude toward the child, her tender emotion,' so-called, is the true maternal instinct and that it is after all the efficient cause of the development of the subsequently learned activities? We cannot answer this question without raising another, namely, as to how an affective attitude could become the cause of intelligent and constructive action. Evidently it could do so only under two conditions. Either the affective attitude must represent a desire for these more complex learned activities, or it must constitute a condition or attitude which can be satisfied only by the development of these activities. Very probably these two conditions are identical, for the attitude apparently can be defined only when stated in terms of a desire. But supposing the attitude can be considered as a thing in itself, we know that affective attitudes are frequently more fully satisfied by instinctive expression than by externally imposed activities. Activities from the outside, which involve an adjustment in any way different from the habitual or the instinctive always cause nervousness and confusion and unpleasantness in some degree or other. As long as the instinctive, that is, the inherited structural technique or neural organization and the acquired or habitual overt responses can be performed, the animal is satisfied. We have an abundance of examples of the difficulty encountered in inducing a diseased ignorant mother to wean her child from the breast when its life may depend upon her taking the step. It is also difficult to teach ignorant mothers not to
( 335) rock their children to sleep, not to jounce them, end not to respond to the petulant or hunger cries of the baby with complex foods suitable only for adults, or even harmful to the adults themselves. It is also a wise mother who can learn not to respond to all cries of the child when her reason (as opposed to her instincts) tells her that the child will be better off if subjected to silence or apparent neglect. The conditions of rearing the child having changed, many of the old instinctive signals become false signs or are even provocative of harmful results, if freely responded to; but the mother has to learn this fact and repress her instinctive responses at the cost of some emotional unpleasantness to herself. Thus we find that instead of the modern care of the child being a necessary or natural condition to the satisfaction of the mother's instinctively affective attitude toward the child, it is in reality in strong opposition to it. Thus, through education and the gradual acquisition of habits adjusted to the modern conditions and needs of child care, a new set of affective attitudes is developed toward the child which are often in conflict with the old instinctive ones. These new and conflicting affective attitudes are rendered possible because it is feasible to build up a feeling response or affective attitude on the basis of acquired habits quite as well as on that of instinct with which it is hereditarily correlated. The new habitually conditioned affective attitude, if scientifically directed, is more forward-looking and serviceable to the child than the instinctive one can be under modern complex conditions.
But this attitude, this "tender " emotion, so called, is not instinctive or inherited. It is an acquired emotional attitude. We need net here raise the question as to whether any effective attitude can be the cause of activity, although it may be
(336) said that the prevailing judgment is to the contrary. The affective or feeling and emotional aspect appears to be the correlate or accompaniment rather than the cause of the act, a sort of crude signal to the organism of the effectiveness of the adjustment which is being made. But if we assume (contrary to the better judgment of the psychologists) a causal relationship between emotion and action by means of which the "tender" emotion becomes the source of the acts of child-care, we are confronted still by the fact that the emotion is in this case primarily acquired. Nor is it self-generated from the instinctive "core" of the tender emotion which, according to McDougall, is primary and instinctive. The acquired emotional complex arises only out of experience, it is somatic rather than of hereditary origin. The experience, gained in the process of active adjustment to environing conditions, determines the actual content and reference, and in the main the intensity, of the emotional complex which is associated with child-care. Consequently, if, as some of the social psychologists and educationists claim, the emotional complex is the cause of the correlated acts, those acts could be shown to proceed from a learned or acquired adjustment affective complex rather than from a purely primary and unitary instinctive tender feeling.
If we examine the other assumption that the affective attitude represents a general or a specific desire for the welfare of the child and therefore leads to the development of each and every technique for securing it, scientific as well as nonscientific, we must ask, What is the content of this desire for welfare? It will be either a desire for some concrete things, which in the mind of the one who desires symbolizes the child's welfare as a whole, or it will be a desire for an abstraction which necessarily reduces to the status of a word symbol, if it is detached from the concrete contents from which it is logically synthesized. Consequently we must conceive of
( 337) the primitive human or animal mother as desiring either the general word symbol, or the synthetic and socially approved welfare content as applied to her child, or certain specific acts, which, we must assume, she foresees. For desires cannot exist apart from neural structures which stand for definite and concrete things; they are in fact the "feeling" or perception (however dimly or definitely outlined this perception may be) of the absence of these very things. It is absurd to think of the primitive mother possessing an instinctive abstract conception of child welfare to serve as a basis for the future development of her child-caring activities, for such abstraction must always be the result of a synthesis of concrete experiences which antedate the abstract concept which itself originates by synthesis from them. It is equally unthinkable that she should instinctively foresee in definite (or indefinite) imagery the specific modern-day learned acts which would conduce to child welfare, since she could not possibly have inherited neural structures as a basis for such perceptions.
The question may even be raised properly as to whether the mother's affective attitude toward the child, at least in anything like the completeness of detail in which we know it to exist in the mature and experienced individual, is itself inherited. There seems to be good reason to suppose that it grows out of the experience of the mother in her various instinctive and acquired contacts with the child, prenatal and postnatal, as a part of the self which develops through experience-getting contacts. It also grows in part out of the tradition of love and reverence for the child which ever increases with civilization and is communicated to each succeeding mother with increased power and in ever greater
( 338) detail, reinforced by the suggestion of art and literature, morals and convention, religion and science. However, the discussion of this aspect of the subject perhaps more properly belongs to a detailed treatment of the subject of environment.
We have now, by means of this somewhat lengthy analysis, established the fact that the part of the series of child-caring acts which are inherited do not dominate or determine the development of the learned elements in the activity series. In fact, the inherited content is so elementary and so inadequate that we scarcely regard it as child-caring in content at all. The learned acts are introduced and the whole complex is organized on the basis of new and socially constructed ideals which frequently conflict with the instinctive elements which are dominant in the earlier stages of animal development. In this maternal or child-caring type of activity complex, as in earlier ones considered, we find that it is the social valuation for social ends which increasingly, consciously or unconsciously, organizes the activity complex and gives it its name. This valuation process may, as was earlier said, organize quite diverse types of activities, structurally considered, and— what is more to the point from the standpoint of our argument— the instinctive elements so organized into a socially directed activity complex may be of quite distinct genetic derivation, having no discernible historical connection with the instinctive elements employed in the original processes of child-care. They may first have arisen in connection with some other survival process which organized them into other activity complexes for other adjustment ends. Likewise the acquired element, thus organized into a superior whole may have— often have— been developed in quite differ-
( 339) -ent connections and were carried over to this complex by a process of borrowing or assimilation. The dominance is, therefore, to be viewed from the object or social result end rather than from the biological inheritance or instinctive end. A recognition of this fact destroys the last plausible argument for speaking of the "maternal instinct" as inclusive of the whole process of child-care. We should rather call it the maternal activity or child-caring complex, though we must not forget that it is infinitely variable as it operates among different peoples or in different persons and situations. Therefore, to speak at all of it as a unit complex is manifestly misleading. It is primarily an abstract or synthetic value complex, socially determined and organized, with many shifting constituent activity complexes. It of course contains inherited elements, but these do not render the whole complex an instinct. The essential fact is that its organization is now dominated from the standpoint of social ideals or values, and this constitutes it a social value complex, or at least a group of acquired activity complexes.
If the reasoning here set forth regarding the "maternal instinct" be accepted, it will be even more readily apparent r that we are not justified in speaking of a paternal instinct. Obviously the father has not those inherited organic connections with the child which the mother possesses. His connection with the child is a learned one. Apparently only recently has he become familiar with the fact of paternity; and he has been induced to become interested in his offspring in comparatively recent times through the growth of humanitarian sentiment and tradition in society at large which has built up a cult about the child and has gradually drawn the male parent also into its circle to worship at its altar. Concrete association with the child, arising as a result of the institution of the patriarchal family which gave a distinct eco-
( 340) -nomic value to the child for the household of the male, has been even a stronger factor in giving him an affective and child-caring attitude toward his offspring. Originally under the maternal organization of the family he did not always recognize the fact of either biological or social responsibility for the child. Often he did not know the children which he had begotten. But with the change of family structure and of the system of tracing relationship, due to the changes in the life economy of society which brought about the paternal system, he has become the chief economic protector of the child and gives it his own name. Propinquity breeds affection and responsibility calls for the technique of fulfillment. Thus the father or paternal "instinct" is in reality quite clearly a habit complex or acquired value concept.
Some writers  also speak of a parental instinct. It is difficult to conceive what the structure of such an "instinct" could be apart from the structure of the two "instincts" already discussed. The parental attitudes analyze into those we call paternal and maternal. Consequently it cannot be a separate "instinct," and by the same token it can be no instinct at all. This term merely affords another example of the general uncritical tendency to speak of any activity socially evaluated and abstractly synthesized as an instinct. Parental activity complexes when standardized are social products in response to social evaluations or social situations.