Instinct: A Study in Social Psychology

Chapter 20: Summary and Conclusions

Luther Lee Bernard

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There is sufficient agreement at the present time as to the meaning of instinct to permit of a definition. Practically all English-speaking psychologists reject the continental practice of considering it as merely any automatic action-pattern, whether acquired or inherited, and limit it to those definite stimulus-response processes or action-patterns which are inherited. This limitation to hereditary action-patterns is not, of course, identical with the term "inborn" processes. The point of birth is nine months subsequent to the point of fertilization, at which the combination of hereditary characters takes place in the individual beginning life. During this intervening period many traits, which appear as automatisms at birth or for which the groundwork is then laid, are acquired. An instinct is not only an inherited action-pattern, but, in so far as it is a completely organized instinct, it is also definite. It is a specific response to a specific stimulus or set of stimuli. One cannot inherit an abstraction. Inheritance is either of concrete organs or tissues or of combinations of such, that is, of structures which determine the patterns of actions which inevitably proceed from them under unmodified conditions. These patterns of action, thus determined by the inherited organization of structures, we call instincts. Strictly speaking, one cannot inherit activities, but one may inherit the structure, the functioning of which determines the action-pattern. This is our justification for speaking of the inheritance of instinct.

But action-patterns can also be determined by acquired

(510) organization and functioning of structures. Practically all of the skills are such acquired or synthetic organizations of structure, functioning in different or more complex ways than those to which inheritance directed them. Where such acquired or superinduced organizations of structures and functions occur and become automatic we speak of habit instead of instinct. Such modification of the organization of inherited structures, creating acquired action-patterns or habits, occurs but slightly or seldom among the highly standardized basic structures of the human organism. In the bony structures it occurs directly scarcely at all, although the skillful surgeon may accomplish something here by way of modifications. Likewise in the visceral and glandular tissues and structures there is relatively little modification of functional organizations throughout life, although there are exceptions to this statement. The digestive system, for example, may adapt itself successively to different foods or even in extreme cases to narcotics and poisons with a high degree of success, and the glands are probably constantly undergoing minor and sometimes major changes in structure and function in disease or as a means to protecting the whole organism against a dangerous infection or a condition of strain. Other visceral functions and the structural organizations upon which they are based, such as breathing and the circulation of the blood and to a less degree the functions connected with sex, remain pretty constant throughout life. Consequently, we rightly regard these fundamental structural and functional organizations, which remain much or wholly the same throughout the life period and which are so basic to the life of the individual and the species, as mainly instinctive. They retain their inherited form with a minimum of change until the death of the individual.

But when we consider some of the more flexible and phylogenetically less basic structures and tissues of the body we

( 511) find that they undergo a considerable modification of general structural and functional organization with the passage of time, and particularly in the first years of life, including the prenatal period of development. Even the minor and peripheral neuro-muscular controls—not those most basic to the evolution and survival of the type, such as those of the heart and those used in breathing—undergo a considerable modification in their collective or functional structural organization.

We are born with few skills in the neural structures which control these peripheral muscles, probably largely because of our long history of parental care through a prolonged period of infancy; but we acquire a vast multitude of such skills or functional organizations and adaptations of structures under the pressures of modern civilization or the complex social environment which we call civilization. These acquired skills —although they may have instinctive foundations of a rudimentary and often imperceptible sort—are properly called habits. The historical process of evolution, out of which the instincts developed by means of natural selection, had no need of such skills, and they were consequently not selected into the organism by heredity. But our multiplied problems of organic adjustment to the physical environment, which is constantly differentiated into ever-increasing complexity through the medium of our expanding social environment, calls for a vast mass of neuro-muscular technique which may continue in operation for only a few generations or even decades but which must be spread abroad throughout the population almost simultaneously. Consequently these skills cannot by any manipulation of Mendelian inheritance be made to appear and become generalized throughout society through heredity. They must be acquired; they are habit.

An even more flexible part of the organism which lends itself to the formation of an infinite number of acquired functional organizations of structure is the brain. It would seem that

( 512) the chief function of the flexible brain is to provide an organism, which has become fairly definitely set in its fundamental or basic vital and visceral structural organizations and can no longer modify them easily to fit new and ephemeral environmental conditions, with a mechanism for making multitudinous and rapid and, especially, most intimate and detailed adjustments to a highly complex and kaleidoscopic environment, such as is created in and by the development of a social or rational world. For this reason the brain is the least set or permanently organized portion of the organism. Our neural stimulus-response processes or action-patterns are connected up after the point of fertilization, that is, after our heredity is organized or predetermined; and billions of these connections remain to be made even after birth. Even though we recognize the fact that vast numbers of these neural connections are made in carrying into effect the hereditary organization of the newly organized life cell at the point of fertilization, we must also recognize that, as soon as the environment begins to operate upon the growing organization of cells which constitute this new individual, the inherited adaptations begin to be modified and new connections are increasingly made to carry the environmental pressures or determiners into effect in action as the power and complexity of the environment increase for the individual. At the point where the environment has multiplied most largely its direct effects upon the individual, where he has established with it direct contacts through the media of language, custom, tradition, public opinion and the acquired muscular adaptations to his physical world, the influence of the hereditary determiners has become more and more indirect because their operation has been increasingly and repeatedly modified by interrupting environmental factors which build up substitute or modified neural response process connections in the cortex. Thus the brain, with its billions of neurons and the almost unlimited opportunity for acquired

(513) action-pattern or thought-pattern connections or combinations to be made within the cortex, becomes the chief region for habit formations. Here least of all—if at all—do we find developed the instinctive form of action-pattern.

The theory of innate or inherited ideas or images has been abandoned and relegated to the poetry of the mystics. Ideas and images are the product of acquired functional organizations of neural structures or habits. Likewise our social and ethical ideals or values are the result of such acquired organization. These last differ from ideas only in the complexity of the functional neural organization, permitting of a comparison and contrast of idea and imaginal units within the valuational complexes which we call social and ethical. To speak of instinctive ideas is manifestly absurd. To call ideals or social and ethical values, negative or positive, such as goodness, criminality, democracy, or conservatism, instinctive or inherited is therefore manifestly unjustifiable. Such an employment of instinct can persist only among those who have not yet analyzed the processes by which action-patterns are built up. The fundamental problem of the social sciences, which have grown out of the attempt to adjust man to his social environments, is therefore to work out the mechanisms by which new and non-instinctive action and thought-patterns are built up to mediate these adjustments of man to the social environment which the social sciences undertake to control. Such a problem is urgent in order that those who are working in these subjects may not go further afield in search of false but seductive leads.

There are various forms of the misuse of instinct in the social sciences. The most serious confusion, however, is the one mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, where the functioning automatism is not distinguished as to origin, any relatively fixed or definite action-pattern being pronounced an instinct

( 514) whether it is acquired or inherited. If all that the writer or reader means to convey by such an employment of the term instinct (as seems to be the case with some continental and a few American writers) is that the act is performed without reflection or consciousness of purpose or previous plan, little harm will in most cases be done. For example, if by saying that people are "instinctively protectionists "[1] or by speaking of "instinctive truth-telling"[2] the writers mean that certain people are protectionists or truth-tellers by habit, and if the reader understands such to be the sense of the expressions, it cannot be said that harm is done, although little may be gained in the way of closer definition of subject-matter or technique from such indefinite employment of the term. However, the writer often confuses both himself and the reader by such vagueness of speaking, for he may at one time mean only to emphasize the automatic character of the act and at another he may fall back upon the recognized or approved meaning of the term, implying that the automatism is an inherited action-pattern. Especially is there such danger of confusion to both reader and writer in the latter of the two expressions above and in such expressions as "instinctive regard for law,"[3] or "the instinctive conservatism of the propertied," [4] or this striking instance: "Jefferson's instinct to keep the government close to the people."[5] These are functional qualities, based upon highly complex organizations of acquired neural connections or structures and cannot be inherited, but must be acquired from experience. Yet it would be easy to cite several thousand similar instances of confusion in the employment of this term from a collection made by the author.

This vague employment of the term instinct finds its logical

( 515) reductio ad absurdum in the application of the term to well-developed habi complexes, such as the "instincts" listed in the classification in McDougall's Introduction to Social Psychology and the various books on educational psychology of recent years. The most cursory analysis of the origin of the action-patterns involved in such so-called instincts as the parental instinct, reproductive instinct, fighting instinct, instinct of self-preservation, the gregarious instinct, and the like, will show that by far the greater part of the action content is acquired. Most of what a parent does for a child is the product of racial or individual experience and therefore belongs to the category of acquired habit rather than to that of inheritance or instinct. The same is true of the content of the other so-called instincts mentioned in this paragraph. To characterize such habit complexes as instincts implies either the abandonment of the accepted and desirable definition of instinct as stated above or a failure to analyze the structure of the acts involved. An instinct, since it is as much a unit character as any other product of Mendelian inheritance, is inconceivable apart from the fact of its structure.

However, there are many, psychologists as well as social scientists and others, who do think of the term instinct in such a vague and indefinite manner. They look upon it as a mystical something, variously denominating it as a "tendency" or "urge" or "motor impulse" or "quality of the act," etc. Their thinking is metaphysical and animistic rather than scientific. They have either come to the social and mental sciences by the way of the vague and resonant categories of metaphysics and a priori logic and have remained untouched by the biological foundations of these sciences which they profess, or they have failed t0 grasp the trite significance of the Mendelian theory for the social and mental sciences as well as for biology. Those who would admit that the total set of acts included under the terms "fighting" or "self-preservation," as applied

( 516) to modern activities in the world, are predominantly acquired rather than inherited may still erroneously believe that such a set of acts is instinctive because it is the result of some undefined "tendency" to act in that way. Or they may claim that the habit complexes, such as "fighting" or "self-preservation," have original instinctive "cores." Or they may believe, with McDougall, that the habit complex is developed around an emotion and its derivative sentiments and that the emotion is the central and unchanging element of the original instinct from which the act takes its name.[6] Or, finally, the writer may have no clearly defined notion of how he may justify calling a habit complex an instinct but he "feels" that the habit complex is "dominated by" instincts or "grows out of instincts."

This claim that the habit complex, often miscalled instinct, is dominated by instinct in its formation will be examined in a later paragraph. The other assertion, that the habit complex is built upon an instinctive foundation, is of course in some sense always true, for all acquired action-patterns must grow up as the differential phase or superstructure of inherited capacities and activity bases. But such a relationship of derivation, often very indirect and highly derivative, by no means argues an identity; nor would it be worth while asserting this fact if the contrary were not so often urged in good faith and with all seriousness. The argument for calling an acquired complex an instinct on the ground that there is a "tendency" to act in that way reduces upon analysis to the same proposition. A "tendency" which is not a purely metaphysical and mystical adumbration must clearly be a neural disposition or set of neural processes. Such a neural disposition, if inherited., Can be no more than the instinctive basis of the habit complex, often quite minute and remote and therefore frequently un-

( 517) -recognizable in the final complex acquired activity organization. Most of those who explain the leap from real instincts to pseudo-instincts or habit complexes on the basis of an imputed "tendency" are merely mystics. The others have not yet analyzed their proposition to its logical consequences.

The argument in support of the "core" is essentially of the same character, unless indeed it resolves itself into that of the central emotion or the argument of dominance of the habit complex under the influence of a powerful constituent instinct. An example of this last type of argument may be found in the justification of the employment of the term "reproductive instinct" (really a complex of instincts and acquired habits) on the ground that the complex is formed under the dominance of the powerful "sex instinct," which also is—as ordinarily used—a complex of various sex instincts and habits in which the truly instinctive maturation and expulsion of the seminal fluid by the male and equally instinctive action of the uterus and ovaries in the female may possibly be regarded as central if not dominant in the complex process. But there is vastly more to reproduction than these acts, and these acts may take place without resulting in reproduction. The so-called "maternal instinct" may be taken as an example of the former assumption regarding the "core." Here, following McDougall and others, the "tender" emotion is central and dominant and is characteristic of the "maternal instinct," hence it builds up around itself all those acquired activities into a child-caring complex which are necessary to its satisfaction. This argument would seem to be equally mystical. This "instinct," with its unchanging central emotion, is purely an assumption and is not defined at all by McDougall in terms of it, original structure (as all instincts must be defined), but rather in terms of its highly sophisticated functioning in everyday civilized life. This amounts to defining a hypothecated instinct and accompanying emotion in terms of its modified

( 518) expression in use under the pressures of a highly artificial environment, a procedure which is just the reverse of the accepted methods of inductive generalization. It is nothing less than mystical apriorism.

The assumption of an original and unchanging characteristic central emotion as the essential attribute of the instinct, is itself without foundation in the data. The fact is that every action-pattern which fails to function with perfect automaticity develops some sort of emotion or other mental expression which is more or less characteristic of the act performed or attempted. But a purely instinctive action-pattern, functioning without interruption or hindrance, should develop no consciousness and therefore should be without a characteristic emotion such as McDougall insists upon. However, when inherited action-pattern or instinctive functional organization does not work smoothly because of the interrupting pressures of the environments—and in our modern complex civilized world, where the environment modifies and dominates practically every original tendency, it is probably impossible for any instinct to function with complete automaticity —consciousness, including emotion, enters into the process in proportion as the original activity process is interrupted or distorted by environmental pressures. Consequently, the less instinctive an act is the more emotion or other mental expression it is likely to develop. The complex habit dispositions should therefore have more emotional content than any constituent instinctive element, or, for that matter, than any constituent well established acquired automatism. If the quantity of the emotion is determined by the degree of environmental interruption or the necessity of making an adjustment in process of expression, the quality of the emotion is equally determined by the functional content or direction of the emotion, that is, by the character of the acts performed. It is not necessary that these acts be instinctive in origin. In fact, the genesis of the act,

( 519) whether inherited or acquired, has nothing to do with the determination of the quality of the emotion. The structure and the quality of an action-pattern, provided it mediates the same adjustment process, remain unchanged regardless of whether the action-pattern is inherited or acquired. Habits and instincts do not necessarily differ in mechanism, except where they are organized in the service of different functions, nor do they differ in degree of automaticity, except where environmental pressures bear upon them with different degrees of intensity, which are causes of variation wholly apart from the nature of the action-patterns themselves. They differ essentially only in their origins. The quality of the emotion, which is the sign of interrupted adjustment, is characterized by the nature of the action and not by the origin of the action-pattern with which it is connected. These conclusions would lead us to deny McDougall's assumption that a habit complex is an instinct or the creation of an instinct because of a central characteristic emotion, and to affirm, following the James-Lange theory of emotion in its main outlines, that the emotion springs up essentially in the process of the modification of an act and proceeds from the process instead of creating it. It is the result of the weakening of an instinct rather than of its dominance.

This line of argument leads us to deny some further implications of certain highly sophisticated types of definitions of instinct. For example, the claim of some authors that instinct involves a conscious element is clearly untenable. Such writers have lost sight of instinct as it appears in its purest form in the lower animals. Among men the instincts have become largely distorted by the lengthening period of infancy and by man's increasing susceptibility, through his highly flexible cortical processes, to environmental influences—most of which he has himself accumulated as social habits through a long period of

( 520) social evolution— with the result that many of the instincts which function intact in the lower animals are merely vestigial in man or have become broken up and detached from their former places in the developmental process as a whole and reattached to some particular section or aspect of it. The result is that man has come to be primarily dependent upon his social environment for guidance in the building of his action-patterns, and, since that environment changes constantly and rapidly, it is inevitable that there is a large element of consciousness in most human acts which are at all complex in character. The failure to recognize these facts, of the vestigial or delayed character of many human instincts and of the large element of consciousness necessarily involved in human conduct, is alone responsible for the inclusion of consciousness of stimulus and of end in the definition of instinct.

No more is it proper to speak of purposiveness as essentially characteristic of instinct. We popularly regard any activity which serves to adjust the organism to its environment as purposive. If consciousness of the end enters into the act the reputed purposive character is even more evident. What we really mean is that the act is functional. The popular attribution of purpose is in no sense dependent upon the origin of the act. As with the emotional content, the sense of purpose is dependent alone upon the functional nature of the act. Consciousness of the end being characteristic of the most highly developed purposiveness in action, we may say on the basis of our previous argument that habit adjustment or acquired action patterns have a higher degree of purposiveness than have instinctive acts. Similarly erroneous is the claim[7] that instinct is to be defined in terms of the function of the act. The function of the act has no necessary relation to its origin. All acts have some functional significance in the scheme of things.

( 521) Nor does the fact that an act is pleasurable [8] signify that it is instinctive in origin. Investigations into the neural correlates of feeling show conclusively that feeling is the function of the organization of the act and not of its origin, except in the negative sense that instinctive acts would not normally be unpleasant under natural conditions. But under the artificial conditions of civilization they may easily give rise to unpleasantness, while acquired action-processes are often the sources of the highest, if not of the intensest, pleasures.[9]

So much for the analysis of the current misconceptions of the nature of instinct. In this discussion it has been pertinent to refer to the psychologists almost as often as to the social scientists, which is fitting, because the latter have largely copied their understanding of instinct from the former. In fact, both groups fell into their error about instinct quite naturally as a result of the old biology which was dominant at the time most of the authorities on instinct received their "set" in thinking on this matter. When they studied biology the theory of the inheritance of acquired characters had indeed received its deathblow at the hands of Weismann and others, but the new views had not yet so thoroughly permeated the backgrounds of their thinking, and of thinking in general, upon inheritance that they were enabled to divest themselves of the old preconceptions about what sorts of things are inheritable. Even when the Mendelian theory did become generally known in 1900 and in the decade following, it did not at once dissipate antagonistic ways of thinking. In fact it has by no means done so even yet. It is one thing to master a new theory and a very different matter to reorganize one's ideas and reclassify one's knowledge and preconceptions in

( 522) keeping with it. Very few people ever do the latter with anything like adequacy, if they have already made a pretty thorough intellectual adjustment to a science before an epoch-making theory appears to transform it.

We are only beginning to square our psychology and our sociology, on their genetic sides, with Mendelian principles of heredity. The old theories of instinct are essentially Lamarckian and Galtonian in their biological reference, and they are metaphysically vitalistic in their accounts of derivation. The new theories of instinct, which recognize an instinct as a concretely definable unit character in the Mendelian sense, must be developed by students who come directly to the mental and social sciences with the Mendelian and Weismannian hypotheses and the newer biochemical and biophysical science, without the disturbing penumbra of the older views of heredity and metaphysical and vitalistic biology which have not been thoroughly extirpated from the thinking of the present generation of scientists.

Viewed in this light, activity complexes, such as were described above, can no longer be called instincts. Their acquired content becomes too obvious. The actual instincts are at once much simpler and more elemental and much more numerous than those set forth in the classifications of such writers as McDougall, Thorndike, Woodworth, and other psychologists. There are probably hundreds or even thousands (if we include the reflexes under the general heading of instinct) of these inherited mechanisms, mainly overlooked by the casual observer because they do not ordinarily function as independent units in adjustment processes but rather as constituent elements in larger habit complexes developed in response to environmental pressures.

It is true that these habit complexes are built upon these elementary and relatively minute instinctive bases, but it

(523) does not necessarily follow that any particular habit complex is built directly upon any particular instinct or group of instincts. If we liken habit to a building which is reared upon a foundation constructed of stones corresponding to the instincts, we may compare various constituent habit complexes to the successive stories in a skyscraper. Some habit complexes are low down upon the bedrock of instinct and random activity and neural processes, while others are near the top of the building and have only very indirect contacts with the basic instinctive and random tendencies. It is also well to recognize that in our modern civilization these skyscrapers of habit are sometimes built very tall. Some men live lives which are relatively close to instinct, while other men build story after story of culture and sublimated interests until instinct is scarcely discernible in them in its original forms. Each successive story of habit formation is built upon the next story below and not upon the native instincts and random tendencies at the base, although even the most cultivated man may, under the stress of great crises or fear or illness, or other maladjustment, descend into the basement of the structure of his character and for a time live on a level with his instincts, forgetting his better and acquired nature.

Modern civilization is like a city of such skyscrapers. Organized into blocks and sections of this city, facing along certain streets, which we may liken to the avenues of custom and tradition, of public opinion and convention, and the like, they collectively constitute the tremendous social environment divided functionally, if not geographically, into institutions. As each new individual comes into the world he has much the same foundation as others have of native soil upon which to build, varied to be Sure here and there by excavations, marsh land, hill, or stone; but whether this individual grows into a towering skyscraper, a dingy tenement house (like some erudite but confused scholars!) or is arrested in his development

( 524) as a shanty in the slums, depends not so much upon the character of the soil, as defined above, upon which the superstructure is reared, as upon the environment in which it grows. just as the character of the building on lower Broadway will inevitably differ from that of the Bronx or Flatbush or Hoboken, or Gopher Prairie, so will the human character vary with and in response to the social environment, the native soil or instinct exercising a deciding influence only when its character is so markedly exceptional as to render the usual structure suited to that environment manifestly impossible.

While the above description is in the nature of an analogy rather than of an analysis of the concrete activity processes connected with the development of character, I believe the description is essentially true to the facts. The instincts are very early overlaid by acquired habits in the process of adapting the individual to his environment, and these habits are in turn overlaid by other tiers or stories of habit in which the native character of instinct ever constantly diminishes in proportion and intensity, until the child who has reached a rational age is reacting in nine-tenths or ninety-nine one-hundredths of his character directly to environment, and only in the slight residual fraction of his nature directly to instinct. The influence of environment is cumulative in our lives and the decline of the influence of instinct is progressive.

Other evidence that instinct does not dominate habit formation is to be found in the fact that the extension of the period of infancy in man has distorted the growth process so far as the instincts are concerned and has substituted to a large degree the active care of the mother for the guidance of instincts in the child's development. As a result, some of the instincts which function completely in the lower animals, such as walking and running and the making of definite movements connected with food-getting, have been rendered largely

( 525) vestigial by the substitution of the mother's providence. Other instincts, such as those of sex, have not been rendered vestigial but have been torn from their moorings in connection with the early stages of the growth process and have been attached to a particular stage of development further along. These may be called delayed instincts. The former class of instincts tend to drop out of the developmental process altogether, or to be broken up into their constituent reflexes which are now reorganized around other functional activity processes—mainly habit complexes,—or they are so modified by the developmental process, controlled by parents and community, that they never appear in their original forms or in complete maturity.

The same modification of the original action-pattern by environment happens, to a less degree, in the case of the delayed instincts. Already, before they appear, the organism has developed such a large complex of habit adjustments to the environment, which are so far in advance of the adjustments which the lower animal forms make to the environment, even after these instincts have appeared in the developmental process, that the now delayed instincts come into action in the higher life forms in combination with a different set of functioning activities from that to which historically they are adapted. Consequently they undergo modification, either in structure or in organization, from the inception of their development. Thus the sex instincts in man do not appear in an organism possessing simple and unsophisticated activities and without learned sex attitudes and moral preconceptions, as would be the case in life forms much lower in the developmental scale, but they begin to function in a being who has already a set of habit controls, especially adapted to his civilized environment, called " sex-morals." He has also learned a wide range of vocational and aesthetic activities which compete in the expenditure of energy and time with the sex im-

( 526) -pulses. Also, and a matter of the greatest importance, this sophisticated animal has learned to wear clothes, which fact serves in numerous ways to inhibit—sometimes to intensify —the stimuli to the instinctive activities of sex. In this way the sex life has been conditioned, almost set, before the sex instincts appear. As a consequence, most of man's sex life is learned and is hemmed about with modifications and transformed with sublimations and perversions. Because the basic inherited physiological processes of sex—the true sex instincts —are necessary to the perpetuation of the race they remain intact instead of becoming vestigial, as is the case with instincts for which the acts of another can be substituted in the developmental process. But, none the less, their functioning—the extent of their exercise and the direction or application which they take (whether in adaptation to reproduction or to amusement or to more decided, even commercialized, perversions) depends upon the controls—largely antedating their maturity —which have been developed in man's social environment. Even they, although intact in their elementary forms, do not control the environment of habit, except in a diminishing and minor degree, as civilization advances. The vestigial instincts control habit formation to even a less degree; are in fact being broken up by the accumulated force of environment functioning in their stead, better to meet the contingencies of an ever more complex and more rapidly changing world.

This view that instinct in the human type is being disintegrated by the encroachment of habit, aided by the vestigial and delayed character of many or most of the instincts, consequent upon the extension of the growth period and the substitution of parental care, may be objected to and the contrary argument advanced that man has more, rather than fewer, instincts than the lower animals. Such has often been

( 527) asserted [10] and recently definitely denied.[11] It seems very unlikely that the human animal is in process of acquiring new instincts; certainly not such complex ones as the less critical psychologists attribute to him. There are a number of significant facts which contradict such an assumption. In the first place, the mathematical laws of chance are against it. An instinct as complex as the "maternal" or "gregarious" or "intellectual" instinct, involving as it would in the aggregate some millions of neural connections or processes (for there must be at least as many neural dispositions for each of these class terms or "instincts" as there are ways or combinations of ways in which each of the groups of functions represented by these terms may be carried on), would appear as a spontaneous mutation (never, of course, as inheritance of acquired traits), with just the proper organization to fit the requirements of the environment of that particular time and the place, in some highly fortunate individual, only once in an age. The statistician would not expect to see such an instinct crop up in large numbers of the population in a single generation. Take, for example, the rather widespread abilities of the Italians to sing and to appreciate grand opera. Often these abilities are said to be inherited. They are extremely complex, consisting of a manifold technique of muscle, vocalization, symbolization, etc., in which perhaps tens of thousands of neural connections of a very definite order and organization are involved. It does not seem likely on the basis of the laws of chance that the highly complex ability or "instinct" to sing grand opera would appear spontaneously in so many thousands of Italians since 16oo, whereas it had never appeared at all even among this musical people before that time. It seems much more likely that, living in a musical environment and aided by the inheritance of organic structures of the

(528) inner ear which make pitch and tone discrimination easy for them, they have learned, instead of inherited, the highly complex content and technique of their art. If one can learn Greek or Sanscrit, although one has no Greek or Hindu blood in his veins, hence no conceivable heredity for these languages, might he not also learn grand opera, especially if the environment is favorable to this acquirement? Or, shall we suppose that only those who have a spontaneous mutation for Greek and Sanscrit and grand opera can learn these languages or execute this type of music? The proposition becomes absurd. Yet it is not unfair to the assumptions of those who speak of complex social instincts which consist of activity complexes unknown to earlier generations and which therefore must have been organized but recently. The so-called instincts of democracy (conceived as functioning in the modern socialized state), of fighting (when applied to modern scientific warfare), or of gregariousness (if meant to include the multifarious forms of modern intercourse) are examples in point. If we always remember that there can be no instinct apart from its structural and activity content, that it is never a mystical "entity," "tendency," "influence" or other indefinite mask for ignorance, but always a concrete reality, in the last analysis biological in its nature, there will be no occasion for supposing that such recently organized complex activities or highly fluid and changing classes of activities could appear as mutations in a great number of people in a short period of time, if at all.

But, for the sake of argument, let us suppose that a very few people might be blessed with a spontaneous mutation which gave them the power to execute grand opera, or any one of the complex "instincts" such as the recent social and educational psychologists impute to us. How could these complex abilities be generalized to the whole population? Certainly it could not be done in a single generation, nor in ten thousand generations. The organization of society, with its taboos on

(529) race and class interbreeding, being such as it is and has been, it is doubtful if such traits could ever be disseminated throughout the human race. Certainly for slow-breeding man the time element would be prohibitive for the rapid dissemination of new traits by means of heredity. And yet, most of the present-day content of the complex "instincts," such as fighting, mother-care, gregariousness, self-preservation, and the like, is not very old. Very little human fighting, for example, is any longer of the character engaged in by lower animals, but involves the most complex technique of manipulation of firearms, poison gas, field guns, map-making, field tactics and parliamentary wrangles, to say nothing of the journalistic sideshows. All of this, if instinctive—and nothing is instinctive about an "instinct" if the concrete action content is not— must have been spread abroad throughout the world in a generation or two or three by biological inheritance! It would be remarkable, if true.

It will avail nothing to fall back upon a mystical interpretation of instinct, as a method of refuting these facts, claiming that it is the "central emotion" or the "tendency" which is inherited and that these come down from man's pre-human ancestors. This argument was exploded earlier in this discussion. An emotion is not a mystical entity, resting in some isolated corner of the brain, which dominates action much as the metaphysical or supernatural "free will" was formerly supposed to do. Emotion is correlated with and characterized by the whole act which comes into consciousness in any degree, through modification or inhibition and overflow, whether it is an instinctive or a habitual act. Or it may arise primarily from overflow of blocked impulses and have little resemblance either to the act inhibited or the one newly to be organized out of the interrupted processes. The isolated and unchanging central emotion of McDougall is a myth. Instinct is action according to a structural action-pattern or it is nothing. To

(530) repeat, we do not inherit abstractions, but concrete biological organs and structures. Neither is our inheritance lateral, across generations from contemporary to contemporary, but longitudinal and differential, from generation to generation. Consequently we may conclude that if new instincts, complex and peculiar to man, were appearing they would not so quickly spread throughout the human race as they seem to do. Only acquired action-patterns can be disseminated in this way.

The demand of the accumulated complex social environment, which we call modern civilization, is for an organism with a maximum of variation of activity at a maximum of speed. Only with such capacity for change can man make the most of his powers and reap the largest reward from nature's resources and society's riches. Only with such powers can man be so ubiquitous, adapting himself to all climes in quick succession, living under all the conceivable conditions which his interests dictate. The insect has a narrow locus and dies in the same season in which it is born, or it makes the transition by means of metamorphosis. Its instincts are practically fixed. If man were solely a creature of instinct he too could not enjoy his vast range of adaptability. It is because his completer or progressive development demands ever greater flexibility of adaptation that he is shedding and dissolving his instincts as he evolves and substituting for them control through the growing and self-perfecting institutions of his social environment. Man is able to dispense with instinct because he has a highly complex and well organized social environment, and in so far as this environment is improved and becomes more adequately organized to meet his present and future needs it replaces his instincts in the evolutionary process of selection or it represses and transforms them in the progressive character development of the individual. For man to be accumulating new instincts instead of losing or re-

( 531) - pressing and transforming old ones would work exactly contrary to his needs of adaptation to his increasingly complex and changing environment. The rate and mass and degree of change in this environment are already so great that his adaptations could not possibly be made on the basis of instinct alone or even primarily.

Are we not, then, in the light of these facts, forced to the conclusion that the complex social "instincts" are in reality aggregates of habits and instincts and reflexes, organized and reorganized from more elementary habits and simple constituent instincts and random movements, with reference to some specific function, the content constantly changing as the function and organization of the adjustment to be made vary? Although the content of the habit complex, miscalled instinct, varies constantly with the character of the adjustment, the aggregate of acts itself retains the same class name as long as it serves the same general function in society or for the individual. Thus, the habit complex tends to be named with reference to its function or according to its value—as maternal, gregarious, ethical, fighting—while the content varies infinitely, never consecutively possessing that unity of character which is essential to the concreteness of biological instinct. The class term for the group of fluid or changing acts is an abstraction representing ordinarily a social valuation or function, although it may also be named generically after the root type of structure to which it conforms. The explanation for calling the habit complex an instinct is sometimes the confusion of automaticity with inheritance and sometimes an inability to separate the total aggregate of activities from some prominent instinctive act which is included in it, or also an inability to distinguish function from structure in our thinking. Sometimes it is all of these. Such implied criteria are deceptive guides. Sometimes the resemblance between the total habit complex and the constituent or foundation instinct

( 532) is more symbolical than real. Sometimes it represents the continuation of a name long after the habit complex, through growth in content and changed adaptation to a new and socialized and civilized environment, has undergone a complete transformation of character and has lost its former resemblance to the instinct. This is markedly true of the so-called maternal instinct which, in content of activity in the human being, has only a few remnants of the original maternal instincts of lower animal types.

But there would be no conclusive objection to this misuse of instinct if it brought good results. Its results are not good, but disastrous. The method has so far been barren of aid either to the investigator, to the teacher or to the social reformer. The educational psychologies, like the social psychologies, start out with an elaborate analysis of the so-called instincts and then solemnly inform the reader that the task of the educator is to guide these instincts into fruitful development as a method of adjusting the child to life; that it is the function of the school to develop the instincts instead of repressing them. A recent text-book in this field [12] illustrates the point. The elaborate analysis of instinct in this work, however, is not followed by a fulfillment of its promise. Specific instincts are mentioned only a few times after the introductory chapters are passed, and in this respect the book is not exceptional. The process of applying the instincts to the living educative process turns out in most of these books to be a very general and vague one. And so it is in the social psychologies. The applications have little of the exactness which characterizes the definitions of instincts.[13]


This inability in practice to make the development of the instincts fulfill the promise of the classification is not, however, a matter to occasion surprise. The social and educational psychologists have started to build their superstructures of individual character and social institutions upon too sophisticated and too unstable units. These units (supposed instincts) will not retain their form and character under the pressures of environment in the socializing process. Their contents are too fluid and indefinite. It will be necessary to divest the "instincts" or their acquired content and to reduce them to the most ultimate possible terms. Then the psychologist, the educator and the sociologist can begin to use them as building stones of character out of which to construct the foundations and part of the superstructures of social life. The exposure of the present incorrect usage of instinct should clear the field for a vastly more important labor of analysis in character and society building.

The real task before the social and educational psychologists with respect to instincts is to discover the mechanisms by means of which the child and the citizen build up their habits upon the basis of the instincts, directly or indirectly, and by means of which one habit or set of habits is transformed into another. Hitherto they have approached this problem from essentially the wrong angle, that of the analysis of instinct, on the assumption that instinct dominates the development of habit. Both the approach and the assumption are erroneous. The sociologist is demonstrating that the environment increasingly dominates both the content and the direction or functioning of habit formation.[14] It is, therefore, from the standpoint of the content and the organization of the psychosocial environment that the control of the growth of human character should be approached, the instincts being regarded primarily as the original—not necessarily the immediate

(534) or the only— starting points in the process. But before this change in emphasis can be brought about the inadequacy of the theory of instinctive control must be made manifest through an exposure of the current radical misconceptions regarding the nature and content of the instincts. Many sociologists have been feeling their way toward this objective for some time. It is a task which of necessity falls to the sociologist, because only he has the data regarding social organization and social pressures in sufficient mass and detail to make the error of the biological group—generally quite uninformed regarding the complexity and dynamic character of the social environment— sufficiently evident. It is not too much to say that the future control of the human race and its civilization lies not through selective breeding of the higher social qualities—although selective breeding of those traits which can be so bred is of the greatest importance— but through their transmission by social contact and control.[15] The overwhelming—and generally the immediate—pressures upon the character-forming process, especially in its more advanced stages, come from the accumulated psycho-social environment.


  1. Taussig, Principles of Economics, I, 513; II, 267.
  2. Ellwood, Sociology in its Psychological Aspects, 223.
  3. W. Wilson, Division and Reunion, 172.
  4. E. A. Ross, Principles of Sociology, 506.
  5. F. B. Vrooman, The New Politics, 243.
  6. Op. cit., 33, 46.
  7. Pillsbury, op. cit., 422 ff.
  8. Ibid., 431, 441. Pillsbury makes this the criterion of an instinct.
  9. See Meyer, "The Nervous Correlate of Pleasantness and Unpleasantness," XV, Psychol. Rev., 307 ff.; also Bernard, "Transition to an Objective Standard of Social Control," chs. 2 and 3.
  10. See William James, Psychology, ch. 24.
  11. See Miller, The Psychology of Thinking, 76-77.
  12. D. Starch, Educational Psychology.
  13. Compare in this respect the two volumes by McDougall: Introduction to Social Psychology and The Group Mind. The latter book is supposed to represent an application of the principles presented in the former, but comparatively slight use of instinct is made in it.
  14. L. L. Bernard, "Neuro-Psychic Technique," Psy. Rev., Nov., 1923.
  15. See H. W. Conn, Social Heredity and Social Evolution, ch. 11.

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