1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Instinct

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INSTINCT. It is in the first place desirable to distinguish between the word “instinct” (Lat. instinctus, from instinguere, to incite, impel) as employed in general literature and the term “instinct” as used in scientific discourse. The significance of the former is somewhat elastic, and is in large measure determined by the context. Thus in social relationships we speak of “instinctive” liking or distrust; we are told that the Greeks had “instinctive” appreciation of art; we hear of an instinct of reverence or “instinctive” beliefs. We understand what is meant and neither desire nor demand a strict definition. But in any scientific discussion the term instinct must be used within narrower limits, and hence it is necessary that the term should be defined. There are difficulties, however, in framing a satisfactory definition. That given by G. J. Romanes in the 9th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica runs as follows: “Instinct is a generic term comprising all those faculties of mind which lead to the conscious performance of actions that are adaptive in character but pursued without necessary knowledge of the relation between the means employed and the ends attained.” This has been criticized both from the biological and from the psychological standpoint. From the biological point of view the reference of certain modes of behaviour, termed instinctive, to faculties of mind for which “instinct” is the generic term is scarcely satisfactory; from the psychological point of view the phrase “without necessary knowledge of the relation between the means employed and the end attained” is ambiguous. (See Intelligence of Animals.) In recent scientific literature the term is more frequently used in its adjectival than in its substantive form; and the term “instinctive” is generally applied to certain hereditary modes of behaviour. Investigation thus becomes more objective, and this is a distinct advantage from the biological point of view. It is indeed sometimes urged that instinctive modes of behaviour should be so defined as to entirely exclude any reference to their psychological concomitants in consciousness, which are, it is said, entirely inferential. But as a matter of fact no small part of the interest and value of investigations in this field of Conscious concomitant. inquiry lies in the relationships which may thereby be established between biological and psychological interpretations. Fully realizing, therefore, the difficulty of finding and applying a criterion of the presence or absence of consciousness, it is none the less desirable, in the interests of psychology, to state that truly instinctive acts (as defined) are accompanied by consciousness. This marks them off from such reflex acts as are unconsciously performed, and from the tropisms of plants and other lowly organisms. There remains, however, the difficulty of finding any satisfactory criterion of the presence of consciousness. We seem forced to accept a practical criterion for purposes of interpretation rather than one which can be theoretically defended against all adverse criticism. We have reason to believe that some organisms profit by experience and show that they do so by the modification of their behaviour in accordance with circumstances. Such modification is said to be individually acquired. To profit by individual experience is thus the only criterion we possess of the existence of the conscious experience itself. But if hereditary behaviour is unaccompanied by consciousness, it can in no wise contribute to experience, and can afford no data by which the organism can profit. Hence, for purposes of psychological interpretation it seems necessary to assume that instinctive behaviour, including the stimulation by which it is initiated and conditioned, affords that naive awareness which forms an integral part of what may be termed the primordial tissue of experience.

We are now in a position to give an expanded definition of instinctive behaviour as comprising those complex groups of co-ordinated acts which, though they contribute to experience, are, on their first occurrence, not determined by individual experience; which are adaptive and tend to the well-being of the individual and the preservation of the race; which are due to the co-operation of external and internal stimuli; which are similarly performed by all members of the same more or less restricted group of animals; but which are subject to variation, and to subsequent modification under the guidance of individual experience.

If a brief definition of instinct, from the purely biological point of view be required, that given in the Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology may be accepted: “An inherited reaction of the sensori-motor type, relatively complex and markedly adaptive in character, and common to a Definitions. group of individuals.” Instinctive behaviour thus depends solely on how the nervous system has been built through heredity; while intelligent behaviour depends also on those characters of the nervous system which have been acquired under the modifying influence of individual relation to the environment.

Such definitions, however, are not universally accepted. Wasmann, for example, divides instinctive actions under two groups: (1) those which immediately spring from the inherited dispositions; (2) those which indeed proceed from the same inherited dispositions but through the medium of sense experience. The first group, which he regards as instinctive in the strict acceptance of the term, seem exactly to correspond to those which fall under the definition given above. The second group, which he regards as instinctive in the wider acceptance of the term, nearly, if not quite, correspond to those above spoken of as intelligent—though he regards this term as falsely applied (see Intelligence of Animals). By using the term instinctive in both its strict and its wider significance, Wasmann includes under it the whole range of animal behaviour.

It will be seen that from the biological standpoint there fall under the stricter definition those hereditary modes of behaviour which are analogous to hereditary forms of structure; and that a sharp line of distinction is drawn between the behaviour which is thus rendered definite through heredity, and the behaviour the distinguishing characteristics of which are acquired in the course of individual life. What in popular usage are spoken of as the instincts of animals, for example, the hunting of prey by foxes and wolves, or the procedure of ants in their nests, are generally joint products of hereditary and acquired factors. Wasmann’s comprehensive definition so far accords with popular usage. But it tends to minimize the importance of the distinction of that which is prior to individual experience and that which results therefrom. It is the business of scientific interpretation to disentangle the factors which contribute to the joint-products. It is indeed by no means easy to distinguish between what is dependent on individual experience, and what is not. Only the careful observation of organisms throughout the earlier phases of their life-history can the closely related factors be distinguished with any approach to scientific accuracy. By the patient study of the behaviour of precocious young birds, such as chicks, pheasants, ducklings and moorhens, it can be Examples from bird life. readily ascertained that such modes of activity as running, swimming, diving, preening the down, scratching the ground, pecking at small objects, with the characteristic attitudes expressive of fear and anger, are so far instinctive as to be definite on their first occurrence—they do not require to be learnt. No doubt they are subsequently guided to higher excellence and effectiveness with the experience gained in their oft-repeated performance. Indeed it may be said that only on the occasion of their initial performance are they purely instinctive; all subsequent performance being in some degree modified by the experience afforded, by previous behaviour of like nature and the results it affords. It should be remembered that such comparatively simple activities, though there is little about them to arrest popular attention, are just the raw material out of which the normal active life of such organisms is elaborated, and that for scientific treatment they are therefore not less important than those more conspicuous performances which seem at first sight to call for special treatment, or even to demand a supplementary explanation. The instincts of nest-building, incubation and the rearing of young, though they occur later in life than those concerned in locomotion and the obtaining of food, are none the less founded on a hereditary basis, and in some respects are less rather than more liable to modification by the experience gained by the carrying out of hereditarily definite modes of procedure. Here the instinctive factor probably predominates over that which is experiential. But in the “homing” of pigeons there is little question that the experiential factor predominates. The habit results mainly from the modification of the higher nerve-centres through individual and intelligent use. In the migration of birds we are still uncertain as to the exact nature and proportional value of the instinctive and intelligent factors. The impulse to migrate, that is to say, the calling forth of specific activities by climatal or other presentations, appears to be instinctive; whether the direction of migration is in like manner instinctive is a matter of uncertainty; and, if it be instinctive, the nature of the stimuli and the manner in which they are hereditarily linked with responsive acts is unexplained. To say that it is due to hereditary experience is generally regarded as inadmissible. For modern interpretation hereditary modes of behaviour afford experience; in no other sense can it be said that experience is inherited.

A good example of the methods of recent investigation is to be found in Dr G. W. and Mrs Peckham’s minute observations on the habits and instincts of the solitary wasps. They enumerate the following primary types of instinctive behaviour: the manner of attacking and capturing a Examples from insect life. particular kind of prey which alone affords the requisite presentation to sense; the manner of conveying the prey to the nest; the general style and locality of the nest; the method and order of procedure in stocking the nest with food for the unseen young. It is noteworthy, however, that although the manner in which the prey is stung (for example) is on the whole similar in the case of the members of any given species—that is to say, all the wasps of the species behave in very much the same manner—yet there are minor variations in detail. This outcome of prolonged and careful observation is of importance. It affords a point of departure for the interpretation of the genesis of existing instincts. Furthermore, the observations on American wasps render it probable that the earlier accounts of the instinctive behaviour of such wasps are exaggerated. Romanes thought that the manner of stinging and paralysing their prey might be justly deemed the most remarkable instinct in the world. Spiders, caterpillars and grasshoppers are, he said, stung in their chief nerve-centres, in consequence of which the victims are not killed outright, but rendered motionless and continue to live in this paralysed condition for several weeks, being thus available as food for the larvae when these are hatched. Of course, he adds, the extraordinary fact which stands to be explained is that of the precise anatomical, not to say the physiological, knowledge which appears to be displayed by the insect in stinging only the nerve-centres of its prey. But the Peckhams’ careful observations and experiments show that, with the American wasps, the victims stored in the nests are quite as often dead as alive; that those which are only paralysed live for a varying number of days, some more, some less; that wasp larvae thrive just as well on dead victims, sometimes dried up, sometimes undergoing decomposition, as on living and paralysed prey; that the nerve-centres are not stung with the supposed uniformity; and that in some cases paralysis, in others death, follows when the victims are stung in parts far removed from any nerve-centre. It would seem then that by the stinging of insects or spiders their powers of resistance are overcome and their escape prevented; that some are killed outright and some paralysed is merely an incidental result.

Granted that instinctive modes of behaviour are hereditary and definite within the limits of congenital variation, the question of their manner of genesis is narrowed to a clear issue. Do they originate through the natural selection of those variations which are the more adaptive; or do Mode of origin. they originate through the inheritance of those acquired modifications which are impressed on the nervous system in the course of individual and intelligent use? Romanes, taking up the inquiry where Darwin left it, came to the conclusion that some instinctive modes of behaviour which he termed “primary” are due to the operation of natural selection alone; that others, which he termed “secondary,” and of which he could give few examples, were due to the inheritance of acquired modifications from which, in the phrase of G. H. Lewes, the intelligence had lapsed; while others, which he termed “blended,” were partly due to natural selection and partly resulted from the inheritance of acquired habit. There has been a prolonged controversy between the school of interpretation, commonly spoken of as Lamarckian, which advocates a belief in the inheritance of acquired characters, and the school, with Weismann as their leader, which questions the evidence for, or the probability of, such inheritance. The trend of modern opinion appears to be in the direction of the Weismannian interpretation. And it must be regarded as questionable, if not improbable, that instinctive modes of behaviour are in any degree directly due to the inheritance of habits intelligently acquired. That intelligent habits may secure the survival of those organisms whose germ-plasm bears the seeds of favourable congenital variations is not improbable. But in that case intelligent procedure only contributes to the survival and not to the origin of hereditary variations.

To test the hypothesis that natural selection is an essential condition to the genesis of instinctive behaviour it should be the aim of investigation to find crucial cases. This is, however, no easy task. We ought to be able to adduce cases in which, where the incidence of natural selection Crucial observations. is excluded, acquired habits do not become instinctive. But it is difficult to do so. It seems, however, that in young chicks drinking from still water is a habit acquired through imitation of the acts of the hen-mother. The presentation of such water to sight does not evoke the appropriate instinctive response, while the presentation of water taken into the bill does at once evoke a characteristic response. Now it would seem that in the former case, since the hen “teaches” all her chicks to peck at the water, she shields them from the incidence of natural selection. But though the hen can lead her young to peck at the water, she cannot “teach” them how to perform the complex movements of mouth, throat and head required for actual drinking. In this matter they are not shielded from the incidence of natural selection. Thus it would seem that, where natural selection is excluded, the habit has not become congenitally linked with a visual stimulus; but where natural selection is in operation, the response has been thus linked with the stimulus of water in the bill.

If this interpretation be correct we have here an example of the manner in which imitation plays an important part in the formation of habits which though oft-repeated are not transmitted as hereditary instincts. But the imitative act is itself instinctive. The characteristic Imitation. feature of the imitative act, at the instinctive level, is that the presentation to sight or hearing calls forth a mode of behaviour of like nature to, or producing like results to, that which affords the stimulus. The nature of instinctive imitation needs working out in further detail. But it is probable that what we speak of as the imitative tendency is, in any given species, the expression of a considerable number of particular responses each of which is congenitally linked with a particular presentation or stimulus. The group of instincts which we class as imitative (and they afford only the foundations on which intelligent imitation is based) are of biological value chiefly, if not solely, in those species which form larger or smaller communities.

The study of instinct is in the genetic treatment of evolutionary science a study in heredity. The favouring bionomic conditions are those of a relatively constant environment under which relatively stereotyped responses are advantageous. If the environment be complex, there is a corresponding Relation to heredity complexity in instinctive behaviour. But adjustment to a complex environment may be reached in two ways; by instinctive adaptation through initially stereotyped behaviour; or by plastic accommodation by acquired modifications. The tendency of the evolution of intelligence is towards the disintegration of the stereotyped modes of response and the dissolution of instinct. Natural selection which, under a uniform and constant environment, leads to the survival of relatively fixed and definite modes of response, under an environment presenting a wider range of varying possibilities leads to the survival of plastic accommodation through intelligence. This plasticity is, however, itself hereditary. All intelligent procedure implies the inherited capacity of profiting by experience. Instinctive in the popular sense, it does not fall within the narrower definition of the term; it is more conveniently described as innate. It is important to grasp clearly the distinction thus drawn. A duckling only a few hours old if placed in water swims with orderly strokes. The stimulus of water on the breast may be regarded as a sensory presentation which is followed by a definite and adaptive application of behaviour. But this specific application is dependent upon a prolonged racial preparation of the organism to respond in this particular way. Such response is instinctive. It is wholly due, as such, to racial preparation. Compare the case of a boy who learns to ride a bicycle. This is not wholly due, as such, to racial preparation, but is also partly due to individual preparation. The boy no doubt inherits a capacity for riding a bicycle, otherwise he could never do so. But he has to learn to ride none the less. Individual experience is a condition which without the innate capacity cannot take effect. Instinct involves inherited adaptation; intelligence, an inherited power, embodied in the higher nerve-centres, of accommodation to varying circumstances.

See C. Lloyd Morgan, Habit and Instinct (1896), and Animal Behaviour (1900); G. J. Romanes, Mental Evolution in Animals (1883), and Natural History of Instinct (1886); Lord Avebury, On the Instincts of Animals (1889); Marshall, Instinct and Reason (1898); Mills, Nature of Animal Intelligence (1898); St George Mivart, Nature and Thought (1882), and Origin of Human Reason (1899); E. Wasmann, Zur Entwickelung der Instincte (1897), Instinct und Intelligenz im Tierreich (1899, Eng. trans. 1903); G. and C. Peckham, Instincts and Habits of Solitary Wasps (1898); see also the bibliography (section “Instinct and Impulse”) in Baldwin’s Dict. of Philosophy and Psychology.  (C. Ll. M.)