Popular Science Monthly/Volume 31/June 1887/Some Human Instincts I
By WILLIAM JAMES,
PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY IN HARVARD COLLEGE.
IT is generally considered that a cardinal differentia of the human race is its poor endowment in the way of instincts. Brutes need instincts, it is supposed, because they have no reason. But man, with his reason, can do without instincts. "Instinctive actions," says Professor Preyer, in his careful little work, "Die Seele des Kindes," "are in man few in number, and, apart from those connected with the sexual passion, difficult to recognize after early youth is past. So much the more attention," he adds, "should science pay to the instinctive actions of young children."
I believe this doctrine to be a great mistake. Instead of having fewer, man has more instincts than any other mammal. He has so many that they bar one another's path, and produce an indeterminateness of action in him, supposed to be incompatible with that automatic uniformity which, according to popular belief, characterizes all instinctive performances. Popular belief is here in error. The more carefully instincts have been studied of late years, and the more clearly their mechanism has been laid bare, the more evident has it become that their effects are liable to be modified by various conditions. Instincts are due, at bottom, to the organization in the nerve-centers of certain paths of discharge, or reflex-arcs, as they are technically called. The disturbance produced in the way of sound, light, or other sensible emanation, by some object in the environment, runs in at an animal's senses, and then out through his muscles. Each special sort of disturbance or stimulus affects a special set of muscles, and makes the animal act in a special way, he knows not why, except that it seems the only natural way to act at the moment. Witness the fear of a natural enemy, the love of the opposite sex, the pursuit of a natural prey. Some of these reflex-arcs are transient. Some of the environing objects stimulate more than one arc at once (as when the presence of a strange dog awakens timorous, pugnacious, and sociable movements, all at the same time, in another dog), and then small accidents determine the resultant path of discharge. Finally, habits are formed of reacting on one particular object of a kind, and inhibit the application of the instinct to other individuals (limitation of the sexual instinct to one mate, etc.). In an article published elsewhere, I have tried to trace these complications and variations, and to show that the presence of too many instincts in a creature, some of them transient, some of them tending in opposite ways, some of them inhibited in their application by the habits earliest formed, must needs produce a life, as unautomatic and ununiform in its outward aspect, as human life has ever been claimed to be.
In this article and a later one, I will run over the human instincts in detail, commenting with fullness only upon such as are interesting enough to repay the pains.
The line to be drawn between simply reflex and instinctive actions is an entirely arbitrary one; so I can see no objection, on the score of principle, to including under the title of instincts Professor Preyer's whole list of the gradually evolving propensities to action of the human babe: Sucking, biting, spitting, making grimaces, clasping, pointing, making sounds expressive of desire, carrying objects to the mouth, averting head and body, sitting up, standing, are all accomplishments which come in due order, and lead us to the locomotor age. Each is irresistibly called forth by some appropriate stimulus, and finally becomes subject to the conscious will.
Locomotion is more interesting. Until the walking impulse ripens in the nerve-centers, the legs remain limp and indifferent, no matter how often the child may be hung with his feet in contact with the ground. No sooner, however, has the standing instinct come, than the child stiffens his legs and presses downward as soon as his feet feel the floor. In some babies this is the earliest locomotor reaction. In others it is preceded by the impulse to creep. Yesterday, the baby sat contentedly wherever he was put. To-day, it is impossible to keep him sitting at all, so irresistible is his impulse to throw himself forward on his hands. Usually the arms are too weak, and the ambitious little experimenter falls on his nose. But his perseverance is dauntless, and he soon learns to travel in the quadrupedal way. The walking instinct may awaken with no less suddenness, and its entire education be completed within a week's compass, barring a little "grogginess" in the gait. The common belief that a baby learns to walk is, strictly speaking, untrue. The reflex machinery, as it begins to ripen, prompts him to its use. But, as it is imperfectly organized, he makes mistakes. If, however, a baby could be prevented from getting on his feet at all for a fortnight or so after his first impulse to do so had manifested itself, and then restored to freedom, I have little doubt of his then being able to walk perfectly, or almost perfectly, "from the word 'go.'" A small blister on each foot-sole would do the business; and it is much to be desired that some scientific widower, left alone with his infant at the critical moment, should repeat on the human species the brilliant observation of Mr. Douglas Spalding on various small birds, which he kept till they were fully fledged, and then found to fly with absolute perfection the first time he allowed them to spread their wings. Usually, birds start to fly before either the central or peripheral apparatus is quite ripe. And so do we, to walk.
Of vocalization I will say nothing except that it is instinctive in both of its forms, singing and speech, and that the propensity to speak often ripens in a child with almost startling suddenness. A few significant sounds are gradually acquired, but the vocabulary is very small until the impulse of imitating sounds awakes. When its awakening is abrupt it is impossible to talk with the child. His condition is that of echolalia: instead of answering, he repeats the question. His whole energy may for a few days be poured into this channel, and during those days the foundations of his future vocabulary are laid.
Imitation is a human instinct which has other fields of application than the vocal one. Say what one will of monkeys, man is the imitative animal. Civilization, in fact, depends on the trait. Nil humani a me alienum, is the motto of each of us, and we are uneasy when another shows any power or superiority, till we can exhibit it ourselves as well. Much might be said of this propensity, as well as of the impulse to rivalry which is akin to it, and equally instinctive; but I must hasten on to—
Sympathy is an emotion as to whose instinctiveness psychologists have held hot debate, some of them contending that it is no primitive endowment, but, originally at least, the result of a rapid calculation of the good consequences to ourselves of the sympathetic act. Such a calculation, at first conscious, would grow more unconscious as it became more habitual, and at last, tradition and association aiding, might prompt to actions which could not be distinguished from immediate impulses. It is hardly needful to argue against the falsity of this view. Some forms of sympathy, that of mother with child, for example, are surely primitive, and not intelligent forecasts of support to be reaped in old age. Danger to the child blindly and instantaneously stimulates the mother to actions of alarm or defense. Menace or harm to the adult, beloved, and friend, excites us in a corresponding way, often against all the dictates of prudence. It is true that sympathy does not necessarily follow from gregariousness. Sheep and cattle do not help a wounded comrade; on the contrary, they are more likely to dispatch him. But a dog will lick another sick dog, and even bring him food; and the sympathy of monkeys is proved by many observations to be strong. In man, then, we may lay it down that the sight of suffering or danger to others is a direct exciter of interest, and an immediate stimulus, if no complication hinders, to acts of relief. There is nothing unaccountable or pathological about this—nothing to justify Professor Bain's assimilation of it to the "fixed ideas" of insanity, as "clashing with the regular outgoings of the will." It may be as primitive as any other "outgoing," and may be due to a random variation selected, quite as probably as, in Spencer's opinion, gregariousness and maternal love are due to such variations.
It is true that sympathy is peculiarly liable to inhibition from other instincts which its stimulus may call forth. The traveler whom the good Samaritan rescued may well have prompted such instinctive fear or disgust in the priest and Levite who passed him by, that their sympathy could not come to the front. Then, of course, habits, reasoned reflections, and calculations may either check or re-enforce; as may also the instincts of love or hate, if these exist, for the suffering individual. The hunting and pugnacious instincts, when aroused, also inhibit our sympathy absolutely. This accounts for the cruelty of collections of men hounding each other on to bait or torture a victim. The blood mounts to the eyes, and sympathy's chance is gone.
Pugnacity and anger. In many respects man is the most ruthlessly ferocious of beasts. As with all gregarious animals, "two souls," as Faust says, "dwell within his breast," the one of sociability and helpfulness, the other of jealousy and antagonism to his mates. Though in a general way he can not live without them, yet, as regards certain individuals, it often falls out that be can not live with them either. Constrained to be a member of a tribe, he still has a right to decide, as far as in him lies, of which other members the tribe shall consist. Killing off a few obnoxious ones may often better the chances of those that remain. And killing off a neighboring tribe from whom no good thing comes, but only competition, may materially better the lot of the whole tribe. Hence the gory cradle, the bellum omnium contra omnes, in which our race was reared; hence the fickleness of human ties, the ease with which the foe of yesterday becomes the ally of to-day, the friend of to-day the enemy of to-morrow; hence the fact that we, the lineal representatives of the successful enactors of one scene of slaughter after another, must, whatever more pacific virtues we may also possess, still carry about with us, ready at any moment to burst into flame, the smoldering and sinister traits of character by means of which they lived through so many massacres, harming others, but themselves unharmed.
The hunting instinct has an equally remote origin in the evolution of the race. The hunting: and the fig-hting; instinct combine in many manifestations. They both support the emotion of anger; they combine in the fascination which stories of atrocity have for most minds; and the utterly blind excitement of giving the rein to our fury when our blood is up (an excitement whose intensity is greater than that of any other human passion save one), is only explicable as an impulse aboriginal in character, and having more to do with immediate and overwhelming tendencies to muscular discharge than to any possible reminiscences of effects of experience, or association of ideas. I say this here, because the pleasure of disinterested cruelty has been thought a paradox, and writers have sought to show that it is no primitive attribute of our nature, but either a semblance or a resultant of the subtile combination of other less malignant elements of mind. This is a hopeless task. If evolution and the survival of the fittest be true at all, the destruction of prey and of human rivals must have been among the most important of man's primitive functions, the fighting and the chasing instincts must have become ingrained. Certain perceptions must immediately, and without the intervention of inferences and ideas, have prompted emotions and motor discharges; and both of the latter must, from the nature of the case, have been very violent, and therefore, when unchecked, of an intensely pleasurable kind. It is just because human bloodthirstiness is such a primitive part of us that it is so hard to eradicate, especially where a fight or a hunt is promised as part of the fun.
As Rochefoucauld says, there is something in the misfortunes of our very friends that does not altogether displease us; and an apostle of peace will feel a certain vicious thrill run through him, and enjoy a vicarious brutality, as he turns to the column in his newspaper at the top of which "shocking atrocity" stands printed in large capitals. See how the crowd flocks round a street-brawl! Consider the enormous annual sale of revolvers to persons, not one in a thousand of whom has any serious intention of using them, but of whom each one has his carnivorous self-consciousness agreeably tickled by the notion, as he clutches the handle of his weapon, that he will be rather a dangerous customer to meet. See the ignoble crew that escorts every great pugilist parasites who feel as if the glory of his brutality rubbed off upon them, and whose darling hope, from day to day, is to arrange some set-to of which they may share the rapture without enduring the pains! The first blows at a prize-fight are apt to make a refined spectator sick; but his blood is soon up in favor of one party, and it will then seem as if the other fellow could not be banged and pounded and mangled enough the refined spectator would like to re-enforce the blows himself. Over the sinister orgies of blood of certain depraved and insane persons let a curtain be drawn, as well as over the ferocity with which otherwise fairly decent men may be animated, when (at the sacking of a town, for instance), the excitement of victory long delayed, the sudden freedom of rapine and of lust, the contagion of a crowd, and the impulse to imitate and outdo, all combine to swell the blind drunkenness of the killing-instinct, and carry it to its extreme. No! those who try to account for this from above downward, as if it resulted from the consequences of the victory being rapidly inferred, and from the agreeable sentiments associated with them in the imagination, have missed the root of the matter. Our ferocity is blind, and can only be explained from below. Could we trace it back through our line of descent, we should see it taking more and more the form of a fatal reflex response, and at the same time becoming more and more the pure and direct emotion that it is.
In childhood it takes this form. The boys who pull out grasshoppers' legs and butterflies' wings, and disembowel every frog they catch, have no thought at all about the matter. The creatures tempt their hands to a fascinating occupation, to which they have to yield. It is with them as with the "boy-fiend" Jesse Pomeroy, who cut a little girl's throat, "just to see how she'd act." The normal provocatives of the impulse are all living beasts, great and small, toward which a contrary habit has not been formed—all human beings in whom we perceive a certain intent toward us, and a large number of human beings who offend us peremptorily, either by their look, or gait, or by some circumstance in their lives which we dislike. Inhibited by sympathy, and by reflection calling up impulses of an opposite kind, civilized men lose the habit of acting out their pugnacious instincts in a perfectly natural way, and a passing feeling of anger, with its comparatively faint bodily expressions, may be the limit of their physical combativeness. Such a feeling as this may, however, be aroused by a wide range of objects. Inanimate things, combinations of color and sound, bad bills of fare, may in persons who combine fastidious taste with an irascible temperament, produce real ebullitions of rage. Though the female sex is often said to have less pugnacity than the male, the difference seems connected more with the extent of the motor consequences of the impulse than with its frequency. Women take offense and get angry, if anything, more easily than men, but their anger is inhibited by fear, and other principles of their nature, from expressing itself in blows. The hunting-instinct proper seems to be decidedly weaker in them than in men. The latter instinct is easily restricted by habit to certain objects, which become legitimate "game," while other things are spared. If the hunting-instinct be not exercised at all, it may even entirely die out, and a man may enjoy letting a wild creature live, even though he might easily kill him. Such a type is now becoming frequent; but there is no doubt that in the eyes of a child of Nature such a personage would seem a sort of moral monster.
Fear is a reaction aroused by the same objects that arouse ferocity. The antagonism of the two is an interesting study in instinctive dynamics. We both fear, and wish to kill, anything that may kill us; and the question which of the two impulses we shall follow, is usually decided by some one of those collateral circumstances of the particular case, to be moved by which is the mark of superior mental natures. Of course, this introduces uncertainty into the reaction; but it is an uncertainty found in the higher brutes as well as in men, and ought not to be taken as proof that we are less instinctive than they. Fear has bodily expressions of an extremely energetic kind, and stands, beside lust and anger, as one of the three most exciting emotions of which our nature is susceptible. The progress from brute to man is characterized by nothing so much as by the decrease in frequency of proper occasions for fear. In civilized life, in particular, it has at last become possible for large numbers of people to pass from the cradle to the grave without ever having had a pang of genuine fear. Many of us need an attack of mental disease to teach us the meaning of the word. Hence the possibility of so much blindly optimistic philosophy and religion. The atrocities of life become "like a tale of little meaning though the words are strong"; we doubt if anything like us ever really was within the tiger's jaws, and conclude that the horrors we hear of are but a sort of painted tapestry for the chambers in which we lie so comfortably at peace with ourselves and with the world.
Be this as it may, fear is a genuine instinct, and one of the earliest shown by the human child. Noises seem especially to call it forth. Most noises from the outer world, to a child bred in the house, have no exact significance. They are simply startling. To quote a good observer, M. Perez:
Children between three and ten months are less often alarmed by visual than by auditory impressions. In cats, from the fifteenth day, the contrary is the case. A child, three and a half months old, in the midst of the turmoil of a conflagration, in presence of the devouring flames and ruined walls, showed neither astonishment nor fear, but smiled at the woman who was taking care of him, while his parents were busy. The noise, however, of the trumpet of the firemen, who were approaching, and that of the wheels of the engine, made him start and cry. At this age I have never yet seen an infant startled at a flash of lightning, even when intense; but I have seen many of them alarmed at the voice of the thunder. . . . Thus, fear comes rather by the ears than by the eyes, to the child without experience. It is natural that this should be reversed, or reduced, in animals organized to perceive danger afar. Accordingly, although I have never seen a child frightened at his first sight of fire, I have many a time seen young dogs, young cats, young chickens, and young birds frightened thereby. . . . I picked up some years ago a lost cat about a year old. Some months afterward at the onset of cold weather I lit the fire in the grate of my study, which was her reception-room. She first looked at the flame in a very frightened way. I brought her near to it. She leaped away and ran to hide under the bed. Although the fire was lighted every day, it was not until the end of the winter that I could prevail upon her to stay upon a chair near it. The next winter, however, all apprehension had disappeared. . . . Let us, then, conclude that there are hereditary dispositions to fear, which are independent of experience, but which experiences may end by attenuating very considerably. In the human infant I believe them to be particularly connected with the ear.
The effect of noise in heightening any terror we may feel in adult years is very marked. The howling of the storm, whether on sea or land, is a principal cause of our anxiety when exposed to it. The writer has been interested in noticing in his own person, while lying in bed, and kept awake by the wind outside, how invariably each loud gust of it arrested momentarily his heart. A dog, attacking us, is much more dreadful by reason of the noises he makes.
Strange men, and strange animals, either large or small, excite fear, but especially men or animals advancing toward us in a threatening way. This is entirely instinctive and antecedent to experience. Some children will cry with terror at their very first sight of a cat or dog, and it will often be impossible for weeks to make them touch it. Others will wish to fondle it almost immediately. Certain kinds of "vermin," especially spiders and snakes, seem to excite a fear unusually difficult to overcome. It is impossible to say how much of this difference is instinctive and how much the result of stories heard about these creatures. That the fear of "vermin" ripens gradually seemed to me to be proved in a child of my own to whom I gave a live frog once, at the age of six to eight months, and again when he was a year and a half old. The first time, he seized it promptly, and holding it, in spite of its struggling, at last got its head into his mouth. He then let it crawl up his breast, and get upon his face, without showing alarm. But the second time, although he had seen no frog and heard no story about a frog between whiles, it was almost impossible to induce him to touch it. Another child, a year old, eagerly took some very large spiders into his hand. At present he is afraid, but has been exposed meanwhile to the teachings of the nursery. Preyer tells of a young child screaming with fear on being carried near to the sea.
Solitude is a source of terror to infancy. The teleology of this is obvious, as is also that of the infant's expression of dismay—the never-failing cry—on waking up and finding himself alone.
Black things, and especially dark places, holes, caverns, etc., arouse a peculiarly gruesome fear. This fear, as well as that of solitude, of being "lost," are explained after a fashion by ancestral experience. Says Schneider:
It is a fact that men, especially in childhood, fear to go into a dark cavern or a gloomy wood. This feeling of fear arises, to he sure, partly from the fact that we easily suspect that dangerous beasts may lurk in these localities a suspicion due to stories we have heard and read. But, on the other hand, it is quite sure that this fear at a certain perception is also directly inherited. Children who have been carefully guarded from all ghost-stories are nevertheless terrified and cry if led into a dark place, especially if sounds are made there. Even an adult can easily observe that an uncomfortable timidity steals over him in a lonely wood at night, although he may have the fixed conviction that not the slightest danger is near. This feeling of fear occurs in many men even in their own house after dark although it is much stronger in a dark cavern or forest. The fact of such instinctive fear is easily explicable when we consider that our savage ancestors through innumerable generations were accustomed to meet with dangerous beasts in caverns, especially bears, and were for the most part attacked by such beasts during the night and in the woods, and that thus an inseparable association between the perceptions of darkness of caverns and woods, and fear took place, and was inherited.
High places cause fear of a peculiarly sickening sort, though here, again, individuals differ enormously. The utterly blind, instinctive character of the motor impulses here is shown by the fact that they are almost always entirely unreasonable, but that reason is powerless to suppress them. That this is a mere incidental peculiarity of the nervous system, like liability to sea-sickness, or love of music, with no teleological significance, seems more than probable. The impulse is much of an individual idiosyncrasy, and its detrimental effects are so much more obvious than its uses, that it is hard to see how it could be a selected instinct. Man is anatomically one of the best fitted of animals for climbing about high places. The best psychical complement to this equipment would seem to be a "level head" when there, not a dread of going there at all. In fact, the teleology of fear, beyond a certain point, is very dubious. Professor Mosso, in his interesting monograph, "La Paura" (which has recently been translated into French), concludes that many of its manifestations must be considered pathological rather than useful; Bain, in several places, expresses the same opinion; and this, I think, is surely the view which any observer without a priori prejudices must take. A certain amount of timidity obviously adapts us to the world we live in, but the fear-paroxysm is surely altogether harmful to him who is its prey.
Fear of the supernatural is one variety of fear. It is difficult to assign any normal object for this fear, unless it were a genuine ghost. But, in spite of psychical research-societies, science has not yet adopted ghosts; so we can only say that certain ideas of supernatural agency, associated with real circumstances, produce a peculiar kind of horror. This horror is probably explicable as the result of a combination of simpler horrors. To bring the ghostly terror to its maximum, many usual elements of the dreadful must combine, such as loneliness, darkness, inexplicable sounds, especially of a dismal character, moving figures half discerned (or, if discerned, of dreadful aspect), and a vertiginous baffling of the expectation. This last element, which is intellectual, is very important. It produces a strange emotional "curdle" in our blood to see a process, with which we are familiar, deliberately taking an unwonted course. Any one's heart would stop beating if he perceived his chair sliding unassisted across the floor. The lower animals appear to be sensitive to the mysteriously exceptional as well as ourselves. My friend Professor W. K. Brooks, of the Johns Hopkins University, told me of his large and noble dog being frightened into a sort of epileptic fit by a bone being drawn across the floor by a thread which the dog did not see. Darwin and Romanes have given similar experiences. The idea of the supernatural involves that the usual should be set at naught. In the witch and hobgoblin supernatural, other elements still of fear are brought in—caverns, slime and ooze, vermin, corpses, and the like. A human corpse seems normally to produce an instinctive dread, which is no doubt somewhat due to its mysteriousness, and which familiarity rapidly dispels. But, in view of the fact that cadaveric, reptilian, and underground horrors play so specific and constant a part in many nightmares and forms of delirium, it seems not altogether unwise to ask whether these forms of dreadful circumstance may not at a former period have been more normal objects of the environment than now. The ordinary cock-sure evolutionist ought to have no difficulty in explaining these terrors, and the scenery that provokes them, as relapses into the consciousness of the cave-men, a consciousness usually overlaid in us by experiences of more recent date.
There are certain other pathological fears, and certain peculiarities in the expression of ordinary fear, which might receive an explanatory light from ancestral conditions, even infra-human ones. In ordinary fear, one may either run, or remain semi-paralyzed. The latter condition reminds us of the so-called death-shamming instinct shown by many animals. Dr. Lindsay, in his work on "Mind in Animals," says this must require great self-command in those that practice it. But it is really no feigning of death at all, and requires no self-command. It is simply a terror-paralysis which has been so useful as to become hereditary. The beast of prey does not think the motionless bird, insect, or crustacean dead. He simply fails to notice them at all; because his senses, like ours, are much more strongly excited by a moving object than by a still one. It is the same instinct which leads a boy playing "I spy" to hold his very breath when the seeker is near, and which makes the beast of prey himself in many cases motionlessly lie in wait for his victim or silently "stalk" it, by rapid approaches alternated with periods of immobility. It is the opposite of the instinct which makes us jump up and down and move our arms when we wish to attract the notice of some one passing far away, and makes the shipwrecked sailor frantically wave a cloth upon the raft where he is floating when a distant sail appears. Now, may not the statue-like, crouching immobility of some melancholiacs, insane with general anxiety and fear of everything, be in some way connected with this old instinct? They can give no reason for their fear to move; but immobility makes them feel safer and more comfortable. Is not this the mental state of the "feigning" animal?
Again, take the strange symptom which has been described of late years by the rather absurd name of agoraphobia. The patient is seized with palpitation and terror at the sight of any open place or broad street which he has to cross alone. He trembles, his knees bend, he may even faint at the idea. Where he has sufficient self-command he sometimes accomplishes the object by keeping safe under the lee of a vehicle going across, or joining himself to a knot of other people. But usually he slinks round the sides of the square, hugging the houses as closely as he can. This emotion has no utility in a civilized man, but when we notice the chronic agoraphobia of our domestic cats, and see the tenacious way in which many wild animals, especially rodents, cling to cover, and only venture on a dash across the open as a desperate measure—even then making for every stone or bunch of weeds which may give a momentary shelter—when we see this we are strongly tempted to ask whether such an odd kind of fear in us be not due to the accidental resurrection, through disease, of a sort of instinct which may in some of our ancestors have had a permanent and on the whole a useful part to play?
In a subsequent paper I shall try to consider man's remaining instincts in a similar way.