Popular Science Monthly/Volume 80/March 1912/The Instinctive Element in Human Society

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FOR two decades or more sociologists have been proclaiming that the development of their science must be through psychology and must wait accordingly upon the development of that science. Now that psychology has achieved a very considerable development and relative unanimity of opinion with regard to certain fundamentals, it is strange to find sociologists, and workers in the social sciences generally, loath to make use of some of its assured results.

Perhaps no single truth in modern psychology is better assured than that the whole mental life of man rests upon certain native reactions or innate impulses which the psychologists term instincts. Instinct has come to be recognized, then, as an all-important factor in the mental life by psychologists; but at the very time that the recognition of the importance of instinct in psychology has become universal certain sociologists are questioning the importance of instinct as a factor in human social life.[1]

This situation is serious enough to demand thoughtful consideration on the part of all interested in the social sciences. For years the social sciences, and especially sociology, have been striving for recognition as positive sciences. Such recognition it would seem can only come when sociology and the other social sciences openly rest their work upon assured results in the now recognized positive sciences. Sociology, indeed, as an intermediate science between the special social sciences and the natural sciences, can not be anything more than a study of the biological and psychological factors in human social life, with reference to certain problems, such as the problems of social organization and social evolution. It is difficult to see what place the sociologist has among the laborers in positive science, unless it is a part of his business at least to formulate the results of biology and psychology so as to throw light upon problems of social organization and social evolution.

Of course, as a matter of fact, students of the social sciences can not escape making continual use of biological and psychological facts and principles in their investigations and discussions. The trouble is that they frequently prefer to study out these facts and principles for themselves rather than make use of the consensus of opinion among the best authorities in biology and psychology. Very often the biology and psychology which they use is comparatively crude, and from ten to twenty-five years behind the times. It is, of course, entirely commendable on the part of the workers in the social sciences that they should not be over hasty in accepting any theory in biology and psychology. But when these theories have been tested and generally accepted, then the burden of giving adequate reasons must rest upon the sociologist who rejects such theories. Such is the case with the theory of instinct in psychology.

Aside from the misunderstandings concerning the psychological use of the conception of instinct, there are certain objections of a definite nature which students of society have made to the employment of the conception in sociology and in the other social sciences. These objections may be classified under three heads.

1. It is said that man has few or no instincts, but that he acquires practically all of his characteristics by imitative absorption from his social environment. This, however, is in direct opposition to all the results of modern scientific psychology. It is now over twenty years since Professor James upset the older view of human nature by saying that man had more instincts than any other animal. This view, after years of controversy, has finally won out in psychology and is now not seriously disputed by any one who understands what the psychologist means by instinct. Thorndike states that the list of human instincts is ever increasing because many actions which have commonly been credited to the acquisition of individual experience are coming now to be known as really the gifts of nature. He says,[2] "the more carefully mental development is investigated, the more we find human life everywhere rooted in instincts."

2. The second objection which certain students of society make to the use of the conception of instinct in sociology is that instincts, while they may exist, are in no degree determining factors in human society, but are simply rudimentary impulses whose expression is wholly determined by the social environment (chiefly economic conditions). This objection is based partly on misconceptions of instinct, partly on a faulty psychology which over-emphasizes the role of stimulus in initiating conduct. The full answer to this objection will be evident from what is said later.

3. The third objection which some make to the use of the concept of instinct in sociology is that instinct is but a term, a concept, and that it stands for no real phenomena; in short, that "instinct" is merely a metaphysical concept, not a reality. This objection is based upon an inadequate appreciation of the positive and biological character of modern psychology.

We shall try to show that all of these objections to the use of the psychological conception of instinct in sociology are invalid and that, if one is to study human society psychologically, one must begin with the native elements found in the individuals which compose that society, that is, with the instincts, and then show the part which they play in social organization.

A subconscious objection in the minds of many students to the use of the conception of instinct in the social sciences is doubtless the wrong use to which the conception has been put in the past. Ever since Aristotle, instinct has been a sort of a "catch-all" into which were thrown all the problems that were in any way baffling. We have had theories of social organization which traced practically everything in human society to a supposed "social instinct" in man. It has been claimed that individuals entered into social relations through this instinct or through that. The state has been explained through a specific political instinct in man; religion has been explained through a religious instinct in man; economic phenomena have been traced to the workings of a specific economic instinct, and so on. No doubt this older way of explaining man's social life through various specific instincts was unscientific and the reaction against such crude methods is fully justified. Even Aristotle's instinctive theory of society, as developed, at least, by some of his followers, is open to severe criticism because, as we shall show, man enters into social relations, not through any one or even a few, but through practically all of his instincts.

Crude recognition of the instinctive element by recent thinkers along social lines has not helped matters. The "properties of human nature," such as the aversion to labor, the love of gain and the like, which the earlier and some of the later economists have made use of, are undoubtedly very far from scientific conceptions. So also the use which certain sociologists have made of the term "unconscious," by which they seem to mean very largely the instinctive. Again the use of such a vague term as "desires," to which Ward traces all social occurrences, is open to the same objection; for some sociologists use the expression "the desires," meaning the native impulses; others mean by it the feelings.

Illustrations of vague and unscientific uses of psychological terms and conceptions in the social sciences might be multiplied indefinitely. The few that have been pointed out are, however, perhaps sufficient to emphasize that all such vague and crude uses of psychological concepts must be replaced in the social sciences by usage which is in accord with the best development in modern scientific psychology. When this is done with the conception of instinct it will be found to accord entirely with the requirements of positive science, and to be especially in harmony with the soundest biological views of life.

Misunderstandings, then, of the psychological usage of the term instinct and the resulting misconceptions of what instinct really is, are largely at the bottom of the denial of any rôle whatsoever to the instincts in human social life. Drawing their conceptions of instinct from a crude animal psychology, many social thinkers seem to conceive of instinct as something hard and fast, as a definite, "crystallized" mode of activity, such as we find, to be sure, in the lower reaches of animal life, especially among the insects. Such thinkers conceive, accordingly, instinct as having something fatalistic and inevitable about it. But practically all psychologists are now united in repudiating such a conception of instinct. The instincts of all the higher animals, man included, are not of this hard and fast and definite type, but are modifiable through training and experience in many ways, even though they are influential in determining animal behavior. Let us see then what conception of instinct modern psychology has worked out. In man, as in all the higher animals, there is a highly developed nervous system, with multitudes of connections between its elements. These connections are pathways of nervous currents. Many of these connections are inborn and seem to be as much a part of the heredity of the individual and the race as stature, the color of eyes and hair, or any other physical characteristic. Hence the nervous system is characterized by a multitude of more or less perfectly developed preorganized reactions which are a part of the individual's heredity. These preorganized reactions have been established through the operation of selection, biologists tell us, upon variations in the hereditary elements, in the same way in which the bodily characteristics of the species have been established. In all the higher animals, and especially in man, on account of the complexity of his nervous system, these native reactions are not fixed and unalterable, but are subject in a large degree to modification or elimination according to changes in the environment. Nor are they always specific but they are often, as Thorndike says, indefinite and general.[3]

Instincts are then inborn pathways of nervous currents, which have as their functional correlate inborn motor tendencies, and as their psychical correlate inborn psycho-physical dispositions. They are evidently the psychological aspect of racial heredity, and it is as inconceivable that the organic individual should exist without them as without the equipment or general bodily structure itself. As instincts are not acquired by the individual, but are given in the germ, they are transmitted from generation to generation, varying only as other biological characteristics of the stock also vary. Inasmuch as they are characteristics of the highest and most unstable portion of the organism, the nervous system, they probably vary more widely than the grosser physical traits. They are more modifiable and alterable, owing to the fact that only about one third of the connections in the nervous system are made at birth, the other two thirds being acquired by the individual during his life time. These acquired connections must, of course, very greatly modify the character of the original connections, even though they are made upon the basis of the original connections. There are in man therefore no definite, hard and fast instincts such as characterize the lower types of animals, but rather a complex series of more or less generalized instinctive reactions.

It is evident that the modern psychological concept of instinct, so far from being metaphysical, is wholly biological. The concept of instinct as inborn pathways of nervous currents is the necessary correlate of the biological doctrines of selection and heredity. While the nervous system is more largely modifiable by use than any other part of man's organism, yet its essential structure is inherited and belongs to the stock or the phylum rather than to the individual. The native reactions which are inherited in the hereditary structure of the nervous system are the necessary original equipment with which the individual starts his struggle for existence. Some of these reactions are so simple in organization that they do not enter to any extent into consciousness, and these are known as reflexes. These need not concern us, since they enter directly only into the physical life of the individual organism. But the great majority of these native reactions are complex motor tendencies and have conscious accompaniments, especially feelings, emotions and "desires." Moreover, the acquired habits of the individual, psychologists tell us, are wholly built up through modification of these native reactions. When the instinctive reaction fails to function properly consciousness comes in to adapt the organism to the new situation, the adaptation being made chiefly through the selection from the varied native impulses. All of the habits of the individual therefore rest in the last analysis upon the native impulses. Now, the thesis of this paper is that if instincts are the starting point for man's mental life, they must be for his social life also; if, upon the instincts of the individual, all habits are built, so likewise upon them all social customs, institutions and organization must ultimately rest.

It should be noted that according to the modern psychological concept of instinct, instinctive reactions will vary in different individuals and races. Inasmuch as instinct represents the preformed pathways in the nervous system, made in response to demands of previous life conditions,[4] that is, created by selection, we should not expect to find exactly the same instinctive reactions in the different races of man. Their instinctive reactions, while fundamentally the same, will vary in some degree because the different racial stocks have been exposed to different selective agencies. This explains why race is a factor in social organization and evolution. Again, the two sexes have been created by somewhat different selective and developmental processes; therefore, their instinctive reactions to the same stimuli may often vary considerably. It is in this degree that sex enters as a modifying factor into all forms of association. Just as biological variation constantly alters the physical aspects of heredity, so it also constantly alters the inborn psycho-physical dispositions of individuals. The concept of instinct, therefore, leaves as large a place as any sociologist could desire for the influence of selection, of race, of sex and of inborn individual differences in the social life.

While there can be no question but that instinctive reactions, from the psychological point of view, are the basis of the relationships of individuals in society, nevertheless, it is very difficult to say just what proportion of human activities may be regarded as primarily instinctive. It is especially difficult to trace the instinctive element in human institutions as they exist in modern civilized society. It is certainly incorrect to explain anything important in the social life of civilized peoples simply through instinct, on account of the fact that instinctive reactions under such conditions are overlaid with a mass of habits which we term custom and tradition, and are constantly modified or inhibited by many other social factors. On the other hand, it is an equally serious error to ignore the instinctive element, even in the complex conditions of modern life. Even though we can not determine quantitatively the relations between the instinctive and acquired elements in any given social situation, it is important to note that they both exist and that the instinctive is the basis of the acquired. Some tests of the instinctive element in human society can, however, be devised by psychologists and sociologists. In general we may safely regard those activities as instinctive which characterize the species, that is, which are relatively common to all men in all stages of culture. Again, those activities which man shares with the animals below him may, for the most part, be regarded as instinctive. Finally, from the study of the child and the adolescent, the sociologist may also perceive with more or less clearness some of the instinctive elements in human conduct and character.

Another difficulty which confronts the sociologist in tracing concretely the instinctive element in any given social situation is the great complexity of human instincts themselves. It is, of course, a grave psychological error to suppose that there are a number of separate and distinct human instincts which exist side by side without running into each other and which have each a separate function to perform. Rather human instincts, corresponding to the conception of them just given as inborn pathways in the nervous system, continually run into each other and reenforce each other like a network of streams or electric currents. The consequence is that human institutions are generally expressions of a number of instincts combined in various ways, besides being, of course, often built up largely on the basis of acquired traits. It is only in the simpler forms of association, perhaps, that we can trace most clearly the instinctive element, although all human institutions must ultimately rest upon human instincts, for the instincts are instrumental not only in furnishing the primary or original activities, but also in furnishing those "sanctions" which are the peculiar mark of those forms of association which we term institutions, since the "feelings" are more largely attached to the native reactions than to acquired habits.

It is in the simpler forms of human association, then, that we may see most conspicuously the workings of instinct. The family especially shows most clearly the influence of instinctive elements, and here it may be remarked that the family must be regarded as in many ways the most typical of all the forms of human association, illustrating in the clearest manner possible the simpler biological and psychological factors at work in human social life generally. The family as an institution evidently rests upon two great primary instincts, the sexual instinct and the parental instinct. Like all instincts, these are varyingly developed in different individuals. Sex attraction has always been recognized as the basis of human family life, and as one of the great primary forces in human society, but the influence of the parental instinct has not been so generally recognized. Careful study of human society shows, however, that it is the parental instinct which gives stability to the family, and so is the real foundation of that institution, as we understand it, in all ages and among all peoples. This is strikingly shown by the fact that, among both civilized and uncivilized peoples, childless couples separate much more readily than those that have children. It is also shown by the customs and laws of practically all peoples. The instinctive reactions of the sexes and of parents and children, then, give rise to a whole series of social coordinations which express themselves variously in the institution of the family; but this is not denying, of course, that the institution of the family, as we know it, is largely also a product of custom and tradition. To see the simple instinctive form of the family we must turn to such peoples as the Andaman Islanders, the Bushmen, the Fuegians and other primitive peoples who live a purely animal existence. In such peoples we find the simple, pairing, monogamous family group of a more or less unstable character which is practically the same as the family group which we find among the higher apes and many other animals. We are warranted, therefore, in concluding that such a form of association is not only unreflective, but also almost entirely a product of instinctive reactions.

Many of the other simpler forms of human association illustrate equally well the workings of the instinctive element. Thus the forms of play among children and the "struggle groups" of adults give very clear evidence of relatively unmodified instinctive reactions. While the social life of adults, as has already been said, is very far removed from the instinctive plane, yet evidences of the workings of purely instinctive elements are to be found, not only in the various forms of social conflict, but also in the forms of social attraction and of cooperation. While there is no single "social instinct" which can be invoked to explain the forms of man's social life, there is a whole series of reactions connected with instinctive forms of sociability, beginning with the parental instinct. That sociability is itself an instinctive, not an acquired, trait has been amply demonstrated by the researches of practically all modern sociologists. Professor Giddings especially has shown the instinctive attraction which exists between individuals of like physical and mental traits; and that such instinctive sociability, along with the acquired traits built immediately upon it, accounts for much in our social life. More recently Mr. Trotter, a British sociologist, has shown very conclusively the obscure reactions of the same instinctive sociability in practically all phases of man's social life.[5] Illustrations of this sort might be indefinitely multiplied, but it is not necessary to do so, because all this is what any thinker would expect who takes the biological view of life. While the sociologist is not yet ready to trace in any final way the workings of various instinctive reactions in human society, there can be no doubt that such a task is scientifically feasible, and will doubtless be accomplished in the near future.

All of this, of course, in no wise denies either the influence of intellect or of objective conditions upon social evolution. As the writer has elsewhere emphasized,[6] it is the intellectual elements in human social life which after all give it its distinctive character in contrast to the social life which we find among animals. It should be remarked, however, that these intellectual elements quite as often work in line with instinctive impulses as in the way of modifying them. Again, the influence of objective conditions is, of course, to be taken for granted in considering human society from the standpoint of instinct, since no instinctive reaction can develop unless the objective environment furnishes the appropriate stimulus. It is a mistake, however, to consider that such stimuli in the objective environment of themselves give rise to the activity; for nothing is more clearly demonstrated in the psychology of the present than that the organism frequently, indeed usually, seeks the stimulus. The stimulus is not that which causes action, but is rather the opportunity for action, the organism being self-active; hence the error of those who would interpret social life and movements entirely in terms of objective conditions. The "economic determinists," for example, are under the burden of showing that all the psychological and biological factors in human nature are mediated and controlled in their expression by economic conditions. The mere fact that man's social life shows many traits in common with the social life of animals, among which there are, strictly speaking, no economic conditions, is in itself fairly good evidence that the native impulses are by no means wholly controlled in their expression by economic conditions, or any other single set of causes, but that they are in themselves, given the spontaneity of human nature, a determining factor in many, if not in all, social situations.

The theoretical consequences of the recognition of instinct as a subjective social factor are certainly not to be feared. On the contrary, the recognition of instinct as a factor would greatly broaden and deepen sociology and all of the other social sciences, and would bring the psychological aspect of those sciences into harmony with their biological aspects and with the biological sciences generally. The social sciences have suffered unduly from intellectualistic views of human nature and human society. As long as psychology was intellectualistic, it was unavoidable that such a significant human relation as mother and child, for example, should be explained in terms which now seem to us trivial as well as superficial. As we grasp the biological view of life and see clearly that all life is continuous, and that relations involved in human association are the outcome of forces that have been working upon life for myriads of years, and are therefore freighted with meanings far beyond the individual life, we shall avoid trivial and superficial explanations of things human. We shall see at once, for example, that such a relation as mother and child can be explained only in terms of instincts which have been created by age-long processes, and not in terms of a superficial, intellectual pity of the mother for the helplessness of her child. It should be manifest, therefore, that the concept of instinct in the social sciences will give to those sciences a vital relation to life generally. Deduction from biological and psychological facts, if carried out with proper scientific safeguards, is not to be feared in the social sciences; for it is only by accepting the results of the other positive sciences, and especially of the biological sciences, that sociology can itself hope to become a positive science.

It is only necessary to say a word in conclusion regarding the practical consequences of the recognition of the large rôle of instinct in human social life. Scientific educators have recognized now for over a decade the part which instinct plays in individual activities and development, and scientific education has made the instinctive element the basis for the scientific training of the individual. It is, perhaps, too early to judge finally the results of this movement in education, but thus far they appear to be wholly beneficent, and we are apparently approaching scientific methods in the control of individual development. The case is apparently not different in social development. The recognition of the true rôle of instinct in human social life will serve at once as a basis for scientific social work and as a means of transcending the purely instinctive plane of social activity. It would seem, therefore, that the practical consequence of the recognition of the importance of the instinctive element in human social life would be to establish a wise conservatism with reference to the reconstruction of institutions and at the same time a progressive radicalism as regards the ultimate amelioration of social conditions. Any plan of social reorganization which is made without regard to man's instincts is probably destined to meet with as great failure as any plan of individual education which is made without regard to native impulses and capacities. On the other hand, human instincts are indefinitely modifiable, through selection in the race and through education in the individual. There is nothing in them, therefore, which can put any permanent obstacle in the way of carrying out any rational measure of social reform, although the recognition of instinct as at the basis of human social life, points to the conclusion that the only sure and probably the only safe method of social reconstruction is through education. When the instinctive element is thoroughly understood it certainly can be controlled, and in this sense transcended.

As we have seen, man's instincts were created by the selective influence of past living conditions. It is hardly probable that civilization has as yet very greatly altered the instincts of civilized man from those of the barbarian and the savage. Those persons who, like Fourier, claim that the instincts and the correlated emotions should be the supreme guide in social life would plunge society again into barbarism. Our instincts, as Professor Thorndike remarks, would be a much better guide if we were still living a wild life in the woods than they are in our complex civilized society. It is the dominance of instinctive control and of instinctive activities in existing society, rather than of rational control and rational activities, in other words, which creates many of the problems of our present civilization. As Sir Francis Galton has pointed out, many of these problems are due to the fact that man's instincts are not yet adjusted to the new and complex social conditions in which he finds himself. It is idle to think that it is practical to secure such adjustment through the elimination of socially undesirable natural tendencies by any means of artificial selection. That is too far in the future to be worthy of serious discussion. The only means which remains, therefore, of adjusting man to the requirements of a complex social life is to modify and control instinctive activities by a system of scientific education of the young, that is, by a system of social character building. The great problem of civilized society, therefore, is not to suppress man's instincts, for that can not be done, but to guide and control them by a system of scientific education, so that they will discharge themselves only in paths of social advantage.

  1. See, e. g., the American Journal of Sociology, Vol. XV., p. 616. Cf. also the Political Science Quarterly, Vol. XXV., p. 514.
  2. "Elements of Psychology," p. 190.
  3. Op. cit., pp. 189-190.
  4. "Response" and "demand" are of course used figuratively, without teleological significance.
  5. See his article on "Herd Instinct" in the Sociological Review for July, 1908.
  6. See article on "The Origin of Society" in the American Journal of Sociology, Vol. XV., November, 1909.