What is an Instinct?

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What is an Instinct?  (1887) 
by William James
As published in Scribner's Magazine, Vol. 1 No. 3 (March 1887): pp. 355-365.


WHAT IS AN INSTINCT?


By William James.

Instinct is usually defined as the faculty of acting in such a way as to produce certain ends, without foresight of the ends, and without previous education in the performance. That instincts, as thus defined, exist on an enormous scale in the animal kingdom needs no proof. They are the functional correlatives of structure. With the presence of a certain organ goes, one may say, almost always a native aptitude for its use. “Has the bird a gland for the secretion of oil? She knows instinctively how to press the oil from the gland, and apply it to the feather. Has the rattlesnake the grooved tooth and gland of poison? He knows without instruction how to make both structure and function most effective against his enemies. Has the silk-worm the function of secreting the fluid silk? At the proper time she winds the cocoon such as she has never seen, as thousands before have done; and thus without instruction, pattern, or experience, forms a safe abode for herself in the period of transformation. Has the hawk talons? She knows by instinct how to wield them effectively against the helpless quarry.”[1]

A very common way of talking about these admirably definite tendencies to act is by naming abstractly the purpose they subserve, such as self-preservation, or defence, or care for eggs and young—and saying the animal has an instinctive fear of death or love of life, or that she has an instinct of self-preservation, or an instinct of maternity and the like. But this represents the animal as obeying abstractions which, not once in a million cases is it possible it can have framed. The strict physiological way of interpreting the facts leads to far clearer results. The actions we call instinctive all conform to the general reflex type; they are called forth by determinate sensory stimuli in contact with the animal’s body, or at a distance in his environment. The cat runs after the mouse, runs or shows fight before the dog, avoids falling from walls and trees, shuns fire and water, etc., not because he has any notion either of life or of death, or of self, or of preservation. He has probably attained to no one of these conceptions in such a way as to react definitely upon it. He acts in each case separately, and simply because he cannot help it; being so framed that when that particular running thing called a mouse appears in his field of vision he must pursue; that when that particular barking and obstreperous thing called a dog appears there he must retire, if at a distance, and scratch if close by; that he must withdraw his feet from water and his face from flame, etc. His nervous system is to a great extent a preorganized bundle of such reactions—they are as fatal as sneezing, and as exactly correlated to their special excitants as it is to its own. Although the naturalist may, for his own convenience, class these reactions under general heads, he must not forget that in the animal it is a particular sensation or perception or image which calls them forth.

At first this view astounds us by the enormous number of special adjustments it supposes animals to possess ready-made in anticipation of the outer things among which they are to dwell. Can mutual dependence be so intricate and go so far? Is each thing born fitted to particular other things, and to them exclusively, as locks are fitted to their keys? Undoubtedly, this must be believed to be so. Each nook and cranny of creation, down to our very skin and entrails, has its living inhabitants, with organs suited to the place, to devour and digest the food it harbors and to meet the dangers it conceals; and the minuteness of adaptation, thus shown in the way of structure, knows no bounds. Even so are there no bounds to the minuteness of adaptation in the way of conduct which the several inhabitants display.

The older writings on instinct are ineffectual wastes of words, because their authors never came down to this definite and simple point of view, but smothered everything in vague wonder at the clairvoyant and prophetic power of the animals—so superior to anything in man—and at the beneficence of God in endowing them with such a gift. But God’s beneficence endows them, first of all, with a nervous system; and, turning our attention to this, makes instinct immediately appear neither more nor less wonderful than all the other facts of life.

Every instinct is an impulse. Whether we shall call such impulses as blushing, sneezing, coughing, smiling, or dodging, or keeping time to music, instincts or not, is a mere matter of terminology. The process is the same throughout. In his delightfully fresh and interesting work, “Der Thierische Wille,” Herr G. H. Schneider subdivides impulses (Triebe) into sensation-impulses, perception-impulses, and idea-impulses. To crouch from cold is a sensation-impulse; to turn and follow, if we see people running one way, is a perception-impulse; to cast about for cover, if it begins to blow and rain, is an imagination-impulse. A single complex instinctive action may involve successively the awakening of impulses of all three classes. Thus a hungry lion starts to seek prey by the awakening in him of imagination coupled with desire; he begins to stalk it when, on eye, ear, or nostril, he gets an impression of its presence at a certain distance; he springs upon it, either when the booty takes alarm and flees, or when the distance is sufficiently reduced; he proceeds to tear and devour it the moment he gets a sensation of its contact with his claws and fangs. Seeking, stalking, springing, and devouring are just so many different kinds of muscular contraction, and neither kind is called forth by the stimulus appropriate to the other.

Schneider says of the hamster, which stores corn in its hole: “If we analyze the propensity of storing, we find that it consists of three impulses: First, an impulse to pick up the nutritious object, due to perception; second, an impulse to carry it off into the dwelling-place, due to the idea of this latter; and third, an impulse to lay it down there, due to the sight of the place. It lies in the nature of the hamster that it should never see a full ear of corn without feeling a desire to strip it; it lies in its nature to feel, as soon as its cheek-pouches are filled, an irresistible desire to hurry to its home; and finally, it lies it its nature that the sight of the storehouse should awaken the impulse to empty the cheeks” (p. 208). In certain animals of a low order the feeling of having executed one impulsive step is such an indispensable part of the stimulus of the next one, that the animal cannot make any variation in the order of its performance.

Now, why do the various animals do what seem to us such strange things, in the presence of such outlandish stimuli? Why does the hen, for example, submit herself to the tedium of incubating such a fearfully uninteresting set of objects as a nestful of eggs, unless she have some sort of a prophetic inkling of the result? The only answer is ad hominem. We can only interpret the instincts of brutes by what we know of instincts in ourselves. Why do men always lie down, when they can, on soft beds rather than on hard floors? Why do they sit round the stove on a cold day? Why, in a room, do they place themselves, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, with their faces toward its middle rather than to the wall? Why do they prefer saddle of mutton and champagne to hard-tack and ditchwater? Why does the maiden interest the youth so that everything about her seems more important and significant than anything else in the world? Nothing more can be said than that these are human ways, and that every creature likes its own ways, and takes to the following them as a matter of course. Science may come and consider these ways, and find that most of them are useful. But it is not for the sake of their utility that they are followed, but because at the moment of following them we feel that that is the only appropriate and natural thing to do. Not one man in a billion, when taking his dinner ever thinks of utility. He eats because the food tastes good and makes him want more. If you ask him why he should want to eat more of what tastes like that, instead of revering you as a philosopher he will probably laugh at you for a fool. The connection between the savory sensation and the act it awakens is for him absolute and selbstverständlich, an “a priori synthesis” of the most perfect sort, needing no proof but its own evidence. It takes, in short, what Berkeley calls a mind debauched by learning to carry the process of making the natural seem strange so far as to ask for the why of any instinctive human act. To the metaphysician alone can such questions occur as: Why do we smile, when pleased, and not scowl? Why are we unable to talk to a crowd as we talk to a single friend? Why does a particular maiden turn our wits so upside down? The common man can only say, “of course we smile, of course our heart palpitates at the sight of the crowd, of course we love the maiden, that beautiful soul clad in that perfect form, so palpably and flagrantly made from all eternity to be loved!”

And so probably does each animal feel about the particular things it tends to do in presence of particular objects. They, too, are a priori syntheses. To the lion it is the lioness which is made to be loved; to the bear, the she-bear. To the broody hen the notion would probably seem monstrous that there should be a creature in the world to whom a nestful of eggs was not the utterly fascinating and precious and never-to-be-too-much-sat-upon object which it is to her.[2]

Thus we may be sure that, however mysterious some animals’ instincts may appear to us, our instincts will appear no less mysterious to them. And we may conclude that, to the animal which obeys it, every impulse and every step of every instinct shines with its own sufficient light, and seems at the moment the only eternally right and proper thing to do. It is done for its own sake exclusively. What voluptuous thrill may not shake a fly, when she at last discovers the one particular leaf, or carrion, or bit of dung, that out of all the world can stimulate her ovipositor to its discharge? Does not the discharge then seem to her the only fitting thing? And need she care or know anything about the future maggot and its food?

Since the egg-laying instincts are simple examples to consider, a few quotations about them from Schneider may be serviceable:

“The phenomenon so often talked about, so variously interpreted, so surrounded with mystification, that an insect should always lay her eggs in a spot appropriate to the nourishment of her young, is no more marvellous than the phenomenon that every animal pairs with a mate capable of bearing posterity, or feeds on materials capable of affording him nourishment. . . . Not only the choice of a place for laying the eggs, but all the various acts for depositing and protecting them, are occasioned by the perception of the proper object, and the relation of this perception to the various stages of maternal impulse. When the burying beetle perceives a carrion, she is not only impelled to approach it and lodge her eggs in it, but also to go through the movements requisite for burying it; just as a bird who sees his hen-bird is impelled to caress her, to strut around her, dance before her, or in some other way to woo her; just as a tiger, when he sees an antelope, is impelled to stalk it, to pounce upon it, and to strangle it. When the tailor-bee cuts out pieces of rose-leaf, bends them, carries them into a caterpillar or mouse hole in trees or in the earth, covers their seams again with other pieces, and so makes a thimble-shaped case—when she fills this with honey and lays an egg in it, all these various appropriate expressions of her will are to be explained by supposing that at the time when the eggs are ripe within her the appearance of a suitable caterpillar or mouse hole and the perception of rose-leaves are so correlated in the insect with the several impulses in question that the performances follow as a matter of course when the perceptions take place.” . . .

“The perception of the empty nest, or of a single egg, seems in birds to stand in such a close relation to the physiological functions of oviparation, that it serves as a direct stimulus to these functions, while the perception of a sufficient number of eggs has just the opposite effect. It is well known that hens and ducks lay more eggs if we keep removing them than if we leave them in the nest. The impulse to sit arises, as a rule, when the bird sees a certain number of eggs in her nest. If this number is not yet to be seen there, the ducks continue to lay, although they perhaps have laid twice as many eggs as they are accustomed to sit upon. . . . That sitting, also, is independent of any idea of purpose and is a pure perception-impulse is evident, among other things, from the fact that many birds, e.g., wild ducks, steal eggs from each other. . . . The bodily disposition to sit is, it is true, one condition [since broody hens will sit where there are no eggs], but the perception of the eggs is the other condition of the activity of the incubating impulse. The propensity of the cuckoo and of the cow-bird to lay their eggs in the nests of other species must also be interpreted as a pure perception-impulse. These birds have no bodily disposition to become broody, and there is therefore in them no connection between the perception of an egg and the impulse to sit upon it. Eggs ripen, however, in their oviducts, and the body tends to get rid of them. And since the two birds just named do not drop their eggs anywhere on the ground, but in nests, which are the only places where they may preserve the species, it might easily appear that such preservation of the species was what they had in view, and that they acted with full consciousness of the purpose. But this is not so. . . . The cuckoo is simply excited by the perception of quite determinate sorts of nest, which already contain eggs, to drop her own into them and throw the others out, because this perception is a direct stimulus to these acts. It is impossible that she should have any notion of the other bird coming and sitting on her egg.”[3]

Remember that nothing is said yet of the origin of instincts, but only of the constitution of those that exist fully formed. How stands it with the instincts of mankind?

Nothing is commoner than the remark that Man differs from lower creatures by the almost total absence of instincts, and the assumption of their work in him by “reason.” A fruitless discussion might be waged on this point by two theorizers who were careful not to define their terms. “Reason” might be used, as it often has been used since Kant, not as the mere power of “inferring,” but also as a name for the tendency to obey impulses of a certain lofty sort, such as duty, or universal ends. And “instinct” might have its significance so broadened as to cover all impulses whatever, even the impulse to act from the idea of a distant fact, as well as the impulse to act from a present sensation. Were the word instinct used in this broad way, it would of course be impossible to restrict it, as we began by doing, to actions done with no prevision of an end. We must of course avoid a quarrel about words, and the facts of the case are really tolerably plain! Man has a far greater variety of impulses than any lower animal; and any one of these impulses, taken in itself, is as “blind” as the lowest instinct can be; but, owing to man’s memory, power of reflection, and power of inference, they come each one to be felt by him, after he has once yielded to them and experienced their results, in connection with a foresight of those results. In this condition an impulse acted out may be said to be acted out, in part at least, for the sake of its results. It is obvious that every instinctive act, in an animal with memory, must cease to be “blind” after being once repeated, and must be accompanied with foresight of its “end” just so far as that end may have fallen under the animal’s cognizance. An insect that lays her eggs in a place where she never sees them hatch must always do so “blindly;” but a hen who has already hatched a brood can hardly be assumed to sit with perfect “blindness” on her second nest. Some expectation of consequences must in every case like this be aroused; and this expectation, according as it is that of something desired or of something disliked, must necessarily either re-enforce or inhibit the mere impulse. The hen’s idea of the chickens would probably encourage her to sit; a rat’s memory, on the other hand, of a former escape from a trap would neutralize his impulse to take bait from anything that reminded him of that trap. If a boy sees a fat hopping-toad, he probably has incontinently an impulse (especially if with other boys) to smash the creature with a stone, which impulse we may suppose him blindly to obey. But something in the expression of the dying toad’s clasped hands suggests the meanness of the act, or reminds him of sayings he has heard about the sufferings of animals being like his own; so that, when next he is tempted by a toad, an idea arises which, far from spurring him again to the torment, prompts kindly actions, and may even make him the toad’s champion against less reflecting boys.

It is plain then that, no matter how well endowed an animal may originally be in the way of instincts, his resultant actions will be much modified if the instincts combine with experience, if in addition to impulses he have memories, associations, inferences, and expectations, on any considerable scale. An object O, on which he has an instinctive impulse to react in the manner A, would directly provoke him to that reaction. But O has meantime become for him a sign of the nearness of P, on which he has an equally strong impulse to react in the manner B, quite unlike A. So that when he meets O the immediate impulse A and the remote impulse B struggle in his breast for the mastery. The fatality and uniformity said to be characteristic of instinctive actions are so little manifest, that one might be tempted to deny to him altogether the possession of any instinct about the object O. Yet how false this judgment would be! The instinct about O is there; only by the complication of the mental machinery it has come into conflict with another instinct about P.

Here we immediately reap the good fruits of our simple physiological conception of what an instinct is. If it be a mere excito-motor impulse, due to the pre-existence of a certain “reflex-arc” in the nerve-centres of the creature, of course it must follow the law of all such reflex-arcs. One liability of such arcs is to have their activity “inhibited” by other processes going on at the same time. It makes no difference whether the arc be organized at birth, or ripen spontaneously later, or be due to acquired habit, it must take its chances with all the other arcs, and sometimes succeed, and sometimes fail, in draughting off the currents through itself. The mystical view of an instinct would make it invariable. The physiological view would require it to show occasional irregularities in any animal in whom the number of separate instincts, and the possible entrance of the same stimulus into several of them, were great. And such irregularities are what every superior animal’s instincts do show in abundance.[4]

Wherever the mind is elevated enough to discriminate; wherever several distinct sensory elements must combine to discharge the reflex-arc; wherever, instead of plumping into action instantly at the first rough intimation of what sort of a thing is there, the agent waits to see which one of its kind it is and what the circumstances are of its appearance; wherever different individuals and different circumstances can impel him in different ways; wherever these are the conditions—we have a masking of the elementary constitution of the instinctive life. The whole story of our dealings with the lower wild animals is the history of our taking advantage of the way in which they judge of everything by its mere label, as it were, so as to ensnare or kill them. Nature, in them, has left matters in this rough way, and made them act always in the manner which would be oftenest right. There are more worms unattached to hooks than impaled upon them; therefore, on the whole, says Nature to her fishy children, bite at every worm and take your chances. But as her children get higher, and their lives more precious, she reduces the risks. Since what seems to be the same object may be now a genuine food and now a bait; since in gregarious species each individual may prove to be either the friend or the rival, according to the circumstances, of another; since any entirely unknown object may be fraught with weal or woe, Nature implants contrary impulses to act on many classes of things, and leaves it to slight alterations in the conditions of the individual case to decide which impulse shall carry the day. Thus, greediness and suspicion, curiosity and timidity, coyness and desire, bashfulness and vanity, sociability and pugnacity, seem to shoot over into each other as quickly, and to remain in as unstable equilibrium in the higher birds and mammals as in man. They are all impulses, congenital, blind at first, and productive of motor reactions of a rigorously determinate sort. Each one of them, then, is an instinct, as instincts are commonly defined. But they contradict each other—“experience” in each particular opportunity of application usually deciding the issue. The animal that exhibits them loses the “instinctive” demeanor and appears to lead a life of hesitation and choice, an intellectual life; not, however, because he has no instincts—rather because he has so many that they block each other’s path.

Thus, then, without troubling ourselves about the words instinct and reason, we may confidently say that however uncertain man’s reactions upon his environment may sometimes seem in comparison with those of lower creatures, the uncertainty is probably not due to their possession of any principles of action which he lacks, but to his possessing all the impulses that they have, and a great many more besides. In other words, there is no material antagonism between instinct and reason. Reason, per se, can inhibit no impulses; the only thing that can neutralize an impulse is an impulse the other way. Reason may, however, make an inference which will set loose the impulse the other way; and thus, though the animal richest in reason might be also the animal richest in instinctive impulses too, he would never seem the fatal automaton which a merely instinctive animal would be.

Let us now turn to human impulses with a little more detail. All we have ascertained so far is that impulses of an originally instinctive character may exist, and yet not betray themselves by automatic fatality of conduct. But in man what impulses do exist? In the light of what has been said, it is obvious that an existing impulse may not always be superficially apparent even when its object is there. And we shall see that some impulses may be masked by causes of which we have not yet spoken.

Were one devising an abstract scheme, nothing would be easier than to discover from an animal’s actions just how many instincts he possessed. He would react in one way only upon each class of objects with which his life had to deal; he would react in identically the same way upon every specimen of a class; and he would react invariably during his whole life. There would be no gaps among his instincts; all would come to light without perversion or disguise. But there are no such abstract animals, and nowhere does the instinctive life display itself in such a way. Not only, as we have seen, may objects of the same class arouse reactions of opposite sorts in consequence of slight changes in the circumstances in the individual object or in the agent’s inward condition; but two other principles, of which we have not yet spoken, may come into play and produce results so striking that observers as eminent as Messrs. D. A. Spalding and Romanes do not hesitate to call them “derangements of the mental constitution,” and to conclude that the instinctive machinery has got out of gear.

These principles are those of the inhibition of instincts by habits and of the transitoriness of instincts. Taken in conjunction with the two former principles—that an object may excite ambiguous impulses, or suggest an impulse different from that which it excites, by suggesting a remote object—they explain any amount of departure from uniformity of conduct, without implying any getting out of gear of the elementary impulses from which the conduct flows.

Take first the inhibition of instincts by habits. The law is this: When objects of a certain class elicit from an animal a certain sort of reaction, it often happens that the animal becomes partial to the first specimen of the class on which it has reacted, and will not afterward react on any other specimen.

The selection of a particular hole to live in, of a particular mate, of a particular feeding-ground, a particular variety of diet, a particular anything, in short, out of a possible multitude, is a very wide-spread tendency among animals, even those low down in the scale. The limpet will return to the same sticking-place in its rock, and the lobster to its favorite nook on the sea-bottom. The rabbit will deposit its dung in the same corner; the bird makes its nest on the same bough. But each of these preferences carries with it an insensibility to other opportunities and occasions—an insensibility which can only be described physiologically as an inhibition of new impulses by the habit of old ones already formed. The possession of homes and wives of our own makes us strangely insensible to the charms of those of other people. Few of us are adventurous in the matter of food; in fact, most of us think there is something disgusting in a bill of fare to which we are unused. Strangers, we are apt to think, cannot be worth knowing, especially if they come from distant cities, etc. The original impulse which got us homes, wives, dietaries, and friends, at all, seems to exhaust itself in its first achievements and to leave no surplus energy for reacting on new cases. And so it comes about that, witnessing this torpor, an observer of mankind might say that no instinctive propensity toward certain objects existed at all. It existed, but it existed miscellaneously, or as an instinct pure and simple only, before habit was formed. A habit, once grafted on an instinctive tendency, restricts the range of the tendency itself, and keeps us from reacting on any but the habitual objects, although other objects might just as well have been chosen had they been the first comers.

Another sort of arrest of instinct by habit is where the same class of objects awakens contrary instinctive impulses. Here the impulse first followed toward a given individual of the class is apt to keep him from ever awakening the opposite impulse in us. In fact, the whole class may be protected by this individual specimen from the application to it of the other impulse. Animals, for example, awaken in a child the opposite impulses of fearing and fondling. But if a child, in his first attempts to pat a dog, gets snapped at or bitten, so that the impulse of fear is strongly aroused, if may be that for years to come no dog will excite in him the impulse to fondle again. On the other hand, the greatest natural enemies, if carefully introduced to each other when young and guided at the outset by superior authority, settle down into those “happy families” of friends which we see in our menageries. Young animals, immediately after birth, have no instinct of fear, but show their dependence by allowing themselves to be freely handled. Later, however, they grow “wild,” and, if left to themselves, will not let man approach them. I am told by farmers in the Adirondack wilderness that it is a very serious matter if a cow wanders off and calves in the woods and is not found for a week or more. The calf, by that time, is as wild and almost as fleet as a deer, and hard to capture without violence. But calves rarely show any particular wildness to the men who have been in contact with them during the first days of their life, when the instinct to attach themselves is uppermost, nor do they dread strangers as they would if brought up wild.

Chickens give a curious illustration of the same law. Mr. Spalding’s wonderful article on instinct shall supply us with the facts. These little creatures show opposite instincts of attachment and fear, either of which maybe aroused by the same object, man. If a chick is born in the absence of the hen, it “will follow any moving object. And, when guided by sight alone, they seem to have no more disposition to follow a hen than to follow a duck or a human being. Unreflecting lookers-on, when they saw chickens a day old running after me,” says Mr. Spalding, “and older ones following me for miles, and answering to my whistle, imagined that I must have some occult power over the creatures: whereas I had simply allowed them to follow me from the first. There is the instinct to follow; and the ear, prior to experience, attaches them to the right object.”[5] But if a man presents himself for the first time when the instinct of fear is strong, the phenomena are altogether reversed. Mr. Spalding kept three chickens hooded until they were nearly four days old, and thus describes their behavior:

“Each of them, on being unhooded, evinced the greatest terror to me, dashing off in the opposite direction whenever I sought to approach it. The table on which they were unhooded stood before a window, and each in its turn beat against the window like a wild bird. One of them darted behind some books, and, squeezing itself into a corner, remained cowering for a length of time. We might guess at the meaning of this strange and exceptional wildness; but the odd fact is enough for my present purpose. Whatever might have been the meaning of this marked change in their mental constitution—had they been unhooded on the previous day they would have run to me instead of from me—it could not have been the effect of experience; it must have resulted wholly from changes in their own organizations.”[6]

Their case was precisely analogous to that of the Adirondack calves. The two opposite instincts relative to the same object ripen in succession. If the first one engenders a habit, that habit will inhibit the application of the second instinct to that object. All animals are tame during some phase of their infancy. Habits formed then limit the effects of whatever instincts of wildness may later be evolved.

Mr. Romanes gives some very curious examples of the way in which instinctive tendencies may be altered by the habits to which their first “objects” have given rise. The cases are a little more complicated than those mentioned in the text, inasmuch as the object reacted on not only starts a habit which inhibits other kinds of impulse toward it (although such other kinds might be natural), but even modifies by its own peculiar conduct the constitution of the impulse it actually awakens.

Two of the instances in question are those of hens who hatched out broods of chicks after having (in three previous years) hatched ducks. They strove to coax or to compel their new progeny to enter the water, and seemed much perplexed at their unwillingness. Another hen adopted a brood of young ferrets which, having lost their mother, were put under her. During all the time they were left with her she had to sit on the nest, for they could not wander like young chicks. She obeyed their hoarse growling as she would have obeyed her chickens’ peep. She combed out their hair with her bill, and “used frequently to stop and look with one eye at the wriggling nestful, with an inquiring gaze, expressive of astonishment.” At other times she would fly up with a loud scream, doubtless because the orphans had nipped her in their search for teats. Finally, a Brahma hen nursed a young peacock during the enormous period of eighteen months, and never laid any eggs during all this time. The abnormal degree of pride which she showed in her wonderful chicken is described by Dr. Romanes as ludicrous.[7]

This leads us to the law of transitoriness, which is this: That many instincts ripen at a certain age and then fade away. A consequence of this law is that if, during the time of such an instinct’s vivacity, objects adequate to arouse it are met with, a habit of acting on them is formed, which remains when the original instinct has passed away; but that if no such objects are met with, then no habit will be formed; and, later on in life, when the animal meets the objects, he will altogether fail to react, as at the earlier epoch he would instinctively have done.

No doubt such a law is restricted. Some instincts are far less transient than others—those connected with feeding and “self-preservation” may hardly be transient at all, and some, after fading out for a time, recur as strong as ever, e.g., the instincts of pairing and rearing young. The law, however, though not absolute, is certainly very wide-spread, and a few examples will illustrate just what it means.

In the chickens and calves above mentioned, it is obvious that the instinct to follow and become attached fades out after a few days, and that the instinct of flight then takes its place, the conduct of the creature toward man being decided by the formation or non-formation of a certain habit during those days. The transiency of the chicken’s instinct to follow is also proved by its conduct toward the hen. Mr. Spalding kept some chickens shut up till they were comparatively old, and, speaking of these, he says: “A chicken that has not heard the call of the mother till until eight or ten days old then hears it as if it heard it not. I regret to find that on this point my notes are not so full as I could wish, or as they might have been. There is, however, an account of one chicken that could not be returned to the mother when ten days old. The hen followed it and tried to entice it in every way; still, it continually left her and ran to the house or to any person of whom it caught sight. This it persisted in doing, though beaten back with a small branch dozens of times and, indeed, cruelly maltreated. It was also placed under the mother at night, but it again left her in the morning.”

The instinct of sucking is ripe in all mammals at birth, and leads to that habit of taking the breast which, in the human infant, may be prolonged by daily exercise long beyond its usual term of a year or a year and a half. But the instinct itself is transient, in the sense that if, for any reason, the child be fed by spoon during the first few days of its life and not put to the breast, it may be no easy matter after that to make it suck at all. So of calves. If their mother die, or be dry, or refuse to let them suck for a day or two, so that they are fed by hand, it becomes hard to get them to suck at all when a new nurse is provided. The ease with which sucking creatures are weaned, by simply breaking the habit and giving them food in a new way, shows that the instinct, purely as such, must be entirely extinct.

Assuredly the simple fact that instincts are transient, and that the effect of later ones may be altered by the habits which earlier ones have left behind, is a far more philosophical explanation than the notion of an instinctive constitution vaguely “deranged” or “thrown out of gear.”

I have observed a Scotch terrier, born on the floor of a stable in December, and transferred six weeks later to a carpeted house, make, when he was less than four months old, a very elaborate pretence of burying things, such as gloves, etc., which he had played with till he was tired. He scratched the carpet with his forefeet, dropped the object from his mouth upon the spot, and then scratched all about it (with both fore and hind feet, if I remember rightly), and finally went away and let it he. Of course, the act was entirely useless. I saw him perform it at that age, some four or five times, and never again in his life. The conditions were not present to fix a habit which could last when the prompting instinct died away. But suppose meat instead of a glove, earth instead of a carpet, hunger pangs instead of a fresh supper a few hours later, and it is easy to see how this dog might have got into a habit of burying superfluous food, which might have lasted all his life. Who can swear that the strictly instinctive part of the food-burying propensity in the wild Canidae may not be as short-lived as it was in this terrier?

A similar instance is given by Dr. H. D. Schmidt,[8] of New Orleans.

“I may cite the example of a young squirrel which I had tamed, a number of years ago, when serving in the army, and when I had sufficient leisure and opportunity to study the habits of animals. In the autumn, before the winter sets in, adult squirrels bury as many nuts as they can collect, separately, in the ground. Holding the nut firmly between their teeth, they first scratch a hole in the ground, and, after pointing their ears in all directions to convince themselves that no enemy is near, they ram—the head, with the nut still between the front teeth, serving as a sledge-hammer—the nut into the ground, and then fill up the hole by means of their paws. The whole process is executed with great rapidity, and, as it appeared to me, always with exactly the same movements; in fact, it is done so well that I could never discover the traces of the burial-ground. Now, as regards the young squirrel, which, of course, never had been present at the burial of a nut, I observed that, after having eaten a number of hickory nuts to appease its appetite, it would take one between its teeth, then sit upright and listen in all directions. Finding all right, it would scratch upon the smooth blanket on which I was playing with it as if to make a hole, then hammer with the nut between its teeth upon the blanket, and finally perform all the motions required to fill up a hole—in the air; after which it would jump away, leaving the nut, of course, uncovered.”

The anecdote, of course, illustrates beautifully the close relation of instinct to reflex action—a particular perception calls forth particular movements, and that is all. Dr. Schmidt tells me that the squirrel in question soon passed away from his observation. It may fairly be presumed that, if he had been long retained prisoner in a cage, he would soon have forgotten his gesticulations over the hickory-nuts.

One might, indeed, go still further with safety, and expect that, if such a captive squirrel were then set free, he would never afterward acquire this peculiar instinct of his tribe.[9]

Leaving lower animals aside, and turning to human instincts, we see the law of transiency corroborated on the widest scale by the alternation of different interests and passions as human life goes on. With the child, life is all play and fairy-tales and learning the external properties of “things;” with the youth, it is bodily exercises of a more systematic sort, novels of the real world, boon-fellowship and song, friendship and love, nature, travel and adventure, science and philosophy; with the man, ambition and policy, acquisitiveness, responsibility to others, and the selfish zest of the battle of life. If a boy grows up alone at the age of games and sports, and learns neither to play ball, nor row, nor sail, nor ride, nor skate, nor fish, nor shoot, probably he will be sedentary to the end of his days; and, though the best of opportunities be afforded him for learning these things later, it is a hundred to one but he will pass them by and shrink back from the effort of taking those necessary first steps the prospect of which, at an earlier age, would have filled him with eager delight. The sexual passion expires after a protracted reign; but it is well known that its peculiar manifestations in a given individual depend almost entirely on the habits he may form during the early period of its activity. Exposure to bad company then makes him a loose liver all his days; chastity kept at first makes the same easy later on. In all pedagogy the great thing is to strike the iron while hot, and to seize the wave of the pupil’s interest in each succcessive subject before its ebb has come, so that knowledge may be got and a habit of skill acquired—a headway of interest, in short, secured, on which afterward the individual may float. There is a happy moment for fixing skill in drawing, for making boys collectors in natural history, and presently dissectors and botanists; then for initiating them into the harmonies of mechanics and the wonders of physical and chemical law. Later, introspective psychology and the metaphysical and religious mysteries take their turn; and, last of all, the drama of human affairs and worldly wisdom in the widest sense of the term. In each of us a saturation-point is soon reached in all these things; the impetus of our purely intellectual zeal expires, and unless the topic be one associated with some urgent personal need that keeps our wits constantly whetted about it, we settle into an equilibrium, and live on what we learned when our interest was fresh and instinctive, without adding to the store. Outside of their own business, the ideas gained by men before they are twenty-five are practically the only ideas they shall have in their lives. They cannot get anything new. Disinterested curiosity is past, the mental grooves and channels set, the power of assimilation gone. If by chance we ever do learn anything about some entirely new topic we are afflicted with a strange sense of insecurity, and we fear to advance a resolute opinion. But, with things learned in the plastic days of instinctive curiosity we never lose entirely our sense of being at home. There remains a kinship, a sentiment of intimate acquaintance, which, even when we know we have failed to keep abreast of the subject, flatters us with a sense of power over it, and makes us feel not altogether out of the pale.

Whatever individual exceptions might be cited to this are of the sort that “prove the rule.”

To detect the moment of the instinctive readiness for the subject is, then, the first duty of every educator. As for the pupils, it would probably lead to a more earnest temper on the part of college students if they had less belief in their unlimited future intellectual potentialities, and could be brought to realize that whatever physics and political economy and philosophy they are now acquiring are, for better or worse, the physics and political economy and philosophy that will have to serve them to the end.

The natural conclusion to draw from this transiency of instincts is that most of them are implanted for the sake of giving rise to habits, and that, this purpose once accomplished, the instincts themselves, as such, have no raison d’être in the psychical economy, and consequently fade away. That occasionally an instinct should fade before circumstances permit of a habit being formed, or that, if the habit be formed, other factors than the pure instinct should modify its course, need not surprise us. Life is full of the imperfect adjustment to individual cases, of arrangements which, taking the species as a whole, are quite orderly and regular. Instinct cannot be expected to escape this general rule.

The most interesting thing possible now would be to test our principles by going through the human instincts in detail. But as I have already exceeded my allotted space, that must be reserved for another opportunity.

Notes[edit]

  1. P. A. Chadbourne: Instinct, p. 28. New York, 1872.
  2. “It would be very simple-minded to suppose that bees follow their queen, and protect her and care for her, because they are aware that without her the hive would become extinct. The odor or the aspect of their queen is manifestly agreeable to the bees—that is why they love her so. Does not all true love base itself on agreeable perceptions much more than on representations of utility?” Schneider: Thierische Wille; p. 187. A priori, there is no reason to suppose that any sensation might not in some animal cause any emotion and any impulse. To us it seems unnatural that an odor should directly excite anger or fear; or a color, lust. Yet there are creatures to which some smells are quite as frightful as any sounds, and very likely others to which color is as much a sexual irritant as form.
  3. Der Thierische Wille.
  4. In the instincts of mammals, and even of lower creatures, the uniformity and infallibility which, a generation ago, were considered as essential characters do not exist. The minuter study of recent years has found continuity, transition, variation, and mistake, wherever it has looked for them, and decided that what is called an instinct is usually only a tendency to act in a way of which the average is pretty constant, but which need not be mathematically “true.” Cf. on this point, Darwin’s Origin of Species; Romanes’s Mental Evol., chaps, xi. to xvi., incl., and Appendix; Lindsay’s Mind in Lower Animals, vol. i., 133-141—ii., chaps, v., xx.; and Semper’s Conditions of Existence in Animals, where a great many instances will be found.
  5. Spalding, op. cit., p. 287.
  6. Op. cit., p. 289.
  7. For the cases in full, see Mental Evolution in Animals, pp. 213-217.
  8. Transactions of American Neurological Association, vol. i., p. 129, 1875.
  9. “Mr. Spalding,” says Mr. Lewes (Problems of Life and Mind. Prob. I., chap., ii., § 22, note), “tells me of a friend of his who reared a gosling in the kitchen, away from all water; when this bird was some months old, and was taken to a pond, it not only refused to go into the water, but when thrown in scrambled out again, as a hen would have done. Here was an instinct entirely suppressed.” See a similar observation on ducklings in T. R. R. Spedding: Essays on Darwinism, 1871, p. 73. London.


This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.