Law Of The Appearance And Disappearance Of Instincts
No child is born with all its instincts ripe and ready for action. Yet
each individual contains within his own inner nature the law which
determines the order and time of their development.
INSTINCTS APPEAR IN SUCCESSION AS REQUIRED.--It is not well that we
should be started on too many different lines of activity at once, hence
our instincts do not all appear at the same time. Only as fast as we
need additional activities do they ripen. Our very earliest activities
are concerned chiefly with feeding, hence we first have the instincts
which prompt us to take our food and to cry for it when we are hungry.
Also we find useful such abbreviated instincts, called reflexes, as
sneezing, snuffling, gagging, vomiting, starting, etc.; hence we have
the instincts enabling us to do these things. Soon comes the time for
teething, and, to help the matter along, the instinct of biting enters,
and the rubber ring is in demand. The time approaches when we are to
feed ourselves, so the instinct arises to carry everything to the mouth.
Now we have grown strong and must assume an erect attitude, hence the
instinct to sit up and then to stand. Locomotion comes next, and with it
the instinct to creep and walk. Also a language must be learned, and we
must take part in the busy life about us and do as other people do; so
the instinct to imitate arises that we may learn things quickly and
We need a spur to keep us up to our best effort, so the instinct of
emulation emerges. We must defend ourselves, so the instinct of
pugnacity is born. We need to be cautious, hence the instinct of fear.
We need to be investigative, hence the instinct of curiosity. Much
self-directed activity is necessary for our development, hence the play
instinct. It is best that we should come to know and serve others, so
the instincts of sociability and sympathy arise. We need to select a
mate and care for offspring, hence the instinct of love for the other
sex, and the parental instinct. This is far from a complete list of our
instincts, and I have not tried to follow the order of their
development, but I have given enough to show the origin of many of our
life's most important activities.
MANY INSTINCTS ARE TRANSITORY.--Not only do instincts ripen by degrees,
entering our experience one by one as they are needed, but they drop out
when their work is done. Some, like the instinct of self-preservation,
are needed our lifetime through, hence they remain to the end. Others,
like the play instinct, serve their purpose and disappear or are
modified into new forms in a few years, or a few months. The life of the
instinct is always as transitory as is the necessity for the activity
to which it gives rise. No instinct remains wholly unaltered in man, for
it is constantly being made over in the light of each new experience.
The instinct of self-preservation is modified by knowledge and
experience, so that the defense of the man against threatened danger
would be very different from that of the child; yet the instinct to
protect oneself in some way remains. On the other hand, the instinct
to romp and play is less permanent. It may last into adult life, but few
middle-aged or old people care to race about as do children. Their
activities are occupied in other lines, and they require less physical
Contrast with these two examples such instincts as sucking, creeping,
and crying, which are much more fleeting than the play instinct, even.
With dentition comes another mode of eating, and sucking is no more
serviceable. Walking is a better mode of locomotion than creeping, so
the instinct to creep soon dies. Speech is found a better way than
crying to attract attention to distress, so this instinct drops out.
Many of our instincts not only would fail to be serviceable in our later
lives, but would be positively in the way. Each serves its day, and then
passes over into so modified a form as not to be recognized, or else
drops out of sight altogether.
SEEMINGLY USELESS INSTINCTS.--Indeed it is difficult to see that some
instincts serve a useful purpose at any time. The pugnacity and
greediness of childhood, its foolish fears, the bashfulness of
youth--these seem to be either useless or detrimental to development.
In order to understand the workings of instinct, however, we must
remember that it looks in two directions; into the future for its
application, and into the past for its explanation. We should not be
surprised if the experiences of a long past have left behind some
tendencies which are not very useful under the vastly different
conditions of today.
Nor should we be too sure that an activity whose precise function in
relation to development we cannot discover has no use at all. Each
instinct must be considered not alone in the light of what it means to
its possessor today, but of what it means to all his future development.
The tail of a polliwog seems a very useless appendage so far as the
adult frog is concerned, yet if the polliwog's tail is cut off a perfect
frog never develops.
INSTINCTS TO BE UTILIZED WHEN THEY APPEAR.--A man may set the stream to
turning his mill wheels today or wait for twenty years--the power is
there ready for him when he wants it. Instincts must be utilized when
they present themselves, else they disappear--never, in most cases, to
return. Birds kept caged past the flying time never learn to fly well.
The hunter must train his setter when the time is ripe, or the dog can
never be depended upon. Ducks kept away from the water until full grown
have almost as little inclination for it as chickens.
The child whom the pressure of circumstances or unwise authority of
parents keeps from mingling with playmates and participating in their
plays and games when the social instinct is strong upon him, will in
later life find himself a hopeless recluse to whom social duties are a
bore. The boy who does not hunt and fish and race and climb at the
proper time for these things, will find his taste for them fade away,
and he will become wedded to a sedentary life. The youth and maiden must
be permitted to dress up when the impulse comes to them, or they are
likely ever after to be careless in their attire.
INSTINCTS AS STARTING POINTS.--Most of our habits have their rise in
instincts, and all desirable instincts should be seized upon and
transformed into habits before they fade away. Says James in his
remarkable chapter on Instinct: In all pedagogy the great thing is to
strike while the iron is hot, and to seize the wave of the pupils'
interest in each successive 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 afterwards 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 is 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.
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
THE MORE IMPORTANT HUMAN INSTINCTS.--It will be impossible in this brief
statement to give a complete catalogue of the human instincts, much
less to discuss each in detail. We must content ourselves therefore with
naming the more important instincts, and finally discussing a few of
them: Sucking, biting, chewing, clasping objects with the
fingers, carrying to the mouth, crying, smiling, sitting up,
standing, locomotion, vocalization, imitation, emulation,
pugnacity, resentment, anger, sympathy, hunting and fighting,
fear, acquisitiveness, play, curiosity, sociability,
modesty, secretiveness, shame, love, and jealousy may be said
to head the list of our instincts. It will be impossible in our brief
space to discuss all of this list. Only a few of the more important will
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