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The Nature Of Instinct

Every child born into the world has resting upon him an unseen hand
reaching out from the past, pushing him out to meet his environment, and
guiding him in the start upon his journey. This impelling and guiding
power from the past we call instinct. In the words of Mosso: Instinct
is the voice of past generations reverberating like a distant echo in
the cells of the nervous system. We feel the breath, the advice, the
experience of all men, from those who lived on acorns and struggled like
wild beasts, dying naked in the forests, down to the virtue and toil of
our father, the fear and love of our mother.

THE BABE'S DEPENDENCE ON INSTINCT.--The child is born ignorant and
helpless. It has no memory, no reason, no imagination. It has never
performed a conscious act, and does not know how to begin. It must get
started, but how? It has no experience to direct it, and is unable to
understand or imitate others of its kind. It is at this point that
instinct comes to the rescue. The race has not given the child a mind
ready made--that must develop; but it has given him a ready-made nervous
system, ready to respond with the proper movements when it receives the
touch of its environment through the senses.

And this nervous system has been so trained during a limitless past that
its responses are the ones which are necessary for the welfare of its
owner. It can do a hundred things without having to wait to learn them.
Burdette says of the new-born child, Nobody told him what to do. Nobody
taught him. He knew. Placed suddenly on the guest list of this old
caravansary, he knew his way at once to two places in it--his bedroom
and the dining-room. A thousand generations of babies had done the same
thing in the same way, and each had made it a little easier for this
particular baby to do his part without learning how.

DEFINITION OF INSTINCT.--Instincts are the tendency to act in certain
definite ways, without previous education and without a conscious end in
view. They are a tendency to act; for some movement, or motor
adjustment, is the response to an instinct. They do not require previous
education, for none is possible with many instinctive acts: the duck
does not have to be taught to swim or the baby to suck. They have no
conscious end in view, though the result may be highly desirable.

Says James: 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 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 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 pre-organized bundle of such reactions. They are as fatal as
sneezing, and exactly correlated to their special excitants as it to its

You ask, Why does the lark rise on the flash of a sunbeam from his
meadow to the morning sky, leaving a trail of melody to mark his flight?
Why does the beaver build his dam, and the oriole hang her nest? Why are
myriads of animal forms on the earth today doing what they were
countless generations ago? Why does the lover seek the maid, and the
mother cherish her young? Because the voice of the past speaks to the
present, and the present has no choice but to obey.

INSTINCTS ARE RACIAL HABITS.--Instincts are the habits of the race which
it bequeaths to the individual; the individual takes these for his
start, and then modifies them through education, and thus adapts himself
to his environment. Through his instincts, the individual is enabled to
short-cut racial experience, and begin at once on life activities which
the race has been ages in acquiring. Instinct preserves to us what the
race has achieved in experience, and so starts us out where the race
left off.

UNMODIFIED INSTINCT IS BLIND.--Many of the lower animal forms act on
instinct blindly, unable to use past experience to guide their acts,
incapable of education. Some of them carry out seemingly marvelous
activities, yet their acts are as automatic as those of a machine and as
devoid of foresight. A species of mud wasp carefully selects clay of
just the right consistency, finds a somewhat sheltered nook under the
eaves, and builds its nest, leaving one open door. Then it seeks a
certain kind of spider, and having stung it so as to benumb without
killing, carries it into the new-made nest, lays its eggs on the body of
the spider so that the young wasps may have food immediately upon
hatching out, then goes out and plasters the door over carefully to
exclude all intruders. Wonderful intelligence? Not intelligence at all.
Its acts were dictated not by plans for the future, but by pressure from
the past. Let the supply of clay fail, or the race of spiders become
extinct, and the wasp is helpless and its species will perish. Likewise
the race of bees and ants have done wonderful things, but individual
bees and ants are very stupid and helpless when confronted by any novel
conditions to which their race has not been accustomed.

Man starts in as blindly as the lower animals; but, thanks to his higher
mental powers, this blindness soon gives way to foresight, and he is
able to formulate purposeful ends and adapt his activities to their
accomplishment. Possessing a larger number of instincts than the lower
animals have, man finds possible a greater number of responses to a more
complex environment than do they. This advantage, coupled with his
ability to reconstruct his experience in such a way that he secures
constantly increasing control over his environment, easily makes man the
superior of all the animals, and enables him to exploit them for his own
further advancement.

Next: Law Of The Appearance And Disappearance Of Instincts

Previous: Problems In Observation And Introspection

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