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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.


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 add
tional 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.


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

be noticed.