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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

erience 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.