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The Problem of Instinct (S534: 1897)1

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: An essay review of C. Lloyd Morgan's Habit and Instinct published in the Natural Science issue of March 1897. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S534.htm

    [[p. 161]] There is probably no subject in the whole range of biology, the study of which has been so universally neglected as Instinct. Both scientific and popular writers continually refer to it as if its nature and limitations were matter of common knowledge, and its facts so well established as to be almost above criticism. Yet when we ask how it is known that certain actions of man or animals are due to instinct and not to experience or imitation, we find an almost total absence of accurate observation or experiment, while hardly two writers are agreed as to the exact meaning of the term. It is only within the last quarter of a century that a few biologists have made any careful experiments on the phenomena presented by the actions of the higher animals, under such conditions as entirely to exclude the agency of imitation or of parental guidance; and although these experiments are as yet quite insufficient in quantity and far too limited in scope, having regard to the wide field covered by the actions and behaviour usually considered to be instinctive, yet the results reached are already very interesting, and are sufficient to show us that we need not despair of a complete solution of the problem, at all events as regards the higher animals.

    One of the first English observers to attack the problem on the experimental method was the late Mr. Douglas Spalding, who in 1873, in Macmillan's Magazine, described a number of experiments on young chicks and ducklings, carefully blinded for the first few hours after birth. His conclusions were, that these young birds not only showed intuitive powers of walking, scratching, and pecking, but also possessed intuitive knowledge--or acted as if they possessed such knowledge--of various kinds. He asserted that they were afraid of bees and of the cry of a hawk, and that they intuitively knew the meaning of a hen's call-note and danger-signal when heard for the first time. These results were opposed to Mr. Spalding's preconceived ideas, and were therefore the more readily accepted, and have been frequently quoted as settling this point--the possession of instinctive knowledge as well as the power of co-ordinated movements of various kinds. Now, Professor Lloyd Morgan has repeated all [[p. 162]] these experiments many times and with a considerable variety of species, and, while confirming many of Mr. Spalding's observations and conclusions, has shown that those here referred to are erroneous. More important still, he has shown exactly where and why the conclusions arrived at are erroneous, and has thus afforded most valuable guidance to future experimenters in this interesting enquiry. Some examples of these corrections are the following.

    Mr. Spalding noticed a difference in the behaviour of young chicks to flies and to bees, and concluded that they "gave evidence of instinctive fear of these sting-bearing insects." This, if true, would be very important, since it would show an intuitive perception of the dangerous character of a special insect, and if of one, presumably of all common dangerous or hurtful objects, antecedent to experience. But the whole series of observations made by Professor Morgan himself, as well as those made by other good observers, shows that they have no such perception of the qualities of objects. They pick up stones as well as grain, bits of red worsted as well as worms, gaudy-coloured inedible caterpillars as well as those which are edible. They do not recognise water till they have felt it, and they do not know that water is drinkable till contact with the beak sets up the nervous and muscular reactions of drinking. By a series of careful experiments Professor Lloyd Morgan shows that young chicks have no fear of bees as bees, but merely because they are large and unusual. They are equally suspicious of a large fly or beetle, and, though eating small worms greedily, are afraid of a large one. And when the chicks were a few days old, and were no longer afraid of large flies, they showed no fear even of wasps, when presented to them for the first time.

    Very similar is the correction of Spalding's statements that his young chicks gave the danger-signal when a hawk was flying high overhead, and that a young turkey showed equal alarm when a young hawk, kept in a cupboard, uttered a shrill sound; whence he concluded that the fear of birds of prey, whether seen or heard, was instinctive. For it is now shown that any strange object or any unusual sound causes exactly similar alarm when first seen or heard by any kind of young birds, and Mr. Hudson, of La Plata fame, came to a similar conclusion. Other cases which have been thought to prove instinctive dread of enemies in various young animals are shown to be explicable on similar principles; any sight, or sound, or smell, very different from what they have been accustomed to, alarms them, and they learn what are really dangerous either through the actions of their parents or by their own personal experience.

    But, though young birds and mammals do not possess instincts which enable them to discriminate between objects that may be useful and those that may be hurtful to them, they often possess the most wonderful acuteness of the senses and powers of co-ordinated muscular action, which enable them rapidly to acquire the knowledge that is essential to them. The young chick only a few hours out of the shell [[p. 163]] walks and runs, and is able to pick up small objects in its beak, some being rejected and others swallowed. The young duck swims when put into the water, or when it accidentally walks into it, but it has no instinctive desire for it, and does not, as is often stated, run to it from a distance. Young dippers dive perfectly the first time they reach the water, and young swallows fly with great precision, avoiding obstacles almost as readily as do the old birds. With such congenital powers, and with an instinctive fear or suspicion of everything that is strange to them, they learn with marvellous rapidity; and having once found that a particular object is disagreeable or unfit for food they rarely require a second lesson, and thus in a few days accumulate a stock of experience, which, unless the process has been closely watched, may easily be set down to instinct.

    About one-third part of Professor Lloyd Morgan's work is devoted to such experiments and observations on young birds and mammals as have now been indicated, and the amount of new and varied information here brought together is sufficiently large to form the basis of sound reasoning on the nature and limitations of the faculties involved; and perhaps no living biologist is better fitted to do this successfully than the author. In the series of chapters headed: "The Relation of Consciousness to Instinctive Behaviour," "Intelligence and the Acquisition of Habits," "Imitation," and "The Emotions in Relation to Instinct," we have a careful and interesting study of the physiological and psychological aspects of the facts that have been laid before us; a study which is in the highest degree instructive, and which will serve to guide future students of the subject both as to the interpretation of the facts already established, and as to the observations most needed for the elucidation of matters which are still unsettled. These chapters, however, are hardly suited for illustration or summary, and we will therefore pass on to those which deal with the alleged instincts of adult animals, and with some of the most disputed questions which now divide biologists; but, before doing so, it will be well to quote the author's definition of instinct, as well as the conclusions he has reached as to its nature.

    At the end of the first chapter, which gives a popular sketch of the facts which demand explanation or verification, Professor Morgan says:--

    "We may now sum up what has been advanced in the foregoing discussion, and say that, from the biological point of view, instincts are congenital, adaptive, and co-ordinated activities of relative complexity, and involving the behaviour of the organism as a whole. They are not characteristic of individuals as such, but are similarly performed by all like members of the same more or less restricted group, under circumstances which are either of frequent recurrence or are vitally essential to the continuance of the race. . . . They are to be distinguished from habits which owe their definiteness to individual acquisition and the repetition of individual performance."

    And after having described the various actions of young birds [[p. 164]] antecedent to experience, our author summarises some of the conclusions to be drawn from the observations as follows:--

    "1. That which is congenitally definite as instinctive behaviour is essentially a motor response or train of motor responses. Mr. Herbert Spencer's description of instinct as compound reflex action is thus justified.

    "2. These often show very accurate and nicely-adjusted congenital or hereditary co-ordinations.

    "3. They are evoked by stimuli, the general type of which is fairly definite, and may, in some cases, be in response to particular objects. Of the latter possibility we have, however, but little satisfactory evidence.

    "4. There does not seem to be any convincing evidence of inherited ideas or knowledge (as the term is popularly used); that is to say, the facts can be equally well explained on the view that what is inherited is of the nature of an organic response.

    "5. Association of ideas is strong, and is rapidly formed as the result of individual acquisition.

    "6. Acquired definiteness is built, through association, on the foundation of congenital responses, which are modified, under experience, to     meet new circumstances.

    "7. Acquired definiteness may pass, through frequent repetition, into more or less stereotyped habit."

    Having thus given the author's standpoint and his main conclusions from a body of well-observed facts, we will pass on to his treatment of those activities of adult animals which are generally classed as instinctive.

    In the chapter on "Some Habits and Instincts of the Pairing Season," the songs, dances, and displays of plumage by birds are described, and Professor Lloyd Morgan seems inclined to the conclusion that their great development indicates the action of that form of sexual selection termed "preferential mating." Some additional observations are quoted which support this view, but the final conclusion is that--"in all these matters further and fuller evidence from direct observation is to be desired."

    The next chapter is on "Nest-building, Incubation, and Migration," and affords much matter for careful consideration. As to nest-building, I have always urged that careful experiments are required before we can accept as instinctive the building of a peculiar type of nest by each species of bird; and we find a few such recent experiments now adduced. But when we remember how such a careful experimenter as Spalding was led to wrong conclusions through not varying his experiments sufficiently, the few experiments yet made on nest-building under conditions by no means rigid and with results not described in sufficient detail, can hardly be accepted as settling the question. This is one of the problems that can only be finally settled by experiments tried on a large scale and with every precaution, and the results preserved for comparison and study; and if ever an experimental biological farm is established this subject of nidification [[p. 165]] would form one of its most interesting and comparatively easy enquiries.

    Passing over a very interesting discussion as to the habits of the cuckoo and their probable origin, and one hardly less interesting on the habit of the lapwing and many other birds of simulating injury to distract attention from nest or young, we pass on to the broader and more important subject of migration, which, however, is rather briefly treated. The evidence now accumulated seems to justify Professor Lloyd Morgan's conclusion, that while the migratory impulse is innate, yet, "the element of traditional guidance may be effectual, in the migration stream as a whole, in some way that we have hitherto been unable to observe." The chief obstacle to this view consists in the well known observations of Herr Gätke at Heligoland, that, during the autumn migration, in the case of the great majority of species, the young birds migrate earliest and alone, the adults following considerably later. But admitting, as everyone must, the accuracy of Herr Gätke's observations, does the conclusion necessarily follow? He himself assures us that the birds which rest on or pass within sight of Heligoland only form a fraction of the whole of the migrating hordes, most of them travelling by night at great altitudes, and very few passing within sight of the island, and of these few only, perhaps, one in ten thousand stopping to rest. The fact that young birds of many species are the first to visit Heligoland every year without exception, may possibly be explained by the fact that, while the older birds which lead the way travel high and go on without stopping, a large number of the young fly lower, and being either fatigued by the long unaccustomed flight or attracted by the sight of the land, descend to this elevated and fertile islet for rest and food. The late Mr. Seebohm, whose extensive journeys to Siberia and in various parts of Europe for the purpose of collecting and studying birds rendered him an authority on this subject, gives the early migration of young birds on the authority of the Heligoland observers, and does not support it by any observation of his own in the northern regions from which so many of the migrants come. In America, although some writers state that young birds migrate first in autumn, Mr. C. Hart Merriam, of the Department of Agriculture, tells us that this notion is "contrary to the experience of most leading American Ornithologists and to the information collected by the Committee on Migration of the American Ornithologists Union."2 But if we reject the conclusion based upon the Heligoland facts as not necessarily following from them, we shall find that there is not much difficulty in forming a theory which accounts for the main phenomena, and the outlines of such a theory have been very well expressed by Mr. Seebohm himself at the end of the chapter on Migration in his "Geographical Distribution of the Charadriidæ," in the following passage:--

    [[p. 166]] "The assemblage of migratory birds in large flocks, which in many cases wait for a favourable wind before they venture to cross wide stretches of sea, and consequently start altogether as soon as the weather is suitable, and arrive on the other side in enormous numbers or rushes; the keen sight of birds and their extraordinary memory for locality; the great variety of routes chosen, and the pertinacity with which each species keeps to its own route--these and many other facts all point in one direction. The desire to migrate is a hereditary impulse, to which the descendants of migratory birds are subject in spring and autumn, which has acquired a force almost, if not quite, as irresistible as the hereditary impulse to breed in the spring. On the other hand, the routes of migration have to be learned by individual experience. The theory that the knowledge of when and where to migrate is a mysterious gift of nature, the miraculous quality of which is attempted to be concealed under the semi-scientific term of instinct, is no longer tenable."

    The views here expressed appear to me to harmonise well with the general conclusions as to the nature and limitations of instinct arrived at by Professor Lloyd Morgan, and they are enforced by some considerations which writers on this subject usually overlook. The numerous recorded facts of birds returning year after year to build in the same spots as in the preceding year, indicate that most of the spring migrants are old birds. Not only is this the general belief of observers, but it is rendered probable by the known longevity of most birds, and the obvious circumstance that those which have escaped the dangers of the double migration on the first occasion will be more likely to escape in each succeeding year, so long as health and strength continue. The fact that the breeding population of birds in any country does not increase year by year, but, though there are considerable fluctuations, remains on the average constant, proves that there must be an enormous destruction of the young birds, which certainly amount in number to several times as many as the old ones, and it seems probable that this destruction takes place during the two annual migrations, and more especially during the first one in autumn, when the young birds have had no practice in long continued flight and no experience of the dangers of the sea. If the birds of more than one season live on the average only four or five years more, it follows that only a very small percentage of the enormous annual progeny of young birds can survive to take their place. Hence it may well be that all those countless myriads of birds of the year that visit Heligoland are among the failures which, if they leave the island, perish in the waters. We know that enormous numbers must perish during each year, and where so likely as during that first attempt to traverse the North Sea? This is rendered almost certain by the recently issued Report of the British Association Committee on Bird Migration, in which it is stated that at the various periods of the great autumnal rushes at Heligoland, when countless thousands of birds pass over that island, no corresponding influx has been noticed on our east coasts during the four successive years that the two records have [[p. 167]] been compared. Either then, these myriads of birds passed southward to Holland or flew out to sea and were mostly lost. As Herr Gätke does not mention any corresponding flights along the coasts of Holland and Belgium it is to be presumed that they have not been noticed, and we are almost forced to the conclusion that the greater part of these young birds, whose immense numbers at Heligoland excite so much astonishment, are really failures, and form a portion of those which are annually eliminated by the severe test of migration; and if this be so, much of the marvel supposed to attach to the successful migration of young birds disappears, since such "successful migration," except in the case of a small percentage, does not occur.

    There is one alleged instinct of great popular interest which Mr. Lloyd Morgan does not deal with--the means by which many of our domestic animals, especially cats, dogs, and horses, find their way home under circumstances which seem to preclude any direct guidance by the senses. Narratives of the most marvellous character have been published, but, unfortunately, no systematic experiments appear to have been made, except a few by the late Mr. Romanes. These showed that a dog could exactly track its master's footsteps by scent, and it was shown that the scent was derived from his shoes, which must of course be full of perspiration and other emanations from the skin, because when he wore new shoes or those of another person his track could not be followed. In Nature, vol. vii., there is a considerable discussion of this subject, and many remarkable cases are narrated by various correspondents, but in none are all the data given for arriving at a rational conclusion on the question. I then wrote summarizing the discussion (Nature, vol. viii., p. 65), and suggested a series of experiments, which would alone give us any real information. My suggestion was that a dog whose antecedents were known should be taken by a circuitous route by rail and road to some spot where he had never been before, and should be there handed to some person he did not know, who should carry him a short distance, and on releasing him should keep him in sight, either on foot or horseback, till the animal returned home, noting carefully every movement and action. A moderate number of such experiments would settle the question of instinct or sense-observation, and it is to be hoped, now that a more intelligent interest is taken in the subject, such experiments will be made. I may add that, theoretically, any instinct of direction is almost inconceivable, because quadrupeds in a state of nature do not require such an instinct. They learn, step by step, the surroundings of their birth-place, extending their range, perhaps, year by year, but never requiring to go back over a country they have not previously traversed. In their case ordinary memory, assisted by very acute senses, would be all they would need. In the case of domestic animals returning home, we find that the recorded time elapsed varies from a few hours to several days or weeks, even when the distance can be easily traversed in a day. This shows that [[p. 168]] an instinctive sense of direction cannot always be the agency employed; and, as in no one case is the exact route of the animal's return known, the assertion so often made, that a special sense of direction is required to explain the facts, cannot be justified.

    Two very interesting chapters, near the end of the volume, are those entitled "Are Acquired Characters Inherited," and "Modification and Variation." In the first of these the bearing of the whole of the phenomena of instinct on the vexed question of inheritance is pointed out, and the conclusion is reached, that although there is little or no satisfactory evidence of the transmission of acquired modifications--that is of habits, or their effects on the organism, as opposed to instincts, yet there are many curious facts which seem to indicate some connection between congenital and acquired characters. What this connection is, the chapter on Modification and Variation attempts to show.

    Modification of the individual by the environment, whether in the direction of structure or of habits, is universal and of considerable amount, and it is almost always, under the conditions, a beneficial modification. But every kind of beneficial modification is also being constantly effected through variation and natural selection, so that the beautifully perfect adaptations we see in nature are the result of a double process, being partly congenital, partly acquired. Acquired modification thus helps on congenital change by giving time for the necessary variations in many directions to be selected, and we have here another answer to the supposed difficulty as to the necessity of many coincident variations in order to bring about any effective advance of the organism. In one year favourable variations of one kind are selected and individual modifications in other directions enable them to be utilised; in Professor Lloyd Morgan's words--"Modification as such is not inherited, but is the condition under which congenital variations are favoured and given time to get a hold on the organism, and are thus enabled by degrees to reach the fully adaptive level." The same result will be produced by Professor Weismann's recent suggestion of "germinal selection," so that it now appears as if all the theoretical objections to the "adequacy of natural selection" have been theoretically answered.

    Biologists owe a debt of gratitude to Professor Lloyd Morgan for this most interesting and suggestive volume. It exhibits all the clearness and philosophical acumen which characterise the writings of the author, and although in his desire to be impartial he has sometimes suggested difficulties which are more apparent than real, yet the work is on the whole an admirable introduction to the study of a most important and fascinating branch of biology, now for the first time based upon a substantial foundation of carefully observed facts and logical induction from them.

Notes Appearing in the Original Work

1. Habit and Instinct, by C. Lloyd Morgan, F.G.S. Pp. 351. London: Edward Arnold, 1896. Price 16s.
2. Report on Bird Migration in the Mississippi Valley, by W. W. Cooke, p. 13, Footnote.

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