Bertrand Russell: The Analysis of Mind


Semon ("Die Mneme," pp. 207-9) gives a good illustration of an instinct growing wiser through experience. He relates how hunters attract stags by imitating the sounds of other members of their species, male or female, but find that the older a stag becomes the more difficult it is to deceive him, and the more accurate the imitation has to be. The literature of instinct is vast, and illustrations might be multiplied indefinitely. The main points as regards instinct, which need to be emphasized as against the popular conceptions of it, are:

(1) That instinct requires no prevision of the biological end which it serves;

(2) That instinct is only adapted to achieve this end in the usual circumstances of the animal in question, and has no more precision than is necessary for success AS A RULE;

(3) That processes initiated by instinct often come to be performed better after experience;

(4) That instinct supplies the impulses to experimental movements which are required for the process of learning;

(5) That instincts in their nascent stages are easily modifiable, and capable of being attached to various sorts of objects.

All the above characteristics of instinct can be established by purely external observation, except the fact that instinct does not require prevision. This, though not strictly capable of being PROVED by observation, is irresistibly suggested by the most obvious phenomena. Who can believe, for example, that a new-born baby is aware of the necessity of food for preserving life? Or that insects, in laying eggs, are concerned for the preservation of their species? The essence of instinct, one might say, is that it provides a mechanism for acting without foresight in a manner which is usually advantageous biologically. It is partly for this reason that it is so important to understand the fundamental position of instinct in prompting both animal and human behaviour.

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