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What is Instinct?

Updated on December 9, 2011

In order that the struggles and strivings of the ages should not be wasted, the animal mind has been able to store up experiences by which it is possible for succeeding generations to profit. These were mostly special tendencies directed towards the preservation of the species which in time have become precise lines of conduct and are now referred to as "instincts".

These inherited forms of behavior, or instincts, may be defined as purposive acts, without conscious foresight, but for the benefit of the race. Instincts form the basis of that "ancestral mind" which is possessed by all. Man is an instinctive animal and instincts are still the impelling forces of our existence, though they are modified through the agency of intelligence by social tradition and convention. Fundamentally, man is activated by the primeval desires for food and love.

In its purest form instinct is found in animals not distinguished by their intelligence. For example, in insects, life is dominated by certain fixed reactions.

The instinctive behavior is adapted to the preservation and perpetuation of the insects only in a particular series of conditions. Should the insect be removed from its special environment it cannot intelligently readjust itself. Pure instinct has been said to be intelligent in one direction but blind in all others.

Instincts have been variously classified but they may be conveniently divided into three main groups-the self-preservatory, the sexual and the social or herd.

(a) The instinct for self-preservation is the primitive and fundamental desire to live. It is revealed in many ways: in the striving for food, in acquisition of wealth; in flight when grave dangers are present, and in repulsion when disgusted. Failure of this instinct is sometimes seen in morbid mental states such as melancholia and suicide may logically follow.

(b) The sexual instinct, entailing reproduction, is very complicated and includes striving after the female on the part of the male, with self-assertion on the one side and coyness on the other. It is revealed in the maternal impulse and it inspires the protection and cherishing of the young on the part of both parents. It energizes man's activities to a profound degree.

(c) The social instinct is shown in men's desire to live together and their intolerance of solitude. It is this instinct which lies at the root of the family and community life, and the more civilized we become the more complex and more important does our social instinct become.

Social and moral laws have arisen from its operation and mental evolution has been hastened through its influence. Nevertheless, it makes man subject to the passions of the pack and, by producing a dislike of conspicuity, it is apt to limit outlook and lead to an intolerance of new thought.


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