Chapter VIII. Instinct
Instincts comparable with habits, but different in their origin

Many instincts are so wonderful that their development will probably appear to the reader a difficulty sufficient to overthrow my whole theory. I may here premise, that I have nothing to do with the origin of the mental powers, any more than I have with that of life itself. We are concerned only with the diversities of instinct and of the other mental faculties in animals of the same class.

I will not attempt any definition of instinct. It would be easy to show that several distinct mental actions are commonly embraced by this term; but every one understands what is meant, when it is said that instinct impels the cuckoo to migrate and to lay her eggs in other birds' nests. An action, which we ourselves require experience to enable us to perform, when performed by an animal, more especially by a very young one, without experience, and when performed by many individuals in the same way, without their knowing for what purpose it is performed, is usually said to be instinctive. But I could show that none of these characters are universal. A little dose of judgment or reason, as Pierre Huber expresses it, often comes into play, even with animals low in the scale of nature.

Frederick Cuvier and several of the older metaphysicians have compared instinct with habit. This comparison gives, I think, an accurate notion of the frame of mind under which an instinctive action is performed, but not necessarily of its origin. How unconsciously many habitual actions are performed, indeed not rarely in direct opposition to our conscious will! yet they may be modified by the will or reason. Habits easily become associated with other habits, with certain periods of time and states of the body. When once acquired, they often remain constant throughout life. Several other points of resemblance between instincts and habits could be pointed out. As in repeating a well-known song, so in instincts, one action follows another by a sort of rhythm; if a person be interrupted in a song, or in repeating anything by rote, he is generally forced to go back to recover the habitual train of thought: so P. Huber found it was with a caterpillar, which makes a very complicated hammock; for if he took a caterpillar which had completed its hammock up to, say, the sixth stage of construction, and put it into a hammock completed up only to the third stage, the caterpillar simply re-performed the fourth, fifth, and sixth stages of construction. If, however, a caterpillar were taken out of a hammock made up, for instance, to the third stage, and were put into one finished up to the sixth stage, so that much of its work was already done for it, far from deriving any benefit from this, it was much embarrassed, and, in order to complete its hammock, seemed forced to start from the third stage, where it had left off, and thus tried to complete the already finished work.

If we suppose any habitual action to become inherited--and it can be shown that this does sometimes happen--then the resemblance between what originally was a habit and an instinct becomes so close as not to be distinguished. If Mozart, instead of playing the pianoforte at three years old with wonderfully little practice, had played a tune with no practice at all, be might truly be said to have done so instinctively. But it would be a serious error to suppose that the greater number of instincts have been acquired by habit in one generation, and then transmitted by inheritance to succeeding generations. It can be clearly shown that the most wonderful instincts with which we are acquainted, namely, those of the hive-bee and of many ants, could not possibly have been acquired by habit.

It will be universally admitted that instincts are as important as corporeal structures for the welfare of each species, under its present conditions of life. Under changed conditions of life, it is at least possible that slight modifications of instinct might be profitable to a species; and if it can be shown that instincts do vary ever so little, then I can see no difficulty in natural selection preserving and continually accumulating variations of instinct to any extent that was profitable. It is thus, as I believe, that all the most complex and wonderful instincts have originated. As modifications of corporeal structure arise from, and are increased by, use or habit, and are diminished or lost by disuse, so I do not doubt it has been with instincts. But I believe that the effects of habit are in many cases of subordinate importance to the effects of the natural selection of what may be called spontaneous variations of instincts;--that is of variations produced by the same unknown causes which produce slight deviations of bodily structure.

No complex instinct can possibly be produced through natural selection, except by the slow and gradual accumulation of numerous, slight, yet profitable, variations. Hence, as in the case of corporeal structures, we ought to find in nature, not the actual transitional gradations by which each complex instinct has been acquired--for these could be found only in the lineal ancestors of each species--but we ought to find in the collateral lines of descent some evidence of such gradations; or we ought at least to be able to show that gradations of some kind are possible; and this we certainly can do. I have been surprised to find, making allowance for the instincts of animals having been but little observed, except in Europe and North America, and for no instinct being known among extinct species, how very generally gradations, leading to the most complex instincts, can be discovered. Changes of instinct may sometimes be facilitated by the same species having different instincts at different periods of life, or at different seasons of the year, or when placed under different circumstances, etc.; in which case either the one or the other instinct might be preserved by natural selection. And such instances of diversity of instinct in the same species can be shown to occur in nature.

Again, as in the case of corporeal structure, and conformably to my theory, the instinct of each species is good for itself, but has never, as far as we can judge, been produced for the exclusive good of others. One of the strongest instances of an animal apparently performing an action for the sole good of another, with which I am acquainted, is that of aphides voluntarily yielding, as was first observed by Huber, their sweet excretion to ants: that they do so voluntarily, the following facts show. I removed all the ants from a group of about a dozen aphides on a dock-plant, and prevented their attendance during several hours. After this interval, I felt sure that the aphides would want to excrete. I watched them for some time through a lens, but not one excreted; I then tickled and stroked them with a hair in the same manner, as well as I could, as the ants do with their antennae; but not one excreted. Afterwards, I allowed an ant to visit them, and it immediately seemed, by its eager way of running about to be well aware what a rich flock it had discovered; it then began to play with its antennae on the abdomen first of one aphis and then of another; and each, as soon as it felt the antennae, immediately lifted up its abdomen and excreted a limpid drop of sweet juice, which was eagerly devoured by the ant. Even the quite young aphides behaved in this manner, showing that the action was instinctive, and not the result of experience. It is certain, from the observations of Huber, that the aphides show no dislike to the ants: if the latter be not present they are at last compelled to eject their excretion. But as the excretion is extremely viscid, it is no doubt a convenience to the aphides to have it removed; therefore probably they do not excrete solely for the good of the ants. Although there is no evidence that any animal performs an action for the exclusive good of another species, yet each tries to take advantage of the instincts of others, as each takes advantage of the weaker bodily structure of other species. So again certain instincts cannot be considered as absolutely perfect; but as details on this and other such points are not indispensable, they may be here passed over.

As some degree of variation in instincts under a state of nature, and the inheritance of such variations, are indispensable for the action of natural selection, as many instances as possible ought to be given; but want of space prevents me. I can only assert that instincts certainly do vary--for instance, the migratory instinct, both in extent and direction, and in its total loss. So it is with the nests of birds, which vary partly in dependence on the situations chosen, and on the nature and temperature of the country inhabited, but often from causes wholly unknown to us. Audubon has given several remarkable cases of differences in the nests of the same species in the northern and southern United States. Why, it has been asked, if instinct be variable, has it not granted to the bee "the ability to use some other material when wax was deficient?" But what other natural material could bees use? They will work, as I have seen, with wax hardened with vermilion or softened with lard. Andrew Knight observed that his bees, instead of laboriously collecting propolis, used a cement of wax and turpentine, with which he had covered decorticated trees. It has lately been shown that bees, instead of searching for pollen, will gladly use a very different substance, namely, oatmeal. Fear of any particular enemy is certainly an instinctive quality, as may be seen in nestling birds, though it is strengthened by experience, and by the sight of fear of the same enemy in other animals. The fear of man is slowly acquired, as I have elsewhere shown, by the various animals which inhabit desert islands; and we see an instance of this, even in England, in the greater wildness of all our large birds in comparison with our small birds; for the large birds have been most persecuted by man. We may safely attribute the greater wildness of our large birds to this cause; for in uninhabited islands large birds are not more fearful than small; and the magpie, so wary in England, is tame in Norway, as is the hooded crow in Egypt.

That the mental qualities of animals of the same kind, born in a state of nature, vary much, could be shown by many facts. Several cases could also be adduced of occasional and strange habits in wild animals, which, if advantageous to the species, might have given rise, through natural selection, to new instincts. But I am well aware that these general statements, without the facts in detail, can produce but a feeble effect on the reader's mind. I can only repeat my assurance, that I do not speak without good evidence.