Learning and Instinct in Animals

Learning and Instinct in Animals

Learning and Instinct in Animals

Learning and Instinct in Animals

Excerpt

The adventures through which the idea of instinct has passed during its long history would provide a stimulating, indeed an exciting, theme if properly traced by a biologist with the needful equipment of classical and historical learning. W. M. Wheeler (1939), in his short but brilliant essay on the subject, has given an indication of what might be done by a scholar with the right and rare combination of abilities, and Wilm (1925) has surveyed the field from the point of view of the historian of psychology. In so far as the word denotes a single fundamental idea, one may say that it is perhaps the earliest biological concept relating to animal behaviour that the human race produced. Of course, it is inevitable that a word which has had such a varied history and has become such an important item in our everyday vocabulary should have many variations, overtones and complexities of meaning. And these overtones and subtleties have naturally been the despair of biologists. It is therefore small wonder that as soon as the work of zoologists and physiologists had provided even the semblance of a reflex theory of animal behaviour, i.e. in the early decades of the twentieth century, the concept of instinct tended to be increasingly avoided and, indeed, considered disreputable. In fact, the physiologist, experimental zoologist and comparative psychologist had almost completely abandoned the word by 1920, and it lingered only in the vocabulary of the psychologist concerned with human behaviour and of that of the more naturalistic type of zoologist. This situation, as we see now, was so obviously a false one that it could not last -- for rejection of the term meant that an essential idea was being left out of biology and psychology only to enter by a side-door under another name. And so it was merely a matter of time before its loss began to be felt and the way opened for its return.

Now, which among the varied meanings of the word is the fundamental one that was being so grievously, if subconsciously, missed? Modern workers on instinct, especially the comparative ethologists who have been mainly responsible for the resuscitation of the term, have tended to concentrate their attention on the fixed-behaviour co-ordinations, the elaborate specific action patterns which had certainly of late been grossly neglected by the general biologist even though they offer splendid material . . .

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