of Man and Beast: Comparative Social Behavior, Smithsonian Annual
III, edited by J. F. Eisenberg and Wilton S. Dillon, City of Washington,
Smithsonian Institution Press, 1971, 315-332. “Papers delivered at the
Smithsonian Institution Annual Symposium, 14-16 May 1969.”
“The term ‘instinct’ in the title of this paper is shorthand for
Posted June 25, 2008
The Great Shift: From
Instinct to Intuition
Susanne K. Langer
In the discussion of the comparable aspects of animal communities and
human society, emphasis has usually fallen on their similarities rather
than on their differences. Their similarities, moreover, are often
regarded as indications of basic identities in motivation, purpose, and
value. But similar appearances, whether of form or action, are as often
convergent evolutionary products as generic common traits. Think only
of the hummingbird’s flight, which looks for all the world like an
insect’s—a sphynx moth’s, for instance, or a dragonfly’s. Yet the
mechanism of the hummingbird’s movement is entirely avian, and quite
unrelated to insect flight. Their similarity is a result of convergent
developments, not of common heredity (Gregory 1951).
If you want to find the true relationships of taxonomic groups, a good
method is to study the differences that set them apart. By pursuing
their specializations backward as far as they go, you come to limits
beyond which no distinctions can be made; then you have found the
fundamental similarities of all animals of the phylum or phyla you are
Bodily traits, both anatomical and physiological, may be hard to study
in vivo because the observer has to disturb the fluid structures
and the processes he would like to observe in an undisturbed state; but
technological progress is making more and more of them accessible. In
our genuine laboratory sciences of biochemistry, physiology, and
embryology we are doing fairly well, and have every hope of solving the
problems which at present still elude us, such as, what happens in the
thinking and perceiving brain, or pragmatically vital issues like the
cause of cancer formation, of cerebral palsy, and of others we all could
think of. In genetics we have reached the point of checking
mathematically formulated hypotheses against empirical facts. But the
same cannot be said of the aspects of life and, specifically, the life
of higher animals, say the vertebrates—which interest us in the context
of the present symposium: the causes of animal behavior, especially
group behavior, and their relation to our own communal life, that is, to
It is an interesting fact that all our advanced biological theory does
not lead systematically into an equally advanced psychology. When an
inquiry does not go on, but balks at perfectly relevant questions of
some particular sort, the trouble is usually deep seated and conceptual.
The basic concepts with which we are operating successfully in a
limited field are not capable of extension to a wider one. But
scientific fields do expand, and as they do, new questions arise, as for
instance psychological questions from biological facts. Then a new
conceptual vocabulary—not a metaphorical use of old vocabulary—has to
make a new frame (Langer 1967), capable of housing the original field of
research in a wider one. Let me introduce a couple of new basic
concepts in terms of which we can talk adequately about the three
phenomena mentioned in the title of this lecture—instinct, intuition,
and the shift from one to the other which made the great divergence of
genus Homo from the rest of the primate stock (or stocks, our
line may be polyphyletic).
The key concept with which I have been operating for the past decade is
the concept of “the act” as the unit of vital process. As an abstract
concept, this term is used not in any of its several popular senses in
which it commonly means a moral act, a conscious act, or at least an
overt act, but technically; it is used here to designate any event of a
particular form occurring in a particular sort of context, both of which
can be physically defined. This concept of “act,” though not popularly
understood, is already current in physiological and psychological
discourse; and it really goes far back in scientific language. Sir
Henry Head, at a symposium of the Aristotelian Society fifty years ago,
spoke of a “complete sensory act” (Head 1919, p. 79); E. van Holst
(1957, p. 237) speaks of a direct perception as “ein ganz unmittelbarer
and of the cause of continuity in vision as “ein hoherer
(op. cit., p. 241); Paul Weiss (1959, p. 16) has called “conditioning”
“a non-overt act” and refers to “the mitotic act” (Weiss 1958, p. 19).
This usage is highly general, but in no respect vague. The act is a
form that all vital events take, from metabolism to human thinking, from
putting out a pseudopodium to visiting the moon. It is marked by a
formative phase, the impulse, which may be very short or quite long; a
phase of development, the buildup of the act; a phase of consummation,
and finally a declining phase for which I can find no good English word
except the musical term cadence. Cadence means “fall.” It
denotes the closing passage of a piece of music, in which an overall
tension is finally resolved. Similarly, I think it applies naturally
enough to the final spending of the impetus built up in the impulse,
rise, and consummation of an act.
The reason why the concept of “act” also involves a special sort of
context is that the act form, in itself, is not entirely peculiar to
vital processes. It is exemplified in some nonliving processes,
especially chemical reactions. A very simple illustration is what
happens if you put a spoonful of soda into a glass of lemonade. After a
few milliseconds the liquid foams up, climbs to a maximum head, then the
reaction subsides, and the substance resumes its resting form in a new
chemical state, as a salt. More than fifty years ago D’Arcy Thompson
(1951, vol. 1, p. 258) pointed out the difference between such a
chemical reaction and an act occurring in an organism: the chemical
reaction ends with the appearance of a new compound, but the vital act
goes on, engendering other acts (often repetitions of itself) or
breaking up into subacts which are drawn into other acts in rising
phases (Thompson 1951). This, as you can guess, is a long and intricate
story. The upshot of it is that every “true act,” as I would call it,
arises from a matrix of other, concomitant acts, and spends itself in
this same stream of act-engendered acts as part of the self-propagating
Such a matrix of activities is a physiological continuum, a living
system, presented as a whole by reason of the involvement of its act
with each other. It is an organism, and in regard to each of its acts
it is the “agent.” An agent is a product and producer of acts; a living
As acts, which are the units of vital process, have a complicated form,
so the basic operation that produces new acts from an old one and
creates the continuously growing matrix is a special operation. It is
peculiar only in its complexity. This complexity, however, strains
human powers of conception (Platt 1961, Schmitt 1963). Every act begins
as an impulse caused by the occurrence of an energy pattern in the
matrix. No single event is the cause. Any influence that may loosely
be said to cause an act has to exert its influence on the matrix, the
living system. The operation which really produces the act involves a
special causal relationship between the matrix and the act; this
constantly exemplified operation may be called motivation. Again, the
word is commonly used in a more restricted sense, namely the influence
of needs, fears, or desires on the overt acts of an agent. But that is
a special case of the broader sense. As P.T. Young (1955), commenting
on a symposium paper, said: “If motivation is a contemporary process of
energizing, then all behavior is motivated since all behavior is
determined by energy transformations within the tissues. If the process
of motivation is revealed only in goal-directed behavior, then we can
distinguish between motivated (purposive) and unmotivated (random)
behavior. I prefer the broader concept . . .” I am following Dr.
Young’s usage. A word for the causation of impulses is needed, and the
use of “motivation” for it is in the literature (Delgado, Roberts, and
Miller 1954; Twitty and Niu 1954), so that is what “motivation” means
We have, then, these notions to work with: acts, having the variable but
basically characteristic form of impulse, rise, consummation, and
cadence; the operation of motivation whereby past and current acts
engender new impulses; the dense system or matrix of acts, most of which
are metabolic and trophic, microscopic acts in endless rhythmic trains.
Imposed on such minuscule activities are the larger physiological
activities that have larger cycles, and the whole system is a living
So now, at last, we come to the problem of instinct. Let me say, first
of all—categorically, for want of time to explain and justify the
statement—that I do not think there are any specific “instincts,”
functions of special mechanisms, like reflexes and perhaps tropisms.
But there are instinctive acts. That is, I will accept “instinctive”
as an adjective without subscribing to the hypothetical units designated
by the noun, “instinct.” On this subject I find myself in complete
agreement with J. B. S. Haldane (1956, p. 451) who said at a symposium
on instinct in Paris: “Biffons si vous voulez, le substantif ‘instinct,’
mais pas l’adjectif ‘instinctif.’”3
The term “instinct” in the title of this paper is shorthand for
Instinctive action is usually understood to be behavioral—that is, to be
overt action rather than intraorganic or covert. But behavioral acts of
such organisms as we are considering—vertebrates, especially the higher
forms—arise before birth from somatic activities. Those muscular acts
which develop in utero or in ova belong to what
embryologists call the “motor action system,” which is a dynamic pattern
of nervously generated, species-characteristic acts such as head
turning, finger movements, flexions of arms and legs and trunk, chewing
or sucking movements, eye movements (yes, in utero), and so on
(Hamburger 1963, Ebert 1965). All these movements are unaimed yet
typically formed acts. Unlike reflexes, which belong to another system
that appears somewhat after the start of the motor-action phenomena, the
latter gain in articulation in the course of gestation, so many of them
are quite distinct and complete at term. These acts are the animal’s
basic repertoire, overt expressions of hereditary, systematically
maturing behavioral impulses. They are not yet instinctive acts (for
reasons we are just coming to), but they are instinctual elements.
The basic repertoire consists of such instinctual elements.
Instinctive behavior involves another factor besides native impulse, in
that most acts of the organism as a whole become effective only if they
are met by some extrinsic material in which they make a change. Eating
requires something to eat. Digging requires something to dig into.
That is, most behavioral acts presume a substrate to implement them.
This part of any situation in which animals are able to act develops
only after birth, and with it their instinctive life really begins. It
is at this juncture that the organs of perception come into play, and
are used in support of the internal feelings of desire and aversion,
enticement and fear, to guide the agent in its constant search for
opportunities to enact its impulses.
All animal reaction is instinctive. Animal intelligence is capability
to find implementation for acts developed from the physiologically
engendered instinctual repertoire. One may say that animal
intelligence, where it exists, is exhibited in the pursuit of
instinctive action. But instinctive behavior may also be quite devoid
of intelligence; a rat with an urgent impulse to retrieve a pup when
there was none outside the nest has been known to carry its own tail (Eibl-Eibesfeldt
1963). Perhaps we should credit it with the intelligence to help
itself. Equally unadaptive is the spawning procedure of some large
neotropical toads, which “will spawn in any kind of standing water,
including narrow and shallow ditches . . . The eggs . . . contain very
inadequate yolk reserves. Hatching occurs in a very rudimentary
condition . . . which must result in heavy mortality” (Lutz 1948, p.
37). Yet no “natural selection” has bred toads too wise to lay in
ditches and puddles that are about to dry up. Peter and Gertraud Krott,
in a long first-hand study of the European bear in the wild, observed
that bears neither learn to accept or ignore the presence of nonhostile
human agents (such as road workers and foresters) nor learn to avoid
danger when they are hungry (Krett and Krott 1963, p. 198). Dozens of
further instances of such instinctual inadequacy could be added here,
from bird, crustacean, and insect life.
The lengths to which the elaboration of instinctive behavior, practical
or impractical can go are astounding, especially in birds. But it is
interesting that communal acts—which are the most complex in human
life—among beasts and even birds remain relatively simple. The
perfectly timed and coordinated movements of a rising, wheeling flock of
blackbirds, and the much less perfect “V” formation of geese in flight,
are about as cooperative as general group behavior becomes in birds and
mammals. The “mobbing behavior” of birds jointly attacking a predator
has no collaborative strategy (Hinde 1954). Tschanz, in a very thorough
study of the colonial habits of the Atlantic Murre, found that the
closely settled ledges where these birds nest are not cooperatively
defended against predators, but as each nest site is defended by its
owners and the nests are so close that the birds sit almost shoulder to
shoulder, the effect of their individual actions is that of a closed
front (Tschanz 1959, p. 94).
The most elaborate performances of birds occur in their reproductive
cycles, which comprise courtship, coition, nestbuilding, egglaying,
incubation, feeding and brooding the young in the nest or guarding them
as chicks, and sometimes defending territory, nest, mate, or the clutch.
In this cycle one finds not only great variations on the single,
clearly identical theme, but the most improbable variants: consider the
mound-building birds in which the male, with or without help from the
female, builds an enormous mound of decaying vegetable matter, digs
holes in it where the female then lays her eggs; whereupon he, generally
alone, tends this incubator for weeks or even months, opening and
closing it to keep the temperature steady (Kendeigh 1952, Frith 1959);
or the strange development of behavior in the hornbills, where the
female enters her tree-hole nest before the first egg is laid and the
male brings clay to wall up the entrance (at which she helps him),
leaving only a small window through which he feeds her for six to eight
weeks (Kendeigh 1952); or the exaggerated courtship behavior of the
bower birds which build walled display grounds and decorate them with
colored leaves, shells, and man-made objects like bottle caps (Marshall
Yet in spite of such extreme elaboration of individual and mutual acts,
the colonial nesting of seabirds, sand martins, herons, and some other
species leads to no cooperative behavior, and even the communal nesting
of some weaver birds has no interesting behavioral results; nothing like
the division of labor in colonial insects, which we are not here
considering, because their development has diverged too far from the
vertebrates to be comparable to our own, and such comparisons are what
we are aiming at. The same thing holds for mammals that live in herds
or in territorial communities: any apparent joint action—like the group
formation of a bison herd under attack—where the bulls are said to
surround the cows and calves, results from the momentary impulse of each
animal, most of the bulls being aggressive and forging to the fronts
while the calves push to the center for protection and the cows are
caught between the two movements. In the colonial life of the highly
specialized mammals such as the beavers, there is no division of labor;4
any number may be working together on a dam, yet the work of each beaver
is exactly what it would be if he were building alone. In a prairie-dog
town there is no plan except the automatic spacing-out of burrows, no
urban life but the fright reaction of many at the alarm call of one, and
the use of common runways (King 1959).
Elaborate instinctive practices develop predominantly, if not solely,
from individual or sexual activities. Since they reach their highest
evolution in birds,5
I return to that order to consider the essential nature of instinct,
which accounts to a great extent for this limitation.
Every instinctive act is roughly preformed in the impulse which it
expresses. For the sake of brevity, I can only ask you to accept that
assertion at present. I have given the factual grounds for it elsewhere
(Langer 1967). Impulses can be very complex, so their expressions are
not simple discharges of energy, but large acts with various phases,
sub-acts, and often with both physiological and behavioral aspects. The
marvel of their teleology, especially in cases where the agent could not
possibly foresee the situation its behavior is to meet or to bring
about, is comprehensible if you consider that every impulse spends
itself if and as it can, as Konrad Lorenz pointed out long ago
(Tinbergen 1951). The animal is not seeking the effect of its act, but
the conditions that will implement its continuance and consummation.
The goal of the act is simply its completion, and its completion
involves the change it makes in the external world. The performance is
guided by organic feeling and the perception of substrates, means, and
obstacles. Such perceived conditions appear as enticements, lures,
threats, blocks, openings; the internal needs arise and change partly by
intrinsic timing and partly in hastened response to stimuli from the
progressive, implementing situation.
In birds and beasts, unlike human beings, the procreative cycle—from
mating to the final abandonment of the reared brood—is one act. This
single act undergoes all the developments it possibly can in the
confines of the situation and the hereditary potential of the stock.
The influences which encourage the elaboration of particular elements
are too diverse for discussion here, so I shall just give you one
example: the fantastic courtship preparations and antics of the bower
birds can be traced to a great discrepancy between the onset of sex
interest in the male and in the female. He has to wait six to ten weeks
for her to attain the state and the mood for actual mating. All that
time she watches him, but he has to express and also maintain his
excitement until she is receptive. In the course of evolution, the
increase of the temporal gap has not been checked because his courtship
activities have overdeveloped progressively to hold the pair bond for a
longer and longer stretch (Marshall 1954).
This unity of instinctive acts, which permits the development of their
highly articulated sub-acts, is what makes it possible for animals to
perform feats that seem to aim at practical consequences. The agent
lives from one impulse to another in the expression of a total act
engendered by hereditary organic dispositions, implemented by ambient
conditions, and enlisting the native repertoire of the species. It is
not hard to see that such activity would be largely individual, sexual,
or parental, rather than communal, though there are some (still
relatively simple) exceptions.
A notable one is the behavior of the African hunting dogs studied on
their range by Wolfdietrich Kühme (1965). These animals hunt in a pack
that consists of adults of both sexes and such juveniles as can keep up
with them. Puppies, nursing bitches, and other individuals unable to
hunt stay behind; the returning hunters vomit almost-fresh meat for
them. Kühme makes no mention of castes, clubs, or leaders and says
explicitly that in spite of the closest observation he was unable to
detect anything like a social hierarchy.
The tendency of acts to become more and more detailed and involved in
the course of evolution can lead to a point where they become too
intricate to be altogether practicable. Since numberless impulses are
always pushing for actualization in an organism, any blocking of one
mechanism allows some other to go into operation; then there is
competition between two (or even more) systems to control the effectors
to the same end. It may also happen that a primitive mechanism is no
longer equal to its task because the organism is developing rapidly in
other ways and throws too much of a burden on it. Again, some entirely
different impulse pattern, working through different physiological
channels, may achieve the instinctive end in a new way and gradually
take over from the old one. That is known as functional shift.
Whole sequences of functional shifts go on in the prenatal history of
the higher animals. The greatest importance of functional shift,
however, is in evolutionary progress, where anatomic, physiologic, and
behavioral functions shift from primitive to higher and higher
anatomical mechanisms as these mechanisms become ready to assume the
functions (Bock 1959).
Before we can discuss the promised key concept of this lecture, which I
think of as “The Great Shift”—the shift from animal to human life—one
other principle of biological existence must be recalled: namely, that
every organism is always enacting all the impulses it can. Behaviorally
this means that it tries to respond to all the perceptions and other
stimulations its nervous system receives. This fact underlies the final
synthesis of all the nervous developments in the Hominidae that made
them depart so radically from the other advancing primate stocks.
It has been said that man owes his biological success to the fact that
he has remained unspecialized, meaning that he is not closely and
particularly adapted to any special environment, having remained plastic
and unfixed, like an embryonic form. This proposition, on which Arnold
Gehlell based his widely read book Der Mensch (1940), has been
used by several animal psychologists to explain the biological success
of cowbirds, crows, gulls, rats, and mice as unspe-cialized animals not
limited by adaptation to a special habitat. (The originator of this
idea with respect to man, according to Gehlen, was Bolk .)
The human stock, in fact, has undergone several pronounced
specializations. The upright posture is only partly available to other
primates; it is natural to man because of anatomical modifications of
the pelvis, femur, knee joint, and the development of his abductor and
extensor muscles. The evolution of the hand involves more than the
famous opposable thumb; its finger play and high innervation make it as
much a sense organ as an effector. That may have been part and parcel
of the fateful advance, which was the extreme overdevelopment of the
central nervous system, including the sense organs. Epicritical vision
and hearing, the sensibility of a naked skin, and probably a comparable
broadening of the creature’s range of interest and attention tended to
overwhelm its capacity for overt responses. Yet animal acts arise from
immediate conditions and normally terminate in behavior.6
If we, in our present human state, responded to all the sensory stimuli
that impinge on us, we would all have St. Vitus’ dance.
This discrepancy between impression and possible expression must have
begun millions of years ago in the hominid line, when the stock was
still entirely animal (though perhaps always parallel, not identical,
with ape and monkey stocks), and behaved only instinctively. But the
strain of excessive awareness forced some of the cerebrally initiated
acts to fall short of complete expression; the effect was a great
intensification of nervous action that rose to the level of sensation as
an image, and spent itself that way. Perhaps this happens in beasts,
too, but is just a passing occurrence. In the human strain, however, it
became habitual and constant, so that it influenced the evergrowing
brain which provided the great outward receptivity, so the phenomenal
forebrain development snowballed on its phylogenetic way. Images became
cathected so that they attained an emotional value quite separate from
the emotional value of percepts (sense data) as practical indicators.
But actual percepts, too, became deeply affected by autogenic images,
and were often distorted by their merger with such phantasms.
Products of imagination are probably not hereditary like instinctual
elements of behavior, though I would not be too dogmatic in rejecting
hereditary tendencies. (C. G. Jung’s “archetypes” are supposed—on
romantic rather than scientific grounds—to have some sort of hereditary
status. Since this has not been investigated, I would not deny the
possibility of inherited natural symbols.) All that is in the human
gene pool, I believe, is the image-making tendency itself. But every
normal individual soon acquires a repertoire of cathectic images, and
these products operate in mental activity much as the elements of the
instinctual repertoire function in overt behavior; that is, images are
variable, combinable, and, above all, evocable by all sorts of
involuntary acts and some voluntary ones. A direct perception may set
off a train of quite different imaginal experiences; the stimulus need
not be in the same sensory mode as the phantasy it motivates; for
instance, a nonvisual experience, like a sound, may evoke a visual
Now, human beings are, and probably always were, gregarious and
vociferous. Under the same pressure that motivated the consummation of
many neural processes in the brain, their instinctive vocalizations not
only increased but became articulated like the sexual antics of other
creatures; but instead of evoking instinctive practical responses they
evoked imagery. Repetition of vocal sequences standardized the diverse
emotive and ideational responses and inspired animal posturing and
bodily movements with a new driving force—participation in a communal
expression—felt by each agent, and seen by him in all the others. That
is celebration, and its fixed forms are ritual. What the earliest
dances and rites expressed may have been very vague, personal phantasies,
but every individual enacted the excitement of something imagined.
Above all, even snatches of recurrent articulate sounds would activate
images with all their terror and excitement and serve as pars pro
toto, representing the whole habitual experience.
As soon as a purely imaginary object is conjured up by the familiar
sound heard or made by the agent, symbol and meaning are born. The
symbol evokes a mental act—conception—without any pointing and directing
function. At once the two belong together, and the perception of each
through and in the other is an act of intuition.
The word “intuition” has suffered many abuses, so we had better
establish at once what it means. Certainly nothing mystical or
irrational, such as “woman’s intuition” and “moral intuition.” I am
using it in the sense given to it by John Locke in his very sober
Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Locke meant by it the
kind of direct perception that may go through any available avenue of
sense: the perception of relations, such as greater than, before, after,
between, richer than; to the right of, like, different, same, and so
forth. Also, the perception of form, pattern, unity of form, wholeness,
gestalt; and the generally neglected, but all-important recognition of
exemplification—that is, the recognition that here is a case of
such-and-such a form, connection, or structure. Besides these logical
data of intuition, there are the basic semantical ones of meaning and
symbolic significance. Locke did not include semantical functions, but
tacitly took them for granted, and he added one which I cannot accept as
intuitive: knowledge of the existence of God, which must be classed with
factual knowledge or belief.
Throughout most of the Essay Locke avoided the term “intuition,”
because of its frequent wrong uses, and spoke instead of “natural
light.” Only in the fourth book, where he felt sure that he had made
clear what he meant and what he did not mean, he used the term
“intuition,” and I find it a good word for logical or semantical
Unfortunately one cannot expound a whole theory of symbolism in so
little space, so I shall have to simply skip the most intriguing part,
namely how I think language began. All I can say is that I do not think
it began with names for ordinary objects, as children’s language
learning begins in a speaking society. But it began with symbolic
utterance, which motivated acts that terminated in the brain as
emotionally charged inward visions, conceptions; and as the long,
formalized utterances were communal, they could be started anywhere, by
anyone, with the same sort of meaning for all hearers, until they broke
up into bits with more and more definite conceptual meanings. The main
point is that true language is essentially conceptual, as no animal
expression—vocal or gestic—is. Speech is not derived from animal
communication; its communicative and directive functions, though
all-important today, are secondary; its primary function is the symbolic
expression of intuitive cognition (Langer 1960).
Meaning and relations among meanings are impossible to perceive without
symbols, because they have no independent physical existence.
Intuition, therefore, is momentary and implicit and unnegotiable
without words, if it exists at all. But once the symbolic function has
occurred, the shift from animal mentality to human mentality has begun.
In a gregarious species, the easy production of vocal symbols makes the
expression of symbolic impulses at once personal and public, and an
entirely new form of interaction between individuals is created—exchange
of ideas, or true communication. In this sense, animals do not
communicate. They automatically stimulate each other and use each
other’s reactions, but they do not share or oppose opinions. They
cannot express, and therefore cannot conceive, aspects of situations as
But facts, opinions, and conceptions of causal relationship (often
imaginary) have become the basis of human life; and therewith human
community is no longer a matter of instinctive interaction and generic
group cohesion, but is always—on every level of subsequent
development—society. The greatest change, however, is not pragmatic,
but a change of value feeling. Animal values are felt in good and bad
situations, temporarily cathecting whatever objects function as aids or
obstacles to acts in progress. Like relations or familiar patterns,
they are implicitly given and instinctively dealt with. Consequently,
the most elaborately stereotyped animal colony is not a society. To the
human mind, however, values are permanent characters that mark classes
of things, and especially classes of acts. Society is organized and
upheld by value symbols. It is not essentially an aggregate of beings
in which a natural “pecking order” develops; that does take place all
the time, but in the confines of a more stable conceptual framework, the
moral structure of human social life. Society is institutional; whether
it is regulated by unwritten tradition or by a formal code, it has some
system of prohibitions and prescriptions, and recognized classes of acts
to which they apply. Specific acts are seen as exemplifications of the
recognized classes, and valued as good or evil accordingly.
The power of institutions lies in that they are not simply actual, like
instinctive animal ways, but that they can survive many lapses from
behavioral realization. The law, the church, the army continue to exist
though many persons break the law, sin against the church, or evade
military service. They are not so-called “ethological” patterns, but
ethnological institutions, upheld by symbols that mean large,
emotionally charged ideas. Such ideas are not possible without semantic
intuition, and their construction is unthinkable without the logical
intuition elicited by the structure of language, and the word-making
tendency that has resulted from the specialization of the human
The stamp of language is on everything we know and do, on every
behavioral response we make to things in the human ambient; and because
even our vaguest concepts can be verbally related to others, the human
ambient is not a loose tangle of paths, places, lures, terrors,
expectations—like an ani-mal’s—but is a world. It does not arise as we
go into action and collapse as we go to sleep, but holds over from day
to day and season to season. World, society, and self are conceptual
products. The most spectacular effect of language is, of course,
interpersonal communication; and in this process the moral structure
becomes deeply articulated, because words have many functions, and the
most ubiquitous is that they impute emotive values—good or bad, in all
possible degrees—to the concepts they convey. That is why a clever
speaker can publicly make black look white; it is also why each
individual cares what others think of him, and has a so-called superego
and a self-image.
The upshot of the shift from instinctive action to intuitive rationality
(the derivation of reasoning from direct intuition being another story
we have to skip) is that human beings probably do nothing exactly like
animals. They have the same basic impulses to eat, sleep, chase,
procreate, and (more than most other animals) make noise; but conception
alters even our most direct enactments of such impulses. The main
alteration is that sub-acts contained in larger total acts become
distinct and more and more independent, so the big instinctive acts of
animals, preformed in their vital impulses and (originally no doubt) in
ours, fall to pieces under the catalytic influence of thought. Every
new power is bought at a price; in the great shift from animal mentality
to mind, in the development of imagery, intuition, and social
communication, we have lost our elaborate instinctive patterns, such as
guide birds in sequential, procreative acts from pairing to the
independence of the new generation, and guide beavers in their
architecture and home life. Our instinctive behavior has degenerated to
very simple forms, so that what we mean by “sex,” for instance, has
shrunk to little more than coitus. We have to work along other lines.
And I think one may say that we can afford to lose our guiding animal
faith just to the extent that we can replace instinctive by symbolic
processes. We can sacrifice natural hierarchies and pecking orders as
we institute authority and rule, and bear the change from the
progressive specious present of animals to our past and future and the
predestined end of each life by conceiving gods, souls, and an eternal
state. Such concepts, of course, can be formed and maintained only by
symbolic means; and those means are our holy symbols, rites and
liturgies, and magical objects.
It is the fashion today to speak of formalized animal behavior, such as
courtship posturing or even the nodding and displaying of two lizards
that happen to meet, as “ceremonies” and “rituals,” of animal
interactions as “communication,” and of inherited animal ways as
“traditions,” lately even as “cultural traditions.” I think that is a
pernicious source of scientific confusion. Clearly it is intended to
bridge the gap between animal and human life, as an older generation
tried to do by treating man as a super rat or a not-very-super-ape;
well, if the mountain won’t come to Mohammed, Mohammed will go to the
mountain. First we anthropomorphize the animals and then we discover
that we are just like them!
The most serious harm to science that I see in the present fashion of
applying ethnological terms metaphorically to animals is that—odd as it
may seem—it is really based on the assumption that the two studies,
ethnology and what is called “ethology” (the slightest possible variant
of “ethnology”), will never become true integral parts of biological
science. If they should ever do so, the use of words literally in one
context and fancifully in another would cause havoc; we would always
have to say “caste, I mean caste” or “caste, I mean status,” because, as
Dr. McBride points out, the essential property of caste in its original,
ethnological sense is that one is born into a caste and normally cannot
change it, whereas in his sense an animal can pass from one caste to
another. That is not a properly generalized sense of the word, but a
new sense which will not even subsume the literal meaning. Of course
someone may say that I have done the same with the words “act” and
“motivation,” but if you view my generalized use of them more closely
you will find that it is really “generalized” from the restricted use,
and subsumes the latter as a specialty.
The use of a word in quotation marks does not make it a technical term,
as all too many writers seem to think, who introduce a borrowed word as
a metaphor—a literary florish—and then drop the quotation marks; as John
A. King, in his articles on prairie dogs (King 1959, p. 131), calls
their naso-nasal contacts upon meeting “the identification kiss,” speaks
once or twice of the “kiss” in quotation marks, then drops the marks and
simply says that the animals kiss; although he points out that the
“kiss” is exchanged with bared teeth, and—in his own words—“the open
mouth which characterizes the kiss [no marks] probably serves rather
than an expression of affection.” Why, then, call that “kissing”? In
view of the fact that—according to the Yerkes (1929, the Kelloggs (1933,
p. 121), and most recently Jane Goodall, her observations in the wild
(1965, 1967)—chimpanzee mothers really kiss their young ones. King’s
misuse of the word makes for confusion even in the field of ethology
itself. Similarly, when Fox claims that monkeys born of high-caste
mothers have a social advantage, he uses caste meaning status (a
transient high status when the son was born but might not last until he
grew up). The worst practice, however, is the use of “ritual,” “rite,”
and “ceremony” for formalized animal acts; rites and ceremonies are
expressive acts, symbolizing vague but highly imaginative ideas and are
characteristically human. To obliterate the distinction between typical
expression of excitement and social ritual is scientific malpractice. Bierens
de Haan (1940) is the only animal psychologist I have encountered who
realizes and explicitly warns against the use of metaphors. So I shall
here reiterate what I said at the outset: to find true identities or
precise relationships among biological study their differences and guard
Now, how does this discussion of the “Great Shift” serve to answer the
question of what we can learn from animal communities that could be
applied to human society? I think the answer, though implicit, is
clear: nothing that could be applied directly. Our problems of group
realization, of involvement with our kind, and of the development of
individual lives, are not like those of any other animal species. We
cannot trust our instincts to see us through the most solitary and
simple existence, let alone a normal human social life; they are too
degraded and their sub-acts reduced again to primitive impulses without
hereditary forms. From that point of view, man is indeed
unspecialized. He has specialized in symbolic activity to the
evolutionary attainment of intellect, and his intellect has invaded and
disrupted what he may have had by way of the marvelous adjustments of
animals. Many animals are intelligent about finding the necessary
external conditions for their instinctive ways of life; but no animal
except man is intellectual. Our problems of handling ourselves as a
society are intellectual, and as they arise chiefly by incursions of
formless instinctive “drives”—they countered and steered by rational
principles, formulated in in extremity, by vigorous conception and
But all this does not mean that there is nothing of human value to be
learned from the study of animal behavior. We are all born as little
creatures of pure instinct. A comparison of the development of
instinctive behavior in babies and in animals which have a dependent
babyhood shows at what early stages human impulses are no longer
realizable by animal methods, and require thoughtful provisions for
their socially safe and individually adequate expression. Many of our
social problems, of course, begin in the crib. Thus, the point in every
individual life is to learn what basic impulses we really have, and what
instinctive methods of living we have lost forever and have to replace
by conceptual ones. What I have tried to show is how deep the division
between beasts and men goes. Very deep, indeed; but when we touch
bottom, when we glimpse the beginning of man’s great biological
departure, we come upon the ultimate unity—the common source of his and
all other animals’ impulses pressing for expression, the basic vital
needs he still shares with the field mouse and the crow.
A completely direct perception act.
A higher act of integration.
Reject, if you will, the noun “instinct” but not the adjective
Editor’s note: Some division of labor is achieved through the
classical division of activities into male and female sexual roles or
through the serial role differentiation during the processes of extended
maturation. (J.F. E[isenberg].)
Editor’s note: While not detracting from Dr. Langer’s statement,
it may be fairly stated that Teleost fishes equal the birds in the
elaboration of “instinctive practices.” (J.F.E.)
Editor’s note: Yet animals do not respond immediately to
impinging stimuli and indeed a given animal may have a predisposition to
respond to certain key stimuli which is completely tied to the current,
predominating motivational state (see also E. von Holst and U. von St.
Paul, Naturwissen-schaften, 18:409-422). (J.F.E.)
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