We hear only by means of the ears. If we are born deaf, or if injury destroys some important part of the hearing mechanism, then we cannot hear. In like manner, we taste only by means of the taste organs in the mouth, and smell only with the organs of smell in the nose. In a word, our primary knowledge of the world comes only through the sense organs. The sense organs themselves are merely modifications of the nerve ends together with certain mechanisms for enabling stimuli to act on the nerve ends. The eye is merely the optic nerve spread out to form the retina and modified in certain ways to make it sensitive to either vibrations.
An experiment was conducted as follows: Chickens were taken at the time of hatching, and some allowed to peck from the first, while others were kept in a dark room and not allowed to peck. When the chickens were taken out of the dark room at the end of one, two, three, and four days, it was found that in a few hours they were pecking as well as those that had been pecking from birth. It seems probable, if we may judge from our limited knowledge, that in the human child, activities are for the most part dependent upon the age of the child, and upon the state of development of the nervous system and of the organs of the body.
Although human nature is very complex, although human action nearly always has some element of habit in it, nevertheless, inborn tendencies are throughout life powerful factors in determining action. This will at once be apparent if we consider how greatly we are influenced by anger, jealousy, love, fear, and competition. Now we do not have to learn to be jealous, to hate, to love, to be envious, to fight, or to fear. These are emotions common to all members of the human race, and their expression is an inborn tendency. Throughout life no other influences are so powerful in determining our action as are these. So, although most of our detailed actions in life are habits which we learn or acquire, the fundamental influences which decide the course of our action are inherited tendencies.
Man’s civilized life has covered but a short period of time, only a few hundred or a few thousand years. His pre-civilized life doubtless covered a period of millions of years. The inborn tendencies in us are such as were developed in the long period of savage life. During all of man’s life in the time before civilization, he was always in danger. He had many enemies, and most of these enemies had the advantage of him in strength and natural means of defense. Unaided by weapons, he could hardly hold his own against any of the beasts of prey. So there were developed in man by the process of natural selection many inherited responses which we group under the head of fear responses.
Few of the original causes of fear now exist. The original danger was from wild animals chiefly. Seldom are we now in such danger. But of course this has been the case for only a short time. Our bodies are the same sort of bodies that our ancestors had, therefore we are full of needless fears. During the early years of a child’s life, wise treatment causes most of the fear tendencies to disappear because of disuse. On the other hand, unwise treatment may accentuate and perpetuate them, causing much misery and unhappiness. Neither the home nor the school should play upon these ancestral fears. We should not try to get a child to be good by frightening him; nor should we often use fear of pain as an incentive to get a child to do his work.
Man has always been afraid, but he has also always been a fighter. He has always had to fight for his life against the lower animals, and he has also fought his fellow man. The fighting response is connected with the emotions of anger, envy, and jealousy. A man is angered by anything that interferes with his life, with his purposes, with whatever he calls his own. We become angry if some one strikes our bodies, or attacks our beliefs, or the beliefs of our dear friends, particularly of our families. The typical responses connected with anger are such as faster heart-beat, irregular breathing, congestion of the blood in the face and head, tightening of the voluntary muscles, particularly a setting of the teeth and a clinching of the fists. These responses are preparatory to actual combat.
Anger, envy, and jealousy, and the responses growing out of them, have always played a large part in the life of man. A great part of history is a record of the fights of nations, tribes, and individuals. If the records of wars and strifes, and the acts growing out of envy and jealousy and other similar emotions should be taken out of history, there would not be much left. Much of literature and art depict those actions of man which grew out of these individualistic aspects of his nature. Competition, which is an aspect of fighting, even to the present day, continues to be one of the main factors in business and in life generally. Briefly, fighting responses growing out of man’s selfishness are as old as man himself, and the inherited tendencies connected with them are among the strongest of our natures.
In the training of children, one of the most difficult tasks is to help them to get control over the fighting instinct and other selfish tendencies. These tendencies are so deeply rooted in our natures that it is hard to get control of them. In fact, the control which we do get over them is always relative. The best we can hope to do is to get control over our fighting tendencies in ordinary circumstances.
It is doubtful whether it would be good for us if the fighting spirit should disappear from the race. It puts vim and determination into the life of man. But our fighting should not be directed against our fellow man. The fighting spirit can be retained and directed against evil and other obstacles. We can learn to attack our tasks in a fighting spirit. But surely the time has come when we should cease fighting against our neighbors.
Over against our fighting tendencies we may set the socialistic tendencies. Coöperative and sympathetic actions grow out of original nature, just as truly as do the selfish acts. But the socialistic tendencies are not, in general, as strong as are the individualistic ones. What society needs is the strengthening of the socialistic tendencies by use, and a weakening of at least some of the individualistic tendencies, by control and disuse.
Socialistic tendencies show themselves in gangs and clubs formed by children and adults. It is, therefore, a common practice now to speak of the “gang” instinct. Human beings are pleased and content when with other human beings and not content, not satisfied, when alone. Of course circumstances make a difference in the desires of men, but the general original tendency is as stated.
The gang of the modern city has the following explanation: Boys like to be with other boys. Moreover, they like to be active; they want to be doing something. The city does not provide proper means for the desired activities, such as hunting, fishing, tramping, and boating. It does not provide experiences with animals, such as boys have on the farm. Much of the boy’s day is spent in school in a kind of work not at all like what he would do by choice. There is not much home life. Usually there is not the proper parental control. Seldom do the parents interest themselves in planning for the activities of their children. The result is that the boys come together on the streets and form a club or gang. Through this organization the boy’s nature expresses itself. Without proper guidance from older people, this expression takes a direction not good for the future character and usefulness of the boy.
The long life that our ancestors lived free and unrestrained in the woods has left its effect within us. One of the greatest achievements of civilization has been to overcome the inherited tendencies to roam and wander, to the extent that for the most part we live out our lives in one home, in one family, doing often but one kind of work all our lives. Originally, man had much more freedom to come and go and do whatever he wished.
It is in the nature of children to seize and, if possible, carry away whatever attracts attention. This tendency is the basis of what is called the collecting instinct. If one will take a walk with a child, one can observe the operation of the collecting tendency, particularly if the walk is in the fields and woods. The child will be observed to take leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, nuts, pebbles, and in fact everything that is loose or can be gotten loose. They are taken at first aimlessly, merely because they attract attention. The original, natural response of the child toward that which attracts attention is usually to get it, get possession of it and take it along. It is easy to see why such tendencies were developed in man. In his savage state it was highly useful for him to do this. He must always have been on the lookout for things which could be used as food or as weapons. He had to do this to live. But one need not take a child to the woods to observe this tendency. One can go to the stores. Till a child is trained not to do it, he seizes and takes whatever attracts attention.
Natural selection has developed few aspects of human nature so important for survival as the tendency to imitate, for this tendency quickly leads to a successful adjustment of the child to the world in which he lives. Adult men and women are successfully adjusted to their environment. Their adjustment might be better, but it is good enough to keep them alive for a time. Now, if children do as they see their parents doing, they will reach a satisfactory adjustment. We may, therefore, say that the tendency to imitate serves to adjust the child to his environment. It is for this reason that imitation has been called an adaptive instinct. It would perhaps be better to say merely that the tendency to imitate is part of the original equipment of man.
(Excerpts from Project Gutenberg's The Science of Human Nature, Chapter IV, by William Henry Pyle)