Instinct has long been of great interest to biologists, sociologists, psychologists, physiologists, and especially to evolutionists. They have been concerned with the physical and behavioral adaptations of nature as seen in a myriad of living forms. Indeed, sometimes natural history seems to be nothing but the study of the ability of life to adapt to every niche conceivable or even unimaginable. Structures appear which facilitate adaptation, whether by creation or evolutionary process or both. And to our continuing surprise, the animal anatomically fit for its place in the sun also has behavior patterns without which its physical adaptations would be as unhelpful as ludicrous. Imagine a bee with a proboscis that did not know that certain flowers, and those flowers only, had food awaiting it in nectaries exactly adapted to that size and type of feeding tube! Imagine a young kangaroo that didn’t know that it must quickly reach its mother’s teat, or a young whale that did not know how to swim and nurse the moment it was born! Instinctive behavior is a great challenge to students of nature.

Historical Note

The writer of Proverbs was well aware of instinct when he advised: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise; which having no guide, overseer or ruler, Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her meat in the harvest” (Proverbs 6:6).

The Greek poet Aristophanes gave some of his plays names indicating the problems and foibles of people, names such as the Birds, Wasps, and Frogs. He knew that men lived largely by instinct rather than reason.

In 1781 Bartram reminded us that the ancients were much puzzled by migrations, especially those of birds. Some imagined that birds flew off to the moon. Among northern peoples the idea was widespread that they retired to caves and hollow trees to lie dormant during the cold season. Bartram remarks that “even at this day very celebrated men have asserted that swallows at the approach of winter voluntarily plunge into lakes and rivers, descend to the bottom, and there creep into the mud and slime, where they continue overwhelmed by ice in a torpid state, until the returning summer warms them again into life; when they rise, return to the surface of the water, immediately take wing, and again populate the air. This notion, though the latest, seems the most difficult to reconcile to reason and common sense.”

To come down to more recent times, Darwin included a chapter on instinct in the Origin of Species and admitted freely that certain aspects of instinct almost overthrew his theory. The first great experimentalist in this field was the inimitable Henri Fabre. Recent workers in this field, like Tinbergen and Lorenz, owe him a great deal….

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