An Introduction to Social Psychology

Chapter 10: The Reproductive and the Parental Instincts

William McDougall

Table of Contents | Next | Previous

IN the first section of this book certain primary or fundamental tendencies of the human mind were distinguished and described, and it was asserted that these are the prime movers, the great motive powers, of human life and society, and that therefore a true under-standing of the nature and operation of these tendencies must form the essential basis of all social psychology, and in fact of the social sciences in general. I propose to devote this section to the illustration of the truth of this position, and to consider very briefly some of the principal ways in which each of these primary tendencies plays its part in shaping the social life of man and in determining the forms of institutions and of social organisation.

The processes to be dealt with are so complex, the operations of the different factors are so intricately combined, their effects are so variously interwoven and fused in the forms of social organisations and institutions, that it would be presumptuous to attempt to prove the truth of most of the views advanced. I would there-

( 272) -fore repeat and especially emphasise in regard to this section the remark made in the introduction to this volume to the effect that, in spite of the dogmatic form adopted for the sake of brevity and clearness of exposition, my aim is to be suggestive rather than dogmatic, to stimulate thought and promote discussion rather than to lay down conclusions for the acceptance of the reader.

The reproductive instinct is in a sense antisocial rather than social. Nevertheless its importance for society needs no demonstration; for it is clear that, if it could be abolished in any people, that people would very soon disappear from the face of the earth. In all animal species the strength of this instinct is maintained at a very high level by natural selection; for the production by each generation of offspring more numerous than themselves—in some cases many thousand times more numerous—has been an essential condition of the survival of the species, of the better adaptation of species to their environment, and of the evolution of new species. In the human species also it is one of the strongest of the instincts ; so strong is it that the control and regulation of its impulse is one of the most difficult problems for the individual and for society. In every age and country its operation is to some extent regulated by rigid social customs, or by laws, which are commonly enforced by the severest penalties.

In many animal species the reproductive instinct se-cures the perpetuation of the species without the co-operation of any parental instinct, whilst some animals, e.g., the working bee, have a parental but no reproductive instinct ; but all human beings, with rare exceptions, possess both these instincts; and there is probably some degree of correlation between the strengths of the two

( 273) instincts, that is to say, in the individuals in whom one of them is strong the other will also be strong in the majority of cases, and vice versa. The social operations and effects of these two instincts are in certain respects so intimately interwoven and blended that they cannot be clearly distinguished. This intimate association of the two instincts, which is undoubtedly of great social advantage, makes it necessary to discuss them conjointly.

The work of Malthus on "Population" was the first to attract general attention to the social operation of these instincts. Malthus pointed out that, if these instincts were given free play in any society of fairly secure organisation, the rate of increase of the population would be exceedingly rapid, and that the actual rate of increase in all civilised societies, being much lower than the maximal rate, implies that the instincts are commonly controlled in some degree. The population of most European countries has increased during the historic period at a very slow rate, except during part of the nineteenth century, when the invention of so many forms of machinery almost suddenly multiplied man's power of producing the necessaries of life. That of some European countries has passed through periods of great diminution; thus it is estimated that Spain enjoyed towards the close of the Roman occupation a population of twenty millions, and that this sank as low as six millions in the eighteenth century.[1] Even when we remember the ravages made by plague, famine, and war, and the large number of persons that throughout the Middle Ages was condemned to celibacy through the influence of the Church, this slow rate of increase, or actual decrease, of population remains something of a

(274) mystery.[2] But it is clear that in the present age prudent control of these instincts plays a great part in keeping down the birth-rate. The population of France is almost (or, but for immigration, quite) stationary, and it is notorious that this is due very largely to prudent control. And statistics, showing that the numbers of marriages and births in various countries vary with the cost of the prime necessaries of life and with the prosperity of trade and agriculture, prove that such control plays its part in most of the civilised countries.

The parental instinct is the foundation of the family, and, with few exceptions, all who have given serious attention to the question are agreed that the stability of the family is the prime condition of a healthy state of society and of the stability of every community.[3] Although a contrary opinion has been maintained by certain writers, it is in the highest degree probable that the family was the earliest form of human society.[4] We have no certain record of any tribe or community of human beings in which the family in one form or another does not exist. It is reduced perhaps to its lowest terms among some of the negrito peoples, where the co-operation of the father with the mother in the care of the offspring—which is the essential feature of the family

( 275) —continues only until the child is weaned and can walk.[5]

It is probable that these two instincts in conjunction, the reproductive and the parental instincts, directly impel human beings to a greater sum of activity, effort, and toil, than all the other motives of human action taken together.

The parental instinct especially impels to actions that involve self-sacrifice, in the forms of suppression of the narrower egoistic tendencies and of heavy and unremitting toil on behalf of the offspring. Since these sacrifices and exertions on behalf of the children are a necessary condition of the continued existence and the flourishing of any society, whether small or large, we find that among all peoples, save the very lowest in the scale of culture, the institution of marriage and the duties of parenthood are surrounded by the most solemn social sanctions, which are embodied in traditional public opinion and in custom, in formal laws, and in the rites and doctrines of religion. These sanctions are in the main the more solemnly and rigidly maintained by any society, the higher the degree of civilisation attained by it and the freer and more nearly universal the play of the intellectual faculties among the members of that society. This correlation is accounted for by the following considerations. The use of reason and intelligent foresight modifies profoundly the operation of all the instincts, and is especially apt to modify and work against the play of

( 276) the reproductive and parental instincts. Among the higher animals these instincts suffice to secure the perpetuation of the species by their blind workings. And we may suppose that the same was true of primitive human societies.[6] But with the increase of the power and of the habit of regulating instinctive action by intelligent fore-sight, the egoistic impulses must have tended to suppress the working of the parental instinct; hence the need for the support of the instinct by strong social sanctions; hence also the almost universal distribution of such sanctions. For those societies in which no such sanctions became organised must have died out; while only those in which, as intelligence became more powerful, these sanctions became more formidable have in the long-run survived and reached any considerable level of civilisation. There has been, we may say, a never-ceasing race between the development of individual intelligence and the increasing power of these social sanctions; and wherever the former has got ahead of the latter, there social disaster and destruction have ensued.

At the present time many savage tribes and barbarous communities are illustrating these principles ; they are rapidly dying out, owing to the failure of the social sanctions to give sufficient support to the parental instinct against developing intelligence. It is largely for this reason that contact with civilisation proves so fatal to so many savage peoples; for such contact stimulates their intelligence, while it breaks the power of their customs and social sanctions generally and fails to replace

( 277) them by any equally efficient.[7] A weakening of the social sanctions of the parental and reproductive instincts by developing intelligence has played a great part also in the destruction of some of the most brilliant and powerful societies of the past, notably those of ancient Greece and Rome.[8]

Among peoples of the lower cultures the failure of the social sanctions to maintain the predominance of the reproductive and parental instincts over the egoistic tendencies supported by intelligence, shows itself mainly in the form of infanticide ; in the highly civilised nations it takes the forms of pre-natal infanticide, of great irregularity of the relations between the sexes, of failure of respect for marriage, of aberrations of the reproductive instinct (which so readily arise wherever the social sanctions become weakened), and, lastly, of voluntary celibacy and restriction of the family.[9]

( 278)

Mr. Benjamin Kidd[10] has argued that the prime social function of any system of supernatural or religious sanctions is the regulation and the support of the parental instinct against the effects of developing intelligence. This statement contains a large element of truth, though it is perhaps an overstatement of the case. However that may be, it is clear that one of the most momentous problems facing the most highly civilised peoples of the present time is whether they will be able to maintain their places against their rivals in the international struggle, in spite of the secularisation of social sanctions and of the institution of marriage, and in spite of the rapid spread of the habit of independent thought and action among the people. For all these are influences that weaken those social supports of the parental instinct which seem to have been necessary for the continued welfare of the societies of every age.

Up to this point of our discussion we have assumed that the strength of these two instincts remains unchanged from generation to generation, and that any changes of their operation in societies are due to changes of customs and social sanctions. But this assumption may be questioned. It may be that the instincts them-selves are growing weaker. And this is the assumption commonly made by writers in the newspapers who call attention from time to time to the fall of the birth-rate, which has continued at an increasing rate in nearly all civilised countries during the last thirty or forty years. They commonly attribute it to a decay or progressive weakening of the maternal instinct, under some mysterious influence of civilisation. But there is no good evidence that any such decay is occurring; while, on the other hand, a number of considerations justify us in as-

( 279) -serting with some confidence that the fall of the birth-rate, which seems inevitably to accompany the attainment of a high level of civilisation, is not due to any such decay of the parental instinct, but rather is to be attributed to social changes of the kinds noted above. In the first place, this instinct, like all other human and animal qualities, is subject to individual variations which, in our present state of ignorance, we call spontaneous; and it is probable that in every society there have been persons in whom it was decidedly less strong than in the average human being. Now, in respect to this instinct, as well as the instinct of reproduction, natural selection operates in the most certain and direct fashion; for there can be no doubt that persons in whom either, or both, of these instincts are weak will on the average have fewer children than those in whom the instincts are strong. This particular variation is thus constantly eliminated, and the strength of the instinct is thereby maintained from generation to generation. This deduction is strongly supported by the fact that in our own country one-quarter of the people of each generation become the parents of about one-half of the population of the succeeding generation.[11] There can be no doubt that, among this quarter of the population, the parental, and probably also the reproductive, instinct is on the average stronger than in the remaining three-quarters who produce the other half of the next generation.[12]

This view receives further strong support from the

( 280) fact that it is among the most cultured and leisured classes of any community that the falling birth-rate first and most strongly manifests itself. This seems to have been the case in Greece and Rome, and it has been statistically established for this country as well as for several others;[13] while in the United States of America the difference in this respect between the cultured descendants of the earlier colonists in the Eastern States and the less civilised hordes of later immigrants, seems to be generally admitted and to be recognised as a matter for serious regret. And it is of course among the cultured classes that the supernatural and social sanctions are most weakened by the habit of independent thought and action. Again, it is in Australia where the supernatural and other sanctions are relatively weak and the average level of education and intelligence is high, that the fall of the birth-rate is exhibited very markedly by all classes of the community. On the other hand, the Jews are a people that has been at a fairly high level of civilisation more continuously and for a longer total period than any other outside Asia; yet they remain prolific, for the supernatural and social sanctions that maintain the family have retained an undiminished strength; a fact which may be ascribed to the peculiar position of Jewish communities : they live mingled with others, yet distinct from them, a position which results in the constant shedding or loss from the community of those members who find its religious teachings or social institutions unsuited to their temperament and disposition.

We may find similar evidence in the history of other peoples of long-continued civilisation, evidence, that is, that where religious and other sanctions give adequate

( 281) support to the family instincts no serious diminution of fertility occurs. It is for this reason that ancestor-worship is so eminently favourable to national stability. The cult of the ancestor and of the family, with the patria potestas, the immense authority given by law and custom to the head of the family, counted for much in the strength and stability of ancient Rome. In fact, the high civilisations of ancient Greece and Rome rested on a firm basis of this kind until their decline began.[14]

The cult of the ancestor has played a similar part in Japan. For there, as in the early days of Greece and of Rome, the welfare of the dead man is dependent on the daily ministrations of his living descendants, and they in turn, according to the still-prevailing belief, owe their successes and prosperity to the active benevolence of the spirits of their ancestors.[15] Hence the interests of each generation are intimately bound up with those of the generations that have gone before and of those that shall come after. Hence, in order to secure his own happiness as well as that of his ancestors and descendants, a man's first care and duty is to bring up a family that will carry on the ancestral cult. It is probable that China also owes her immense stability and latent power in large measure to similar causes.

Hitherto we have considered the social importance of the parental instinct only in its relation to the family. But, if our account of this instinct in Chapter III. was correct, it is the source, not only of parental tenderness, but of all tender emotions and truly benevolent im-

( 282) -pulses, is the great spring of moral indignation, and enters in some degree into every sentiment that can properly be called love. We shall then attribute to it in these derived or secondary applications a wider or narrower field of influence in shaping social actions and institutions, according as we incline to see much or little of true benevolence at work in the world. That the impulse of this instinct is one of the great social forces seems to me an indisputable fact. Especially is this true in many of the countries in which the Christian and the Buddhist religions prevail. Some writers would seem to regard the charity and benevolence displayed in such societies as wholly due to the mild teaching of these religions. But no teaching and no system of social or religious sanctions could induce benevolence in any people if their minds were wholly lacking in this instinct. Such influences can only favour or repress in some degree the habitual and customary manifestations of the innate tendencies; and the fact that these religions have gained so wide acceptance shows that they appeal to some universal element of the human mind; while the specially strong appeal of Christianity to the feminine mind,[16] the Catholic cult of the Mother and Infant, and the unmistakably feminine cast of the whole system as compared with Mohammedan and other religions, shows that we are right in identifying this element with the parental, the primarily maternal, instinct.

This instinct, save in its primary application in the form of the mother's protection of her child, is not, like the reproductive instinct, one of overwhelming force; hence the extent of its secondary manifestations is profoundly influenced by custom and training. To this

( 283) fact must be ascribed in the main the very great differences between communities of different times and races in respect to the force with which the instinct operates outside the family. The savage who is a tender father may behave in an utterly brutal manner to all human beings other than the members of his tribe. But such brutal behaviour is sanctioned by the public opinion of the tribe, prescribed by custom and example, and provoked by tribal feuds. That races differ in respect to the strength of this instinct is probable; but that any are entirely devoid of it, it is difficult to believe—if only because such a race would fail to rear its progeny, and therefore could not survive. Everywhere one may see traces of its influence. In the ancient classical societies it seems to have played a very restricted part; but, even in the worst days of Rome's brutal degradation, many a man was kindly to his slaves, and the practice of manumission was at times so prevalent as to excite some un-easiness. On the other hand, it is not necessary to sup-pose that the great extension of benevolent action, which is undoubtedly one of the most notable features of the present age of our civilisation, denotes any increase in the innate strength of this instinct. How this great ex-tension has been brought about in modern times is a most interesting problem, the discussion of which does not fall within the scope of this book. But we may note some of its most important social effects.

Among the most obvious of these effects are the humanitarian regulations of civilised warfare, and the devotion of vast amounts of human energy, of money and material resources of all kinds, by our modern civilised communities to the relief of the poor and suffering, to the hospitals, and to the many organisations for the distribution of charity and the prevention of cruelty. A

( 284) social change of more importance from the point of view of world-history is the abolition of slavery and serfdom throughout the regions of Western Civilisation. This great change, which marks an epoch in the history of civilisation, is undoubtedly attributable to the increased influence of this instinct in modern times. It is no doubt true that the main question at issue in the American war of North and South was the maintenance of the federal union of the States. And there is some truth in the cynical dictum that the abolition of slavery comes when slavery ceases to be economically advantageous—the specially advantageous conditions being an unlimited area of highly fertile soil creating a demand for an abundance of unskilled labour. But in the liberation of the slaves of the British West Indies, which cost the English people twenty millions of hard cash, disinterested benevolence certainly played a great and essential part ; and the same is true of the liberation of the serfs of Russia in 1861.[17]

But of still more wide-reaching importance is the ad-mission to political power of the masses of the people, which in this and several other countries has been carried very nearly as far as legislation can carry it. This no doubt has been due to the rise of a demand for such admission on the part of the masses; but, as Mr. B. Kidd[18] has forcibly argued, this demand was itself largely created by the teachings of leaders moved by the benevolent impulse, and it would have failed to obtain satisfaction if the power-holding classes had been de-void of this impulse, and if very many of their members had not been moved by it to accede to this demand and to aid in the accomplishment of this great political change.


  1. See Buckle's "History of Civilisation in Europe."
  2. Professor Pollard attributes it in part to voluntary control induced by the system of land tenure, as in modern France. "Factors in Modern History," p. 135.
  3. For an excellent discussion of the importance of the family see Mrs. Bosanquet's "The Family," and the works of the school of Le Play, especially "La Constitution Essentielle de l'Humanité."
  4. Professor Keane asserts this to be the issue of the lively discussion that has been waged on this topic. See his "Ethnology."
  5. It is, I think, true without exception that the family is found in every animal species, of which the males, as well as the females, are endowed with the parental instinct and co-operate in the care of the young; that is to say, the co-existence of the reproductive and parental instincts in the members of both sexes suffices to determine the family, the parental impulse being commonly directed to the adult partner, as well as to the offspring.
  6. It has been asserted by Messrs. Spencer and Gillen ("The Northern Tribes of Central Australia") that some of the Australian tribes are utterly ignorant of the relation of the reproductive act to child-birth, but doubt has been thrown on this statement.
  7. The well meant efforts of missionaries may sometimes playa considerable part in this process; e.g., it has been observed that the abolition of polygamy, in communities in which females are more numerous than the males, has led to such gross irregularities in the sexual relations as to diminish greatly the rate of. reproduction.
  8. See the frequent references to the prevalence of voluntary childlessness in Professor Dill's two volumes, "Roman Society in the Last Century of the Empire," and "Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius," also M. de Lapouge's "Les Selections Sociales," in which the share of these influences in the destruction of Ancient Greece is discussed in some detail. Dr. W. Schallmayer argues to similar effect of the decline of both Greece and Rome" (Vererbung u. Auslese im Lebenslauf d. Völker").
  9. One of the most remarkable illustrations of the tendencies discussed in this paragraph was afforded by the flourishing among the natives of the Sandwich Islands of an association, the members of which bound themselves on frankly hedonistic grounds to avoid parenthood.
  10. Social Evolution."
  11. See Professor Karl Pearson's "Chances of Death."
  12. There are certainly among the celibates of our population a certain number of persons who know of sexual desire only by hearsay and who regard it as a strange madness from which they are fortunately free. Cf. Professor Forel's "Sexuelle Frage."
  13. See especially David Heron (Drapers' Company Research Memoir), "On the Relation of Fertility to Social Status," 1906.
  14. See especially "La Cité Antique," by Fustel de Coulanges.
  15. See the books of the late Lafcadio Hearn, especially "Japan: an Interpretation." His account was borne out by the recent newspaper-accounts of the solemn national thanksgiving to ancestors after the successes of the late war.
  16. According to Mr. Fielding Hall, the same is true of Buddhism; see "The Soul of a People," and "A People at School."
  17. See Sir D. Mackenzie Wallace's "Russia," Chapter xxix.
  18. "Principles of Western Civilisation."

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2