An Introduction to Social Psychology

Chapter 11: The Instinct of Pugnacity

William McDougall

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THE instinct of pugnacity has played a part second to none in the evolution of social organisation, and in the present age it operates more powerfully than any other in producing demonstrations of collective emotion and action on a great scale. The races of men certainly differ greatly in respect to the innate strength of this instinct; but there is no reason to think that it has grown weaker among ourselves under centuries of civilisation; rather, it is probable, as we shall see presently, that it is stronger in the European peoples than it was in primitive man. But its modes of expression have changed with the growth of civilisation ; as the development of law and custom discourages and renders un-necessary the bodily combat of individuals, this gives place to the collective combat of communities and to the more refined forms of combat within communities. It is observable that, when a pugnacious people is forcibly brought under a system of civilised legality, its members are apt to display an extreme and, to our minds, absurd degree of litigiousness.

The replacement of individual by collective pugnacity is most clearly illustrated by barbarous peoples living in small, strongly organised communities. Within such communities individual combat and even expressions of personal anger may be almost completely suppressed,

( 286) while the pugnacious instinct finds its vent in perpetual warfare between communities, whose relations remain subject to no law. As a rule no material benefit is gained, and often none is sought, in these tribal wars, which often result in the weakening and even the ex-termination of whole villages or tribes. Central Borneo is one of the few regions in which this state of things still persists. The people are very intelligent and sociable and kindly to one another within each village community; but, except in those regions in which European influence has asserted itself, the neighbouring villages and tribes live in a state of chronic warfare; all are kept in constant fear of attack, whole villages are often ex-terminated, and the population is in this way kept down very far below the limit at which any pressure on the means of subsistence could arise. This perpetual war-fare, like the squabbles of a roomful of quarrelsome children, seems to be almost wholly and directly due to the uncomplicated operation of the instinct of pugnacity. No material benefits are sought; a few heads, and some-times a slave or two, are the only trophies gained ; and, if one asks of an intelligent chief why he keeps up this senseless practice of going on the warpath, the best reason he can give is that unless he does so his neighbours will not respect him and his people, and will fall upon them and exterminate them. How shall we begin to understand the prevalence of such a state of affairs, if we regard man as a rational creature guided only by intelligent self-interest, and if we neglect to take account of his instincts? And it is not among barbarous or savage peoples only that the instinct of pugnacity works in this way. The history of Christendom is largely the history of devastating wars from which few individuals or societies have reaped any immediate benefit, and in the

( 287) causation of which the instinct of pugnacity of the rulers, or of the masses of the peoples, has played a leading part. In our own age the same instinct makes of Europe an armed camp occupied by twelve million soldiers, the support of which is a heavy burden on all the peoples; and we see how, more instantly than ever before, a whole nation may be moved by the combative instinct—a slight to the British flag, or an insulting remark in some foreign newspaper, sends a wave of angry emotion sweeping across the country, accompanied by all the characteristics of crude collective mentation, and two nations are ready to rush into a war that cannot fail to be disastrous to both of them. The most serious task of modern statesmanship is, perhaps, to discount and to control these outbursts of collective pugnacity. At the present time custom is only just beginning to exert some control over this international pugnacity, and we are still very far from the time when international law, following in the wake of custom, will render the pugnacity of nations as needless as that of the individuals of highly civilised states, and physical combats between them as relatively infrequent.

It might seem at first sight that this instinct, which leads men and societies so often to enter blindly upon deadly contests that in many cases are destructive to both parties, could only be a survival from man's brutal ancestry, and that an early and a principal feature of social evolution would have been the eradication of this instinct from the human mind. But a little reflection will show us that its operation, far from being wholly injurious, has been one of the essential factors in the evolution of the higher forms of social organisation, and, in fact, of those specifically social qualities of man, the

( 288) high development of which is an essential condition of the higher social life.

It was said above that the earliest form of human society was in all probability the family, and, indeed, it is probable that in this respect primitive man did but continue the social life of his prehuman ancestors. But what form the primitive family had, and in what way more complex forms of society were developed from it, are obscure and much-disputed questions. Hence any attempt to show how the human instincts played their parts in the process must be purely speculative. Nevertheless it is a legitimate and fascinating subject for speculation, and we may attempt to form some notion of the socialising influence of the instinct of pugnacity among primitive men by adopting provisionally one of the most ingenious of the speculative accounts of the process. Such is the account offered by Messrs. Atkinson and Andrew Lang,[1] which may be briefly sketched as follows. The primitive society was a polygamous family consisting of a patriarch, his wives and children. The young males, as they became full-grown, were driven out of the community by the patriarch, who was jealous of all possible rivals to his marital privileges. They formed semi-independent bands hanging, perhaps, on the skirts of the family circle, from which they were jealously excluded. From time to time the young males would be brought by their sex-impulse into deadly strife with the patriarch, and, when one of them succeeded in overcoming him, this one would take his place and rule in his stead. A social system of this sort obtains among some of the animals, and it seems to be just such a system as the fierce sexual jealousy of man and his polygamous capacities and tendencies would produce in the absence

(289) of any modifying law or moral tradition. This prohibition enforced by the jealousy of the patriarch is the primal law, the first example of a general prohibition laid upon the natural impulse of a class of human beings and upheld by superior force for the regulation of social relations.

We have seen in Chapter V. that jealousy is an emotion dependent upon the existence of a sentiment. Whether we have to recognise among the constituent dispositions of the sentiment an instinct of acquisition or possession, is a difficult question to which we found it impossible to give a decided answer. But, however, that may be, it is clear that the principal constituent of the emotion of male jealousy, especially of the crude kind ex-cited within the crude sentiment of attachment or owner-ship which the primitive patriarch entertained for his family, is anger; in the human, as well as many other species, the anger excited in connection with the sexual instinct is of the most furious and destructive intensity. If, then, we accept this hypothesis of the "primal law," we must believe that the observance of this law was en-forced by the instinct of pugnacity.

Now an instinct that led to furious and mortal combat between the males of any group might well deter-mine the evolution of great strength and ferocity and of various weapons and defensive modifications of structure, as sexual characters, in the way that Darwin sup-posed it to have done in many animal species.[2] But it is not at first sight obvious how it should operate as a great socialising force. If we would understand how it may have done so, we must bear in mind the fact, so strongly insisted on by Walter Bagehot in his brilliant

( 290) essay, "Physics and Politics,"[3] that the first and most momentous step of primitive men towards civilisation must have been the evolution of rigid customs, the en-forced observance of which disciplined men to the habit of control of the immediate impulses. Bagehot rightly maintained that the achievement of this first step of the moral ladder must have been a most difficult one; he wrote—"Law, rigid, definite, concise law was the primary want of early mankind ; that which they needed above anything else, that which was requisite before they could gain anything else," i.e. before they could gain the advantages of social co-operation. Again, he wrote : "In early times the quantity of government is much more important than its quality. What is wanted is a comprehensive rule binding men together, making them do the same things, telling them what to expect of each other, fashioning them alike, and keeping them so. What the rule is does not matter so much. A good rule is better than a bad one, but a bad one is better than none." When Bagehot goes on to tell us how law established law-abidingness, or the capacity of self-control, in human nature, his account ceases to be satisfactory; for he wrote when biologists still believed with Lamarck and Dar-win and Spencer in the inheritance of acquired characters. That such inheritance is possible we may no longer assume, though very many writers on social topics still make the assumption, as Bagehot did, and still use it as the easy key to all problems of social evolution. For Bagehot simply assumed that the habit of self-control and of obedience to law and custom, forcibly induced in the members of succeeding generations, became an innate quality by transmission and accumulation from generation to generation. While, then, we may ac-

(291) -cept Bagehot's dictum that it is difficult to exaggerate the difference between civilised and primitive men (i.e., really primitive men, not the savages of the present time) in respect to their innate law-abidingness, and while we may accept also his view that the strict enforcement of law played a great part in producing this evolution, we cannot accept his view of the mode of operation of law in producing this all-important change.

But the hypothesis of the "primal law" enables us to conceive the first step of the process in a manner consistent with modern biological principles. For offence against the "primal law" meant death to the offender, unless he proved himself more than a match for the patriarch. Hence the ruthless pugnacity of the patriarch must have constantly weeded out the more reckless of his male progeny, those least capable of restraining their sexual impulse under the threat of his anger. Fear, the great inhibitor, must have played a great part in inducing observance of the "primal law"; and it might be suggested that the principal effect of the enforcement of this law must have been to increase by selection the power of this restraining instinct. But those males who failed to engage in combat would never succeed in transmitting their too timorous natures to a later generation; for by combat alone could the headship of a family be obtained. Hence this ruthless selection among the young males must have led to the development of prudence, rather than to the mere strengthening of the instinct of fear.

Now prudent control of an impulse implies a much higher type of mental organisation, a much greater degree of mental integration, than is implied by the mere inhibition of an impulse through fear. No doubt the instinct of fear plays a part in such prudent control, but

( 292) it implies also a considerable degree of development of self-consciousness and of the self-regarding sentiment and a capacity for deliberation and the weighing of motives in the light of self-consciousness. If an individual has such capacities, a moderate strength of the fear-impulse Swill suffice to restrain the sex-impulse more effectively than a very strong fear-impulse operating in a less-developed mind. The operation of the "primal law" will, therefore, have tended to secure that the successful rival of the patriarch should have strong instincts of sex and of pugnacity and a but moderately strong fear-instinct, combined with the more developed mental organisation that permits of deliberation and of control of the stronger impulses through the organised co-operation of the weaker impulses. That is to say, it was a condition which secured for the family community a succession of patriarchs, each of whom was superior to his rivals, not merely in power of combat, but also and chiefly in power of far-sighted control of his impulses. Each such patriarch, becoming the father of the succeeding generation, will then have transmitted to it in some degree his exceptional power of self-control. In this way the "primal law," enforced by the fiercest passions of primitive man, may have prepared human nature for the observance of laws less brutally and ruthlessly enforced, may, in short, have played a great part in developing in humanity that power of self-control and law-abidingness which was the essential condition of the progress of social organisation.

If we consider human societies at a later stage of their development, we shall see that the pugnacious instinct has played a similar part there also. And in this case we are not compelled to rely only on speculative hypotheses, but can find inductive support for our in-

( 293) -ference in a comparative study of existing savage peoples.

When in any region social organisation had progressed so far that the mortal combat of individuals was replaced by the mortal combat of tribes, villages, or groups of any kind, success in combat and survival and propagation must have been favoured by, and have depended upon, not only the vigour and ferocity of individual fighters, but also, and to an even greater degree, upon the capacity of individuals for united action, upon good comradeship, upon personal trustworthiness, and upon the capacity of individuals to subordinate their impulsive tendencies and egoistic promptings to the ends of the group and to the commands of the accepted leader. Hence, wherever such mortal conflict of groups prevailed for many generations, it must have developed in the surviving groups just those social and moral qualities of individuals which are the essential conditions of all effective co-operation and of the higher forms of social organisation. For success in war implies definite organisation, the recognition of a leader, and faithful observance of his commands ; and the obedience given to the war-chief implies a far higher level of morality than is implied by the mere observance of the "primal law" or of any other personal prohibition under the threat of punishment. A leader whose followers were bound to him by fear of punishment only would have no chance of success against a band of which the members were bound together and to their chief by a true conscientiousness arising from a more developed self-consciousness, from the identification of the self with the society, and from a sensitive regard on the part of each member for the opinion of his fellows.

Such conflict of groups could not fail to operate effectively in developing the moral nature of man; those

( 294) communities in which this higher morality was developed would triumph over and exterminate those which had not attained it in equal degree. And the more the pugnacious instinct impelled primitive societies to warfare, the more rapidly and effectively must the fundamental social attributes of men have been developed in the societies which survived the ordeal.

It is not easy to analyse these moral qualities and to say exactly what elements of the mental constitution were involved in this evolution. In part the advance must have consisted in a further improvement of the kind we have supposed to be effected by the operation of the "primal law," namely, a richer self-consciousness, and increased capacity for control of the stronger primary impulses by the co-operation of impulses springing from dispositions organised about the idea of the self. It may also have involved a relative increase of strength of the more specifically social tendencies, namely, the gregarious instinct, the instincts of self-assertion and subjection, and the primitive sympathetic tendency; the increase of strength of these tendencies in the members of any social group would render them capable of being more strongly swayed by regard for the opinions and feelings of their fellows, and so would strengthen the influence of the public opinion of the group upon each member of it.

These results of group-selection produced by the mortal conflicts of small societies, and ultimately due to the strength of the pugnacious instinct, are very clearly illustrated by the tribes of Borneo. As one travels up any one of the large rivers, one meets with tribes that are successively more warlike. In the coast regions are peaceful communities which never fight, save in self-defence, and then with but poor success; while in the

(295) central regions, where the rivers take their rise, are a number of extremely warlike tribes, whose raids have been a constant source of terror to the communities settled in the lower reaches of the rivers. And between these tribes at the centre and those in the coast regions are others that serve as a buffer between them, being decidedly more bellicose than the latter but less so than the former. It might be supposed that the peaceful coastwise people would be found to be superior in moral qualities to their more warlike neighbours; but the contrary is the case. In almost all respects the advantage lies with the warlike tribes. Their houses are better built, larger, and cleaner; their domestic morality is superior; they are physically stronger, are braver, and physically and mentally more active, and in general are more trustworthy. But, above all, their social organisation is firmer and more efficient, because their respect for and obedience to their chiefs, and their loyalty to their community, are much greater ; each man identifies himself with the whole community and accepts and loyally performs the social duties laid upon him. And the moderately warlike tribes occupying the intermediate regions stand midway between them and the people of the coast as regards these moral qualities.[4]

Yet all these tribes are of closely allied racial stocks, and the superior moral qualities of the central tribes would seem to be the direct result of the very severe group-selection to which their innate pugnacity has sub-

( 296) -jected them for many generations. And the greater strength of their pugnacious instinct, which displays it-self unmistakably in their more martial bearing and more fiery temper, is probably due ultimately to the more bracing climate of the central regions, which, by favouring a greater bodily activity, has led to more frequent conflicts and a stricter weeding out of the more inoffensive and less energetic individuals and groups.

Such tribal conflict, which in this remote region has continued up to the present time, has probably played in past ages a great part in preparing the civilised peoples of Europe for the complex social life that they have developed. Mr. Kidd has insisted forcibly upon this view, pointing out that the tribes of the central and northern regions of Europe, which have played so great a part in the later history of civilisation, were subjected for long ages to a process of military group-selection which was probably of extreme severity, and which rendered them, at the time they first appear in history, the most pugnacious and terrible warriors that the world has ever seen.[5] This process must have developed not only the individual fighting qualities, but also the qualities that make for conscientious conduct and stable and efficient social organisation. These effects were clearly marked in the barbarians who over-ran the Roman Empire. The Germanic tribes were perhaps more pugnacious and possessed of the military virtues in a higher degree than any other people that has existed before or since. They were the most terrible

(297) enemies, as Julius Csar found; they could never be subdued because they fought, not merely to gain any specific ends, but because they loved fighting, i.e., because they were innately pugnacious. Their religion and the character of their gods reflected their devotion to war; centuries of Christianity have failed to eradicate this quality, and the smallest differences of opinion and be-lief continue to furnish the pretexts for fresh combats. Mr. Kidd argues strongly that it is the social qualities developed by this process of military group-selection which, more than anything else, have enabled these peoples to build up a new civilisation on the ruins of the Roman Empire, and to carry on the progress of social organisation and of civilisation to the point it has now reached.

These important social effects of the pugnacious instinct seem to be forcibly illustrated by a comparison of the peoples of Europe with those of India and of China, two areas comparable with it in extent, in density of settled population, and in age of civilisation. In neither of these areas has there been a similar perennial conflict of societies. In both of them, the mass of the people has been subjected for long ages to the rule of dominant castes which have established themselves in successive invasions from the central plateau of Asia, that great breeding-ground of warlike nomadic hordes. The result in both cases is the same. The bulk of the people are deficient in the pugnacious instinct; they are patient and long suffering, have no taste for war, and, in China especially, they despise the military virtues. At the same time they seem to be deficient in those social qualities which may be summed up under the one word "conscientiousness," and which are the cement of societies and essential factors of their progressive

( 298) integration. Accordingly, in the societies formed by these peoples, the parts hang but loosely together—they are but partially integrated and loosely organised. Among these peoples Buddhism, the religion of peace, found a con-genial home, and its precepts have governed the practice of great masses of men in a very real manner, which contrasts strongly with the formal acceptance and practical neglect of the peaceful precepts of their religion that has always characterised the Christian peoples of Western Europe.

In this connection it is interesting to compare the Japanese with the Chinese people. Whether the strain of Malayan blood in the Japanese has endowed them from the first with a stronger instinct of pugnacity than their cousins the Chinese, it is impossible to say. But it is certain that the people, in spite of the fact that they have long recognised in their Emperor a common spiritual head of the empire, have been until very recently divided into numerous clans that have been almost constantly at war with one another, society being organised on a military system not unlike that of feudal Europe. Hence the profession of the soldier has continued to be held in the highest honour, and the fighting qualities, as well as the specifically social qualities of the people, have been brought to a very high level.

In Japan also Buddhism has long been firmly established ; but, as with Christianity in Europe, its preaching of peace has never been practically accepted by the mass of the people; the old ancestor-worship has continued to flourish side by side with it, and now, on the accentuation of the warlike spirit induced by contact with the outside world, seems to be pushing the religion of peace into the background.

In addition to this important role in the evolution of

( 299) the moral qualities, the pugnacious instinct has exerted a more direct and hardly less important influence in the life of societies.

We have seen how this instinct is operative in the emotion of revenge and in moral indignation. These two emotions have played leading parts in the growth and maintenance of every system of criminal law and every code of punishment; for, however widely authors may differ as to the spirit in which punishment should he administered, there can be no doubt that it was originally retributive, and that it still retains something of this character even in the most highly civilised societies. The administration of criminal law is then the organised and regulated expression of the anger of society, modified and softened in various degrees by the desire that punishment may reform the wrong-doer and deter others from similar actions.

Though with the progress of civilisation the public administration of justice has encroached more and more on the sphere of operation of the anger of individuals :is a power restraining offences of all kinds, yet, in the matter of offences against the person, individual anger remains as a latent threat whose influence is by no means negligible in the regulation of manners, as we see most clearly in those countries in which the practice of duelling is not yet obsolete. And in the nursery and the school righteous anger will always have a great and proper part to play in the training of the individual for his life in society.

It was suggested in Chapter IV. that emulation is rooted in an instinct which was evolved in the human mind by a process of differentiation from the instinct of pugnacity. However that may be, it seems clear that this impulse is distinct from both the combative and

( 300) the self-assertive impulses; and just as, according to our supposition, the emulative impulse has acquired in the course of the evolution of the human mind an increasing importance, so in the life of societies it tends gradually to take the place of the instinct of pugnacity, as a force making for the development of social life and organisation.

It is among the peoples of Western Europe, who, as we have seen, have been moulded by a prolonged and severe process of military selection, that the emulative impulse is most active. With us it supplies the zest and determines the forms of almost all our games and recreations ; and Professor James is guilty of picturesque exaggeration only, when he says "nine-tenths of the work of our world is done by it. "Our educational system is founded upon it; it is the social force underlying an immense amount of strenuous exertion; to it we owe in a great measure even our science, our literature, and our art; for it is a strong, perhaps an essential, element of ambition, that last infirmity of noble minds, in which it operates through, and under the direction of, a highly developed social self-consciousness.

The emulative impulse tends to assert itself in an ever-widening sphere of social life, encroaching more and more upon the sphere of the combative impulse, and sup-planting it more and more as a prime mover of both individuals and societies. This tendency brings with it a very important change in the conditions of social evolution. While the combative impulse leads to the destruction of the individuals and societies that are least capable of self-defence, the emulative impulse does not directly lead to the extermination of individuals or societies. It is, rather, compatible with a tender solicitude

( 301) for their continued existence; the millionaire, who, prompted by this impulse, has succeeded in appropriating a proportion of the wealth of the community vastly in excess of his deserts, may spend a part of it on free libraries, hospitals, or soup-kitchens. In fact, the natural tendency of the emulative impulse is to preserve, rather than to destroy, defeated competitors; for their regards bring a fuller satisfaction to the impulse, and the exploitation of their labour by the successful rival is the natural issue of competition. Therefore, as emulation re-places pugnacity within any society, it tends to put a stop to natural selection of individuals within that society; so that the evolution of human nature becomes increasingly dependent on group-selection. And, if inter-national emulation should completely supplant international pugnacity, group-selection also will be rendered very much less effective. To this stage the most highly civilised communities are tending, in accordance with the law that the collective mind follows in the steps of evolution of the individual mind at a great interval of time. There are unmistakable signs that the pugnacity of nations is being supplanted by emulation, that warfare is being replaced by industrial and intellectual rivalry ; that wars between civilised nations, which are replacing the mortal conflicts between individuals and between societies dominated by the spirit of pugnacity, are tending to become mere incidents of their commercial and industrial rivalry, being undertaken to secure markets or sources of supply of raw material which shall bring industrial or commercial advantage to their possessor.

The tendency of emulation to replace pugnacity is, then, a tendency to bring to an end what has been an important, probably the most important, factor of pro-

( 302) -gressive evolution of human nature, namely, the selection of the fit and the extermination of the less fit (among both individuals and societies) resulting from their conflicts with one another.[6]


  1. The Primal Law."
  2. The Descent of Man."
  3. 'International Scientific Series.
  4. These statements are based not merely on my own observations during a sojourn of six months among these tribes, but also on the authority of my friend Dr. Charles Hose, who for more than twenty years has exercised a very remarkable influence over many of the tribes of Sarawak, and has done very much to establish the beneficent rule of the Rajah, H.H. Sir Charles Brooke, over the wilder tribes of the outlying districts.
  5. 'Principles of Western Civilisation," p. 156: "The ruling fact which stands clearly out in regarding this movement of peoples as a whole, is that it must have represented a process of military selection, probably the most sustained, prolonged, and culminating in character that the race has ever undergone."
  6. The attempt now being made to found a science and an art of Eugenics owes its importance largely to this tendency.

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