William McDougall on Psychology, Intelligence, Childhood and Civilization (Part II)

In my previous post for The Grote Club, I outlined McDougall’s account of instincts and intelligence among both humans and animals.  McDougall underscored that far from being distinct faculties,  the difference between instincts and intelligence was one of degree rather than one of kind.  This contention was held  by many who studied in Cambridge and who accompanied W.H.R. Rivers and McDougall on the Torres Straits Expedition of 1898.  This included Charles S. Myers, one of the key figures in the development of applied and industrial psychology, who in 1910, proclaimed the “presence of intelligence throughout instinct.”

How else, Myers questioned, could instincts become more and more perfected and sharpened in their application through time? The modification of instincts through the counsel of experience counted greatly against the received notion of them as “fixed innate activities” and as “perfect reactions” (British Journal of Psychology, Volume 3, pgs. 209ff).  According to Myers, man insisted upon counting instincts and the intellect as distinct facilities for no other reason than his own subjective, anthropomorphic experience of himself in the order of nature.  Myers remarked, “Man is never aware that he is acting instinctively; and on this account he naturally denies  instincts to himself and to his fellows, while ascribing them to animals” (215.)

Myers and McDougall’s understanding of human instinct was reflective of a new conception of neurology and behavior emerging in Britain.  All these elements together- a deepened engagement with the somatic bases of behavior, the understanding of the dynamic between instinct and intelligence and a renewed place for the behavioral architecture of evolution-were constituents of what Simon has called the Cambridge Mind which emerged in Britain c.1860 to c.1920. 

McDougall’s account of instinct and intelligence only really finds purchase as he moves from discussions of the principle instincts (such as the instinct to flee and the corresponding emotion of terror, shrinking back from a blow, the ubiquitous tendency of mothers to regard their children with tenderness, etc.) to how the instincts function in society, particularly societies of greater civilization and refinement.  Within his account moreover is an articulation of the socialization of the child and of the origins of individual moral conduct. Here McDougall sought to articulate how human beings overcame their animal and instinctive nature while reserving a space for the action of the instincts in, especially, group behavior.

In his account of the socialization of the child and of the mechanisms behind moral conduct, McDougall’s work intersected with some of the founding texts of American philosophy and psychology, as  he took issue with the work of the American pragmatist Josiah Royce and two important founders of American social and experimental psychology, James Baldwin and G. Stanley Hall.  He noted that the child’s development of “the self and the self regarding sentiment,” which resulted from every individual’s social interactions with others- or in McDougall’s rather felicitous phrasing, “of one’s self in relation to other selves” (180)- was insufficient to solely explain conduct in everyday civilized life.  The springs to moral conduct could not be found in “in whose minds we habitually see ourselves reflected and to whose approval and disapproval we attach importance” (209.)  Rather, other mechanisms were to be sought for the advancement to a “higher plane of conduct” (211) since the complexities of modern society and the diversities of opinion weaken the hold of public opinion and socialization (212.)

How does the individual develop a moral sense? In primitive societies powerful elders play a shaping role, while in civilized society, this occurs chiefly through reading, which represented the “more refined parts of the moral tradition.”  It is through literature and learning that civilized individuals acquire their character or ideals (224-5.) The individually stronger primitive impulses or instincts can only be overcome through a combination of  self-regard or the “empirical self,” which each individual develops “of one’s self in relation to other selves” in concert with the inculcation of this moral tradition. Only then, as William James, observed, will the “the ideal impulse” overcome the “native propensity” (230, esp. 246-248.)

Though he had a refined account of volition and the origins of moral behavior, McDougall appeared more interested in the narration of the instincts and their role in human civilization.  Shortly after his discussion of moral action, he detailed how instincts played an essential role in the continually changing social life of man and in the molding of his social institutions. McDougall stressed that even the most basic instincts such as the reproductive and parental instincts are greatly modified by intelligence and civilization. Instincts, furthermore, become embodied in institutions and are reflected in customs and mores.

However, in advancing civilizations (as opposed to primitive tribes) with a great degree of education and rational governance, the mores and customs which had reinforced instincts and served to replenish demographically each generation were fast being overtaken by intelligent action which delayed marriage and procreation. He argued that many primitive tribes were dying out due to their contact with missionaries  as this contact stimulated their intellects (as well as their egos, their regard of self rather than a desire to further the needs of the village) thus upsetting the carefully formed customs and mores governing reproduction (pg. 270ff).

McDougall here was engaged (along with Vacher de Lapouge and R. A. Fisher in 1930, in his Genetical Theory of Natural Selection) in an explanation of the forces behind the rise and fall of civilizations.  For all three authors (and in contrast to what they believed to be a gross reductionism by Thomas Malthus of fertility to natural resources) civilization produced behaviors which undid the effects of instincts and  which upset those institutions which had developed to channel their action in a given society.    For all three authors the decline of Rome and ancient Greece was due especially to what we would term abortion, late marriage, celibacy and homosexuality, or in McDougall’s gloss: “of failure of respect for marriage, of aberrations of the reproductive instinct” “which so readily arise wherever the social sanctions become weakened…” (271.) For all three the instinct to care and to raise children (many children), which was supported by primitive law and primitive institutions was in modern societies undercut by fast developing mores which discouraged children among members of the upper class.

R.A. Fisher and Alexander Carr-Saunders in the decades after the First World War became increasingly concerned with the differing rates of births and marriage among the rich and poor classes of Britain, where the social mores of the elite had developed in such a way as to encourage delayed marriage.  For Carr-Saunders and Fisher, these reductions signal a decline in the vitality of the British future, resulting in a less intelligent population. McDougall also considered the reduction of births among certain classes to be less a biological change than an affect of social evolution (this clearly distinguishes him from theorists of ‘race suicide’ in the United States, in case a reader or two is wondering). In Australia, for example, for all social classes “the fall of the birth rate” corresponds to the “high level of intelligence and education” (pg. 274), while in the United States wealthy families on the East Coast were experiencing lower birth rates.

McDougall spent much of the remainder of the work detailing the workings of the instinct of pugnacity (which he contended had increased with the development of civilization and which had resulted in “more refined forms of combat” (279) such as war).  Important too was the gregarious instinct, which “plays a much more serious part” in the course of civilized communities as opposed to savage ones.  McDougall considered the recent explosion in London’s population to be the result of the gregarious instinct- “it is the crowd in the towns, the vast human herd, that exerts a baneful attraction on those outside it.”  He reasoned that as the countryside has always been dull it was only the ever increasing magnetism of the city which had very recently rendered rural life so unpalatable (296-7).

This discussion of McDougall’s narrative of the instincts, their interaction in the psychical development of the child and the impact of civilization upon the scope and power of the instincts illustrates well McDougall’s importance as a theorist who was situated firmly within a number of interlocking debates.  The most important of these was the articulation of the Cambridge Mind with Charles Myers, W.H.R. Rivers and others, which blurred the lines between instinct and intelligence while simultaneously maintaining a place for the action of reason. In McDougall’s discussion of the instincts which governed marriage and procreation, instincts had civilizational importance and their decline imperiled the civilized world.

What this post on McDougall suggests is that the wide-ranging discussion of the degrees between intellect and instinct had very wide import for social thought as the social sciences were developing in the United States.  McDougall’s account of the instincts allowed for him to articulate a full program of social inquiry from childhood and the origins of morality to the fate of past and future civilizations.  Such a broad brush allows for discussions of the Cambridge Mind to be linked to debates over the social and biological factors behind the declining birth-rate and the reasons behind the migration of persons from the country to the cities. Such debates led to the serious study of inequality and social mobility in Britain and the United States after the Second World War.

In my next posts I will take the discussion of the Cambridge mind even further, broadening the discussion to a general survey of instinct and intelligence in animals and humans in the work of Margaret Floy Washburn and William James, among others.  Here, I will try to chart opposition to the Cambridge Mind in Britain and America. Later, I will chart McDougall’s influence upon Thorstein Veblen and Graham Wallas. Wallas is remembered (wrongly, but no matter) as one of the first to bring evolutionary theory to the scientific study of politics around the First World War.

5 thoughts on “William McDougall on Psychology, Intelligence, Childhood and Civilization (Part II)

  1. Reblogged this on Ether Wave Propaganda and commented:

    Another Grote Club post- this time connecting the Cambridge Mind with ideas that should be very familiar to readers of Etherwave- differential fertility and the specter of the decline of the upper classes in Britain and the United States. In the post, I outline through a close reading of the work of William McDougall how a narrow debate about the distinctions between instinct and intelligence quickly shifted into a inquiry into the course and fate of ancient and modern civilizations.


  2. Much food for thought; but for now I’ll single out just this:

    ‘How does the individual develop a moral sense? In primitive societies powerful elders play a shaping role, while in civilized society, this occurs chiefly through reading, which represented the “more refined parts of the moral tradition.” It is through literature and learning that civilized individuals acquire their character or ideals.’

    I wonder how this played into different developments in McDougall’s Oxford (it reminds me a little of the George Stuart Gordon – Merton Professor of English Lit. from 1922 – I have just been reading.

    But it certainly accords with a distinction drawn in Edwardian Cambridge anthropology, such that possession of a ‘literature’ marks the distinction between primitive and civilized (and perhaps accords with a methodological division such that primitive societies without literature are amenable to scientific analysis, while civilized literature requires a more humanistic and even spiritual form of inquiry).

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  3. Is what you reference Gordon’s inaugural lecture “The discipline of letters”? This is full of fascinating tidbits. Examples:

    “In any university at almost any time there will generally be found some dominating study or discipline, whether elevated to importance by a tradition of great teachers, or by the simple pressure of demand. At one time it is Law; at another Philosophy; in one place it is the Classics, in another the Mathematics; but whatever it may be, this dominant study absorbs the rays of authority, and keeps the sun off the rest” (pg.7)

    Somewhat mockingly stated in my reading, “England is sick and…English literature must save it….The Churches… having failed, and social remedies being slow, English Literature has now a triple function…to save our souls and heal the State” (12). “Here in Oxford we have plenty to do without saving the State.” (15).

    And finally: “I forget what ideas we lack at the present moment which are to be found in astonishing and shameful abundance in some other country. But if ideas should be granted to us, we lack system” (17-8.)

    How this plays into Oxford I am thinking about still….


    1. Yes, although the essay by Gordon I had just been reading was rather ‘The Trojans in Britain’ (in the volume you refer to). I don’t know enough about these Oxford men and so probably should not have opened this up – not least because Gordon and J.R.R. Tolkien shared an ideal of a nation’s literature including its ancient fables (be they those of Geoffrey of Monmouth or Tolkien’s Middle-earth) that complicates (or perhaps refines) the distinction between ancient elders and modern reading that I picked up on in your post. That is: I think they both shared a concern with ensuring that some part of modern literature approximated to an ancient experience of listening to fables whilst sitting at the feet of the elders.

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