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Gilbert White on Instinct: stepping back from Nature


In the course of helping teach a “History of Nature” course for Sara Maroske just lately, I re-encountered Gilbert White’s lovely Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne, a classic of literature and field biology. As a philosopher I hadn’t read him closely as there is little abstract argument in it, but this time, in a history course, I noted that he uses the term “instinct” in several ways. Here are some, all bolding mine:

Birds in general are wise in their choice of situation: but in this neighbourhood every summer is seen a strong proof to the contrary at an house without eaves in an exposed district, where some martins build year by year in the corners of the windows. But, as the corners of these windows (which face to the south-east and south-west) are too shallow, the nests are washed down every hard rain; and yet these birds drudge on to no purpose from summer to summer, without changing their aspect or house. It is a piteous sight to see them labouring when half their nest is washed away and bringing dirt …. ‘generis lapsi sarcire ruinas.’ Thus is instinct a most wonderful unequal faculty; in some instances so much above reason, in other respects so far below it! [Letter XVI, Nov. 20, 1773]

A certain swallow built for two years together on the handles of a pair of garden-shears, that were stuck up against the boards in an out-house, and therefore must have her nest spoiled whenever that implement was wanted: and, what is stranger still, another bird of the same species built its nest on the wings and body of an owl that happened by accident to hang dead and dry from the rafter of a barn. This owl, with the nest on its wings, and with eggs in the nest, was brought as a curiosity worthy the most elegant private museum in Great Britain. The owner, struck with the oddity of the sight, furnished the bringer with a large shell, or conch, desiring him to fix it just where the owl hung: the person did as he was ordered, and the following year a pair, probably the same pair, built their nest in the conch, and laid their eggs.

The owl and the conch make a strange grotesque appearance, and are not the least curious specimens in that wonderful collection of art and nature.

Thus is instinct in animals, taken the least out of its way, an undistinguishing, limited faculty; and blind to every circumstance that does not immediately respect self-preservation, or lead at once to the propagation or support of their species. [Letter LVII, Sept. 9 1767]

To a thinking mind nothing is more wonderful than that early instinct which impresses young animals with the notion of the situation of their natural weapons, and of using them properly in their own defence, even before those weapons subsist or are formed. [Letter XXXI, April 29, 1776]

They who write on natural history cannot too frequently advert to instinct, that wonderful limited faculty, which, in some instances, raises the brute creation as it were above reason, and in others leaves them so far below it. Philosophers have defined instinct to be that secret influence by which every species is impelled naturally to pursue, at all times, the same way or track, without any teaching or example; whereas reason, without instruction, would often vary and do that by many methods which instinct effects by one alone. Now this maxim must be taken in a qualified sense; for there are instances in which instinct does vary and conform to the circumstances of place and convenience. [Letter C, not dated]

What is most interesting is how White takes a more objective or distinct stance towards his subjects. He no longer ascribes their actions either to the guiding hand of God as most people would have at the time, nor to the intelligent actions of the animals (mostly, birds and dogs, two kinds of animals of interest to the hunting English) themselves. Instead, he assigns their behaviour to a nonmoral but useful trait in them. Instinct is an occult property, hidden from us, but recognisable in its influence.

It is so very like a “mental module” of evolutionary psychology that I shudder: it is simple in scope and action, does one thing well, it is internal and inborn. It is adaptive, to the survival of the organism and for the propagation of the species. All it needs is the adjective “Darwinian”, and yet it precedes the Origin as White presents it by nearly a century.

Darwin of course read White – probably as a young man. Every natural historical enthusiast would have done so in England at the time Darwin was becoming one. I wonder if what we are seeing now with modules is so entrenched in Anglophone society that we cannot frame this any other way. My suggestion of dispositional behaviours or d-behaviours was an attempt to get past this; it requires a three-part set of conditions: the genetic inheritance, the developmental conditions that make the behaviour developable, and the environmental triggers that start that development. And yet it is hard not to fall back to the idea that instinct is just the behaviour. It’s habit. Maybe it’s instinct…


  1. Not only did Darwin read White as a young man; he also made a pilgrimage to Selbourne in later life. (You won’t be surprised to hear that both chaps appear more than once in my forthcoming minimum opus.)

  2. It is still possible to make the pilgrimage to Selborne, where the Gilbert White Museum and Garden honours the name of the man who inspired Darwin. This is the link to the website The Museum was set up in 1955 in Gilbert’s house to commemorate both the great man and also Captain Laurence Oates, who was part of the group that went to the South Pole with Captain Scott in 1910 – 1912 and the anniversary of whose death was in March 2012. A member of the Oates family who was a great fan of Gilbert White bought the house and endowed it as a museum. There is a complete collection of all the editions of Gilbert’s The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, his garden recreated as he designed it, all set beneath the Selborne hanger and landscape which inspired him and is hardly changed since his day.

    • I am writing a collection of poetry about Gilbert White and staying on Gracious Street at this time. My dream is to come to Selborne to launch my book and to read it at the Wakes. The manuscript is coming along very well thanks to the many people who have helped me here in Selborne and Alton. If all goes well, I hope to read from my book in the summer of 2015–five years before the tricentenary of his birth.

  3. Jeb Jeb

    “Birds in general are wise in their choice of situation: but in this neighbourhood every summer is seen a strong proof to the contrary”

    Gerald of Wales makes exactly the same point (not got text to hand) before going utterly medieval and moral.

    But he uses it to stress how important natural instinct ( as he terms it) is for survival by attributing the characteristic to one particular species and noting it as seriously weird in light of natural instinct.

    He does look distinctly Gerald like on first glance with regard to instinct.

  4. Ron in Houston Ron in Houston

    One of the reasons I follow evolutionary psychology is the impact the nature versus nurture debate has on our thinking of criminal justice. Since the English common law is all based on criminal intent, is it fair or right to incarcerate someone if they are simply acting on instinct?

    Maybe that explains the people who have a knee jerk reaction to evolutionary psychology. They are simply acting on instinct.

  5. Jeb Jeb

    “Maybe that explains the people who have a knee jerk reaction to evolutionary psychology”

    For me it was noting that psychology was a tempting argument used in folklore by those who demonstrated a strong interest in contemporary ethnic politics.

    Searching for ancient origins of folk tales, establishing that it is the ancient property of one particular ethnic group and then seeking to demonstrate that its origins explain everything you need to know about further repetition.

    It presents a static history where context and development is unimportant. Origin is all you search for. Its a very common perspective.

    It is somewhat helpful if you want to overemphasis the role of one ethnic group in contemporary political debates.

    I suspect the tendency pre-dates the use of psychology in the subject. I would not refer to it as evolutionary psychology as that would be a contradiction in terms.

    Don’t have a problem with E.P. I do have a problem with how it used on occasion i.e support crap anti-historical (which I think are always given the nature of history are non-evolutionary) arguments.

    I suspect that when E.P does not support social cultural or political goals it will be objected to. Issue is it can also be used somewhat uncritically and support very bad ideas.

  6. It’s April on Gracious Street, around the corner from Gilbert’s home in Selborne and I have just now read the various comments regarding John Wilke’s thoughts on Gilbert White’s words on instinct. We should all of us sit down for a cup of tea with Gilbert himself and hear what he has to say about ethnic politics and the using of evolutionary psychological arguments when discussing it. The Boston Marathon bombings, the Sandy Hook Massacre, the National Rifle Association of the United States of America. What would Gilbert make of it? But then, again, who would bring it up while sipping tea with the old gentleman? Is it instinct that has got us here? Hmmm. Gilbert also said that hunger and love were the main driving factors behind much animal behaviour. Hunger, Love. Instinct.

    I don’t know where I’m going with this. I think the comments are mostly about wonder and imagination, and the last one took it somewhere else. Pride and posturing, which also have to do with love and hunger.

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