October 23, 2017

The directivity of behaviour

Science consists of organising data or putting “cybernismic” order into the environment. Things that appear unrelated and haphazard are arranged in such a way as to appear orderly. The environment is four-dimensional, or, more precisely, it can best be represented by a four-dimensional model. Thus it is not three-dimensional things into which order must be put, but four-dimensional processes. To put order into the latter involves knowing in what direction they are moving. If one cannot do this, they remain unrelated and haphazard, i.e. disorderly.

All behavioural processes must therefore be taken as being “directive”—a term coined by Russell in 1938.1 I prefer this term to the term “purposive”, which in fact means the same thing. Unfortunately, when we talk of somebody’s purpose, we are not thinking of his role within some general system, but rather of his “conscious” motivation. If man’s behaviour is determined by a mysterious force called the “free-will”, then “purpose” refers to the direction in which the exercise of “free-will” is leading him, and in terms of which his behaviour can be explained. It must follow that since animals other than men are supposed to be governed by “blind instinct”, they are not capable of exercising “free-will”, and thus of displaying “purposive” behaviour.

Even if we use the word “purpose” functionally, its old metaphysical connotation tends to linger. If we use it, for instance, in connection with the behaviour of such lowly animals as sea-urchins or fiddler-crabs, subconsciously we cannot help but imagine these humble creatures consulting their little “wills” before deciding “freely” which zooplankton to have for tea. As this is not the image I wish to convey, it is easier to abandon the term “purposive-ness”, in favour of one with no such undesirable connotations.

To deny directivity is in fact to deny that processes can be the object of scientific study. In spite of this, empiricists obstinately persist in so doing. This is partly because they tend to regard three-dimensional things and one-dimensional processes apart, as though they were self-sufficient units. It is not currently realised that these units are nothing more than anthropo-centric abstractions, units of our thought-processes and of our language but not of the world they represent. There are no such things as dogs that do not eat and drink and reproduce, except as photographs, pictures, concepts and words, nor are there such processes as eating, drinking, breathing and reproducing taken apart from the organisms involved.

To deny directivity is to deny that cybernismic order can be put into dynamic processes, and hence that they can be subjected to scientific examination, and, since all the constituents of the world display different degrees of dynamism, that science itself is in fact possible.

The evidence of directivity is so overwhelming at all levels of complexity that its denial seems inconceivable.

De Beer writes2:

“The structure of an animal shows a number of exquisitely delicate adjustments: the splinters inside a bone are situated exactly where they are required to withstand the pressure to which the bone is subjected; the fibres of the tendon lie accurately along the line of strain between the muscle and the bone to which it is attached; centres of nerve cells in the brain are situated close to the ends of the nerve fibres, from which they habitually receive impulses, and when in phylogeny there is a change in the nerve fibres from which any given nerve-centre habitually receives its impulses, the nerve-centre is found to be situated near its new source of stimulation.”

Bierens de Haan3 writes:

“. . . that the weaving of the web by the spider is purposeful for the catching of insects, and the collecting and storing of caterpillars by the wasp purposeful for the nourishing of its future larvae, are facts that are so self-evident that it is not necessary further to elucidate them.”

The evidence that is occasionally mustered to oppose the notion of directivity consists of examples of the behaviour of systems ostensibly contrary to their personal interests, but that, if examined more closely, are seen to be in the interest of the more general system of which they are part. Indeed, if the sub-system is regarded in vacuo, its behaviour may not appear directive. If it is regarded, as it should be, as a differentiated part of a larger and longer-term system, its directivity then becomes apparent.

Thus, for instance, it is argued that during the mating season, the male stickleback undergoes colour changes that render him conspicuous and hence more vulnerable to predators.4 It has been shown that the object of the colour change is to attract the attention of females. That the stickleback has enemies who have learned to take advantage of this conspicuousness (as the predator’s behaviour is also directive) is only to be expected and does not detract from the directive nature of its colour change for breeding purposes. The latter remains adaptive so long as the breeding advantages to be derived, from it outweigh its disadvantages for the purposes of phylogeny.

An infinite number of examples of the same principle can be cited, thus: certain fish learn to tolerate smaller fish that enter their mouths and clean their teeth. This is known as “cleaning symbiosis”. However, predators have “learned” to imitate these cleaners, and have grown to look exactly like them. They are consequently tolerated by the larger fish, a fact they take advantage of by taking an occasional bite at their unsuspecting hosts.5 In many species of ants, specialised workers have evolved to look after the larvae. Certain cuckoolike parasitic beetles, incapable of looking after their own larvae, lay their eggs in the ants’ nests. These later hatch into larvae that are indistinguishable from the ants’ and which, after having been carefully looked after by the workers, hatch into predator beetles that gradually take over the colony.6 8

These are but two of an infinite number of examples of parasites that take advantage of certain features of a host’s behaviour pattern. Does this mean that these features are not directive? Undoubtedly not. It is clear that cleaning symbiosis is very useful to the host; it is also clear that looking after the larvae is a necessary function within an ant colony and is directive to the survival of the young. The fact that, for these functions to occur successfully, a number of individual members of the species will fall prey to parasites is no argument against their usefulness.

Such behaviour only appears non-directive if we regard the individual in vacuo, i.e., apart from the family or the community of which he is part, which we know to be impossible.

Again, it is pointed out that the fierce competition obtaining in certain animal societies for the possession of the choicest female or of the most desirable territory is not conducive to the survival of the individual. Indeed, in such competitive societies as those of the baboons or fur-seals, casualties often can run quite high, especially under conditions of overcrowding.7 But such behaviour can only be interpreted as contributing to the selection of the fittest individuals and thus to the adaptation of the species as a whole to the challenges of its environment.

It is also occasionally pointed out that in certain species the individual at one or more stages during its life-cycle, is subjected to so many environmental challenges that its chances of survival are in fact minute. This is especially the case with certain parasites. Miriam Rothschild and Teresa Clay write:

“. . . the eggs of the grouse roundworm lie scattered all over Scotland, but millions and millions of their young, which hatch out and wriggle up the sprigs of heather around them, perish because that particular plant is never eaten by a grouse. Similarly, vast numbers of immature ticks cling hopefully to blades of grass, waiting for the millionth chance which will bring an animal brushing through the vegetation within reach of their waving forelegs.

“Owing to the difficulty of finding a host—a difficulty which is superimposed on the more familiar hazards of life—the mortality among most parasites is enormous. A vast number of eggs or larvae have to be produced in order that the species can survive at all. Consequently, a characteristic feature of most parasites is a relatively enormous development of the reproductive organs, which frequently come to dominate the body. Intestinal worms produce eggs by the million and even brood-parasites like the cuckoo lay four to five times as many eggs as their hosts. The difficulty of host-finding can often be estimated by the number of eggs laid.”

Surely nothing could be more directive than this automatic regulation of the number of eggs laid in accordance with the number required to produce the optimum number of adults. Once again, directivity is apparent if one realises that the unit of analysis must be the larger unit—in this case the species as a whole, four-dimensionally—and not the individual.

Other arguments against directivity are based on the disadvantages to individual survival of the so-called inflexibility of instinctive behaviour. Thus Hingston9 tells of a clubionide spider in Central India. These spiders live in grassy meadows. They are the same colour as the grass and are capable of lying in a particular position that enables them to blend perfectly with their background. When threatened, their instinct is to remain perfectly immobile and thus hope to pass unnoticed. Hingston found that, in such circumstances, there was no way to make them move, neither by pushing them with a straw, by sticking a pin into them, nor even by cutting off one of their legs. They would inevitably remain quite immobile.

Canis azarae, the pampas fox, apparently behaves in a similar way. Now, can one say that such behaviour is not directive? Undoubtedly not, statistically; therefore, from the point of view of the species, it must constitute the reaction most conducive to survival.

A further example is the phenomenon of blinking. The human eyelid closes to prevent a foreign particle from entering the eye. The performance of this task suffers from the same shortcomings as does the behaviour of the famous insectivorous plant, the Dionaea fly-trap. Neither system can distinguish between the various foreign particles, most of which are harmful, but some of which could conceivably be beneficial, such as the medicinal drops which an occulist may wish to insert into a diseased eye. Does this detract from the usefulness of the blinking function? The answer is no. The experience of phylogeny has established that, statistically, blinking, like digestion and the circulation of the blood, is best mediated at a low neurological level. The possibility that a foreign particle entering the eye might be beneficial is so remote that it is best not taken into account. The cost of doing so, in terms of an increase in the size of those cerebral mechanisms required for increasing discrimination, would just not be worthwhile.

Indeed, in spite of the inflated view we may have of human intelligence, it is probable that if this “faculty” were allowed to govern all those elaborate processes necessary to sustain life, which are at present mediated by lower centres in our brain and spinal cord, the result would undoubtedly be a serious increase in inefficiency. Blinking may appear indiscriminatory, but this lack of discrimination is a low price to pay for the advantages of automatism and for the protection it enjoys from the ravages of “intelligent” behaviour that is at present wreaking such irreparable damage to the less well-protected parts of our biosphere.


1. Russell, E. S., 1938, The Behaviour of Animals, E. Arnold & Co., London.

2. De Beer, Gavin, 1948, Embryos and Ancestors, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

3. Bierens de Haan, J. A., 1946, Animal Psychology, Hutchinson’s University Library, London.

4. Tinbergen, N., 1951, The Study of Instinct, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

5. Limbaugh, Conrad, 1961, Cleaning Symbiosis, Scientific American, August 1961.

6. Haskins, Caryl P., 1942, Of Ants and Men, George Allen & Unwin, London.

7. Russell, Claire and W. M. S., 1968, Violence, Monkeys and Man, Macmillan, London.

8. Rothschild, Miriam and Clay, Teresa, 1952, Fleas, Flukes and Cuckoos, Collins, London.

9. Hingston, R. W. G., 1928, Problems of Instinct and Intelligence, E. Arnold & Co., London.

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