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Battling Impulses

ISSUE:  Autumn 1926


In the churches of Sweden, Tylor tells us, there used to be kept certain clumsy wooden clubs, some of which have been preserved as objects of curiosity down to the present day. They were called “family clubs” and they were used to terminate the existence of persons who had grown aged or hopelessly ill. The agents of this solemn procedure were the near relatives of those about to die; presumably, as a rule their children or grand-children. This is only one instance of a custom, widely followed by savage peoples, and others not so savage, whereby the younger generation ceremonially and conventionally eliminates those of its elders who can no longer do their part in a struggle for existence always arduous and precarious. The method differs in different countries. Among many roving tribes, with whom life depends upon movement, and undue consideration of the old would involve the sacrifice of the entire group, those who can no longer keep the pace are made as comfortable as possible with a little fire, a few scraps of food, and perhaps a rude shelter, and then left to their fate. In other cases the methods are more violent, not infrequently involving cannibalism in some form. William G. Sumner, in his “Folkways,” gives page after page of examples of this custom in its diverse manifestations.

In some instances the old people protest and plead for delay; in others they recognize the procedure as necessary and appropriate, urge on the executioners to do their duty, and even demand the lethal stroke as a right. Explanations of the procedure differ among different peoples. In some cases there is a frank recognition that it is due to the necessity of conserving the food supply, and promoting the economic and military efficiency of the group. In other cases the alleged purpose is to spare the aged a long period of suffering, or at least a joyless existence when they can no longer indulge in the hunt, the dance, or the feast. Sometimes there is a belief that only those who die a violent death are assured of the full blessings of the after life. It is probable that in practically all cases the first explanation expresses the actual evolutionary basis of the custom, and that the kindlier interpretations are in the nature of “rationalizations.”

As an increasing mastery over nature enabled man to enter, in some degree at least, upon a surplus economy, the practice was gradually abandoned. Yet it lingered on even in Europe to a surprisingly late date, doubtless being perpetuated by the force of tradition after its economic justification had disappeared. Thus Tylor in his “Anthropology” says, “The Wends in what is now Germany practised the hideous rite of putting the aged and infirm to death, cooking and eating them, much as Herodotus describes the old Mas-sagetse as doing.” Furthermore, even among highly civilized peoples a resort to the primitive expedient is not unknown in times of extreme stress. “Colonel Fremont, in 1849, in a letter to his wife, tells how in crossing the plains he and his comrades left the weak and dying members of their party, one by one, to die in the snow, after lighting a little fire for him.” The ceremonial or religious character in which these practices are customarily enveloped undoubtedly represents an expedient worked out by the group to guarantee that the killing shall be a fully sanctioned societal measure, safeguarded as far as possible from arbitrary employment to promote the selfish interests of the individual relatives.

Widespread as is this custom of the killing of the old by the young, it would undoubtedly be much more common and much more familiar to us were it not that the converse practice—the killing of the young by the old, of children by parents—is vastly more common. The reason for this is perfectly simple; the elders get the first chance. Long before the new member of the group has developed wit enough to comprehend the competitive nature of the existence into which he has been introduced, or force enough to do anything about it, those already in command of the situation have had ample opportunity to consider what bearing an additional individual will have upon their personal or group welfare, and to act accordingly. This decision may be made and put into effect at almost any stage in the child’s development. Very frequently this is done during the pre-natal period. Abortion is by no means confined to civilized peoples, but is hoary with antiquity, and is employed by groups on almost every stage of cultural evolution. The painful and dangerous character of the means employed among many primitive tribes testifies to the strength of the desire to prevent the appearance of a new claimant to the limited supplies of the family or the group.

Much more conspicuous than abortion—whether more prevalent or not it would be difficult to say—is infanticide. The social usages governing this practice are indescribable in their multiplicity among peoples in every quarter of the globe and on every stage of cultural evolution. Aside from the extra-conventional killing of infants by their parents which even the most prosperous and advanced societies have not been able wholly to eliminate, there is a vast amount of infanticide which accords with recognized standards and enjoys complete social sanction. Not infrequently this sanction expresses itself in ritual, but there does not seem to be the same degree of ceremonial flavor about this custom that there is about the killing of the old—perhaps just because it is too commonplace.

Here, too, a variety of explanations is alleged for both abortion and infanticide. The former may be due to reluctance to undergo the pain of bearing children and the trouble of rearing them, to fear of lacerations, or injury to the figure, to a desire to “spite the husband,” and to a candid fear that the food supply may be insufficient. Infanticide may be explained on the ground of defects or weaknesses on the part of the children—as among the Spartans, whose practice of it Aristotle approved—or by the difficulty a mother experiences under primitive conditions of caring for two small infants at once; or by various arbitrary conventions of propriety, such as the notion that a woman should not have a second child until the first is ten years old, that it is discreditable to have a child within the first two or three years of marriage, or that it is shameful to have children unevenly divided between the sexes. In almost all cases, however, it is probably safe to assume that the underlying motive of infanticide is a more or less subconscious recognition of the necessity of limiting the competition of life by restraining the growth of population. Support is given to this interpretation by the much greater prevalence of female, than of male or general, infanticide.

In some cases the unwillingness to bring children into the wcrld reaches the point where it actually threatens “race suicide.” Not enough children are born, or at least allowed to live, to keep up the number of ^he group. At least one tribe has been reported where no children at all are born (except occasionally by accident), the population being maintained by buying children from the neighboring tribes. The wide diffusion and virtual universality of these various practices would seem to argue that they arise out of some deep-seated general characteristics of human individuals or human societies, or perhaps that they trace back of human origins and are representatives of all living organisms, a natural concomitant of life itself. Further inquiry lends assurance to the latter conclusion.


The central fact of conflict in Nature—commonly designated as the “struggle for existence”—is now a commonplace, and needs no emphasis. It is not, however, always recognized how generally this struggle expresses itself in killing. To him who, in the love of Nature, holds
Communion with her visible forms
there comes in time the startling realization that one of her most characteristic aspects is that of a gigantic slaughterhouse. A large part of the processes of Nature consists in great cycles of slaying. The hawk kills the sparrow, the sparrow kills the worm, the worm kills the tree, the tree kills the shrub, the shrub kills the grass, the grass kills the wild strawberry, and so on and on and on. This killing divides itself into two distinct types. First, the active, aggressive killing that is associated with pursuit, attack, capture, and quick destruction. Second, the passive, persistent killing that results from success in the competition for the limited supplies of nature. The second of these forms is universal to all living organisms, the first is virtually restricted to animals, the difference being that plants get their subsistence, as a rule, directly from the soil, which (fortunately) can not be killed since it is not alive, while animals derive their sustenance from other living creatures, plants or animals.

Obviously, therefore, the passive form of slaughter is vastly more important, and accounts for an immeasurably laiger number of deaths, the world over, than the active form. The competition of life is keenest between those organisms which are most alike, and which therefore make the most nearly identical demands upon nature. There is no competition between the codfish and the song-sparrow; but there is active competition between the song-sparrow and the purple finch because both depend upon seeds. This competition accordingly becomes keenest of all between members of the same species, and reaches its climax when they are attempting to subsist in the same area. This is another way of saying that in all this bitter competition in nature, the most relentless struggle is that between parents and children.

Consider, for example, the case of the pine tree. A six year old naturalist, walking through the pine woods with her father, propounded the query, “Daddy, where are all the baby trees?” There were, in point of fact, no baby trees, or none to speak of. There never are baby trees in pine forests. Yet the pine trees are always bringing offspring into the world, hundreds of thousands, millions, of them every year. But with almost negligible exceptions they all die, and the agents of their destruction are the elder generation who have already pre-empted the place in the sun. Only here and there does a fortunate scion manage to find an unoccupied crevice where it can get a root-hold and enough light and air to permit it to grow. Those who do, and who eventually develop into sturdy saplings, have their revenge by becoming the means whereby the more senile and decrepit of their elders receive their final death blow.

So it is with all trees. They are liberal enough in bringing young into the world, but they are absolutely relentless in refusing them an opportunity to survive in the parental neighborhood. The only way for the youthful tree to see life is to get away from the old folks—a situation not wholly without parallel among higher organisms.

Among animals this competitive destruction of the young by the old is not so obvious. On the contrary, as we ascend the scale of animal evolution we find relentless destruction being supplanted by positive care, protection, and nourishment. The effectiveness of this protection, and the duration of the period of true infancy, is one of the best single tests of evolutionary advancement. It is upon this basis that mammals may claim to be the highest type of life. This upward progression is marked by a decreased birth rate, which in one aspect appears as a necessary condition for full parental care, and in another aspect may be regarded a measure of economy whereby the survival of the species is guaranteed by carefully cherishing a few offspring, rather than by producing multitudinous offspring and leaving the outcome to chance.

But, long or short, the period of infancy eventually comes to an end, and parental sacrifice is supplanted by parental rivalry. It has been said—by Ernest Seton Thompson, was it not?—that no wild animal dies a natural death. This means that in the fierce struggle for existence any minor indisposition, injury, or weakness, not sufficient in itself to cause death, is enough to turn the balance against the affected individual and crowd him to the wall. It is just another way of stating the law of the survival of the fittest. And chief among the agents that eliminate the unfit are always the young, vigorous, aggressive members of the same species.

Among animals, furthermore, we find some instances of positive, direct killing of the young by their parents, or at least by the older generation. One remarkable example is furnished by the giant salamander, Cryptobranchus. The male of this species sets himself on guard over the eggs, protecting them from attack. But his attitude is not wholly disinterested, for at the same time he is protecting his food supply. Both he and the female devour the eggs greedily, and only their slow rate of digestion permits the larger portion of the eggs to be safely hatched. Certain kinds of fish feed upon the young of the same species. Even among human beings, it is sometimes customary for the victim of infanticide to be eaten by its mother for the purpose of recovering the strength she has given it.

It appears, then, that this phenomenon of the killing of the young by the old and the old by the young is a virtually universal characteristic of organisms in nature. It must, therefore, rest upon a broad instinctive basis, in fact upon some impulses that reach down to the very lowest levels of organic existence. There are just two impulses that are common to all living things; the impulse to take nourishment and the impulse to procreate—hunger and love. The truth is that the phenomenon in question is the logical outcome of a perennial clash between these two impulses.


Practically every list of instincts starts with hunger and love, and practically all students of behavior regard these two impulses as the primary springs of action. Yet there has been apparently very little recognition of the fact that between hunger and love there exists an inherent and inveterate antagonism. Hunger exists as a necessary requirement for the survival of the individual; love is indispensable for the continuance of the species. Nature (if she may be personified) is vastly more interested in the perpetuation of the species than in the survival of the individual. The one great thing towards which she labors is that out of each generation enough should grow up to maturity to take the places left vacant by the death of the elders. She is seemingly quite indifferent to the wastefulness of the methods by which this result is secured. If it is necessary that two of the offspring of each female oyster shall survive to take the places of their parents, Nature regards with complete complacence the birth of sixteen million oysters out of whom 15,999,998 are doomed to die, most of them in early infancy. The life cycle of many organisms seems to havo procreation as its one outstanding and final objective.

But while Nature is thus superlatively solicitous about the survival of each species, she cares nothing at all about the increase of any species once it has been established Producing new life with a lavishness beyond human imagination, she makes no provision whatever for permanent increase in the total of life. The cosmic supplies by which Nature supports her creatures are absolutely fixed and limited in both quantity and quality. Having served their purpose in maintaining life they are returned to the great storehouse to’ meet future requisitions. Thus life may go on perennially, but the total volume of life, once reached, can never be increased. And it is safe to say that the total volume under natural conditions was reached long before the appearance of man.

The rule of Nature, therefore, is that parents are continually bringing into the world multitudinous offspring, most of whom they will destroy, and the survivors of whom will eventually destroy them. From the point of view of material well-being parents and children are implacable enemies. As far as individual comfort is concerned, creatures in nature would be better off if they bore no children at all. Yet in spite of this fact, and doubtless, from the evolutionary standpoint, because of this fact, they are equipped with an irresistible impulse that drives them to bear children continuously up to the very limit of their physiological capacity. Is it any wonder that this is a world of struggle, when the two basic impulses of life are set against each other in such an eternal conflict? It is well that those who insistently demand the rule of nature in human affairs should reflect upon this situation. If man is ever fully to vindicate his humanity he must find a counteragent for this relationship. For the basic factors in the situation are not altered in the least when we enter the human arena. The impulses to seek food and to seek mates are not one whit diminished. In fact, the latter is apparently largely extended. The ultimate supplies of nature, out of which human life must be maintained, are not one atom enlarged. Men are still impelled to bring into the world many more offspring than can be supported, and there is still the incentive for parents to destroy children, children to destroy parents.

The novel factors which differentiate the human aspects of this problem from the purely natural are of two main types. In the first place, man, by developing an economic culture, has continuously and progressively increased the supporting power of the land from his own point of view, and so has been able to provide for a gradual and eventually notable increase in numbers. This process has consisted largely in the substitution of human life for other forms of life. Perhaps there has also been an increase in the total volume of life (a difficult thing to reduce to concrete measurement) through the better utilization of the natural elements. In the second place, there has been developed a love for children, and pleasure in children, which serves as a motive alongside of the pleasure in material things. It is still true of human individuals, as of other organisms, that from the purely materialistic point of view they would be better off if they bore no children at all. But “man does not live by bread alone,” and to the normal man the joys and satisfactions of children rank high among the things that make life worth living. On the one hand, accordingly, man has been able to provide for a continuous increase in numbers living on a steadily advancing level of comfort, and on the other hand he has enjoyed from his children satisfactions that to some degree at least compensate for the loss in physical comfort that children involve.

In spite of all this, however, if it were possible to survey the whole career of mankind, it would probably be found that the social situations in which these two factors taken together were sufficient to neutralize the inherent antagonism between hunger and love have been very restricted in area and limited in time. In other words, there have been relatively very few societies in which the typical parents, from their own personal point of view, have wanted as many children as they were physiologically capable of producing, or as many as the unrestrained yielding to the procreative impulse would naturally bring into being. Conversely, there have been very few societies in which the support of the old folks was not felt as a burden; a burden in some cases made welcome by filial affection, in some cases endured with more or less good grace because of the pressure of social convention or moral standards. That this contention holds for practically all savage and barbaric societies is evidenced by the universality of the customs already described. It is not so easy to see that it is true among the most advanced representatives of modern civilization.


It is particularly difficult for members of the society called the United States to accept the existence of this fundamental conflict. This is partly because the frank discussion of such matters is put under powerful taboos. This applies not only to matters of sex, but to all matters that conduce to a pessimistic view of human, and particularly national, affairs. As Professor Sumner says, “Our civilization ordinarily veils from us the fact that we are rivals and enemies to each other in the competition of life.” More important than this is the fact that we, as a nation, have lived for so many generations upon a surplus economy, and upon an economic system in which children very early become a financial asset, that an increasing population has been tacitly assumed to be a benefit, and the drain of large families has not been heavily felt. America represents the acme of conditions under which this antagonism is reduced to its minimum proportions. Yet even here there is abundant evidence that the rivalry between children and parents exists, and is quite generally felt. According to some students, even in the nineteenth century a large proportion of the births represented unwanted children. “An eminent physician once said that in his experience every one ardently desired the first child, nearly every one the second, the majority the third, few the fourth and fifth, and no one the sixth. This may be stretching things a little at both ends, but there is no doubt of its approximate correctness.” It is true that there is no socially sanctioned and ceremonial killing of either the young or the old. Our whole culture is based on the sanctity and inviolability of every human life, whether it represent an economic asset or a liability. But there is evidence that the killing of the young in the pre-natal period is a widespread practice, winked at if not sanctioned by society. Obviously exact statistics on the question are an impossibility, but the estimates accepted by supposedly careful students range from half a million to two million annually in the United States. By others, these figures, except perhaps the lowest, are regarded as wild exaggerations, but there can be no doubt that the actual total would be impressive. In any case, we should not fall into national self-complacency on this matter, recognizing that it is our economic good fortune more than anything else that differentiates us in this particular from China, where infanticide is so well known, or India, of which W. J. Wilkins is quoted as saying that “six sevenths of the population of India have for ages practiced female infanticide.” Nor should we fall into the illusion that some special Providence, without any cooperation on our part, will preserve us from the conditions which drive irresistibly toward some expedients to mitigate the basic conflict. In point of fact, the average individual family has no difficulty in recognizing this antithesis. Its adult members are used to thinking in terms of a definite income, difficult to increase, and certainly not directly affected in a favorable manner by the advent of a new member of the family. With a fixed income, the material well-being of each member of the family becomes a matter of simple division. Without giving much reflection to the matter, even the least intelligent parents recognize that additional children mean additional burdens and lower the general level of comfort of the family. They accept the situation partly through sheer fatalism, partly because they do not know what they can do about it, partly because they find compensation in the joys that come from children, and very largely because they regard children as a form of insurance against destitution in their own declining years—support of the old having been substituted for slaughter of the old in our modern mores.

It is when we turn to the broader social aspects of the matter that we find the problem clouded in mists of ignorance, misinterpretation, and baseless tradition. Western societies for centuries past have been governed by the doctrine, widely disseminated and unquestioningly accepted, that a large and increasing population is a desirable thing from the group point of view. The origin of this tradition may be traced to a complex of factors; dynastic ambition, religious aggrandizement, family pride, false economic theories, and sound militaristic principles. The common man, sufficiently acute to realize the antagonism between a growing family and his own creature comfort, has been educated by those who control public opinion and sentiment to believe that the interests of his group are differently served from his own, and to consider that each additional member of his family, however well or ill supported, is a positive contribution to the welfare of his society. There is thus added another offsetting reward— the sense of social approval and self-approbation for a duty well done—to help compensate him for a diminution in his own material well-being. So thoroughly has this work of education been done that to the man on the street the desirability of an increasing population seems almost axiomatic. His first—often his only—interest in the newly published census report is to see whether his own city, his own state, his own nation has grown, and how much. His reaction to evidence of rapid growth in any one of these aggregates is quite different from his feeling about the same development in his own family.

Most of us have not been impressed by the fact that the relation of increasing population to material comfort is a problem in division in a society just as truly as in a family. There is, indeed, this difference that the new member of a family is likely to leave the family very soon after he becomes able to add to its income, and so is not thought of as a means of increasing the amount to be divided, whereas he remains a member of the society during an extended productive period. Thus a growing population means not only more persons among whom to distribute the social product but a larger social product to be distributed. If the man on the street were able to analyze his feeling about population he would probably find that if it has any tangible basis at all it is in a tacit assumption that each increment produces as much as it consumes or possibly more. If this were true, there would be no conilict between hunger and love on the societal plane. Unfortunately this is not universally true, and has been true in fact in only extremely rare cases and for very brief periods of time. The situation has become standardized in that commonplace of economic theory, the Law of Diminishing Returns. Economic production is the result of the combination of various factors, primary among which is land. Because the elemental constituents of the land are fixed and immutable it results that while additional applications of labor and capital will produce a large gross product they cannot be made indefinitely to produce a larger proportional product, or even the same proportional product. Eventually the time comes when each increment of labor and capital produces a progressively diminishing proportional product. Stated as a matter of population increase, this means that the time comes in every society when each future increment in population means a smaller per capita share of the total social product.


The clash between hunger and love accordingly expresses itself on the societal plane in terms of population and standard of living. If a society could improve, or even maintain, its standard of living in the face of uncontrolled growth of population there would be no social discord between the two basic impulses of life. The outstanding lesson of history is that this can be done oniy under most exceptional circumstances, and then for only a very limited space of time. This situation is characteristic of a genninely underpopulated society. Such a group has not people enough to achieve its maximum standard of living. Such a situation is self-corrective. The personal as well as the social advantages that accrue from increasing numbers serve to remove some of the customary barriers to population growth—including any traces of sanctioned killing that may survive—and the forces of reproduction, freed from restraint, fill up the deficiency with amazing rapidity. Probably the United States furnishes the most remarkable illustration of these processes that the world has ever known or ever will know. Canada, Australia, and some of the South American countries furnish other examples on a smaller scale or less fully developed.

The vitally important truth is that the situation in all of these countries is necessarily temporary. The extraordinary economic history of the United States represents a suspension, not an abrogation, of the fundamental law of conflict between hunger and love. We have no more reason to hope that without taking thought—that is, without intelligent, scientific social engineering—we can enjoy a suspension of this law forever than that China and India will mysteriously be granted exemption from it within the next generation.

Left to themselves, the forces of hunger and of love, in the human arena no less than in nature, lead inevitably to struggle, and struggle leads inevitably to killing. The career of man on earth is scarcely less an orgy of killing than that of the lower organisms in nature. Among men, too, this slaughter takes two forms; the passive, persistent form —economic competition, and the violent aggressive form —war. Which of the two, among men, has more victims to its credit it would be difficult to say. Putting them all together—infanticide, abortion, starvation, war—it is distressingly evident that man has only very partially emancipated himself from the fundamental conditions of organic life.

Yet man alone, of all living creatures, holds the key to the dilemma. He alone has the power to adjust the growth of his species to the material supplies that can be made available without invoking the grim expedient of slaughter. Only man has the capacity to foresee the consequences of mating, to differentiate between the desire for children (apparently an exclusively human endowment) and the desire for mating, and so to regulate his behavior that the only children that are born shall be wanted children; that is, children who are the result of the desire for children, not of blind obedience to impulse.

The first step in bringing about this happy consummation is the effective establishment of the idea that uncontrolled hunger and uncontrolled love are mutually antagonistic on the social as well as the personal plane. Intelligent nations must be brought to realize that uniess they are definitely underpopulated increases in population not only menace their own economic prosperity, but inescapably threaten their peaceful relations with other nations. Whether the United States has already passed beyond the stage of underpopula-tion is a debatable question. There is strong evidence that she has. At any rate the time is not far distant when she will, and it is none too early to begin to devise means to get the situation in hand. On the basis of a popularized recognition of the undesirability of increase in population, nations can develop new social standards, new canons of morality, new conventions, new criteria of national prosperity, which will very speedily produce their reactions upon individual ideas and individual behavior. It is not beyond belief that in time this new social outlook may produce a type of culture, at least among the more advanced nations, wherein the reproduction of the species will naturally and sub-consciously, without undue hardship or felt repression, be adjusted to the existing economic conditions in such a way as to promote the maximum standard of living—and the conflict between hunger and love will be outlawed.


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