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The Herd Instinct

Its benefits and its costs

Roger Sandall (assisted by Sir Francis Galton)

Most of us are herd animals. Nothing wrong with that of course—or not at first sight. Our sociability makes us happy to walk an extra mile to help a friend, makes us keen for teams and political parties, and makes us fiercely protective of kith and kin. Not only that: tribal solidarity of the more noble and high-spirited kind has led men to sacrifice themselves altruistically in wars again and again.

But there are disadvantages too. A herd animal who wakes up one morning to find the rest of the mob have folded their tents and vamoosed is a sorry sight. He wanders listlessly, clutches his heart in despair, then runs around in circles looking for any collective whatever he can join. Upon finding one he gratefully embraces everybody, and by nightfall calls them his new best friends.

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Fate however made some of us differently, and the difference may be in our genes. Awaking at dawn to find the herd has departed we breathe a sigh of relief. The fact is (speaking personally) I never saw a herd I liked. Individuals yes—lots of them. Herds never. To men of my sort a room filled with a hundred people is a cause for dubiety. A room with a hundred like-minded people is a cause for alarm. A room filled with a hundred people “of one mind” is deeply implausible in itself and almost certainly a sign of intimidation.

I once attended an event at the Sydney Opera House where some 2500 people had gathered. A Danish percussion group were performing and they wanted the crowd to participate. Their leader stood and gave orders—clap, shout, stand, pat your knees—and 2500 men and women obeyed his commands. I myself declined to take part, but the elderly woman beside me, with shining eyes, followed every movement as though she had been waiting eighty years for instructions. She would have stood on her head if they asked.

Philosophical implications

An aversion to crowds and the herd mentality goes deep—much deeper than is generally understood. If Ernest Gellner is right it has philosophical implications, for when René Descartes wrote in the 17th century that “We ought never to allow ourselves to be persuaded of the truth of anything unless on the evidence of our reason” he intimated (for those able to understand) that the emotionally held collective beliefs of culture, imbibed and imposed and punitively enforced from infancy, are not to be trusted.

Descartes himself did not use the term “culture”. He spoke of “custom and example”. But the herd thinking of cultural collectivities is exactly what he had in mind. There are any number of synonymous phrases for “custom and example”—the way things are usually done, social precedent, traditional authority, accepted belief, customary thought, conventional wisdom—but cognitively they amount to much the same thing: all of them are sources of error.

In Gellner’s words, what Descartes challenged was the possibility that “the shared assumptions of an entire society, built into its way of life and sustained by it, should be deeply misguided. Entire societies are committed, with fervour and often with arrogance and with infuriating complacency, to blatant absurdities.” Epitomising what he sees as Descartes’ view, Gellner writes:

So individualism and rationalism are closely linked: that which is collective and customary is non-rational, and the overcoming of unreason and of collective custom are one and the same process…

Error is to be found in culture; and culture is a kind of systematic, communally induced error. It is of the essence of error that it is communally induced and historically accumulated.

It is through community and history that we sink into error, and it is through solitary design and plan that we escape it. Truth is acquired in a planned and orderly manner by an individual, not slowly gathered up by a herd. (Ernest Gellner, Reason and Culture, p3. My emphasis, RS)

All this was of course long before anthropology was an academic subject, and before the study of tribal life was even dreamed of as a discipline. But of one thing we can be sure. If Descartes had ever encountered the kind of old-style traditional societies to be found in Africa, the Pacific, or the Amazon basin, he would have regarded them as miniature monarchies of unreason—veritable reigns of error.

Emerson and Galton

While uncommon, a sharp rejection of the herd mind and collectivism more generally was a striking feature of both the American Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Englishman Sir Francis Galton. Emerson’s thoughts may be found in his essay “Self Reliance.” There he sets out a severely individualistic doctrine not unlike Mrs Thatcher’s—especially in its hostility toward the claims of “society”—with echoes of Gellner’s interpretation of Descartes:

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue most in request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and custom.

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As for Galton, after observing cattle in South West Africa in 1850 (modern Namibia), his inclusive view of animal and human behavior encouraged him to analyse the factors favoring gregariousness, on the one hand, and the contrasting factors favoring independent initiative on the other.

Herd behavior among the cattle of Damara land, he wrote in 1871, resulted from aeons of evolutionary selection that produced a mentality given to timidity, caution, and fear. Independence and self-reliance had been “bred out” of cattle in the wild. As a result, finding a temperamentally suitable ox for leading a team to pull a wagon was difficult. The apparent “solidarity” of the animals as a herd was not because they liked and respected each other and were inspired by a spirit of mutual aid. Not at all. It was the practical recognition that there was safety in numbers, and that with all the lions and leopards and hyenas prowling about at night the safest place was right in the middle of the mob, attracting as little attention as possible. With regard to their social instincts, he wrote,

they are deficient; they are not amiable to one another, but show more expressions of spite and disgust than of forbearance or fondness… Yet although the ox has so little affection for, or individual interest in, his fellows, he cannot endure even a momentary severance from his herd.

If he be separated from it by force he exhibits every sign of mental agony; he strives with all his might to get back again, and when he succeeds, he plunges into its middle to bathe his whole body with the comfort of closest companionship.

By analogy, Galton speculated that much the same understandable but ignoble impulses underlay a lot of human behavior too, and explained the “slavish aptitudes” to which the generality of men were prone.

Galton’s political blindness

Yet he plainly pushed his argument too far. While one can see what he meant by equating the gregarious instinct with a slave mentality, it needlessly demeaned the social bond. Galton seriously underrated both the value of collective behavior and a communal ethic in human life—each of them universally observed and noted by anthropologists—while overrating intransigent individualism. From the harebrained eugenic utopia described in his unpublished novel Kantsaywhere it is obvious that he had little political common sense (and this despite the acute observations about tyranny at the end of the essay that appears below). In the personality of such a man the social bond itself is unduly weak, while the drive toward radical autonomy is over-strong.

But while his political proposals were naïve, his insight into the disadvantages of group-think and group-action in herd societies was profound. Galton prized human genius, self-reliance, originality, and leadership. In his view the full development of self-reliant men and women was essential to human progress. But in much of the world it was fatally handicapped by the herd mentality. Original thought was always in danger of being suffocated by the collective, and his sense of the dangers of group thinking and the behavior of men en masse echoed Tocqueville’s earlier doubts about democracy.

The problem he pointed to is real enough. Men in herd societies overanxiously look to each other for reassuring definitions of the good, the beautiful, and the true. (Anything ambiguous and unclassifiable goes both unrecognised and unacknowledged.) Like the bovine herd, the human herd is much given to timidity, caution, and fear. Tribalistic people feel there is nothing worse than to be ostracised, and are terrified that social rejection will strip them of all meaningful identity. They have an overwhelming need to belong and are reluctant to take risky initiatives.

The result is that countries with an overdeveloped gregariousness are tiresomely unoriginal and conformist. These failings tend to be aggravated, in places like Australia and New Zealand, by the insularity of provincial intellectuals. Such people are little inclined to independent thinking and rarely have an original idea in their lives. In the long run this has a paralysing conservative effect, and the danger of this effect on both cultural life and social leadership is what Galton’s discussion of the herd instinct warns against.

[Originally appearing in Macmillan’s Magazine in 1871, the essay first bore the title “Gregariousness in Cattle and in Men.” With minor alterations it was then reproduced in his 1883 book Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development with the more provocative title “Gregarious and Slavish Instincts.” Lightly edited, this is the later text.]

Gregarious and slavish instincts

by Sir Francis Galton (1883)


I propose in this chapter to discuss a curious and apparently anomalous group of base moral instincts and intellectual deficiencies, that are innate rather than acquired, by tracing their analogies in the world of brutes and examining the conditions through which they have been evolved. They are the slavish aptitudes from which the leaders of men are exempt, but which are characteristic elements in the disposition of ordinary persons.

The vast majority of persons of our race have a natural tendency to shrink from the responsibility of standing and acting alone; they exalt the vox populi, even when they know it to be the utterance of a mob of nobodies, into the vox Dei, and they are willing slaves to tradition, authority, and custom. The intellectual deficiencies corresponding to these moral flaws are shown by the rareness of free and original thought as compared with the frequency and readiness with which men accept the opinions of those in authority as binding on their judgment.

I shall endeavour to prove that the slavish aptitudes in man are a direct consequence of his gregarious nature, which itself is a result of the conditions both of his primeval barbarism and of the forms of his subsequent civilisation. My argument will be, that gregarious brute animals possess a want of self-reliance in a marked degree; that the conditions of the lives of these animals have made a want of self-reliance a necessity to them, and that by the law of natural selection the gregarious instincts and their accompanying slavish aptitudes have gradually become evolved.

Then I shall argue that our remote ancestors have lived under parallel conditions, and that other causes peculiar to human society have acted up to the present day in the same direction, and that we have inherited the gregarious instincts and slavish aptitudes which have been needed under past circumstances, although in our advancing civilisation they are becoming of more harm than good to our race.

Differences between wild and tame cattle

It was my fortune, in earlier life, to gain an intimate knowledge of certain classes of gregarious animals. The urgent need of the camel for the close companionship of his fellows was a never-exhausted topic of curious admiration to me during tedious days of travel across many North African deserts. I also happened to hear and read a great deal about the still more marked gregarious instincts of the llama; but the social animal into whose psychology I am conscious of having penetrated most thoroughly is the ox of the wild parts of western South Africa.

It is necessary to insist upon the epithet ‘wild’, because an ox of tamed parentage has different natural instincts; for instance, an English ox is far less gregarious than those I am about to describe, and affords a proportionately less valuable illustration to my argument. The oxen of which I speak belonged to the Damaras, and none of the ancestry of these cattle had ever been broken to harness. They were watched from a distance during the day, as they roamed about the open country, and at night they were driven with cries to enclosures, into which they rushed much like a body of terrified wild animals driven by huntsmen into a trap.

Their scared temper was such as to make it impossible to lay hold of them by other means than by driving the whole herd into a clump, and lassoing the leg of the animal it was desired to seize, and throwing him to the ground with dexterous force. With oxen and cows of this description, whose nature is no doubt shared by the bulls, I spent more than a year in the closest companionship.

The unamiable temperament of wild cattle

I had nearly a hundred of the beasts broken in for the wagon, for packs, and for the saddle. I travelled an entire journey of exploration on the back of one of them, with others by my side, either labouring at their tasks or walking at leisure; and with others again who were wholly unbroken, and who served the purpose of an itinerant larder.

At night, when there had been no time to erect an enclosure to hold them, I lay down in their midst, and it was interesting to observe how readily they then availed themselves of the neighbourhood of the camp fire and of man, conscious of the protection they afforded from prowling carnivora, whose cries and roars, nor distant, now near, continually broke upon the stillness.

These opportunities of studying the disposition of such peculiar cattle were not wasted upon me. I had only too much leisure to think about them, and the habits of the animals strongly attracted my curiosity. The better I understood them, the more complex and worthy of study did their minds appear to be.

But I am now concerned only with their blind gregarious instincts, which are conspicuously distinct from the ordinary social desires. In the latter they are deficient; thus they are not amiable to one another, but show on the whole more expressions of spite and disgust than of forbearance or fondness…

Yet although the ox has so little affection for, or individual interest in, his fellows, he cannot endure even a momentary severance from his herd. If he be separated from it by stratagem or force, he exhibits every sign of mental agony; he strives with all his might to be back again, and when he succeeds, he plunges into its middle to bathe his whole body in the comfort of closest companionship.

This passionate terror at segregation is a convenience to the herdsman, who may rest assured in the darkness or in the mist that the whole herd is safe whenever he can get glimpse of a single ox. It is also the cause of great inconvenience to the traveller in ox-waggons, who constantly feels himself in a position towards his oxen like that of a host to a company of bashful gentlemen at the time when he is trying to get them to move from the drawing-room to the dinner-table, and no one will go first, but every one backs and gives place to his neighbour.

Lead oxen are hard to find

The traveller finds great difficulty in procuring animals capable of acting the part of fore-oxen to his team, the ordinary members of the wild herd being wholly unfitted by nature to move in so prominent and isolated a position, even though, as is the custom, a boy is always in front to persuade or pull them onwards.

Therefore, a good fore-ox is an animal of an exceptionally independent disposition. Men who break in wild cattle for harness watch assiduously for those who show a self-reliant nature, by grazing apart or ahead of the rest, and these they break in for fore-oxen. The other cattle may be indifferently devoted to ordinary harness purposes, or to slaughter; but the born leaders are far too rare to be used for any less distinguished service than that which they alone are capable of fulfilling…

The conclusion to which we are driven is, that few of the Damara cattle have enough originality and independence of disposition to pass unaided through their daily risks in a tolerably comfortable manner. They are essentially slavish, and seek no better lot than to be led by any one of their number who has enough self-reliance to accept that position. No ox ever dares to act contrary to the rest of the herd, but he accepts their common determination as an authority binding on his conscience.

Safety in numbers

An incapacity of relying on oneself and a faith in others are precisely the conditions that compel brutes to congregate and live in herds and, again, it is essential to their safety in a country infested by large carnivora that they should keep closely together in herds.

No ox grazing alone could live for many days unless he were protected, far more assiduously and closely than is possible to barbarians. The Damara owners confide perhaps 200 cattle to a couple of half-starved youths who pass their time dozing or grubbing up roots to eat. The owners know that it is hopeless to protect the herd from lions, so they leave it to take its chance; and as regards human marauders they equally know that the largest number of cattle watchers they could spare could make no adequate resistance to an attack; they therefore do not send more than two youths, who are enough to run home and give the alarm to the whole male population of the tribe.

Consequently, as I began by saying, the cattle have to take care of themselves against the wild beasts, and they would infallibly be destroyed by them if they had not safeguards of their own, which are not easily to be appreciated at first sight at their full value. We shall understand them better by considering the precise nature of the danger that an ox runs.

When he is alone it is not simply that he is too defenceless, but that he is easily surprised. A crouching lion fears cattle who turn boldly upon him, and he does so with reason. The horns of an ox or antelope are able to make an ugly wound in the paw or chest of a springing beast when he receives its thrust in the same way that an over-eager pugilist meets his adversary’s ‘counter’ hit.

Cows and calves

Hence it is that a cow that has calved by the wayside, and has been temporarily abandoned by the caravan, is never seized by lions. The incident frequently occurs, and as frequently are the cow and calf eventually brought safe to the camp; and yet there is usually evidence in footprints of her having sustained a regular siege from the wild beasts; but she is so restless and eager for the safety of her young that no beast of prey can approach her unawares.

This state of exaltation is of course exceptional; cattle are obliged in their ordinary course of life to spend a considerable part of the day with their heads buried in the grass, where they can neither see nor smell what is about them. A still large part of their time must be spent in placid rumination, during which they cannot possibly be on the alert. But a herd of animals, when considered as a whole, is always on the alert; at almost every moment some eyes, ears, and noses will command all approaches, and the start or cry of alarm of a single beast is a signal to all his companions.

To live gregariously is to become a fibre in a vast sentient web overspreading many acres; it is to become the possessor of faculties always awake, of eyes that see in all directions, of ears and nostrils that explore a broad belt of air; it is also to become the occupier of every bit of vantage ground whence the approach of a wild beast might be overlooked. The protective senses of each individual who chooses to live in companionship are multiplied by a large factor, and he thereby receives a maximum of security at minimum cost of restlessness.

Isolation brings panic

When we isolate an animal who has been accustomed to a gregarious life, we take away his sense of protection, for he feels himself exposed to danger from every part of the circle around him, except the one point on which his attention is momentarily fixed; and he knows that disaster may easily creep up to him from behind. Consequently his glance is restless and anxious, and is turned in succession to different quarters; his movements are hurried and agitated, and he becomes a prey to the extremest terror.

There can be no room for doubt that it is suitable to the well-being of cattle in a country infested with beasts of prey to live in close companionship, and being suitable, it follows from the law of natural selection that the development of gregarious and therefore of slavish instincts must be favoured in such cattle.

It also follows from the same law that the degree in which those instincts are developed is on the whole the most conducive to their safety. If they were more gregarious they would crowd so closely as to interfere with each other when grazing the scattered pasture of Damara land; if less gregarious, they would be too widely scattered to keep a sufficient watch against wild beasts.

Why are so few oxen independent?

Why is only one ox out of fifty independent enough to serve as a leader? Why is it not one in five or one in five hundred? The reason undoubtedly is that natural selection tends to give but one leader to each suitably-sized herd, and to repress super-abundant leaders.

There is a certain size of herd most suitable to the geographical and other conditions of the country; it must not be too large, or the scattered puddles which form their only watering-places for a great part of the year would not suffice; and there are similar drawbacks in respect to pasture. It must not be too small, or it would be comparatively insecure; thus a troop of five animals is far more easy to be approached by a stalking huntsman than one of twenty, and the later than one of a hundred.

We have seen that it is the oxen who graze apart, as well as those who lead the herd, who are recognised by the trainers of cattle as gifted with enough independence of character to become fore-oxen. They are even preferred to the actual leaders of the herd; they dare to move alone, and therefore their independence is undoubted.

The leaders are safe enough from lions, because their flanks and rear are guarded by their followers; but each of those who graze apart, and who represent the superabundant supply of self-reliant animals, have one flank and the rear exposed, and it is precisely these whom the lions take.

Looking at the matter in a broad way, we may justly assert that wild beasts trim and prune every herd into compactness, and tend to reduce it into a closely-united body with a single well-protected leader…

The size and dispersal of tribal societies

If we look at the human inhabitants of the very same country as the oxen I have described, we shall find them congregated into multitudes of tribes, all more or less at war with one another. We shall find that few of these tribes are very small, and few very large, and that it is precisely those that are exceptionally large or small whose condition is the least stable.

A very large tribe falls to pieces through its own unwieldiness, because, by the nature of things, it must be either deficient in centralisation or straitened in food, or both. A barbarian population is obliged to live dispersedly, since a square mile of land will support only a few hunters or shepherds.

On the other hand, a barbarian government cannot be long maintained unless the chief is brought into frequent contact with his dependants, and this is geographically impossible when his tribe is so scattered as to cover a great extent of territory.

It must not be supposed that gregarious instincts are equally important to all forms of savage life. But I hold, from what we know of the clannish fighting habits of our forefathers, that they were every whit as applicable to the earlier ancestors of our European stock as they are still to a large part of the black population of Africa.

The tyranny of tribes and nations

There is an extraordinary power of tyranny invested in the chiefs of tribes and nations of men, that so vastly outweighs the analogous power possessed by the leaders of animal herds as to rank as a special attribute of human society, eminently conducive to slavishness.

If any brute in a herd makes itself obnoxious to the leader, the leader attacks him, and there is a free fight between the two, the other animals looking on the while. But if a man makes himself obnoxious to his chief, he is attacked, not by the chief single-handed, but by the overpowering force of his executive.

The rebellious individual has to brave a disciplined host; there are spies who will report his doings, a local authority who will send a detachment of soldiers to drag him to trial; there are prisons ready built to hold him, civil authorities wielding legal powers of stripping him of all he owns, and official executioners prepared to torture or kill him.

The tyrannies under which men have lived, whether under rude barbarian chiefs, under the great despotisms of half-civilised Oriental countries, or under some of the more polished but little less severe governments of modern days, must have had a frightful influence in eliminating independence of character from the human race.

National character and forms of government

I hold that the blind instincts evolved under these long-continued conditions (i.e., under despotic conditions of government) have been ingrained into our breed, and that they are a bar to our enjoying the freedom which the forms of modern civilisation are otherwise capable of giving us.

A really intelligent nation might be held together by far stronger forces than are derived from the purely gregarious instincts. A nation need not be a mob of slaves, clinging to one another through fear, and for the most part incapable of self-government, and begging to be led; but it might consist of vigorous self-reliant men, knit to one another by innumerable ties, into a strong, tense, and elastic organization.

Those who have been born in a free country feel the atmosphere of a paternal government very oppressive. The hearty and earnest political and individual life which is found when every man has a continual sense of public responsibility, and knows that success depends on his own right judgment and exertion, is replaced under a despotism by an indolent reliance upon what its master may direct, and by a demoralising conviction that personal advancement is best secured by solicitations and favour.

Posted in Tribalism.