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Part I, RationaleBrian D. Rude, 1975 Slightly revised, 2005
Instinct is inherited behavior. This is a broad perspective, perhaps broader than most people like. By this definition a simple cough or a knee jerk reflex is instinctual. Because these are trivial examples they are not usually called instinctual. However what else would such reflexes be called? They are certainly not learned. They are apparent very early in the life of an individual human, and also very much apparent in many animals. Therefore I call them instinctual. They are just as much instinctual as territoriality or dominance, and just as worthy of serious study.
The term instinct also must be used to describe more complex behaviors, such as sexual instincts, maternal instincts, group and individual bonding instincts, and perhaps even such inexplicable behaviors as fingernail biting and squirreling behaviors, if it is apparent that they are behaviors acquired by inheritance. These behaviors, I will argue, or at least the broad categeories, or at least some parts of these behaviors, are inherited. They are “pre-wired”, so to speak.
The purpose of this article is not so much to relate what people, ethologists in particular, have discovered or decided about instinct, so much as to make a few of my own observations about the things that people have discovered or decided about instinct.
People have a wide range of ideas on instinct, from outright denial of instinct, on the part of some behaviorists, to a mystical interpretation of instinct, apparently still found in psychiatric circles, to a very mechanistic view of instinct, on the part of ethologists. I consider the ethological view of instinct to be the one which will prove to be a firm foundation for the further study of the subject, but I think the other interpretations may have some points worth considering, if only as points of departure.
A perennial problem in talking about instinct is to decide what is instinctual and what is learned. There is a general rule in science that whenever there are several competing explanations of a phenomenon to favor the more conservative explanation. For some reason it is considered conservative to consider any behavior as learned, rather than instinctual, until it is shown otherwise beyond a shadow of a doubt. This “conservatism” is sometimes applied equally to human instinct and. animal instinct, and sometimes it is applied mainly to human instinct. Either way I disagree with this perspective. I think it is more sensible, more conservative, to consider that any given action is instinctual more than learned until there is some good evidence to the contrary.
I cannot explain just why I consider one interpretation conservative and others consider the opposite interpretation conservative. But I do know the opposite interpretation is deeply entrenched. Behaviorists have a firm hold on the psychology “establishment” and behaviorists don’t like the idea of instinct, especially with regard to man. Perhaps they want to emphasize the difference between man and cther animals. At any rate I have acquired a different perspective because of my own experience. I have done considerable teaching and learning and I have discovered that learning is not easy or simple, for either man or beast.
A behaviorist night say that my dog chases a ball that I throw because she has learned to do so. The behaviorists may have taught a lot of mice to run a lot of mazes, but so far they have not explained to me why my dog learned quickly learned to chase a ball, but learned so slowly not to chew the living room rug. I’ve taught my dog to heel, and that is no mean feat. I’ve taught her to sit and stay, and that likewise is no mean feat. Yet she chased anything I would throw from the time she was a little puppy. This very substantial difference in ease of learning leads me to conclude that she has some sort of pre-wiring in her brain that makes ball chasing easy to learn. She has no such pre-wiring to help her learn to heel or to sit and stay. I expect there is some learning involved in my dog’s chasing a ball, but that is not the main point. The main point is that instinct appears to the easiest way to explain why my dog learns one thing very quickly and another thing very slowly if at all.
If one assumes that learning is a more conservative interpretation of behavior than instinct, then the universal presence of a particular behavior does not imply that it is instinctual. For example maternal behavior is found among humans throughout the world. Behaviorists think mothering is learned. But, on the other hand, if one assumes that instinct is a more conservative interpretation of behavior than learning, then the universal occurrence of a behavior argues for an instinctual base. Thus I interpret mothering as instinctual. Similarly I interpret as instinctual sexual behaviors, group and individual bonding, ego expansion, body defense reflexes, ego defense reactions, paranoia, some phobias, and perhaps many other behaviors.
Since behaviorists take a dim view of instinct in any form it is not too surprising that they define it strictly, and on the basis of their definition try to show that any given bit of behavior is not instinctual. I was told in a freshman psychology course that a behavior must be uniform throughout a species and present from birth to qualify as an instinct. I cannot agree with either of these criteria.
Why should we expect instincts to be identical in all members of a species? We certainly don’t expect physical structures to be uniform. We don’t try to say that noses don’t exist because some noses are big and some are little. Similarly we should expect instinctual behavior to differ among individuals.
Individual variation among individuals is easily observable in members of a species. For example my dog has a very strong sniffing instinct. She “lives through her nose” so to speak. It’s hard to keep her nose off the ground for even five seconds when I ‘m out walking her. Some dogs have less pronounced sniffing instincts and. some have more pronounced sniffing instincts. There is individual variation, though all dogs are members of the same species.
I have two cats which are apparently brother and sister. They show a variation in temperament. One will sit in my lap for hours at a time if I let her. Her brother is much more reserved. These two cats had a litter of kittens, and the other day I had a chance to see one of the year old offspring in the home of a friend. As might be expected the offspring’s sociability seemed about halfway between the sociability of its two parents. Though members of the same species and even related as mother-father-son (also brother-sister-son) they show a variability of temperament. If we assume that temperament is at least partly instinctually based then it is apparent that instincts are not identical throughout a species.
From a semantic point of view, of course, one can define instinct any way one wants. If one defines instinct with the criteria that it be constant throughout a species then the temperaments of my cats could not be instinctual. But what term then should be used to indicate behavior that is apparently inherited, as the temperaments of my cats seem to be? I find it simplest to call it instinct and to say that instinct need not be identical in all members of a species.
The criteria that a behavior must be present at birth to be called an instinct is, in my opinion, another criteria that is simply not sensible. We do not expect the same of physical characteristics. We do not deny the existence of a beard because it is not present in a newborn infant. If physical characteristics can undergo maturation then it seems reasonable to expect the same of instincts. Sexual instincts are a good example. It takes quite a bit of imagination to say that sexual behavior is entirely learned, yet sexual behavior certainly undergoes maturation. Newborn infants do not have the sexual behavior patterns that they will have as adults. One can define instinct as one wishes, but I think it is most sensible to define it so that it can take in sexual behaviors. By my definition there is no reason why an instinct cannot wait fifteen years or more to become fully mature.
I have not heard it explicitly stated, but I suspect in many people the word “instinct” conjures up images of blindly stereotyped mechanical actions elicited by a specific stimulus, actions which cannot be under conscious control of the individual. Some instinctual behavior may fit this description, but I would argue that this is only one form that instincts can take. Instincts can also take the form of drives, and drives, depending on their strength, are not totally beyond control of the individual. My dog’s strong sniffing propensity seems best described as a drive. The reason for calling it “instinctual” is that it seems pre-wired, not learned. It seems to be a behavioral trait that is inherited, even though the specific form that it takes depends on the circumstances of the moment. I will have more to say about this in part two of this article on mechanisms.
A number of times I have used an analogy of behavioral characteristics to physical characteristics. I think this is a good analogy for presumably they both have their genesis in organic evolution. A physical characteristic, a nose, a lung, or whatever, exists because it has proven to have survival value. Behavior has apparently evolved in the same way, because of its survival value. This was recognized by Darwin, and perhaps even by earlier naturalists.
In his book, On Aggression , Lorenz points out the survival value of various forms of competition. He explains how competition between members of the some species for territory or dominance results in the preservation of superior genetic combinations, how competition can control the destructiveness of conflicting needs of members of a species, and so on. He explains quite a number of specific details of behavior, showing how they evolved because of their value.
Just because physical and behavioral characteristics evolved by the same mechanism, natural selection, it still does not necessarily follow that all of the same laws of evolution apply. It does not necessarily mean that instinct can be variable in a species, or that it can take time for an instinct to mature, or even that instinct exists in the higher animals. In other words the behaviorists might still be right, after all, in saying that humans have few or no instincts. Butthis seems far-fetched to me. I consider it a much more conservative, and sensible, hypothesis that instinct would follow the same laws and mechanisms of evolution that physical characteristics follow. I take it as the most promising hypothesis that instinct does exist in higher as well as lower animals, that it can be variable among members of a species, and that it can take time to mature.
Behaviorists would have us believe that humans don’t have instincts, though I think they would probably agree that the evolutionary forebears of man must have had instincts. Again using the analogy to physical characteristics, I would expect it to be as unlikely that we would evolve ourselves out of instincts as it is that we would evolve ourselves out of a body. It’s possible of course, in a theoretical way at least, to evolve ourselves out of instincts, just as we have evolved ourselves out of gills and the pineal eye. It seems much more likely though, that instincts have simply changed in our evolution, not disappeared.
It might make instinct much easier to deal with if we could assign specific instincts to specific body structures. As a general rule it is not usually possible to do this. We can’t dissect out a bodily structure and say, “This is the seat of territoriality”, or of sex, or of anything else. However this does not mean that instinct must be mystical, or that it has no connection with bodily structures. We can’t say that the gonads are the “seat” of sexual instincts, but we can say that removal of gonads results in changes of sexual behavior. In a similar way we can’t pick out one nerve and say it is the seat of the knee jerk reflex, but we can say that the knee jerk reflex is a result of the structure and properties of the nervous system. At present we can’t assign any structure in a homing pigeon as the seat of the homing instinct. But I expect someday someone will discover some sense receptor that plays a part in homing, if it hasn’t happened already.
I think it’s safe to say that instinct has structural correlates. The nervous system is the structural correlate of all instincts if we’re speaking in general terms. If we postulate structural correlates for all instincts then this strengthens the analogy of behavioral to physical characteristics. Instead. of saying, “Behavior has evolved like structure”, we can say, “Behavior has evolved as a result of structure”. Thus any thing that is true of physical evolution in general can be expected to be true of behavioral evolution as well.
If behavior evolves then we are faced with the same problem that made physical evolution hard for people to accept a century ago. How is it possible for complex structures or behaviors to suddenly appear with no apparent intermediates? It’s not hard to accept the idea of small changes occurring in either structure or behavior, but an instinct such as nest building is no small change from non-nest building. How can such complex evolution be explained?
The answer, of course, is that evolution, both physical and behavioral, does occur in small steps, even though the intermediates are not always visible. It may appear that lungs evolved from gills in one fell swoop, but of course that is not the case. The intermediate development is apparent when one knows where and how to look. Similarly it may appear that nest building appeared full blown out of nowhere. That is seen not to be the case if one knows where and how to look. Instincts evolve in little steps, just as physical structures do, and I think the greatest contribution ethology has made to science has been to show a few of these little steps.
Freud apparently didn’t know that instinct comes in little steps. Thus, if I understand it right, he chose to look for big instincts. He postulated a basic duality of instincts, sex and aggression, or self-love and self-hate, or libido and mortido. There seems to be something attractive to humans about a basic duality, a germinative center from which all else derives. The behaviorists choose conditioning and reinforcement as their germinative center and build their model of behavior from there. However it is apparent from the results of ethology that behavior is a collection, not a pyramid. Behavior is a scrapbook of bits and pieces more than it is a tightly structured system of implication.
An example of little instincts combining to make bigger instincts is given by Lorenz:
Involuntarily one tends to assume that the cat performs the movement pattern of prey catching “for the sake of eating only”. That this is not so can be demonstrated experimentally. Leyhausen gave to cats which were keen hunters one mouse after the other and observed the order in which the part actions of preying and eating disappeared. First the cat stopped eating but killed a few more mice, leaving them untouched. Next the killing bite disappeared, but the cat continued to stalk and to catch the mice. Later still, when the movement pattern of catching was exhausted, the cat still did not stop stalking the mice and indeed, in so doing, it always chose those farthest away in the opposite corner of the room, and ignored those that ran over its forepaws. (Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression, page 88)
Ethology takes a mechanistic view of instinct, as opposed to a “mystical” view of instinct which is apparently assumed in psychiatry and other fields. Complex instinctual behavior comes in chains, one act following another in sequence and resulting in a smooth performance which seems consciously directed to a predetermined end. However various experiments have shown the truth of the matter to be quite different than it might at first appear. Instinctual complexes are not as goal directed as they seem. This is shown in the above example of mice killing. Lorenz describes an experiment with deaf turkey hens that shows this even better:
As long as she is sitting on her nest, a turkey hen must constantly be prepared to attack with all her might mice, rats, weasels, crows, magpies, etc., also members of her own species, a cock or a nest-seeking hen, which are just as dangerous to her brood as enemies wanting to devour them. She must be the more aggressive the nearer the threat to the center of her world, that is, to her nest. The only creatures she must not harm are her own chicks, which hatch from the egg just as her aggression reaches boiling point. My research associates, Wolfgang and Margaret Schleidt, discovered that this inhibition in the turkey hen is elicited acoustically only.
The deaf turkey hens incubated quite normally, and previously to this their social and mating behavior was likewise normal, but when their chicks hatched their maternal behavior proved to be affected in a highly dramatic way: all the deaf hens pecked all their children to death as soon as they hatched. If we assume that the hen is in no way deranged other than in her hearing faculty, there can be only one interpretation of this behavior: she does not possess the slightest innate information as to what her chicks should look like, and she pecks at everything which moves near her nest and which is not so big that her escape reaction transcends her aggression. Only the sound expression of the cheeping chick elicits innate maternal behavior and puts aggression under inhibition. (Konrad Lorenz,On Aggression, page 112-3)
Thus big instincts come in little parts. It is not quite right to speak of the “sex instinct”, “flight instinct”, “maternal instinct”, and so on. As Lorenz puts it, if I may quote him once more:
The explanatory value of a concept such as “reproductive instinct” or “instinct of self- preservation” is as null as the concept of an “automobile force”, which I could use just as legitimately to explain the fact that my ancient car still goes. But anyone who knows - and pays for - the repairs which keep it going will not be tempted to believe in such mystic power - and it is the repairs with which we are here concerned! The neurophysiological organization which we call instinct functions in a blindly mechanical way, particularly apparent when its function goes wrong. (Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression page 22)
I have an example from my own observation, which some of my acquaintances in the past didn’t seem to want to hear about. When my wife and I got our first cat, at a time when I was very interested in instinct in general, I made it a point to observe this cat’s behavior very closely, including her bathroom behavior. She would dig a hole in spot A in her litter box, deposit in spot A, and then scrape litter into spot A, effectively covering up her deposit. A few years later we acquired the brother and sister cats I mentioned earlier when discussing temperament as inherited. Their bathroom behavior was a bit different, especially the male if I remember right. He would scratch in spot A, deposit on spot B, and scrape litter to spot C. My interpretation was, and still is, that the feces covering instinct had degenerated through domesticity. In the wild, apparently, there is an evolutionary advantage to the behavior of covering one’s feces. In domesticity this evolutionary advantage is lost. In domesticity there is an evolutionary advantage to being cute and fluffy, at which these two cats excelled.
It is easy to assume that a cat covering its feces is acting purposefully, that it knows exactly what is doing, even why. But after seeing my cat’s less than impressive performance in this regard, it is easy to believe that the instinct is not purposeful. Rather the situation elicits the instinct, when then plays out in a blindly mechanical way.
Thus instinct comes in little pieces. An animal’s total instinctual complement is a collection of little parts, rather than the implications and derivations of one or two big instincts. This idea of a collection, as opposed to a system, is something that I think is not well recognized. It applies in several different contexts. Personality, among other things, is a collection of traits. Culture is a collection of traits. Instinct is a collection of little instincts. I first came across this idea of a collection, versus a system, when I was taking a course in social anthropology. The professor strongly emphasized that culture is not just a collection. Rather it is an organic structure. The parts fit together to make an integral and harmonious whole. For example, female infanticide is not just an isolated custom in some primitive societies where it is, or at least once was, found. Rather it may be a necessary adjunct to chronic warfare which results in a high male mortality rate. The chronic warfare, in its turn, may be connected to religious beliefs, and so on. No aspect of the culture stands by itself.
This perspective, I understand, is central to the whole subject of social anthropology. It seems that this perspective was given impetus when some anthropologist stated that culture is a “thing of bits and patches” or something to that effect. In opposition to this the establishment of social anthropology made it an article of faith that culture is not a thing of bits and patches. In opposition to this I decided that culture is indeed a thing of bits and patches. There is some merit in both perspectives of course. Culture is a thing of bits and patches, but these bits and patches have a way of forming themselves into integral structures.
The importance of the collection perspective is that it explains the inconsistencies and contradictions that can be observed. This applies to culture, to personality, to instinct, and probably a number of other things.
If culture is a collection of traits then it is perfectly reasonable that some of these traits should be in conflict. The use of the letter “C” to give the sound “ka” and the use of the letter “K” to give the same sound is a good example. They are not consistent, nor need they be. The use of the letter “C” is a cultural trait picked up in one time and place and the use of “K” is a trait picked up in another time and place. If personality is a collection of habits then it is to be expected that these habits would sometimes be inconsistent or contradictory. Thus a person may be an ardent democrat and an ardent conservative at the same time.
If instinct is a collection of little instincts then we should expect some inconsistencies or conflicts. Such inconsistencies or conflicts are seen everyday. An example would be a person torn between a personal loyalty, which is part of a very strong complex of social instincts, and some material gain, which connects with the instinctual complex of ego expansion. Such conflicts are at the very heart of drama, as well as being a problem in everyday living.
A number of times I have used the analogy of physical structures to instincts. If instinct in general is a collection of little instincts then it would seem sensible to say that physical structure is a collection of little structures. This may seem a bit far-fetched at first, but I think it is applicable. A body is a collection of structures. Every organ is made up of parts, most of which are easy to identify and name. Of course it is true that a body is also an organic integral whole, something more than the sum of its parts. The removal of any particular little structure may prove fatal to the whole, which supports the integral whole perspective. But there are also many parts of a body whose loss would not be fatal to the whole. The loss of fingers or toes would be an example. This supports the collection perspective.
The importance of all this is that all evolution occurs by the addition or subtraction of little parts to the collection that constitutes the whole structure. Both physical evolution and. behavioral evolution occur in little steps. These little steps are added to or subtracted from the previously existing collection. When an addition or deletion proves advantageous it is retained, and it appears to be integrated into a coherent whole. It may be a coherent whole, but it is not necessarily as coherent as it may at first seem.
So far I have talked about different instincts in man and. animals with only a brief mention of what these instincts are. I will give a number of examples and explain my basis for considering them as instincts. Then I will mention other things that might at first be considered as instinctual, but which further evidence indicates otherwise.
Sex is the most obvious example of instinct in humans. Human sexual behavior follows very closely the sexual behavior of other mammals. There are sexual signs and signals that are, if not universal, at least very similar in the entire world. Copulation consists of very tightly stereotyped. actions that are very similar to actions found in animals. Most importantly, the drive for sex is strong in every society. How else would a society survive?
I am convinced that sexual jealousy is instinctual in humans, to quite an extent at least. How can we explain that a person can easily love a number of offspring while bigamy is considered a very serious violation of custom and morals? It is true of course that sexual jealousy is much less intense in many societies, even permitting the sharing of wives in some cases. However there are other societies in which sexual jealousy is so intense that even an inappropriate glance is a grave offense. Culture may be a partial explanation for such phenomena, but I think instinct must be part of the explanation also.
Ego expansion and ego defense are instinctual in humans. By “ego expansion” I am simply referring to the tendencies of humans to try to gain recognition and status among their peers, the drive to make an impression on others. I have discussed this more fully in Chapter Three of my book, Tactics and Strategies of Classroom Discipline. Making an impression can be done in many ways. In the very young this may take the form of raw aggression - pushing, hitting, yelling, being obstinate, etc. In older children, if they are civilized at all, it must take more subtle forms. In civilized adults it takes the constructive forms of productivity. In a healthy society one makes his claim to fame in ways that are approved of by society. The point here is that the drive to be noticed, to be someone, is strong and persistent. Thus I interpret this drive as being instinctual. I hypothesize that ego expansion is a logical evolutionary extension of territoriality and dominance of lower animals. Whether pure territoriality or dominance continue to exist in humans is an open question to me.
Ego defense is commonly seen everyday. We are sensitive to attacks on face, or lack of respect for face. Thus every culture has elaborate rules and rituals of courtesy. The rules and rituals may be learned as a part of culture, but the universality of the importance of face argues for an instinctual basis that makes these rules and rituals necessary in any society. I have discussed some aspects of how this plays out in the classroom in Chapter Five of my book, Tactics and Strategies of Classroom Discipline.
Ego expansion pushes people apart. Bonding instincts bring them together. There are individual bonding instincts and group bonding instincts. Group bonding is different in several important respects from individual bonding. Group bonding brings individuals of a group together but may drive groups apart.
There are several types of individual bonding instincts. Associate bonding may be the most common, but perhaps not the most important. People have a need for associate bonds, but they can also do without them if need be. Maternal-offspring bonds are much more essential to the survival of the species. Maternal instincts are much more specific than associate bonding instincts. The features we find attractive in an associate, mainly the ability to respond on a personal level and to supply continuous confirmation, are almost totally lacking in a newborn infant. Yet it is rare for an infant to be rejected by its mother, no matter how unattractive the infant may be. Culture enters into this of course. There are tremendously strong cultural forces that dictate a mother’s relation to her offspring. However cultural factors change. It seems highly unlikely that maternalism based on culture alone could last through a million years of stone age existence. It also seems highly unlikely that the maternal behavior so easily visible in the higher mammals would suddenly cease with the dawn of man. Therefore I interpret maternal behavior as being strongly instinctual.
Closely related to maternal behavior is the protection accorded the young by all members of society. Children elicit responses in adults that result in a great deal of tolerance on the part of adults, just as the young of many animal species elicit tolerance and protection from adults of the species. In other words children are cute. They have to be cute, that is they have to show certain signs and adults must have the instinctual equipment to respond to these signs, or they would simply not be tolerated. When a child kicks me in the shins I don’t retaliate in the same way as I do when an adult kicks me in the shins. The child elicits a certain amount of protectiveness in me simply by being a child. The adult does not. Thus a transgressing child needs a firm hand, while a transgressing adult is locked up.
Here again of course there is a great deal of cultural overlay on the raw instinct. If my shin hurts enough, and if the child is ugly enough, then I don’t feel any protective instincts. But I still feel strongly the expectations of society and will act accordingly. But once again I interpret cultural expectations as arising from an instinctual base. How else could the human species survive?
I use the term identification to indicate generalized ideological group bonding. When one identifies with a group, a cause, or an ideology, then one takes as an insult any expression of disrespect for that group, cause, or ideology. The ideological propensities of humans, I think, are best interpreted in terms of instinctual group bonding, and deserve careful investigation. When one becomes an ardent Democrat, or socialist, or follower of a religion , it may at first seem reasonable to assume that this emotional bond to the group is a result of learning. But it seems to me that learning is not a totally satisfactory explanation of the fervor which is so easily elicited. It is popular to assert that one must be “carefully taught” to be prejudiced, but I have always thought that “easily caught” is a more apt description. Once one “catches” an ideological passion, then anything that reflects badly on one’s group is taken as a personal affront to face and is reacted to accordingly. One rationalizes extensively.
A certain amount of paranoia seems to be instinctual in humans. In many, if not all, societies there are tendencies to see intent, especially evil intent, in the actions of others. In many, if not all, societies, there is a tendency to believe in supernatural powers that take a personal interest in us. Thus every society has religion in some form.
Fear of heights, fear of deep water, and probably other phobias are apparently instinctual in humans. These fears are not always strong, and perhaps not always even present. However they seem to be spontaneous enough to warrant the hypothesis that they are instinctually based. Such phobias would. seem to have considerable survival value in a stone age existence.
Even more basic are the drives to obtain food, water, and oxygen. These drives are so basic they usually go under some name other than instinct. However I think instinct is an appropriate name since they are certainly inherited behaviors.
Having completed this catalog of instincts, superficial though it may be, I will now mention several things that are not instinctual, at least not primarily.
Intelligence and aggressiveness are not instinctual, because they are capabilities rather than behaviors. The distinction may seem moot at first, but I think it is valid. A capability may or may not be used. There is no force or drive dictating its use. One of the important questions raised in the popular mind for the past few years is whether or not man is naturally aggressive. Those on one side of the argument assert that man is naturally aggressive and therefore we must take this aggressiveness into account - and presumably never expect a peaceful world. Those on the other side say that man is not naturally aggressive and that we must only try to let his natural goodness come out and all will be well. I am not much attracted to either one of these perspectives. My interpretation is that aggressiveness is much more of a capability than an instinct, and therefore the argument is moot. There is no drive to be aggressive for aggressiveness’s sake only, but aggressiveness will be used in the service of other drives, especially ego expansion. I have discussed this more extensively in Chapter Three of my book, Tactics and Strategies of Classroom Discipline.
In addition to intelligence and aggressiveness there are any number of other capabilities that humans possess. One’s ability to jump high or to run fast would be examples. As capabilities they may or may not be used. Since there is no autonomous drive toward expression I will not call them instinctual.
Capabilities are not instinctual, and of course in humans the most important capability, the one that sets humans apart from all other animals, is intelligence. The human species has evolved an amazingly elaborate data processor, the human brain, which makes a tremendous difference between man and the lower animals. He can collect, store, process, and disseminate information. Add these abilities on to social and other instincts and the result is culture. Culture then is overlaid on instinct. The overlay is at times so thick that it threatens to obscure entirely the instinctual base below.
To what extent has culture replaced instinct? This entire article is based on the premise that this replacement is not complete. However it is reasonable to suppose that the replacement might be considerable. Degeneration of any trait, whether physical or instinctual, when it is no longer needed is easily seen in many examples. Our gills, appendices, prehensile toes, ear muscles, tails, and many other structures are examples of this.
Degeneration of instincts is a common result of domestication. Domestication provides protection, taking away the necessity of many instincts. Thus laboratory white mice are not longer at all representative of their wild cousins. My two cats, which are extremely domesticated, show a very marked reduction in the intensity of their fighting tendencies compared to what I must imagine would be in their wild ancestors. These instincts have degenerated, on an evolutionary scale, because they are no longer needed. From examples such as these I consider it a reasonable hypothesis that instincts whose functions are taken over by culture would also tend to degenerate. In other words culture is replacing instinct to some extent.
However with regard to the extent of this replacement I take a conservative view. A naked data processor is ill equipped for life. A will to live depends on instincts, and is not a part of a data processor. A data processor is at best a means to an end. The ends are set by instinct. Intellect serves instinct, not the other way around.
I started this article by saying that it is reasonable to presume that instinct is alive and well in humans, and in animals in general. A few paragraphs back I said it was reasonable to expect the demise of instinct in humans. The purpose of all this is to point up the need for an extensive and accurate description of instincts in any species being studied. This will be slow to come for humans.
In this article I have tried to establish that instinct exists in humans, and that there is every reason to expect that instincts would exist in humans. The next step is to investigate some of the mechanisms of instinct, which I will attempt to do in part II of this article.