Humans need re-education on how to be decent wild animals, and part of that process involves understanding your instincts and learning how to adjust them until they hit the spot. The function of instinct is to make you wild and attuned with nature. Any other goal such as reproduction, survival and lust are false, and the result of the current abysmal grasp of Biology by humans (more beetle).
Instincts let you plug into your surroundings. They are like tendrils that let you penetrate deeply into the heart of the environment. Through them, you can detect and enjoy an extraordinarily rich variety of sensations. They provide bracing, support and information because they expand the breadth of your linkages towards other things. Through instincts your self identity blends and extends into the land. Such immersion makes the relationship between yourself and the environment binding. Wild animals see no difference between themselves and their niche. The land becomes a part of you.
Instincts would appear to make a level of commitment not suited to modern human lifestyle. However, your instincts can change, and a good set of instincts actually makes you a stronger person or animal. Problems for humans only arise when they change rapidly, but forget how to take their instincts with them. If you forget what instincts are for, they will eventually get stuck as something you don't want, and you will lose any chance they offered to keep you wild, free and adaptable.
Instincts allow you to react intuitively and automatically. Indeed, the reason an instinct exists can be difficult to realize or remember. The very function of an instinct is to put some actions beyond the need for memory or thought and into the realm of assumption, spontaneity and the subconscious. Instincts are meant to be fast, intuitive, 'gut feelings' and performed like 'second nature'. They are designed to allow an animal to react earlier than a plodding conscious thought can achieve. Therefore, an animal can become blind to the existence of its own instincts. This 'blindness' can be a good thing or a bad thing. If your instincts were well prepared and trustworthy, relying on them blindly is not a problem. But what if your instincts make you do something you don't want? What if your primal instincts make you predate, rape and pillage? Or so the human story goes!
The key skill to learn when making instincts, is how to make them also respond in a way that you want and trust, even in hindsight. If you only learn instincts in confusion, they will have no choice but to fail in their primary goal and produce mistakes and wicked behavior.
Instincts are codes of behavior that bring an animal closer to nature. They become 'programmed' behaviors that animals use to react to their environment. But how does this programming arise? Is it inherited or learnt? Animals have a number of ways to make their behavior more attuned with nature.
Is it correct to say that the instinct of blood is to absorb oxygen? That the instinct of the liver is to secrete bile when it detects food in the small intestine? That it is the instinct of a heart to beat? It is a stretch to consider these chemical and physiological reactions as instincts. However, these reactions can vary their capacities slightly to improve the attunement of an animal to its environment. For example, an athlete might train in the mountains to acclimatize to its thinner air. But still, I think it is better to call these behaviours physiological reactions rather than instincts. Instincts occur in the brain, whereas these reactions mostly occur elsewhere in the body.
Reflexes, Taxes and Tropisms
Is it correct to say that the instinct of an eye's iris is to dilate when in bright light? That the instinct of a hand is to withdraw from fire? That the instinct of a falling cat is to land on its feet? That the instinct of a baby is to search for a nipple? Learning can modify some of these reactions. For example, some people can train themselves to hold their hand in the fire longer than others. But mostly, there is little point in trying to modify these behaviors because they are nearly always worth doing. They are reflex responses found in multicelled animals with nervous systems, and occur for chemical and physiological reasons that scientists can fully study by concentrating on the creature itself. The environment has a say on when these reactions will occur, but not much say on how to modify or prevent the reactions. You can perhaps sharpen your reflexes through practice. In the web of nature it is often difficult to make clear divisions. There can be so many variations. But I think that these reactions are best thought of as reflexes rather than instincts. Reflexes are simple forms of behaviour that do not require interpretation by the brain or previous experience. Instructions follow a reflex arc from sensation to response. Similarly, there are many movement responses (= taxis for animals and motile algae, = tropism for plants with roots) in usually simpler organisms that are inherited and different to reflexes and instincts. A moth flying towards a light shows phototaxis, while a plant bending to light shows phototropism.
In biology, instincts have generally been thought of as largely inborn instructions for behaviours that are more complex than a reflex. The animal must interpret or search for an environmental que before it will implement its instinct. For example, a spider will look for a place to build its web, or a bird will search for a potential mate before giving its courtship display. No learning is needed for a spider to know how to build its web, a bird to build its nest or display in courtship (perhaps), or for a wasp to know how to paralyse and nip the legs off a spider so it will fit snugly into its mud gallery as food for its larva. These are inherited instincts. The environment must provide the right conditions for their expression, but then contributes little else. An example would be the right environmental conditions needed by mantises when they mate. If the environmental cues are wrong, as can occur in a laboratory, then the female mantis will cannibalise rather than mate (more beetle).
Instincts are programmed forms of behaviour that allow an animal to function intuitively and quickly. The controversy for instincts arises mainly in how they apply to humans. Are humans pre-programmed with inherited instincts that will make it nigh on impossible for them to take control of their behaviours and become a peaceful and wise species, different to the way their instincts would seemingly dictate?
To answer this question, it is important to realise that the most important function of an instinct is to allow the animal to attune tightly with its niche. Of less concern to this attunement relationship is how the instinct formed, and who contributed most to the instinct, the animal or the environment. Whichever half of the attunement equation is likely to give the most reliable instinct, is the one that evolution will ask to contribute most. If appropriate, each instinct in each animal may have a different level of contribution from either party. Those living in short-term and simple niches may not have the time to learn, and are better off inheriting most of their instincts. These species would include insects and the lower vertebrates. However, in more complex and variable niches, inherited instincts could become a burden that cannot change. Moths have used the moon to help them navigate and find mates for millions of years. But now that humans fill the night skies with artificial lights, millions of moths follow their instincts and dash themselves against the hot globes or become disorientated so that many species are no doubt now on the road to extinction. A further example is that humans are expanding the realm of their niche all the time, and are no longer confined to the niche in which they evolved. Therefore, many of the behaviours they see as innate are no longer appropriate, and they would like to change them.
For animals and their niche, instincts are like the guy ropes that bind one to the other. The first part of the instinct must be given by the animal, and the second part must be given by the niche when the animal learns. The reason instincts have troubled biologists for so long is that they have not recognised the major importance in nature of attunement with wildness, as a means of completing a creature to its full potential (more beetle). Some think the individual can selfishly detach and go it alone, as though survival was the only priority. Then, you could keep your fledgling instincts withdrawn from natural niches like stunted idiosyncrasies. But only when an instinct finds a wild niche to build through is its full value seen.
Evolution could always assume that attunement was the norm, and that the linking would take place. Therefore it could fill animals with half-baked behavioral adaptations that it 'knew' would be completed by the niche. This natural feature gave huge savings in terms of hardware and wiring when producing adaptations in the evolving animal. Only some fraction needed to be built and inherited, as the remainder would be constructed through the creature's natural attunement with its niche. An added benefit was that behaviour would be immediately relevant, and could alter to some degree if needed to mesh with its environment. But for humans, estrangement from wild niches means that half of this bargain can never eventuate. The human is left standing with stunted instincts, and no way of knowing its loss. Something that is obvious to a wild animal need not enter the thoughts of one that is artificial. Evolution never had to build a warning system saying 'attunement failure' into its creatures to warn them about the folly of such a course, because in the wildness medium in which evolution always operates the importance of the partnership is obvious.
Instincts are attunement bonds, that tie together all of the adaptations, experiences and environmental cues needed to produce a finely tuned animal that is highly adapted to its niche. Sadly, humans lack instincts of this quality, because they have no experience of what it is like to interact and attune with a wild niche. Perhaps now you will see why humans have such poor understanding and fear of what instincts are about. The instinct forming process continues in them to try and fulfil its function of pulling everything together to give them a wild intuitive sense. However, the rules humans learn touch no stable or real niche, so they cannot gain insightful feedback or gifts worthy of reflection, so humans cannot develop instincts of normal quality and health. Therefore, human instincts are fragmented, diffuse, wrongly targeted and weak. Imagine how much easier life could be if you had a good set of instincts upon which you could rely and trust. Life would be a breeze. That is what you give up by believing in the artificial human world.
So what instincts do humans need now? Naturally, the answer is simple. You need instincts that allow you to see the wildness. That means getting rid of the old instincts that made you the human you are today, and allowing the animal inside you the space and confidence it needs help you reconstruct your mind the way it senses is right. You don't have to work hard, because learning instincts that will attune with the wildness is a natural process that animals have been doing easy as pie for millions of years. For more information on how to do it, see my page on complication, and 'Do humans have instincts'.
(Posted July 2001)
Instinct topics and misconceptions: