The instinct to survive is a myth. It is however an instinct that humans can invent and practice if they like. What annoys me is when they try to use it to explain various animal behaviors, or their own selfish behavior, thereby displaying their ignorance of the wildness and the real natural world. The reason animals want to live is not to survive, but to have more fulfillment (fun). The 'survival instinct' appears to have originated from human misconceptions about evolution, where they think that the prime motivation of evolution is to produce 'survivors' and offspring. They forgot that the real goal of evolution is to contribute to the wildness! There is no need to hardwire an instinct to survive into an animal to make it want to live. Any normal operation of the pleasure center will automatically produce all the motivation an animal needs to seek more of what the pleasure center has to offer (Pleasure center? See Dr Beetle's Psychology Lesson). The desire to live arises from the memory of how good life can feel. It also explains why survival is not the golden rule, as it can be broken by suicide when the chance for joy and pleasure seems lost. The instinct animals learn is that life feels good. If all you are doing with your life is surviving, then you are missing nature's point!
One set of email questions I received about this page follows, with my comments in red:
Hello Dr Beetle. An argument arose today on whether humans have instincts or not. My thoughts were that humans have no instincts. We only have reflexes and perhaps intuitions. When "gut feelings" are aroused, it's merely our senses (and is a method of summarising the lessons of one's experiences, without having to remember the detail). When infants cling to their mothers or suck on objects that brush against their cheeks, it's merely reflexes (I agree).
I came across some information during my school year that claimed "survival" was THE instinct most important to an animal. I went on by saying that this instinct is why animals do not commit suicide (I agree, wild animals can have accidents, but do not suicide. I think they are more fulfilled creatures than humans. This can change if they are placed in a cage. There are many examples then when animals will pine and not eat to the point of death. This stage of being caged has parallels to the human condition now where human desires and understanding is essentially trapped.). The argument was that "whales beach themselves all the time, and even when rescued go on to beach themselves again." I do understand that some animals, like lemmings and some whales do in fact kill themselves, but my thoughts are that it's an environmental factor leading them to their deaths (yes). Studies have been done on lemmings explaining that they jump off of cliffs when overpopulation occurs (This was a Disney trick, see my page on lemmings). I have not encountered any information on what could be the reason for whales beaching themselves, but perhaps an explanation like a problem with their navigational system or a want to escape water that may be causing them harm could explain this issue (I think the latest idea is that they are affected by sonic devices used eg by the navy, that disorientates them, and being social, they follow each other due to their social bonds). I came upon your webpage on my quest to seek the answer. On the "survival instinct" page you claim that animals live for the joy of living (a fulfilled animal enjoys life, while survival is a concept that finds favour in an alienated species like humans). A question that arose in my mind after reading this was what about those insects (bugs, spiders...) that will surrender their lives and become food for their soon-to-be-born-little-ones? (They do not give themselves intentionally. They would not even realise they can die. Even a child needs to be told they can die, and it usually comes as a surprise. So how would a non talking species know they were in risk of death?). And if survival is indeed an instinct, why would these creatures give their lives for their young? (Whether an animal cares for its young or not is simply one of the breeding adaptations they have evolved. Fish might spawn hundreds of eggs and then leave them on their own, while other animals will have one offspring and take great care for it. Their various physical adaptations guide them towards these behaviours). Does the survival instinct only apply to mammals perhaps? (It does not exist. Mammals have better memory, so they remember what joy is like, and want more of it, so then want to survive. But if their life becomes miserable, they might also suicide). I suppose this would coincide with human mothers, who, during labour, decide that they'd rather die than let their baby die, therefore giving their life so that others may live. (Human mothers learn expectations for bonding, responsibility, social opinion, and these influence the development of their 'maternal instinct'. But these expectations are not always learnt, and infanticide and neglect is actually quite common in humans, for more see this). This would contradict with humans having a survival instinct as well, I'd imagine.
Another point of view was that humans have a survival instinct but allow themselves to commit suicide due to a chemical imbalance (No, I think it is just because they become miserable, and usually, also learnt low self esteem). Those who commit suicide are usually depressed, as far as I know, so there indeed is some kind of chemical imbalance. My argument to that was that chemical imbalances aren't only found in human patients. I have indeed seen dogs that suffer from narcolepsy. If they can suffer from this, I'm assuming they can suffer from other physiological problems as well. Therefore if humans commit suicide not because they lack the "survival instinct" but more so because they have this chemical imbalance, then wouldn't animals with similar conditions also be killing themselves left and right? Wouldn't we then see dogs killing themselves just as much as humans? (in proportion to their population of course). (I don't think it is due to chemical imbalance. Failures and low self esteem will lead to depression, which can then be characterised by chemical imbalance, but I think that is more a symptom than a cause. Thinking you are unworthy, produces stress and imbalance. Humans cannot be directly compared to wild animals, as though humans are simply advanced or extended growths of the natural condition. Humans have very different thinking to a wild animal. Humans have a fundamental flaw in them, which is why they cannot be as fulfilled as a wild animal, and leaves them subject to problems and suicide. Wildness is like a reality check for the mind, but humans do not link to it, so can go on their own self deluded and lonely way towards alienation and their trapped minds where suicide for a few becomes the only relief). To think, all of these thoughts came about by asking a simple yes-or-no question. I stick firmly to my belief that humans do not have instincts, that animals, with a few exceptions, do not kill themselves, that babies do not have instincts but instead reflexes, and that mothers do not have instincts but instead intuitions (= learnt instincts, habits or rules. I don't believe in inherited instincts. I think the original purpose of an instinct is to bind animal and natural niche together as one, and by learning instincts this bonding becomes cemented. See my page on mindrules). I shall continue to research in case it turns out that you indeed do not have time for such a petty argument but any information, or even better, all the answers, would be greatly appreciated. I thank you already for taking the time to read my message. I look forward to hearing from you in the near future.