Do Humans Have Instincts?
by Dr Beetle
Yes, but they are stunted, restricted and confused instincts. The instincts found in humans today offer little guidance or insight, and cannot be relied upon the way a wild animal can rely upon theirs. Instincts in humans have become something to despise, avoid or deny. They are often more harmful than useful. To repair the damage, it is important to know why instincts occur (see my page on instincts), and how they develop in humans (see below).

Instincts are formed after a contribution from two parties, the animal and its niche. They are the tie lines that bind both together so they become 'one'. The animal has a predisposition to learn, the niche teaches, and each thread in the partnership of attunement they create is the instinct.

Variations occur in how much predisposition is required within an animal, before it can learn the obvious from its niche. Evolutionary psychologists will generally say that animals have a predisposition for numerous instincts (survival, killer, selfish, reproductive, numerous emotions, fears and disgusts etc). But this is the wrong way to look at evolution and ignores the gifts gained upon attunement with a wild niche.
The key to evolution is to accomplish more by using less, that is, parsimony (more beetle). An animal that wastes energy building structures and pre-wired instincts unnecessarily will not survive over one that is willing to receive the same as gifts through natural niche interaction. Instead, animals will be better off building structures that will make it easier for them to attune with their niche so they can receive their information clearly, rather than wasting energy thinking they can make each instinct better all by themselves. The feats that animals can complete are amazing, for the compact things they are. A fly can do far more than any human built machine of similar size. Such compactness of ability arises because evolution favours parsimony.

Now comes the question again, how much predisposition does an animal require before it can learn its instincts through the help of its niche? Because the most parsimonious creature will always be the winner in evolution, the answer must be as little as possible. Insects and some other animals have short life spans or little capacity for learning, so most of their instincts are inherited. The environment will simply contribute appropriate location or opportunity for them to engage. Complex living animals learn many of their instincts. For example, birds appear to largely inherit their instincts on how to build a nest, although they may build better ones when they see how others do it. But they use imprinting to learn the instinct of who is their parent. New born chicks can mistakenly imprint on humans or other animals as their parents, and then follow those surrogate parents around blindly. These imprinted instincts are learnt, but once formed they appear unable to change.

For mammals and humans especially, the instincts they learn are not burned as fixedly, and appear to retain some scope for modification. They are pliable instincts, or I prefer to call them mind-rules. The cerebral cortex of the brain is the structure that distinguishes humans most, yet its contents have largely no preconditioned function. Actually, the function of the cortex appears to be to begin uncommitted, which is why it provides perfect grounds for mindrule learning during niche attunement. In adults and older children, the various regions of the cortex are committed, so different seats of neurons will light up when expressing anger, love, fear, artistry etc. Due to the consistency of where these seats of activity are located between people, some consider that these seats must be inherited. But the consistency may simply reflect that those locations are the most parsimonious regions in the cortex from where to learn those tasks. Why develop neurons responding to scent at the opposite side of the cortex to the nose?

If the function of the cortex is to provide a mass of uncommitted neurons as a medium for niche attunement, then the mechanism of selective stabilisation by which mindrules could grow is already known to science (e.g. see the work of Jean-Pierre Changeux). Each neuron begins life with numerous connections to other neurons, but those connections do not remain uncommitted for ever. Outside stimulation provides the first decision on which connections will be used to register an event in the cortex. At first, stimulation will register as a short-term memory. But if the same stimulation is repeated, or the first single stimulation was powerful, the same connection will strengthen through use and register as a long-term memory. Further use and construction upon those memories will provide further reinforcing, and drive it even deeper into the developing structure of the once uncommitted cortex. Eventually, the connection becomes totally assumed rather than being recognisable as a memory. The connection or way of seeing things becomes a part of you, assumed like an instinct.

One clear demonstration of this mechanism of selective stabilisation in rats is that when starved of environmental stimulation, their brains grow smaller than in environmentally enriched animals. It is a case of if use it or lose it.

There is really just one inherited predisposition needed by animals with a cerebral cortex, before they can learn their mindrules. The cortex needs to be monitored by an interaction desire (more beetle), to ensure that learning will choose the most parsimonious courses available. It is a bit like saying there is an instinct to fill the cortex wisely. Then, all the cortex need do is tie its world together - its niche and its bodily adaptations. Why inherit these connections when attunement with a niche will give them to you? Hardwiring a set of instructions beforehand is the road to inflexibility and clumsiness.

Learning mindrules involves a process of reducing the number of neural pathways required to pull everything together. Mindrules become easy to follow. They pull together the various adaptations, reflexes, inherited reactions, physiological conditions and niche interactions into an intuitive package of behavior and actions that should reflect an animal's high degree of attunement. Animals learn mindrules by remembering and practicing behaviors and understandings that yield results. Examples of mindrules in humans are language, accents, personalities, talents, abilities, emotions, attitudes and so on.

Now, both body and niche varies a lot between individuals and species. These variations are all that are needed to produce many of the different frequencies and types of instinct found between creatures. A lion learns an instinct to growl because it has a penetrating voice. It learns to cut things with its claws because they are sharp.

Once mindrules are developed they will pretty well remain fixed for the life within each person. You cannot unlearn or deny past experiences. So people will develop cultures, language and ways of thinking that become a part of what you are. They become highly possessive and personal attributes, like idea clings. They are virtually out of bounds to further pliability and instruction. I would not have a problem here with those mindrules, if they had not been learnt within the superficial and artificial niches in which humans now reside. They will always be second rate to those that could have been learnt through some stronger connection with the wildness that other animals experience, that is, the reality where humans do not have the right of veto. But for those few humans who would like to rise above their taught follies, it is important to understand your own biology, and the artificial and real world (you can still choose which niche to live in mentally). Depending on which niche you choose, will influence your mindrules and the level of nastiness, attitude, contentment or wisdom that you then absorb instinctively. You need to get your understanding right!

In humans, the cerebral cortex is very large. Instincts that grow in humans have various bodily adaptations to incorporate, but they can also see an ever expanding niche within which they need to find their threads of parsimony. Where do they stop, and when can they begin assuming like they were designed to do? (Note that assuming too early is the origin of human stupidity and problems). If the human brain keeps moving along its current course, there is a chance that humans could understand the world! All you need to expand the scope of your instincts is to feel joy or 'eureka' when you hear or sense parsimony - achievement, understanding, music (more beetle), poetry, realisation.

So what instincts and pre-programmed behaviours do humans have?
I think they are:
1. A few reflexes such as baby sucking nipple, hand that pulls away from fire, eye that blinks to flying objects etc. These are better thought of as reflexes rather than instincts. They are virtually 'blind' to environmental influence.
2. A multitude of learnt pliable instincts = mindrules.
3. One inherited instinct, which is to make mindrules in the cortex according to the principles of the interaction desire or parsimony.

After this, I cannot really think of any others. Of course, many in biology will rattle off numerous 'inherited' instincts, that all conform to the delusion that nature is a struggle to survive. But I think not. Therefore, I will gradually work through a number of these follies. See already my pages on emotions, survival instinct, parental instinct, fear of spiders, competitive instinct. (Posted April 2004)

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