Rethinking instinct

Just in the last couple days, I’ve been thinking over a topic I had figured as intuitively obvious since it was first explained to me in childhood.  That topic is instinct.  More particular, it is a behavior that is specific to an individual of a species where that behavior does not have to be learned.   We know it does not have to be learned because individuals exhibit the behavior even without benefit of any teaching by peers or parents.   Also, instinct is remarkably consistent for all individuals in a species.

For those species we deem to have higher intelligence, we distinguish instinct from culture because the latter can vary between different populations within the species and we can spot methods of the behavior being taught within that population.

Instinct doesn’t have to be taught.  This is especially true for instincts that are necessary for survival.   A newborn horse foal must immediately know how to stand, walk, recognize the world enough to navigate across random terrain toward the goal of reaching its specific mother for its milk.   If this were not an instinct, there would be no way for the baby horse to survive.

Similar examples abound in all species, each with its own specific instincts needed for the new creature to survive its first hours of life.   Octopus larva have core instincts for navigation, avoiding predators, and seeking its own food.  Baby kangaroos have instinct to pull itself from the birth canal to pouch and specifically to the milk glands with no guidance or assistance from the mother.   Even human newborns have the instinct to successfully get milk from its mother, and even with milk present it must have the instinct to swallow what is in the mouth.

I’ll give my usual excuse of not being learned in either of these topics, I’m just mentioning the basic folk knowledge of this topic based on what I’ve learned in early schooling or in watching popular documentaries.   My only point is that instinct is a thing and it is always so obvious it never occurred to me, at least, that it would need an explanation.   Instinct is obvious because without instinct, most life could not exist.   I imagine that all life would not be able to exist if it weren’t for species-specific instincts.

Similarly, I never really questioned an aspect of Darwinian evolution called survival of the fittest.   The species exist in its current form because it has the right features that are sufficiently adaptive to its ecological niche to live long enough to reproduce.   I always considered only the physical features as what made a creature more fit for survival.

For example, a fly excels in its world because it has wings, legs, compound eyes, etc.  So obvious to not even be considered is the fact it must also have the instincts to use all of its adaptive traits in a way to locate and navigate appropriately for threats, food, and mates.

What I am thinking about now is the scenario of a creature with every possible well-adaptive trait but lacks sufficient instinctual skills necessary to use those traits.  Clearly without matching skills, the adaptive traits are useless.

Until recently, when I marveled at the diversity of life, I marveled at the physical forms.  Birds are marvelous that they have the right equipment and internal architecture to fly, not only briefly, but often for extended periods of time, often requiring complex navigation skills.   I take for granted that the necessary skills for using the equipment comes with having the right equipment in the first place.

In my own body, I have lungs that are very effective for exchanging gases between the atmosphere and my body.   Naturally, I will do all the things necessary to work the lungs to make this actually work.   It is as if the lungs came with an instruction set for the rest of the body to do the right thing to keep the air channel clear of obstruction and to rhythmically move to get the air to go in-and-out.   In contrast, birds have a different respiratory system that has a different instruction manual for their bodies to follow.

Each adaptive trait has its own instruction book, and we describe that instruction book as instinct.

I have recently been thinking a lot about the topic of evolutionary psychology of humans.  In particular, I’ve been trying to understand how evolution can explain very complex psychological or sociological behaviors in human.   There doesn’t appear to be enough time for trial-and-error testing of genetic variations for evolution to select these behaviors and consequently reject less adaptive behaviors.

In particular, I’ve been thinking about behavioral differences between men and women.  I don’t require much convincing to notice there are behavioral differences between men and women.  At the same time, I agree it is hard to distinguish between culturally learned behaviors from inescapably instinctual behaviors.   Even so, there are some behavioral differences between the sexes that do appear to be instincts.   I recognize I may be wrong, but I consider sexual attractiveness to be such an instinct.   To be more precise, I’m referring to the first-glance type of attraction.  This is the attraction to get the initial attention, while other more cultural factors play into whether the attraction leads to sex.

One such topic is the waist-hip ratio preferences for men and women.   A wide range of studies appear to show a consistency of the ratio men find attractive in women and what women find attractive in men.   This appears to be a common trait for all humans, across many cultures and even for those who have never had the advantage of eyesight.   This appears to be a behavioral trait common to all humans, and one that is instinctual.   When averaged over a large population, there is a consistent value for the average waist size that is viewed as attractive.

This attractiveness appears to be a human instinct.   We inherit this preference by the very fact that we inherit the fact that we are humans.

If we inherit this, then this information must come from the only thing that we can inherit, and that is the DNA.  Somehow DNA encodes this little instruction in addition to the recipes for building proteins.

I don’t know enough about DNA to seriously question it, but personally I don’t know how behavior is encoded in a structure that is primarily about constructing proteins.   There are a tremendous number of instincts that DNA must also encode.    For example, there are countless instincts for the right way to assemble and use proteins to do complex cellular functions.  There are instincts for cells to cooperate in tissues, for tissues to cooperate into organs, and for organs to do their job when it is beneficial and not do their job when it is not beneficial.   For an example of the latter, we know we shouldn’t try to breath when underwater.

All these behaviors appear without being taught.   The instructions for these behaviors are encoded in the DNA.   This is hard enough to comprehend for the cellular examples of assembling multiple proteins into a particular structure.   Even more incomprehensible is how the instructions in DNA within individual cells can instruct behaviors of tissues and organs.   And yet, DNA also encodes instructions to attract humans to certain waist-hip ratios, while instructing peacocks to be attractive to size and symmetry of tail feathers.

Clearly, there are instincts, or behaviors that do not need to be learned.   Clearly the instincts are specific to different species and remarkably consistent within the species.  The instincts are well matched to the physical capabilities and dimensions of the individuals.   The behaviors are inextricably linked to the physical aspects of the individuals.

Now that I have nothing better to do with my time, I now wonder whether there is another explanation for behaviors.   At a human level, we divide our explanations of behaviors between nature and nurture: coming from instinct or from culture.   The definitions of instinct and culture appear to make the assumption that instinct is inherited in the same way as we inherit the human body plan, while culture involves transfer of information from a teacher to a student, or from mimicry of peers.

The recent thought I had was the instinct to learn.   For things that we must be taught, we obviously need some type of teacher: someone else who already knows the trait so that it may be passed on to someone who doesn’t know.

It is remarkable for humans to teach abstract reasoning such as rules of algebra.   But I think it is even more remarkable for humans to teach anything at all.

I never took the instinct to learn as being anything special because we see learning in many other species of much less intellectual prowess.   I suspect even plants learn from other plants in some cases.   In short, I take learning for granted so much that I don’t even consider it an instinct.   Learning seems inevitable when the correct conditions for communication of instructions exist.   But, I realize now, I must describe learning as an instinctual behavior.   If we had to be taught how to learn, we could never learn that lesson.

I go back to thinking about the problem presented by the evolutionary psychology of human sexual preferences of waist-hip ratios.  Given my general ignorance of biology, it is not surprising for me to admit that I don’t know how evolution can select for behaviors for different sexes within the same species.   Survival of the fittest example of a particular sex is quite different for survival of the fittest male-female pair.   The obvious answer is that the male-female couple who choose the right waist-hip ratio in the other gives the species an advantage.  I just don’t see how this gets passed onto genes so that the right ratio ends on the correct sex.

This gets even more difficult to comprehend when considering the wide variety of sexually different traits, from women’s nurturing behaviors to men’s more aggressive behaviors.  It is easy to construct stories about why such natures may have benefited distant ancestors, but even then I’m not convinced that these sexually distinct behaviors were as significant from the human behaviors common to both sexes.

More than that, I wonder how such sexually different instructions can be encoded in the DNA, where the only chromosome that distinguishes the two sexes is the diminutive Y chromosome.   There isn’t much space on that chromosome to account for all the differences between men and women, the primary and secondary sexual characteristics in addition to the behavioral differences.   All of the remaining chromosomes can be traced back to an ancestor of the opposite sex.   How does a sexually specific behavior gene get passed on to the right sex to make a difference for successive generations?   The mother with a waist-hip ratio matching some beneficial trait may pass that gene only to her male children and thus needing another generation (or more) before it has an opportunity to express its benefit in a female.

I grant that such inheritance is possible, but it seems a lot more complicated than passing the traits that benefit both sexes immediately.

My thought today is maybe the instincts are learned even though they don’t require a physical teacher.   This is different from the concept of a creator or a designer.   A designer can create an automobile, but the designer doesn’t teach the operator to drive that automobile.

Such a teacher is different from a god.  A god has the capability to act upon the world in some form.  If a god exists, it could be a creator of something physical.   In contrast, a teacher has no capability if there doesn’t exist a learner.   Creation can not be brought about by teaching, but a creator can be taught.

Back to the idea of learning being an instinct.  Humans inherited the learning instinct from its ancestor species.  In my mind at least, the chain of inheritance of the learning instinct goes way back into the evolutionary tree.   I speculate that the first life form had not only the instructions for creating a copy of itself, but it also had the ability to learn at some minuscule level.   It was able to learn in addition to grow and reproduce.

If learning is a basic instinct found in all life, then we can ask a different question than whether there is a non-material creator of material things.   We can instead ask whether there is a non-material teacher of something capable of non-material learning.  The learning was present in the beginning with the first life (in an evolutionary scenario) or within each created species.

I have to end this speculation here, but I want to follow up later on an alternative to a notion of a god or creator with a notion of a teacher.   The difference between culture and instinct is a difference of who serves the role of the teacher.  For culture, the teacher are other members of the population.   For instinct, the teacher is something else, recognizing the appropriate student just like the cultural teacher’s do: by recognizing that the student is equipped appropriately to benefit from the teaching.   Where is this teacher of instincts?

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One thought on “Rethinking instinct

  1. Pingback: Cosmic teachers | kenneumeister

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