Short-Circuited Instincts in Humans and Other Animals
One of the predominant themes of this blog, and one that I pound away at insatiably, is the idea that we humans are a species of animal, and are loaded with innate psychological and behavioral traits like pretty much any other species of animal. We are essentially a kind of upgraded ape, and most of us simply lack the self-awareness or objectivity, or an adequate knowledge of evolution and animal behavior, to see that we really are animals guided by inherited, genetically conditioned animal instincts.
I consider it scandalous that throughout most of the 20th century psychologists were asserting that we humans have zero, or precious few, innate animal instincts; and right when cognitive scientists were beginning to expose the superstition of that idea and explode it, along came “progressive” neo-Marxism to begin vehemently insisting upon it again. The idea of a “blank slate” is fundamental to postmodernist ideas that “it’s all just a cultural construct,” and a convenient weapon to wield against the outgroup of white men—people can’t have differing innate character traits so that inequality of outcome can be blamed on white patriarchal oppression. But in what follows I’m more interested in universal human instincts than in variations on them between one group of humans and another. I’ve been intending to write something of a list demonstrating common human instincts, and probably will before much longer (it will be a long list, maybe two); but here I mainly intend to discuss how our instincts can be perverted or “deflected” from their natural courses, to our disadvantage, especially by modern phenomena nonexistent in the stone age when most of our innate character traits evolved.
I’ll start with relatively simple creatures like insects. I rather doubt that an insect is intelligent enough to have truly instinctive behavior, as instinct requires some minimum level of conscious awareness; I’d guess it would be more accurate in their case to attribute their stereotyped actions to mindless, automatic reflex. Nevertheless, bugs can serve as a good starting point to demonstrate the problem, so that when we arrive at human behavior it may be more easily seen that we’re not so different from bugs in certain ways.
Virtually everyone is familiar with the phenomenon of moths flying into artificial lights, and also into fires, like candle flames, generally resulting in their deaths—death by stupidity. I have read that the reason why moths do this is that they have evolved a mechanism for flying long distances in a straight line by using the moon as an aid to navigation. They “instinctively,” or reflexively, keep a bright light at a more or less constant angle to their line of sight. With the moon this allows them to avoid flying in circles; but with a campfire, for example, by keeping the light at a constant angle to their line of sight they wind up spiraling right into the flame (or, if they’re luckier, the light bulb).
They don’t learn, either. They’re stuck with this, at least until it evolves out of their species. It’s simply their nature to spiral into fires and lightbulbs. Once I was living in a big cave in upper Burma, and one night I was doing walking meditation inside the cave, by candlelight. At that time an unfortunate carpenter bee emerged from the rubble on which the candle was standing and immediately flew into the flame, burning it. But after surviving the first fling into the fire it did it again, and again, and again, until it was almost dead from flying through the candle flame, singeing and getting melted wax all over itself. But finally, with its last remaining strength, it made one last charge…directly into the goddamn flame again, and died. Although bees are considered to be relatively very intelligent insects, this little beggar learned absolutely nothing and followed its reflexes to the death.
Another example of how insects’ (again bees’) natural reflexes may be used against them is the odd fact that artificial banana flavoring, isoamyl acetate, also happens to be the pheromone that causes honeybees to become “angry” and swarm, attacking any intruder they find. Thus wiseguys could spray artificial banana flavoring onto a beehive and watch all hell break loose. (It might actually be a better use for the stuff than flavoring badass candy and milkshakes, because it doesn’t taste like real bananas anyway.)
Moving in the direction of higher animal intelligence, fishes and squid might be evolved enough in that direction actually to have some kind of mind, i.e. subjective experience with perceived images played on some little screen inside their head (if squid can be said to have a head). Many species are attracted to bright lights at night, for reasons I won’t begin to even guess at; and this causes human fishermen, who are somewhat more intelligent than fishes and squid, to use lights at night to attract them. Entire boatloads of squid can be caught at night with bright lights and bare hooks snagging them out of the water as they swarm at the surface trying to get closer to the lights. At this level of intelligence their attraction to light might qualify as instinct rather than mere reflex, and the artificial world of humans certainly plays them false.
Not many people in the west would insist that cats or dogs are mindless automatons (although I have met a few), and not many would deny that cats especially retain many of the instincts of their pre-domesticated ancestors. I read not long ago that dogs have even acquired new instincts as a result of their symbiosis with humans: for example a wolf is totally clueless with regard to reading human emotions, and can’t tell whether a human is happy, angry, or otherwise; whereas dogs, the descendants of wolves, reportedly know this innately, or at least learn to read us much better than a wolf ever can. A dog walking around in a circle before lying down would also represent instinctive behavior: I’ve heard the theory that such behavior evolved so the ancestral wolf-dog would trample down vegetation before lying down on it, but I’m guessing that it’s to make sure the dog doesn’t lie down on an ant highway or something equally unpleasant. They don’t need to do this on a living room carpet, but it’s their nature. Even the playing of puppies and kittens can be seen as instinctive practice for hunting, with their respective methods of play illustrating the hunting and fighting methods of the adult—cats stalking and pouncing, and dogs relying more on speed and brute force.
As with fishes and squids, human hunters with a knowledge of various animal’s instincts can exploit those instincts as a means of catching and killing the animals. My father taught me some survival skills when I was a boy, and one involved catching deer by blocking their trails with branches or other debris and planting sharpened stakes on one side of the barrier—deer instinctively leap over such a barrier rather than going around, and can thereby be impaled by a trapper familiar with the instinct. Another trap he taught me could be constructed with sticks and shoelaces: a kind of cage is made with the sticks and held together with the laces, with a trail of crumbs or some other food leading uphill into the trap. Many birds won’t try to escape by running downhill, so after the bird enters the trap one may quickly capture it. Very insensitive whalers in years past would sometimes wound a female whale or a young one in order to lure a larger bull into instinctively trying to rescue it…whereupon of course the bull would be killed in addition to the one used for bait. Then again, even the use of bait in fishing is exploiting a fish’s instinctive liking for food.
It is odd that people, including too many modern psychologists, do not see their own feeding habits as largely instinctual. Why do we tend to prefer sweet food to bitter or sour food, for example? The most likely reason is that in the stone age, which is when most of our human instincts evolved, sweet food, namely fruits, berries, and honey, was likely to be healthy to eat, whereas sour or bitter food was likely to be either unripe or downright toxic. (Survival guides advise that a person not eat any unfamiliar food in the wild if it is bitter, as the most common vegetable poisons are bitter alkaloids.) This instinctive liking for sweet food has been perverted in modern times, as sugar and high fructose corn syrup is added to junk food with almost no nutritional value other than calories; and non-nutritive sweeteners can mislead our instincts even further by attracting us to “food” with practically no nutritional value whatsoever, not even calories. So our inherited primate liking for sweet foods, combined with our equally instinctive liking for food in general, has resulted in an obesity pandemic in the developed world, and also in a pandemic of diabetes, as we simply were not designed to be sugar eaters. In fact people whose ancestors did not go through an early agricultural phase, like Australian aborigines and many tribes of native Americans, are much more prone to diabetes than are Eurasians, as their ancestors did not acquire the greater ability to live on a high carbohydrate diet, on which Eurasian farmers have survived for millennia.
Human mating instincts also have been manipulated by modern technology, to say the least. Human males especially are visually aroused by healthy, receptive-looking (i.e. scantily clad or naked) females of breeding age; and this instinctive stimulation has been subverted in a sense by flat images (i.e. pornography) which superficially look enough like real females to get the human males’ instincts up and running, so to speak. In some cases this results in men not impregnating a female, which is the evolutionary name of the game, but instead ejecting their copulatory fluids into tissue paper or a towel. The recent invention of webcam girls and lifelike sex robots further exacerbates the situation. With regard to human females, it has been observed that their favored modern perversions of human mating instincts have been romantic fiction in the form of paperback novels, movies, and soap operas, as the human female is less visually stimulated than the male, and prefers skillful mating displays with lots of verbiage, as well as demonstrable power and/or social status on the part of the man in order to find him really attractive. Some people may consider modern sexual promiscuity to be another such subversion of natural instincts; but promiscuity has been around for a very long time, and seems to be a natural aspect of human nature which is restrained somewhat by cultural conditioning.
One other corruption of natural human mating instincts comes in the form of older females past breeding age using cosmetic means, nowadays including plastic surgery and chemical injections, to appear young enough to be worth a male breeder’s while. This also no doubt results in some males failing to reproduce their DNA sequences by wasting their precious seed on a mate incapable of conceiving. This of course results in an evolutionary dead end, which, over the course of centuries, presumably will eliminate such perversions of nature in the natural manner of Darwinian natural selection.
Another universal human instinct, one so fundamental as to also be largely automatic reflex, is a preference of pleasure to pain. In a primeval environment pleasure generally accompanied behaviors conducive to survival and reproduction (being warm, being well-fed, getting one’s rocks off), and pain of course accompanied behaviors that tended to be reduce one’s odds of surviving long enough to become a parent. One very direct and extreme way of misleading our liking for pleasure is the use of certain euphoria-inducing drugs. Opiates especially are chemically similar to the endorphins secreted in our own nervous system to reward us for “eugenic” behavior. Many people have their lives destroyed by having their instinctive responses perverted in this manner. Some become like those pathetic laboratory monkeys with electrodes implanted directly into the pleasure center of their brain: they would literally prefer to starve to death rather than stop pulling the little lever that causes the rushes of ecstasy to happen. Our instinctive attraction to pleasure and aversion to pain opens up an infinitude of possible means of perverting our natural drives into unnatural channels.
To some degree television and now also the computer and Internet replace our stereotypical primate active curiosity with virtual exploration of the world and seeking novelty or adventure or excitement while we sit on our lazy backsides, drinking caffeinated stimulants, or euphoria-inducing intoxicants, or flavored sugar water, or some of those unnaturally sweetened beverages with no nutritional value. This often leads to people being flabbier and more out of shape, and thus less healthy, as well as to less vitality and creativity in society as a whole. Functioning in a vulgar, lowbrow reality is very probably better for us, as individuals and as a civilization, than resorting to a life of glamorized illusion. Our instinctive behaviors designed by evolution to ensure our biological well-being become totally short-circuited as our mental energy becomes devoted to a fictional or virtual reality. I suppose that is one of the symptoms of decadence—the misdirection of the energies of a population toward what is frivolous and inessential, if not downright self-destructive.
I may as well go all political at this point and observe that governments also have played upon human instincts as a means of keeping us docile and under control, practically since governments were invented. They play mainly upon human fears and desires—with the extreme of government control on the fear side being illustrated by Orwell’s 1984, and the extreme on the various sensual desires side illustrated by Huxley’s Brave New World. Plus, naturally, in either case human social “herd” instincts help to keep almost everyone cooperating, even sometimes within nightmarish societal systems. Governments and political parties in modern times have turned such control into a science, employing teams of psychologists similar to those working for modern advertising agencies. Which is yet another very good reason for limited government: it is increasingly becoming the case that the only way to be even relatively free is to reduce government, which increasingly makes use of electronic surveillance and various methods of thought control, combined with the aforementioned science of human animal behavioral psychology, to keep us serving our masters.
One sobering point to consider, which the founding fathers of the United States had some appreciation for, is that the masters themselves are animals with their own often brutish instincts. Some animals, especially herbivorous prey animals, have rather mild, gentle, timid “brutish instincts,” but most human apes do not, especially when they are in positions of power. The history of the world provides mountains of evidence for this.
If after reading all this you still doubt that you are an animal slavishly and often blindly following animal instincts as though you were a salmon or a migratory goose, I suggest that you consider every emotional experience that is universal to the human race. Emotions are instinctual, and have developed to drive us in certain directions, either attractive or aversive. And any manipulation of our emotional feelings and drives is simply an example of what I’ve been talking about, particularly if it leads us in unnatural directions. (A woman playing upon the affections of a man to get her way with him is 100% natural though, and has been going on since before our ancestors were even fully human.) But as I’ve said, a list of universal human emotions is for later.
Just for the hell of it, I’d like to end this blistering attack on human intelligence and dignity with a philosophical question. The next sentence to end with a question mark isn’t the philosophical question I’m working at, however, so be patient. Now: Does a frog have enough intelligence or awareness to really understand itself or its surroundings? I think most people would probably say no, it does not. It might have enough consciousness to have a very crude awareness of its world, but no more than that. The next question, which also is just working up to the big one, is this: Is it possible, at least in theory, that some beings out there in this vast universe are as far beyond us intelligence-wise as we are beyond frogs? Say, a billion times more advanced? Considering the incomprehensible immensity of the universe, I’d say that it is not only possible, but probable. So here’s the thing: Don’t you think those aliens, or conscious supercomputers, or whatever, might have a view of us corresponding to what we have toward stupid frogs? Does a crude, smelly little Homo sapiens, still sweating and farting and crapping and dying, parasitized by microbes and insects and worms, oblivious to most of the forces that surround it, have enough intelligence or awareness to really understand itself or its world? We might think so, but the frog isn’t aware of its own limitations either. It may be that compared with what is possible we are blind worms, or even just protozoans, regardless of the occasional Buddha, or Shakespeare, or Dostoevsky, or Michelangelo, or Faraday.