Basic Instincts of the Human Animal: A Long yet Incomplete List

The aggressive behaviour of a street gang may involve actual violence which is related to their concept of “territory” and therefore, at the functional level of analysis, is comparable to some animal aggression. Such behaviour will also involve the participants in the same kind of physiological arousal that we can measure in animals. Not all behaviour which is commonly called aggressive shares these features. In modern warfare an individual’s act of pushing a button may lead to the destruction of other individuals at a great distance and of whom he has no direct knowledge. In a biological sense the button-pusher is not aggressively aroused and such behaviour defies any simple, biologically-based definition. —Aubrey Manning, from An Introduction to Animal Behavior

Beware the beast man, for he is the Devil’s pawn. Alone among God’s primates he kills for sport, or lust, or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother’s land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and your. Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair; for he is the harbinger of death. —the Lawgiver, from the Sacred Scrolls

     Human infants, like any other infants, have practically no rationality or acquired cultural conditioning to account for their behavior, and small children have relatively little, so they may reasonably be assumed to be more animalistic in their behavior than adults. I think most parents would agree with this. So, perhaps, we may find the most obvious and undeniable examples of innate human instinct in babies and small children. At any rate, animalistic little kids will be a convenient starting point.

~A newborn infant automatically knows to suck on any nipple-like object in front of its face. This is very useful for babies, since if they didn’t have this instinct they’d be much more likely to nurse less and thereby to grow more slowly, to be weak and malnourished, etc. In fact sucking on a nipple-like object gives a certain comfort and produces a calming effect on babies and small children, hence the paraphernalia called pacifiers, and also the infantile habit of thumb-sucking. In fact this enjoyment of sucking on things has been retained in adults to some degree; and a particular liking for sucking nipples is quite common in adult sexual behavior…but I’m getting way ahead of myself on that.

~Within 48 hours of birth a baby is reportedly able to identify its own mother by scent alone; and mothers also become very sensitized to the smell of their own baby. Some instinct deniers or skeptics might argue that this isn’t really instinctive, although lambs and ewes, and many other mammals besides, are born with this same talent, and few would deny that it is instinctive in sheep.

~As most people understand quite well, the universal mode of communication in infants is screaming. Babies wail throughout the world, and no doubt always have. As Charles Darwin observed,

The earliest and almost sole expression seen during the first days of infancy, and then often exhibited, is that displayed during the act of screaming; and screaming is excited, both at first and for some time afterwards, by every distressing or displeasing sensation and emotion,—by hunger, pain, anger, jealousy, fear, &c.

One question I have considered is why or how this could have survival value throughout the stone age, and possibly before, when people were living in a much more dangerous world than now. For a primitive hunter-gatherer living in a wilderness, the sound of a screaming baby would attract the attention of every large predator in the neighborhood. Ironically, this may be part of the reason: In such a dangerous world a screaming baby would get immediate attention from a family member or tribe member if only to shut it up and reduce the odds of the family being attacked by a cave bear.

~The facial expressions which accompany infantile screaming are also instinctive and universal to our species. As Charles Darwin pointed out in his monumental The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, the baby’s eyes squinch shut to prevent increased blood pressure in the face from damaging the delicate blood vessels therein, and the mouth forms a squarish shape to maximize sound output. Automatic squinting or closing the eyes before sneezing or coughing in adults as well as children also serves this same purpose of preventing excessive blood pressure in the eyeballs; though to some degree it could be considered mechanical reflex, not instinct.

~At any rate, the quick responsiveness to screaming babies is presumably also instinctive to some degree in adults, especially parents; and there are apparently instincts involved in calming loud babies, both on the part of the parents and on the part of the babies themselves. In some traditional cultures newborn babies are swaddled, or wrapped rather tightly in cloth, which actually has a quieting effect on infants, as they are calmed by the constant feeling of close physical contact. Also, I have heard that babies are universally rocked in an adult’s arms to quiet them, which simulates the feeling of being inside the mother’s womb as she walks. Around the world people intuitively know to rock babies in their arms at approximately the same rate as the human heartbeat—approximately 72 beats, or baby-rocks, per minute.

~One little-known innate talent of newborn infants is that they instinctively know how to swim. Without having to inhale any water first, they already know to hold their breath underwater, and their heart rate automatically slows, which allows them to hold their breath longer. While in water they instinctively know to tread water or move around with a simple kind of dog paddle. Thus babies can swim before they are able to crawl; but if unused this talent fades, and has to be relearned later in life.

~Babies and children, especially small ones, have a strong craving for attention and physical contact from others, especially from parents, which may also be instinctive, at least in part—it certainly is universal in very young human beings, as well as in other young primates. Neglected baby monkeys become essentially psychopathic, and this can happen in humans also; and ignored babies, even if they are supplied with food, may simply die of solitude, i.e. from lack of attention. (Mary Baker Eddy had a non-biological, metaphysical explanation for this real emotional need for attention from the very young: Her idea was that they are too undeveloped mentally to maintain their own self-existence in a kind of philosophically idealist spiritual Matrix, so at first they require the psychic support from a more conscious adult to fuel and stabilize their existence. But it seems instinctive.)

~By the age of one year, in some much sooner, babies already begin mimicking adult speech in what is known as babbling. Once they are old enough they have an innate hunger for speech, and babble to themselves as a kind of practice, eagerly learning new words, and practicing them when alone. Interestingly, progressive icon Noam Chomsky’s claim to fame was his observation, or theory, that linguistic behavior is innate in humans; and he identified a kind of proto-grammar in the babbling of babies, which already displays a rudimentary grammatical structure. The very fact that we have special areas in our brain designed by nature to allow us to understand language and to speak it is pretty conclusive evidence that we are mentally evolved for speech, and that it comes naturally to us, even though the specific language is culturally conditioned. The speech areas of our brain are there regardless of the culture, however. This affinity for language could be elaborated further into an instinctive appreciation for symbolism in general, which could include artistic expression.

~One book that I’ve read, The Ape That Spoke by John McCrone, points out that small children instinctively know how to talk to even smaller children; they intuitively know to use simplified language for the little one’s sake, and tend to limit their communications to the directing of attention (“Look at the doggie”) and to prohibitions (“Don’t do that”). Adults too have special ways of talking to babies, which includes speaking to babies in simplified, repetitive language, and in an altered tone of voice. Desmond Morris has stated that infants are more responsive to high-pitched feminine voices than to deeper, more masculine ones, which may have evolved in men an intuitive urge to adopt a higher-pitched voice when talking to their baby. The babies seem to have evolved an awareness that when they are tiny and helpless it’s primarily the women who are the ones to attend to.

~Small children tend to be more fearful than older people, and some of their fears seem rather peculiar, but they obviously could have survival value in a stone age world—for example the common fear of the dark that many small children have. This would keep the little cave boy or girl near the campfire at night, and/or near the parents, thus minimizing the odds of being eaten by leopards, or wolves, or whatever other predators were lurking in the darkness around the camp. I would guess that a child’s fear of hanging an arm or leg over the edge of the bed (because who knows what monsters or giant spiders might be down there), a phobia that I had as a small child, has a similar origin—not that cave children necessarily had beds, but a fear of keeping one’s arms and legs out of unknown dark corners could certainly have survival value, for example, in a cave.

~The desire for exercise and play is as common to young humans as it is to young of most other mammal species, including rats. It has many purposes, including the development of muscles and muscular coordination, and also the development of social skills like cooperation and working out one’s status in a hierarchy of peers. A desire for play remains in us humans throughout life, with some psychologists theorizing that the entire human approach to life is largely based upon the motivation of game-playing.

~Although small children are very reliant on their parents or guardians and tend not to be very rebellious—unless they learn from experience that throwing conniptions is to their advantage—when children grow into adolescence and become juveniles they begin to push back increasingly at adults, and are more inclined to see them as clueless oafs and nuisances. This sort of detachment and even resentment is common to other primate species; and has the purpose of preparing the young for independence from their mothers, and also for eventually challenging the adults for social position within the tribe, or troop, or whatever. This also helps to explain the common resentment of older men for smartass young punks: the so-called punks are the ones who will eventually depose them as the leaders and take their place; and older males (and females too I suppose) would prefer not to be supplanted any sooner than is necessary. As with other universal human behavior patterns, 20th-century psychologists worked up rationalistic theories for explaining this phenomenon, yet the fact that it is widespread in other animal species also indicates that it is instinctive, not Oedipal sexual jealousy of one’s own father or whatever.

~Moving on from instincts in children to instincts in human beings throughout life, I may as well point out that all of our emotional responses are fundamentally instinctive. They are universal modes of human behavior that are built right into us, with specialized areas in the brain conditioning them, as well as hormones in cases like anger, fear, and lust. As far as I can see all emotions are attractive or aversive, and thus draw us toward what had survival value in our ancestors, or away from that which reduced their odds of survival and reproduction. The very fact that most 20th-century psychologists were of the opinion that such animalistic responses in humans, though shared with other species of animal (except maybe a few like shame or remorse), are somehow not instinctive in our case, is simply a testimony to the cluelessness of 20th-century psychologists, as well as 21st-century progressives with their idea of “it’s all just a cultural construct.” Universal human emotional responses that are coded right into our DNA from conception are more than just cultural constructs.

the difference between our expressions of terror and horror, from Darwin's
Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

~Most of the nonverbal sounds that humans make all over the world, from New Guinea to New York, are also animalistic and instinctive. Crying has already been discussed with regard to babies; and laughter—that peculiar barking sound humans make when amused—is, according to Desmond Morris in his book The Naked Ape, derived from crying, although broken up into shorter notes, and with rather different facial expressions. Shouting when thoroughly pissed off is another natural urge in us, shared with many other species of animal. Another one is screaming or yelling when startled or presented with sudden danger: in biological parlance these are known as “alarm calls.”

~Also closely associated with our emotions are associated facial expressions. All over the world, nobody frowns when happy unless deliberately faking it. Not only are our facial expressions nonverbal means of communication (and we primates specialize in communicating via facial expressions), but many of them also have more prosaic survival value. An example given by Charles Darwin is the expression of surprise: Imagine a stone age hunter-gatherer a hundred thousand years ago, and as he is walking alone down a forest trail he suddenly hears a twig snap in the bushes nearby. His eyebrows go up, which helps the eyes open to their widest extent, which in turn increases peripheral vision and allows one to see danger more easily—in extreme cases the eyes bulge, causing even greater increase in one’s ability to see a wide visual field. At the same time the mouth drops open, which facilitates breathing through the mouth, which in humans is quieter than nose breathing and thus allows one to hear danger more easily. So our instinctive open-mouthed, wide-eyed look of surprise instinctively prepares us for danger, even if there isn’t any.

     The smile also is common to humanity throughout the world, and is shared with other primates, including chimpanzees. According to Dr. Morris again, the smile evolved from the stereotypical simian fear display of pulling the lips back, exposing the teeth—we grin with terror as well as with happiness. Thus the happy smile began as an appeasement display, rather like a dog cringing with its tail between its legs—it is a nonverbal means of telling an aggressive, dominant member of the group, “I am afraid of you, and you have nothing to worry about with me; there’s no need to attack.” We still use the sheepish grin as an appeasement display after we do something outrageously stupid, to show others that we mean no harm, and to defuse any incipient anger towards us. From there it progressed into a display of benevolence and happiness, a signal to others that we are friendly and intend no harm (although it is often deliberately faked). Canine fawning and tail-wagging are similar cases of appeasement displays also employed as signs of friendship.

     At the other extreme from benevolence is hostility; and in this case also human facial expressions are essentially the same in every culture: The eyebrows are lowered to help protect the eyes in the event of a fight, and the lips are tightened likewise to protect the mouth, somewhat like a cat’s pulling its ears back under analogous conditions. I have read that, as a general rule of human nature, if two people stare directly into each other’s eyes for more than twenty seconds at a stretch, they will almost certainly do one of two things: fight or make love. This is just as true for dwellers in western cities as it is for dwellers in primeval jungles.

~The human being is a social animal; and like any social animal with enough intelligence to have instincts, humans have social instincts that allow us to interact more or less peaceably with one another. The existence of inherent appeasement displays (like the aforementioned stupid grin, or crying in women and children), and of alarm calls (like screaming when one suddenly slips and falls), indicate that they are sometimes effective, which indicates that we also have innate reactions to these displays in others. Those are social instincts. There are plenty of others also, such as competition for status within a group, tribal bonding, mutual grooming activities (especially in females), and even a sense of fair play, which Jordan Peterson has claimed is found in a rudimentary form even in rats. If human beings were evolved to be loners, like digger wasps or grizzly bears, human nature would be radically different from what it actually is.

     One human social instinct (very human, very social) worth noting is that most people are conformists, or followers, or “betas,” with few natural leaders or alphas. Knee-jerk conformity is pretty much necessary for a social animal, and consequently there is not much independent thought going on in the mind of the average human. As discussed in a previous post, this tendency of conformism is more pronounced in females of our species, with stereotypical enslavement to fashion trends and worrying about what the neighbors will think. Men are more likely to follow fashions, in contrast to simply being well-groomed, out of a desire to attract females…although this is straying into the topic of sexual instincts, which will be discussed later.

     Despite our conformism and the relative scarcity of alphas (especially lately), desire for status within the group, and wishing to be as high up the social hierarchy as possible, is common in humans, as it is in apes and monkeys, as well as in other social animals like dogs and chickens. Thorstein Veblen in his minor classic The Theory of the Leisure Class observed that after humans evolved to the point of developing urban societies in which everyone doesn’t know everyone else, maintaining a status hierarchy or pecking order became more difficult, as it does also when domestic chickens are kept in flocks numbering in the hundreds or thousands. Consequently, we have developed elaborate methods of demonstrating our relative social status, as well as faking it, through clothing, behavior patterns (like “posh” manners), etc. Thus much of human civilization is based on this peculiar social instinct of craving status within our own group. As Veblen says, “the propensity for emulation—for invidious comparison—is of ancient growth and is a pervading trait of human nature.” Silly psychologists, although possibly admitting that the same sort of urge is common in our nearest relatives the apes and monkeys, would prefer to believe that the genetic tendencies for such behavior somehow disappeared in us humans, and were replaced with Freudian daddy issues or some such. But I maintain that it is genetically conditioned instinct that conditions some people’s concern over which wine goes with what, which fork to use for the crab salad, and how to properly eat a banana in public—or in other words, how to behave like a high-status individual.

~Considering that artistic expression and some form of esthetic tastes are universal to the human race, and apparently have been since the Paleolithic period at the latest, it is reasonable to assume that art is to some degree innate in us, or in other words, instinctive. Visual art follows certain universal themes, for example contrast with the environment—colors against drabness, geometric patterns in the midst of asymmetrical nature, etc. Also, small children of all ethnicities tend to progress through similar phases as they learn to draw or model; with even chimpanzees having a sense of artistic balance, and a liking for coloring inside the lines, more or less. Skeptics may be skeptical of any instinctive origin in all this, but it cannot be denied that at least one art form, music, has its own special area of the brain allowing for it. Damage to the right temporal lobe can destroy a person’s music appreciation, and render them tone deaf. It may well be wondered how an appreciation of music could have evolved in our ancestors—after all, what survival value could it have? One theory I have encountered is that it was developed via Darwinian sexual selection; that is, young humans or proto-humans who had some musical talent were seen as more interesting and attractive to prospective mates. Also, music may be considered a form of nonverbal language—unless of course one is singing, in which case it’s verbal too.

~The sense of humor is another universal quality of humanity, found in most people anywhere in the world. (It also has its own evolved organ: the funny bone, also known as the humerus.) This presumed instinct also may have evolved to make young cave people more attractive as mates; although a sense of humor in a sometimes very harsh world may have its own sort of survival value.

~A very basic instinctive drive in people is also common to most animals, and that is chronic restlessness and a desire for stimulation—and, when we are not successful enough in satisfying that desire, the peculiar human emotion known as boredom.

~A strange one that I came across in Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class applies only to Europeans (so I’m deviating from the universal in this one case, just because I feel like it). According to him, the “dolicho-blond” Aryan race has a remarkable liking for mown lawns of green grass because of an inherited love of lush pastureland—the Aryans originally having been a race of pastoral herdsmen. I have no idea if Europeans have a special lawn-liking center in our brain, but it was an interesting idea, so I mention it.

~It should be fairly obvious that human food preferences have a foundation in animal instinct, as is the case with any species of animal that actively chooses what food to eat. We inherited from our tree-dwelling ancestors a liking for sweet food, considering that sweet fruits and berries tend to be the most nutritious ones in a natural environment. Sour and bitter food are less favored by us, mainly because sour or bitter food in a wilderness is more likely to be unripe or even toxic. As our ancestors came down out of the trees and started eating more meat, they acquired an inherent liking for that, too; and I hypothesize that cooked meat smells so good to most of us, and is more appetizing, because we evolved an instinct for liking it after fire was tamed and cooking invented: cooked meat is not only easier to eat, but it is sterilized, and thus has a much lower potential for infecting us with pathogenic microbes or parasites like trichina cysts. If it helped our primitive ancestors to survive, it is likely that we have evolved a tendency to like it—a preference for cooked meat, or anything else.

~As was just mentioned, the liking of certain smells over others, as is the case with tastes, is also bred right into us. It is no coincidence that people around the world prefer the odor of honeysuckle or musk to the odor of farts, fresh cat dung, or rotten eggs. (A dog, on the other hand, might prefer the smell of cat dung to the smell of flowers, and the taste of it to that of, say, a tangerine.) Studies have shown that children and elderly people tend to prefer flowery smells to musky ones, whereas people in the prime of reproductive age prefer musk to flowers. This attraction to and stimulation by musky odors explains why we humans have pubic hair and armpit hair—it’s a scent trap for sexually stimulating, pheromone-containing, aromatic sweat. But again I am getting ahead of myself with the sexual urges.

~One peculiar human behavior pattern which presumably is universal to our species and instinctive, is our avoidance of substances which we associate with sickness in the past. Melvin Konner in his book The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit mentioned this phenomenon with regard to sauce Béarnaise, to which he had an acquired “phobia” of sorts as a child. I had a friend with a similar aversion for watermelon, because when he was small he ate some watermelon at a picnic and later that same day came down with influenza. He realized that the watermelon didn’t cause his illness, but still he had for many years a visceral revulsion for watermelon as a result. Some might assume that this is not instinctive in human beings, despite its non-rational nature; although few would deny that a very similar behavior pattern in rats is instinctive. One reason why it is relatively difficult to poison them is that they have an instinctive distrust of any unfamiliar food, and will just nibble at it the first time they encounter it. If they feel sick after this first test, they avoid that food thereafter. This makes perfect sense from an evolutionary point of view, both with regard to rats and with regard to our own ancestors learning which foods in their environment are edible.

~We also appear to have a universal, instinctive aversion for feces, vomit, blood, expelled mucus, etc., which also makes perfect sense as it could have real survival value overall, protecting us and especially our distant ancestors from contact with icky pathogens and other dangerous substances. Women seem somewhat less prone than men, though, to experiencing the gag reflex when having to clean up dog or baby excrement.

~Another apparent instinct along these lines which I’m pretty sure has an identified area in the brain conditioning it, is our aversion for having sticky or slimy substances on our skin. A glitch in the brain circuitry which regulates this attitude in us has been identified as the cause of obsessive-compulsive disorder, a mental disorder which can inspire people to fear touching anything or to wash their hands fifty or a hundred times a day. Urges to have oneself and one’s personal environment relatively clean are built right into our brains, just as similar urges inspire animals like birds and cats to wash themselves regularly and not foul their own sleeping area. A similar innate hygienic urge in us is what causes us to absent-mindedly pick at scabs or bite at dead skin around our fingernails.

~The very widespread human fear, or at least wariness, of snakes, spiders, centipedes, and other creepy creatures is also very probably instinctive. Carl Sagan in his book Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors even claimed that there is a snake recognition area in the human brain, which would clinch the inherent, instinctive nature of ophidiophobia, i.e. fear of snakes. I’ve known people who were terrified of snakes even though they’d spent their entire lives in the American Pacific Northwest, near the coast, where there are no venomous ones. Also I’ve met people who have been terrified of snakes that they know full well to be harmless. I met a Burmese man once who was panic-stricken by a harmless little palm snake; and when I pointed out to him that it was harmless he replied, “I know, but I’m afraid anyway.” Dogs in Burma also are apparently born with an instinctive alarm reaction when encountering reptiles, large centipedes, etc.; one can tell that they’ve found one just by the sound of their loud, nervous, high-pitched barking. Whether or not a French poodle would have a similar reaction to a snake or not I don’t know. Some people consider such fears to be Freudian neuroses or whatever, although it seems odd that other animals have instincts conditioning them and we do not, despite our biological similarities.

     Many phobias, like fear of the dark and fear of snakes already mentioned, appear to be exaggerated forms of natural instincts. In fact most mental illnesses are considered to be exaggerated manifestations of aspects of typical human nature; OCD has been demonstrated to be such a case. Thus the exaggerated forms found in some mental dysfunctions make more obvious the evolved, genetic nature of our common human behavior patterns.

~One fairly obvious instinctive response in humans which could have been discussed higher up on this list with regard to emotions, but which I put here while on the general topic of irrational fears (as though any fear would be truly rational), is the “fight or flight” response which is associated with increased levels of adrenalin in the blood. A sudden alarm or perception of danger can cause one’s blood to be awash with this hormone which prepares us for drastic survival behavior—either running away as fast as one can, or else fighting. Thus adrenaline increases our heart and breath rates, increases blood flow to the extremities, and so on. The denial of this response, or of the idea that it is built right into us at an instinctive animal level, requires some really dazzling ignorance of biology, and of one’s own nature.

~The flip side of the social instincts that help us to get along with our neighbors or tribe mates is xenophobia, an intuitive distrust of, or dislike for, strangers. This is common throughout the animal kingdom, in virtually all animals with enough intelligence to perceive strangers, and is of course found in our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees. Such an innate behavior pattern naturally has obvious survival value for beings living in a sometimes violent and dangerous world, in which strangers may be friend or foe—probably foe. This instinct makes tribalism and strong family sentiments the default setting in human beings, and the modification of those settings may be very difficult, especially in some. But xenophobic unease around strangers applies not only to potential predators or hostile members of other tribes; it also kicks in, sometimes with a vengeance, when a young man nervously and anxiously approaches a young woman to initiate preliminary, tentative sexual displays or to “ask her out.” And the young woman, especially if she is modest or just naturally shy, will experience some of her own nervousness and anxiety in return when such attentions are directed toward her. But I keep straying towards sexual instincts—probably because we humans are instinctively very sex-oriented, and this pervades our experience of life, making it hard to untangle completely from everything else.

~One instinct that may be particularly simian (that is, characteristic of apes and monkeys) is the drive for revenge—not just hating another, or hating another for wrongs in the past, but the holding of a prolonged grudge, with a driving urge to even the score by striking back. Considering that even monkeys have been reported to nurse vengeful grudges, it could very well be ingrained right into our nature. Charles Darwin, if I remember correctly, gave an example of a Barbary ape that lived near the British military base at Gibraltar. It had been mistreated by a certain British officer in the past, and was known to hate this officer in particular. One day the officer was walking by, resplendent in full dress uniform on his way to some official function, when the ape (really a species of monkey) hurriedly produced a handful of mud and splattered it across the uniform of the hated officer—then ran away chattering in hysterical triumph. That’s just a fun anecdote; but there is a good likelihood that we’re not so different from that monkey as we’d like to believe.

~Possessiveness of a relatively primitive sort, namely territoriality and sexual jealousy, is common among many species of animal, including fishes; yet it has bloomed into full flower in us humans. Even toddlers who have not yet mastered speech have learned to scream “Mine, mine, mine!” But even if we choose to attribute material greed with the artificial evils of capitalism or whatever, our similarities with animals concerning the territoriality and sexual jealousy, as well as their emotional, irrational roots, indicate that such urges, and the behaviors based upon them, are instinctive in our species.

~Even dreaming at night might reasonably be called instinctive, considering that it is a mental activity apparently shared with most mammals (the lowly American opossum spends more time dreaming than awake), and considering that it has evident survival value in that it enhances the efficiency of our ability to process the information we received during the day. This hypothetical instinctuality could be further assured if there is a dream symbolism which is universal to the human species. The idea that such a symbolism is built into the structure of our nervous system would be more acceptable to most, I suppose, than some Platonic otherworld of Jungian archetypes that we somehow tap into with our subconscious mind.

     At this point we have come full circle, as it is about time to discuss the instinctive human behaviors that result in the babies discussed at the top of this list. Also there are many innate psychological differences between human males and females that could be called sexual instincts. Those will be the subject of the next post.

universal expressions of infantile misery, also from Darwin


  1. I've really been enjoying your blog(s). I'm interested to know how you see Buddhism fitting in with this instinctual view of human nature. On the one hand, I can understand that this view is seeing things as they are. It's really just straight up observation of reality. On the other hand, how does Buddhist ethics fit in? Doesn't it go against our instinctual nature? If we have evolved to fight or fuck, what is the motivation to become a monk, or even a layman? Is it merely to alleviate personal suffering? And if so, doesn't that reinforce a self-view? I've been reading the sutras and meditating for years (independently, western Buddhism is a joke) but I've never been able to figure out how to resolve evolution and ethics. Thanks again for your writings.

    1. Hi Larren, part of the situation is that all major spiritual systems, including Buddhism, arose long before empirical biology arose. So pretty much all traditional systems have taken for granted that human beings appeared fully formed, either created by a Deity or else, as in Buddhism, materialized through some humanistic cosmic force. So a lack of acknowledgement of Darwinian evolution is pretty much inevitable. Spiritual systems of necessity conform to the prevailing culture.

      Even so, Buddhism and Hinduism do acknowledge a kind of evolution in the sense of spiritual evolution, which occurs to a "spirit" over the course of many lifetimes. It's a different kind of evolution, but still it's not totally different.

      Anyway, the alleged fact that we are animals programmed to survive and reproduce doesn't change our situation much, aside maybe from making it a little more difficult. Instead of instincts Buddhist philosophy talks about kamma and anusaya (latent tendencies), which functionally can amount to the same thing. The first Noble Truth remains true, so if we can transcend the whole predicament then good.

      A self-view is something we're stuck with until we become enlightened, or very close to it. Even then an enlightened being appears to behave as though he or she has a self. Some say living a spiritual life is necessarily selfish in a sense. All depends on how you look at it.

  2. Hi there Outsider and thanks for another stimulating post. You will know from previous comments that I applaud your willingness to be politically incorrect but like Larren I struggle to see how you connect this with the Dharma. You say that if we can transcend our biologically programmed instincts then all well and good as if that were an incidental possibility. But isn't hat the entire thrust of the Buddha's teachings?Once we start to deconstruct our identification with this body and the notion of I, me and mind then the precise details of our evolutionary biology aren't of such great interest. But maybe I'm missing something. Having looked a bit at your earlier blog I can't think that you have lost all inspiration in the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha so I wonder what bearing this post has on the quest for human enlightenment. Or how we might revision (for want of a better word) the notion of sangha for those of us who aren't duped by postmodern PC rubbish. As a monk don't you get lonely? Best wishes, Michael

    1. Mainly I bring up our animal heritage as an aid in understanding ourselves. To understand the prison in which you are entrapped can definitely help you to escape from it. As the Oracle of Delphi used to say, "Know Thyself." Although it isn't necessary to know this stuff, it can be useful.

      Plus it's the standard jab at the politically correct dogma that is attempting to take over western civilization, and has already pretty much taken over western Buddhism.

    2. Oh, I forgot to answer your last question. I don't have much need for human companionship, and have been more or less of a recluse for many years. Since returning to America in December I've conversed face to face with a total of three westerners, mainly because westerners don't come to this monastery. On the other hand, as wise old Sayadaw U Jotika told me once, "Radicals are always lonely."

  3. Very interesting. Two brief comments.

    “… an intuitive distrust of, or dislike for, strangers … This instinct makes tribalism and strong family sentiments the default setting in human beings, and the modification of those settings may be very difficult, especially in some.” Hardly surprising that many in Britain were unhappy when Labour encouraged mass immigration of Asian Muslims who in many cases have had no interest in “assimilation” but have maintained their own mores in ghettoes. Disputes on this between what might term “natural instincters” and so-called progressives are common in many Western countries with high rates of immigration from very different cultures. Surprise, surprise.

    More idly, snakes: I’ve met many, I’ve never been afraid of them. Indeed, on a Vipassana course last week, I saved a student from an imminent snake bite. In Australia in 1980, as a then very thin Pom having returned from months spent with Achaan Chah, Goenkaji and at U Ba Khin’s centre in Rangoon, I got lots of jibes from burly Australian navvies when I found work on a large building site. One day I came across a poisonous red-bellied black snake, about 9-10 feet long. I was clearing an empty wooden pallet. It would appear that the full pallet had been set down upon the snake, trapping it but not crushing it. It was dead but unmarked. I picked it up, holding its head forward with my left hand and using movements of my right elbow to make it wriggle. I innocently approached four burly Aussie sitting down on their break, and said innocently “Does anyone know what this is?” Panic! They dropped their tea and snacks and scrambled over the low bench on which they were seated. And they never mocked me again.

    1. Yeah, I'm somewhat of a freak of nature also in that I really like snakes. Even so, when I'm in the tropics especially I am very cautious about them. A stick or vine lying by the side of the trail immediately gets my attention until I perceive that it isn't a snake. I've almost stepped on kraits and vipers a few times.


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