What Are the Politics of Human Instincts?

I recall in the 1960s and 70s, it was popular in many circles to insist that human nature was uniquely malleable.  It was frequently said that, while other animals had many instincts,  human instincts were few and far between.

Instead of instincts,  human behavior was governed solely by learning.  We lacked any instinct to have sex and had to learn to have it.    Again, we lacked any instinct for defending a territory and had to learn both the concept of a territory and to defend ours.  And so forth…

Learning and instinct were seen as oil and water:  They didn’t mix.  An animal’s behavior was either instinctual or it was learned.  If it was instinctual, then it was unvarying and reflexive.  If it was learned, then it was almost infinitely variable and far from reflexive.   The most widely used definitions of instinct at the time precluded just about any other interpretation.  Konrad Lorenz was around, but his pioneering work on instinctual behavior was not nearly so well understood and accepted as the work on learning of, say, B. F. Skinner.

My impression is that people believed humans had so few instincts because they wanted to think of our species as improvable.  The 60s and 70s were in many ways an optimistic time when folks thought humanity could fundamentally change for the better.  And, of course, if that was true, then it made sense to think that human behavior was limited only by what humans could learn.

There might also have been a bit of Christian theology underlying the expectations of scientists.  In Christianity, man occupies an unique place in nature.  He is the only animal who has a soul, and perhaps the only animal with free will.  I suspect the scientists of the 60s and 70s were unconsciously influenced by those beliefs.  Hence, they expected to find a human quite unlike the other animals.  A human whose behavior was uniquely malleable if not through free will, then through learning.

I only know a small handful of people today — mostly sociologists — who still deny that humans have any significant instincts.  Instincts are not always called “instincts” today.  Sometimes, they are called “predispositions”, “behavorial tendencies”, “predilections”, or other terms.  But regardless of what name they use, you everywhere run across people talking about instinctual behavior.   Or, at least I do.

Some of the behaviors that one or another person has conceived of as instinctual to our species include tribalism, territorialism, war, rape,  reciprocity,  language, certain morals, and a belief in spirits and other supernatural entities.  Those and many other things have been thought of as  either instinctual or having a strong instinctual component.

There is much more to the history of human instincts than I have the space for here, but I think you can now get an approximate idea of the change in thinking about instincts that’s taken place over the past few decades.

In my own view, instincts and learning are not oil and water.  Instead, they mix.  Moreover, the instinct is not an unvarying reflex, but rather more like a predisposition towards a certain behavior.   If humans have an instinct for sex, that does not mean that humans will necessarily have sex every chance they get.   It does not mean that humans are like automatons who cannot vary their behavior in order to adapt to circumstances.   Instead, an instinct for sex means, among other things, that humans have a pronounced tendency towards having sex.

Politically, the notion of instinctual behavior in humans is potentially dangerous to liberty.  My guess it is only a matter of time before some inbred fool comes along to claim that his or her inherent instincts are superior to everyone else’s inherent instincts, giving his or her family a right to rule the rest of us for the next ten generations.  Minimum.   And of course, if that wannabe aristocrat has enough money, he or she will have many supporters.   In other words, the recognition that human behavior is not determined by learning — and learning alone — can seem to be an implicit recognition that some of us might be born better people to govern than others of us.

On the other hand, it seems to me that liberty for everyone is justified on many grounds.  Thus, one does not need to prove that all people are born equal — or born with equal potential, as it were — to justify everyone possessing the same political liberties.

But what do you think?

11 thoughts on “What Are the Politics of Human Instincts?

  1. Humans are hard-wired for a lot of stuff, speech, survival, a desire for recognition and acknowledgment by other humans. Hormones and chemical reactions also play a major role in human activity. There’s growing belief that the concept of Democracy may be present in so-called “lower” animals, as well as a certain sense of morality and fairness.

  2. We must remember that instincts are fluid in how they are expressed. Just because humans have an instinct to do something doesn’t mean that they must carry it out in exactly one way. For example, we have an instinct to eat, but there are limitless ways that we can carry out eating (countless cultural cuisines, paleolithic diets, vegetarianism, raw food diets, junk food at every meal, etc.). It is crucial to remember that we must find ethical ways of acting on instincts — HAVING an instinct is not license to act on it in a destructive manner.

    Unfortunately, there will always been unscrupulous people who try to justify unethical behavior by saying, “oh, it’s instinct, and we just can’t suppress it.” Again, we have a moral obligation to express instincts in ethical ways, and to refrain from expressing them in unethical ways.

  3. I think the political instinct is to seek and maintain power for ones group.
    For many generations it was the aristocracy. Now it is a corporate, media and political elite.
    They have it and we want it. Being one of the masses I seek real democracy.
    My masters instinct to retain their power, wealth and privelege dictates that they resist my efforts. Hence I suffer falling living standards and huge debt to pay for their bailout.
    It’s the same old dance that our feudal ancestors were engaged in.

  4. I of course am a staunch believer in restricting individual liberty only by the law (made by government with broad consent of the governed) and only to the extent that is absolutely necessary for what is perceived as the common good. Equality of opportunity to prove one’s mettle also has my vote. But – and pardon me if the question sounds naive or reactionary – if we can democratically agree that some people are more beautiful than others, and are better at doing math or baseball than others, why is it so hard and frightening to think that some people might be better endowed – by instinct, education, or some combination of both – to rule the rest of us?

    • It’s frightening because our present masters not only wish to rule – they wish to rape our societies and impoverish our citizenry for the benefit of a narrow elite.
      It is hard because it is impoverishing and frightening because it is robbing our children of their futures.
      Also, our present rulers are neither fit nor sufficiently endowed with instinct, education or ability to collect a bottle of milk from the corner shop.
      But they have the power. For now.

    • It shouldn’t be frightening, as long as our democratic institutions are well-safeguarded, so that the voters can decide who is better endowed to govern. I would suggest that no one should rule. Right now, the electoral process is being undermined by the Citizens United ruling and by direct political corruption in the form of barriers to voter registration. So, right now, it is frightening to consider arguments that could be twisted in favor of rule, rule, rather than democratic governance. Will it always be this frightening? I’m not sure. I know that in some cases where a democracy stops being vigilant about maintaining the integrity of its democratic institutions and processes (voting, an independent judiciary), the end result is tyranny. Think of Nazi Germany. Hitler first held office as the legally appointed chancellor of Germany. Although the Nazis had won many seats in the German parliament, they had never succeeded in becoming the majority party. Nevertheless, Hitler was able to manipulate the German fear of communism to persuade the elected President of the Reich to suspend numerous civil liberties. So far, so good, or at least not so bad, because the democratically Reichstag (parliament) still had the power to change this. Unfortunately, Hitler was able to persuade the parliament to suspend the constitution delegate its powers to him “temporarily,” although without a defined deadline. And so went the parliamentary powers. Hitler then did away with the independent judiciary. So, no democratic processes and no judiciary with the power to protect democratic processes. Our judiciary still has the power. The question is whether they will exercise it, or whether they have become too enamored of the idea that some are inherently better suited to govern than others, that those who have attained power (political or financial) have proven their worth and should not be limited… not even by democracy.

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