Recognizing Human Instincts:
in FAQ Format

Robert F. Port
(April 10, 2000)

In developing the list of Possible Human Instincts, I used two main criteria, which, as far as I can tell, are the same criteria Pinker used. Instincts are:

(1) behavioral tendencies that seem to be univeral across all individuals of the species (to varying degrees in specific individuals, sexes and ages, of course),
(2) behavioral tendencies that seem like they might not be learned from experience, but rather simply reflect `the way people are'.

Why not say instincts are behaviors that are adaptive (that is, encourage survival)?

Of course, one can often think of good reasons why many of these would be biologically adaptive. For example, it seems like people must eat to stay alive and must engage in sex so as to produce the next generation. But the obviousness of its adaptive function is not a very useful criterion because in many cases it is difficult to be sure what the biological advantage is. Is it adaptive to mourn lost loved ones or to tell stories? Possibly, but its hard to be sure just why. The reasons can be very complex and nonobvious. Another example is same-sex preference which is fairly widespread in humans. It seems obviously nonadaptive to some people. But a community of genetically related individuals might benefit in many ways even if some members fail to reproduce. For example, some young and aggressive males in each generation lose their lives engaging in `macho' behavior (sometimes in important battles and sometimes in frivolous fights and dares) before bearing children. Similarly some individuals have sexual preferences that results in no offspring. It seems to me presumptuous to assume we have a way of knowing apriori what is beneficial to the gene pool over very long periods of time. Surely it is better to just look for behaviors that appear to be widespread across the human population and appear to be nonresponsive even to cultural pressures against them when looking for instincts.

Thus I have suggested that grieving and telling stories, etc. are instincts on the basis of the fact that we find most people behaving this way throughout their lives. It seems like people really have an unavoidable urge to grieve under certain conditions and to both listen to stories and tell stories under certain other conditions.

How do you know some of these behaviors aren't just learned from experience?

Of course, many of them could easily be learned. Some individuals might discover from practical experience that it is worth their while to invest time in exploring new ways to make, say, a dwelling or a tool, or to discover what lies beyond the next hill. But this kind of adventurousness and creativity seems to be so ubiquitous a feature of human behavior that I'm guessing it is a `universal', an innate property of our species. Young humans especially, despite generally imitating their elders and their perr group, still have a tendency to find ways to be innovative -- in language, behavior, technical arts, etc. It seems essentially human to be creative and inventive. Still, it is very difficult to rule out the possibility that people find from their experience that creativity `works', that is, that it often brings us practical benefits.

But everyone worldwide drinks water from a cup. Doesn't that mean drinking from a cup is a universal human instinct too?

I would say not, since such behaviors are so easily learned. The difficulties of picking up a liquid (since water is difficult to carry with our hands) plus the risks and inconvenience of lying on your belly to drink from a stream impose severe constraints. So it is no surprise that we humans have all found similar solutions to the problem of getting water to our lips with our head upright. But this points out the great difficulty in making a list of innate behaviors: It is very difficult to tell common learning (by the individual or by the cultural tradition) from innate behavioral biasses. In general, what is innate is something that has been selected for over a great many generations. My hunch is that technologies like `cup making' are too recent in human experience to be produced by natural selection. But I admit that is only a hunch and is very difficult to prove.

Why propose that `try to make sense of things' is a species-wide instinct? That doesn't sound much like an instinct.

I am willing to make such a bold hypothesis because of the following reasoning. I will try to show that there is reason to believe that creativity is a universal trait of Homo sapiens.

A human culture can be looked on as the cumulative result of many generations of `trying to make sense of things'. According to the best current guesses, our species evolved in Africa about a million years ago and spread over the planet beginning around 100,000 years ago. (eg, L. and F. Cavalli-Sforza, 1995). At that time all human groups surely had full-blown cultural traditions (since they were Homo sapiens), but they must have been very primitive indeed. That is, at 100,000 BP, human communities apparently did not have much technical tradition. They probably did not have an effective bow and arrow, much less pottery, domestic animals, methods for the control of fire, wheels, nation-states, organized armies, effective agricultural procedures, ability to smelt metals, and perhaps not even consistent philosophies about life and death, etc. We find that many of these `technologies' (using the term quite loosely here to include even religion) developed independently in human communities in various parts of the world. For example, the agriculture of grain, domestication of animals, brewing of beer, composing heroic poetry, making clay pots, organizing large hunting and fighting forces, smelting of iron, etc. were developed independently at least several times each. Once invented, these and other cultural achievements tended to spread fairly quickly between communities by warfare or by neighborly imitation. Technologies like the wheel, the compound bow, alphabetic writing, the book, domestication of horses all have some story of this type. So, I interpret the independent development of cultural achievements in various communities and their deliberate dissemination between communities to be strong evidence that all human communities are creative. These are evidence that all people have a behavioral bias to be creative, innovative, exploratory and willing to make commitments to new practices that seem to offer practical benefits.

Apparently no previous species was able to develop anything so sophisticated as any of the cultures we have observed in our species during the recent past - up to about three millenia or so. It appears there may have been a fairly rapid planet-wide spread of our species at a time when humans were far more ignorant and culturally backward than any present-day community of humans. By our hypothesis, however, they still shared a common urge and competence to figure out better ways to make a living. The development of cultural traditions among the various groups of Homo sapiens required lots of innovation and experimentation, a lot of talking things over and a lot of teaching of the young. Yet it also implies that each generation of children kept on innovating and solving problems in ways that they were not taught by their elders. Thus cultures everywhere followed very similar inevitable steps toward economic and political development and ultimately toward what we like to call `civilization'.

In short, then, I propose that the multiple cultural flowerings of our species resulted from essentially identical instinctual tendencies to behave in certain ways -- ways like those listed on the `Possible Human Instincts' page. The rich diversity of modern human cultures is evidence that Homo sapiens have always exhibited an urge and a competence to learn and to explore and then to tell others about it.

So is language a human instinct?

Naturally, from this point of view, I find Pinker's argument that language is innate to be very persuasive. Language is surely one of those essential instinctual urges and competences that has made cultural evolution possible in our species. Language is clearly universal across our species and shows other evidence of innateness in being rapidly acquired and exhibiting certain uniformities across all languages. Still, the question of what specific aspects of language are `built-in' and which are simply examples of convergence to similar learned solutions is very difficult. `Language in general' may be innate, but what about the use of verbs? (maybe), vowels? (maybe), proper names (who knows?), consonant clusters? (probably not) or verb tenses (probably not)? It is in these specifics where I disagree with Pinker (as far as I can tell from reading his other chapters in The Language Instinct). Or where reasonable people may disagree with each other until we have better evidence.

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