Departments

Instinct

Little that is human is instinctual. Drives are not instincts; drives bend and compel thought, but instinct suspends and replaces it. Instinct is something in the individual that is not of the individual. We can see real instinct in our pets: in the dog that swings the toy high into the air as if to snap its neck, or in the well-fed cat which after the instinctive pounce or chase sits in front of the crippled mouse or overturned cockroach in a confusion clear even across species (for we are all mammals here).

The only instinct of human beings is imitation, and it leaves no room for any other. The human body is fitted to walk upright; to speak and to signal; to use and to make tools; but the ways of feral children show that these things must be learned. We must always be careful to distinguish drive from instinct. Sexual behavior is the most obvious hold that evolution has on us. With a perverse secondhand sense of guilt, even the irreligious talk of this hold as if, because we are at all animals, therefore we are only animals. But what we cry up as an overthrowing storm would be judged, by other animals, to be no more than a gentle, steering breeze. In the way of nature what could be sillier than an animal which, when strength and spring are come, must learn from another how to reproduce? For human beings instinct is absent even from the original operation of life.

There is some instinctual jetsam floating on the unconscious: hitting with the heel of the hand, for example, or not rolling atop a baby or a pet in your sleep. But we are too willing to consider behaviors instinctual which are only practical conditions of survival; territoriality, for example. It is a necessity in all modes of life, one which if not learned early as a habit is enforced later as a hard lesson. Boundaries will always be encroached on, even the skin; and those whose only boundaries are for their vitals and victuals will find their lives and livelihoods in constant danger. Artificial boundaries allow a place for the fight away from the provisions, as clothing wearing out or torn saves the skin from wear and tear.

We are animals, and we are made of the same stuff as other animals; but we are not therefore like other animals. Even without inferring a creator, we can see that the changes which we make in raw materials by way of art or technology, to make them speak or show or do, are of the same kind as the changes which have made animals into human beings. There is no line in us with instinct to one side and self to the other. There can be no epiphenomena or accidents of human nature. What we do is what we are. Human consciousness is not a kind of animal nature; it is map and image and story of that nature.