Coded gray.

Sunday 21 March 2004

Screenshot anime Azumanga Daioh

Pic of the day: The male teacher from Azumanga Daioh, who became high school teacher "Because I like high school girls and stuff". I'd like to think that there are other motivations as well, but who knows where one ends and the other begins?


It amuses me when people flat out refuses the idea that humans have instincts. I readily agree we don't have instincts like the songbirds that navigate from Africa to Norway each spring without any instruction, without map or compass, and yet fly unerringly to the very same tree where they built their nest last year. Or like the ant with a brain small as a pinhead, yet able to drag home leaves to grow mushrooms and even bring the fungus with them when they set out to start a new colony.

But once we compare ourselves to our fellow mammals, it soon becomes obvious that we have a lot in common. In these animals instinct does not simply take control of the body. Rather like us, they are inclined to do things that are useful for themselves and the species. Once they do, they clearly experience some inner reward, which fades when they get satisfied. If you see a dog or any farm animal hungry, you should realize that they experience much the same discomfort as we. And their joy when they finally get food is unmistakable. On this level, it is not hard for a human to empathize with a dog, or the other way around.

When it comes to sexuality, most mammals have a much more direct approach than us. The females are only fertile for a short time, so they need to proceed with more urgency. For this reason it can be necessary to physically restrain animals to keep them from breeding, something that is usually not necessary with humans. (Though it certainly helps.)


We don't need to act on our impulses immediately. We can defer gratification of an instinct in order to better satisfy it - or another - in the future. But this is not caused by lack of instinct but by reason and training. Even dogs can be trained to not jump up and grab the steak from the table. We just do a lot more of this.

Often when we resist one instinct, we are motivated by another. So even if we'd like to eat more, we refrain because we are more concerned about being able to move, protecting our status in the pack and attract a mate. (Not necessarily in that order.)


This doesn't mean that all we do ultimately is meant to satisfy some instinct. At least not unless we consider the human spirit an instinct. You know, the part of us who creates and appreciates art and beauty, seeks the meaning of life and in some cases worships a higher being. These things seem outright counter-productive, as you could spend the time hunting, gathering and procreating instead. And yet they pop up everywhere. If not equally in each individual, then certainly in every culture, on every continent, in every age.

Sociobiologists go out of their way to fit these things into the same theories that fit the rest of animal behavior. It has been pointed out that the weaver birds act eerily human-like: The male builds a much too large nest and decorates it with flowers and other objects of its preferred color, in order to impress the female with his overflowing vitality so she can choose his superior genes.

Yes, I think I've met males like that. Males who don't appreciate art or architecture, but whose main concern is: Do the chicks dig it? They want a larger house even though they don't need it to live in, a faster car even though they already drive at the speed limit, more expensive clothes and furniture even though these are less comfortable or even decorative. They may need to hire consultants and experts to make sure their style stays together, because they have no innate sense of it themselves; left to themselves, they would simply go for the biggest and most expensive, hoping to show off their ego.

There are chicks that dig that kind of roosters. But there are also many people with an innate sense of beauty, or developing it over time. There are people who not just collect art, but create it, bringing it into the world with tears of pain and joy. And it's not limited to men either, although there seems to be more of them (as there should be, since men are more varied overall, have a broader curve of distribution for most mental traits).

And yes, religion is nifty for social cohesion. It helps give an excuse for common moral norms and rituals that bind people together. In some places, like Ulster ("Northern Ireland") it is THE defining trait for people who otherwise look alike and talk the same language. Lots of people approach religion just like that. But many others don't. Many have an intensely personal approach to religion, or even some spirituality that is not religion in the classical sense. These people often break out of the flock, and their religion forces them to become painstakingly alone. Sometimes they just live that way and die, other times other people are drawn to them and form a new religion or revitalize the old.

Sure, there are examples of minor sect leaders who cheerfully bonk their female followers, who in turn are eager to receive their "blessing". But more commonly, religion causes people to stand back from random chances to reproduce, maybe even at all. While their thoughts linger for millennia, their genes are lost, waving a cheerful goodbye to the explanations of sociobiology. Sure, you can stretch and twist explanations to include this, but you end up with theories more full of ad hoc self contradictions than Ptolemaic astronomy.

How can art and religion have completely opposite effect in different people? It is a nightmare for those who look only at the genes. But for those who look at the spirit as well, it makes sense in a simple and intuitive way, as logical as gravity was to Newton. Some people collect works of the spirit like they collect anything else, to build a bigger and more impressive nest. But some people are driven by an inner need to express the spirit living within them. If it is an instinct, and in a manner of speaking you can call it that ("the spirit makes itself known in the psyche as a drive" to translate C.G. Jung) ... it is an instinct different from the rest.

I personally don't think it is an instinct as such, but the next level up. It seems that all these things came with the revolution that spread all over the world 60-40 000 years ago, when we suddenly became conscious at a new level. This was not a genetic change, for our common ancestors are much further back. It is not even absolutely certain that it has been contact between all the groups of humans after that time and until the modern age. (Some believe Australia has been isolated for at least that long, although that is doubtful and would be out and out creepy. On the other hand, the much more recent Neolithic Revolution with agriculture, temples and cities certainly seems to have happened in the Americas without any contact with Eurasia. It never spread to Australia and Oceania until modern times though.)

The short of it is, in my opinion: We have instinct and they do a great job of keeping us alive and (in most cases) carry our genes into the future as well. But there has been a software upgrade since then, which goes far beyond just the leeway of the instincts. And there may be a new upgrade coming, when we are ready for it. Or perhaps we still have far to go with what we have.

Yesterday <-- This month --> Tomorrow?
One year ago: Shock and awe
Two years ago: Recession over?
Three years ago: Goodbye to nothing
Four years ago: Returns
Five years ago: "Love" is a bad word

Visit the Diary Farm for the older diaries I've put out to pasture.

I welcome e-mail:
Back to my home page.