The Anomalist

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Undesirable Instincts

A Column by Charles Miller

 I mentioned in my last column  that "instinct" could be an uncomfortable and politically incorrect subject  when pursued to its "logical depth." Here's why.

 "Instinct" is a popular throw-away term used by science to address behavior  (in animals or humans) that simply cannot be explained in a scientific way. Science  probably has no more of an idea of the true nature of instinct than does a lay observer.  How does any given "instinct" develop to enhance the survival of a species?  Popular science would have us believe that instinct requires thousands of generations  to become ingrained in the genetic blueprints of a species. This conveniently explains  why our domesticated pets, for example, exhibit "wild" behavior from time  to time: "Oh, that dates back to when their ancient ancestors were stalking  the savannahs. It's just instinctive behavior." So, what happened with the thousands  of years of domestication? Survival-wise, domesticated pets live healthier and much  longer than their wild cousins--why hasn't Nature totally discarded their wild instincts  in favor of domesticated instincts? "Well, instincts take tens of thousands, even millions of years to develop. They can't just be switched on and off in a mere  few thousand years." Oh, yeah?

 Here's one of my favorite anecdotes that draws into question the long-term acquisition  of instinctive behavior: Everyone has heard of the annual return of the swallows  to San Juan Capistrano, California. More than a curiosity of migratory behavior,  it's a longtime tourist attraction for bird-lovers and romantics from around the  world. Over a hundred years ago, promoters saw a wonderful opportunity to increase  tourism, by bringing newfangled electric power and lighting to Capistrano--to that  end, a few miles of uninsulated power line was strung up all around the town. Well,  to the horror of the promoters and tourists alike, when the swallows returned the  following spring, they were killed by the thousands when they flew into the power  lines (it was a much less sophisticated technology back then, with several narrowly-spaced  wires). The birds had never encountered high-voltage wiring before and so flew blindly  into the 19th Century equivalent of a giant bug-zapper.

 Of course, a few thousand dead swallows weren't going to stand in the path of progress,  so the electricity stayed, and here's where it gets interesting: The following spring,  with electrical lines still in place, tourists and promoters were expecting another  grisly spectacle (so much for romantic Capistrano); but, amazingly, this time hardly  any birds were killed. The swallows appeared to make a conscious effort to avoid  the electrical wiring.

 And therein lies the mystery--a large number of these birds were not even born the  year before, and the ones that had survived the previous year's holocaust  never actually came in contact with the power lines. So how was the necessary  survival behavior--instinct--conveyed to a new generation of swallows? And how  did it only take one year to manifest?

 I've related that little story before, and I typically get an onslaught of mail from  skeptics who, among other things, deny the event ever happened. Well, not only did  it happen in San Juan Capistrano, but the same sort of incident occurred all across  the Third World when electricity was first introduced. Many different species of  birds apparently acquired new survival instincts in less than a generation. This  flies in the face (pun intended) of dogmatic Science and accepted instinct theory.

 One explanation could be that these birds somehow rationalized and communicated a complex survival scenario to their offspring, and their offspring wisely heeded  the warning. That, of course, would entail the birds being possessed of some pretty  advanced reasoning faculties (heck, humans have the most advanced reasoning of all,  and our offspring seldom heed our warnings). An even more metaphysical explanation  is that birds live and learn as a communal entity--a "mass mind"--which  disseminates valuable survival information to the entire species on extremely short  notice. As improbable as those two explanations may seem, they still offer a better  answer to rapidly acquired whole-species behavioral changes than does accepted instinct  theory.

 So far, I've only chatted about the "uncomfortable" aspects of instinct  as they apply to the animal world. The "politically incorrect" bit necessarily  applies to human instincts. Of course, we could discuss for hours whether or not  the "reincarnation" phenomenon is a human manifestation of neuro-genetic  memory. For my money, and to be brief, I think reincarnation is a neuro-genetic  memory, a survival tool that actually allows us to learn from our collective human  past.

 But my contention that "racism" may also be a human instinct is the one  that usually draws a storm of criticism from all corners--probably because we in  20th Century Western Culture prefer to believe that racism is a bad habit or something  that we can extinguish with a little social discipline. If we were to accept that  racism is a survival instinct--left over, perhaps, from hundreds of thousands of  years ago when several different species of human were competing against one another  for survival--then we would also have to accept that racism as an instinct may defy  the social engineering of one or two generations (thus lending to the angst of many  civil rights activists, I can imagine).

 Anyway, from there we could go on to ask if mass-suicide and mass-murder (and war)  are throwback human instincts, and I think there's a very good likelihood that they  are, in the same way that some animal and insect species instinctively wax suicidal  and homicidal at times, usually to decrease their own populations in order to conserve  natural resources.

 Of course, just mentioning any of these possibilities in today's Western Culture  is enough to cause the hair stand up on every politically correct (narrow-minded)  neck, and is enough to get you branded a "hate-monger" or some other preposterous  label. So much for freedom of speech, even when it's a casual and objective musing.

Copyright 1999 by The Anomalist