It’s Instinct

15/12/11

It’s commonly said that ‘Human beings have lost the instinct that animals have’. This is not exactly true. The original, and some would say correct, meaning of instinct is a trait that is inherent from birth, and therefore doesn’t have to be learned. We instinctively breath, drink to quench our thirst and squint in bright sunlight. 

ImageThe second and more common use of the word is a little trickier to explain, so please bare with me. Imagine you are watching the Women’s Finals at Wimbledon. You are in an aisle seat, and engrossed in a very exciting match. Serena Williams is on perfect form, returning every shot, she reacts with lightning speed. The speed and accuracy with which she interrupts the ball’s trajectory is impressive, resultantly she is comfortably leading. A shout from the crowd steals your attention- someone has been mugged. Your glance up is met fleetingly by the offender, who is just about to pass your seat. Without thinking, you put a foot out, impeding the man’s escape.

Serena does very little thinking when returning the ball, and you put your foot out without thinking to stop the mugger. So here lies our second interpretation. Instinct – action without conscious thought, which can be significantly refined through repetition. In the correct context, this interpretation is completely valid. (The English language can be quite problematic in its fluidity.) The statement we are discussing, however, is not the correct context for this interpretation, and here’s why. Humans have plenty of both ‘tennis’ and ‘true’ instinct. Its a popular idea that we have lost some of our ‘true’ instinct, and that’s because we are able to suppress it based on conscious thought. For example, you might feel the instinct to run away from the fear felt when being interviewed, but conscious knowledge that it might do you good in the long-term keeps you in your seat. It is not that we have lost the ‘true’ instinct, we just have means to keep it in check. 

So, perhaps the phrase should be: ‘Humans have more ability to suppress their ‘true’ instinct than animals, who rely more on their ‘true’ instincts for survival and reproduction. But both are equally capable of developing ‘tennis’ instinct‘. It doesn’t sound quite as catchy, does it? This small example is helps to explain why science is often labelled as boring and difficult. The whole truth is difficult to package into a catchy phrase.  

Image from bucs.org.uk

Despite it being one of my primary occupations, and therefore something you’d expect me to have answered by know, I have realised this blog hasn’t yet provided a satisfactory reason for the existence of a large proportion of its content. To some, welfare charities and the like exist for lonely people to include in their will, or as a distraction from more pressing international problems. After all, they’re only animals, right?

But this question’s most critical answer lies not in the muddy waters of animal rights, but on the dry and familiar land of basic human interest. Animal Welfare is important,  not only because we owe the beings that we depend upon respect and protection, but because caring for animals is good for human nature. Fostering concern for the welfare of another being, be it animal or human, is crucially important for the development of individual humans and the human race as a whole.