Forces of Nature
As a result of the nature versus nurture debate, most experts now agree that both natural instincts and environment are important factors in understanding human behavior. The debate now centers around determining the ratio of each. While we might like to believe that our behavior is based on conscious choices, there is some evidence that suggests that like other members of the animal kingdom, we too possess innate patterns of behavior. For example, like other species, humans too transmit chemical signals through pheromones, which contribute to eliciting behaviors such as dating and marriage.
The limbic system controls much of our instinctual behavior by processing emotions related to external stimuli such as sight, touch, sound, and smell, that prompt a behavioral response. Some instinctive behaviors include aggression, defense, social hierarchy and care. In rats, when the olfactory system detects pheromones from the opposite sex, the signals are sent to the medial amydala, which then sends other signals to other parts of the brain. This complex process involves pathways of innate circuitry between organs and sensory receptors.
Qualifying Characteristics of Natural Instincts
Innate behavior can be defined as behavior that is determined by our nervous systems.
For a behavior to be classified as one of the natural instincts, it must demonstrate the following seven qualifying characteristics:
- occurs at some point in development
- triggered by some event in the environment
- occurs in every member of the species
- cannot be modified
- governs behavior that requires no training
One example of instinctive behaviors or natural instincts with regard to motherhood that is actually scientifically proven according to this definition is the rooting and suckling of newborn infants.
A Study of Natural Instincts
The idea that the psychology should be a science separate from biology and focused on the study of human consciousness was introduced by Wilhelm Wundt in the 1870s. Natural instincts were thought to play a very small role in determining human behavior. In 1951, Dutch biologist and Nobel Prizewinner Nikolaas Tinbergen published “A Study of Instinct”, which proved to be highly influential. He classified behavior based on natural instincts as that which was not affected by the learning process.
However, while his theories remain the foundation for current studies on child development, others define innate behavior differently. For example, in his book “The Language Instinct”, psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker theorizes that language acquisition is an instinctive behavior. Richard Herrnstein, author of “The Bell Curve” presented a mathematical formula he called the “matching law” which expressed his findings that human behavior is controlled largely by social reinforcement.
The Power of Learning and Our Learning Instinct
Abraham Maslow believed that humans no longer have innate behaviors because they are able to override natural instincts towards a certain behavior. He referred to biologically based behaviors as “drives”.
In her 2010 book “Information Behavior: An Evolutionary Instinct”, Amanda Spink refers to child rearing as an “evolved psychological mechanism” with a basis in natural instincts.
Michael McCollough, a positive psychologist, believes that social environment plays a bigger role than natural instincts in determining important socially reactive behaviors such as revenge or forgiveness.
Fortunately, even though parenting may consist of some innate behaviors based on internal chemical reactions, it also consists of many learned behaviors. New parenting behaviors are continually being introduced into the social lexicon as humans adapt to technological innovations. For example, the child rearing “instinct” has been applied primarily to women due to their physiological ability to give birth and nurse an infant. It has even been termed the “maternal instinct”. Now, however, the term “paternal instinct” has been introduced and is growing in popularity.
Thankfully, we no longer believe that parenting skills are the biological result of maternal natural instincts. Women are no longer expected to be ideal mothers just by virtue of having been born female. Increasingly, they are no longer shamed for enlisting support in parenting or for choosing not to become mothers at all. That means an increase in the number of children who are truly wanted in the world.
We haven’t even begun to study the full extent to which we are all affected by innate patterns of behavior. Part of the reason for this is the most studies are funded by governments or corporations with specific agendas. An overview of what is currently being taught reveals that we still have a long way to go towards healing the schisms that result from building cultural structures without sufficient scientific information about our own humanity. As our knowledge about what it means to be human increases, our social institutions too will become more humane.