natural instinct

Natural Instinct – How to understand the word ‘Natural’

Natural Instinct

The word Nature or Natural can have many different meanings. And, these words are often used when people talk about motherhood or natural instinct. So here is my attempt to unravel natural instinct. I think it is best to understand what the meaning of nature or natural in natural instinct is and how people use them.

First meaning

For example Nature can mean that something is biologically determined, as a natural instinct, a natural tendency or impulse. We also say that it is natural to breastfeed, because it is in our nature. For example, we say that women are naturally good with children because women have a motherly instinct, a natural instinct. So in this first sense Nature is innate, always elementary.

Second meaning

The second meaning of Natural is that it is unchanged or untouched and is still close to nature. It can be seen in a positive sense: it is not artificial, not processed, but even organic. It can also mean simple, innocent and naive. It can be negative if we mean rough, unrefined, unsophisticated and indigenous. Societies not belonging to the western world were described in this sense. Women as a sex have been more associated with this meaning.

Third meaning

A third meaning is when it is often done, or when it is the way most people do it. For example, people say that wishing best for your children is natural. In this sense, it is classic, archetypal or prototypical. It can be measured even by a statistical norm. This meaning may even shift from ‘what is done’ to ‘what should be done’. Natural can be used as an adverb (naturally) and become ‘necessarily’ or ‘by definition’ or ‘intrinsically’ or ‘inherently’, and then get a normative character. It is something that has become so normal, that it will be expected and if it is not there, it will become abnormal.

Meanings of Natural Instinct

Now that we know the meanings of the words natural, nature and naturalness, we can now read any meaning into natural instinct. The writer may have meant something else, however. Or the writer may not want to express something, but wants us to believe it. We can often not deduct the meaning from the context. When we read that something is natural, specifically natural for women or natural instinct, to behave in a certain manner, we often do not know what is meant. Is it biologically determined or a natural instinct (the first definition), or are women not so changed by society as men and they are closer to nature (second sense), or is it a behavior that is done by most (third) or should be done (fourth meaning). Natural instinct seems more tricky now, doesn’t it?

Here you you will find more about qualifying characteristics of natural instincts.

natural instinct
By Arup Malakar CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
being a mother

Is there a biological instinct for becoming or being a mother?

Are we primed or urged into being a mother? One would think so.  The immediate answer is yes. If not our species would not continue. However, we can easily see today is that women are giving more thought to having children and being a mother then ever before. So in point of fact, the immediate answer might be wrong. Let us have a look at how the experts define the words.

Defining the word ‘Instinct’

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica,

“The words instinct and instinctive have borne a variety of meanings in the many different contexts in which they have been used. (…) For example, instinct can refer to reflexive or stereotyped behaviour, to an intuitive hunch, to a congenital aptitude or disposition, to a deep-seated impulsion (e.g., “maternal instinct”), to ways of acting that do not appear to have involved learning or experience in their development, or to knowledge that is inborn or subconsciously acquired. The concept of instinct is complicated by the fact that it ranges across behavioral, genetic, developmental, motivational, functional, and cognitive senses.”

Darwin was also well aware that the term instinct was used in several different senses. At the beginning of the chapter “Instinct” in his masterpiece On the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin declined to attempt to define the term:

“Several distinct mental actions are commonly embraced by this term; but everyone understands what is meant, when it is said that instinct impels the cuckoo to migrate and to lay its eggs in other birds’ nests. An action, which we ourselves require experience to enable us to perform, when performed by an animal, more especially by a very young one, without experience, and when performed by many individuals in the same way, without their knowing for what purpose it is performed, is usually said to be instinctive. But I could show that none of these characters are universal.”

Prudency with ‘Instinct’

Darwin was prudent with the word ‘Instinct’ and so was Freud. Although Sigmund Freud wrote in German, he used the German word Instinkt infrequently (here is an interesting article on Helen Deutsch, a colleague of Freud). He instead relied upon the term Trieb. While Instinkt generally refers to an automatic, unlearned response to a specific stimulus and hence is close to the English reflex, Trieb connotes urge, impulse and desire—what in motivational psychology is called drive. Freud took early on the biological view that there are two basic instinctive forces: self-preservation and reproduction. In 1915 Freud published a paper titled Instincts and Their Vicissitudes,” where the self-preservation instinct virtually disappeared and sexual appetite dominated.

Even today, behavioral scientists, if they use the word instinct at all, generally restrict its use to specific patterns of behavior of animals. They rarely use it for being a mother.

Urge for being a mother

So we know from Freud we need to dissociate sexual appetite and urge for being a mother. Women today have no longer children as an outcome of sexual intercourse.  This dissociation can best be illustrated with figures on delaying pregnancy. Figures published in the beginning of the 21st century by the UK Office for National Statistics indicate that the pregnancy rate for women aged 40 and over has risen by more than 40 per cent in the last decade. Over the same period, pregnancy rates for women under 30 fell by nearly 15 per cent. (Laurie Taylor & Matthew Taylor, What are children for?, 2003, Short books, UK, p.52). If there was a biological instinct that told women to desire children or being a mother, then somebody must have changed the hour of alarm with a couple of decennia.

Not only are women delaying their motherhood but they decide also to have less children. To replace the European population couples need to have 2.1 children. Spain leads the way in Western Europe with a rate of 1.22 per woman, followed closely by Italy with 1.25 and Greece with 1.30. The UK has 1.64. Although France is proudly leading with 1.89, in general the northern countries have a higher rate than the southern. This is not at all surprisingly because the northern countries give women with children a different social role and much more support, not only with childcare.  Being a mother  or the social role at least is defined differently. The fertility rate across Europe is now 1.5. Without any changes in the current rates, and without  massive immigration, the population of the European Union will shrink from its current 375 million to 75 million by 2200.

Women have changed and will continue to change in the next decennials without a doubt. They chocked us before. To delay childcare or to only want a singleton must have come close to bravery considering the social condemnation. Being a mother of only one child has become much more acceptable : one family out of five in the US has a singleton. Women will continue to chock traditional audiences when voluntarily having children alone, with another woman or not at all. They will continue to divorce men because he was unsupportive in family life and childcare, the number one divorce reason nowadays.

Maybe nature has only foreseen sexual desires to make sure our species continue. Once a baby is born, nature has foreseen physiological reactions to make sure it gets fed and survives. But anything beyond becomes much more blurry.

being a mother
Nursing area sign by Pete Unseth. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
maternal bonding

On maternal bonding : how the real mother can be utterly ignored

Maternal bonding…

Whenever you do some reading of maternal bonding, motherhood and attachment you will come across the name Konrad Lorenz, a world famous ethologist, this is a zoologist who studies the behavior of animals in their natural habitats. He is also a Nobel Prize winner.

maternal bondingWhen he discovered that newly hatched birds would follow him rather than their own mother if they first lay eyes on him. The real mother would be utterly ignored. Being a mother would not be relevant. He called it ‘pragung’ (German), which became ‘imprinting’, in English and later on bonding.

Now I repeat that the research done on maternal bonding by Konrad Lorenz was only done on birds because in some literature the insinuation towards men is sometimes shamefully clear.

More research on Maternal Bonding

Other men (and no women here) have imprinted before Lorenz. In ancient Greece Pliny the Elder wrote in A.D. 27 of a goose that followed his friend Lacydes faithfully (Naturalis Historia, x). In the 7th century, St. Cuthbert, the protector of birds and other wildlife must have left numerous imprints on winged friends. One of the biographers of Cuthbert, the monk Reginald, wrote that his bird friends were submitted ‘as if they were his slaves’. But again bird research. In the 16th century, Sir Thomas More described the same phenomena in his Utopia.

And after Lorenz came many more researchers on maternal bonding who became passionate at imprinting geese, ducks, chicks, pheasants, partridges, plovers, moorhens, terns, doves, pigeons, eagle owls, and corncrakes.

Modern Bonding Science by Whitman and Spalding

C. O. Whitman (Craig 1908) turned the imprinting to another use with nonprecocial (precocial species hatch with eyes open and are more quickly independant), or altricial (hatch with eyes closed) species. He first crossed two species of pigeons, he would then rear the young of one species with foster parents of the other species. He proved that when fully grown, pigeons with foster parents of a different species preferred to mate with that species rather than of their own species.

Now, it is important to take the matter of bonding not too leisurely. It is a precise event that does not occur haphazardly. Because you need to get at it early. In 1873, a gentleman called Douglas Spalding would be the first to say that the imprinting needs to occur within a certain time frame. He came to that conclusion when he hooded chickens for 3 days. If he unveiled the hood within 3 days they would follow him, after 3 days they would be extremely fearful (and here the comparisons with humans was luckily for some, never made). Being a mother was also a question of timing.

Eckhard Hess of the University of Chicago -although his research te can take this bonding information or imprinting as a fact. This is for birds at least the case. However, it has gone beyond the bird research. People generalized quickly. People see it now as a well known fact that early life experiences play a decisive role in the formation of an animal’s or a person’s affectional system (e.g., se studies by Dr Bowlby in  1951; Dr. Harlow in 1958; Dr Harlow in 1962 again).  Techniques in bird research were more advanced and were uninterrupted for 25 years- came to a similar conclusion.

So we can take this bonding information or imprinting as a fact. This is for birds at least the case. But bonding and maternal bonding is not the same. We generally believe maternal bonding exists because scientists have proven bonding with birds. However, it has gone beyond the bird research. People generalized quickly. People see it now as a well known fact that early life experiences play a decisive role in the formation of an animal’s or a person’s affectional system (e.g.,  studies by Dr Bowlby in  1951; Dr. Harlow in 1958; Dr Harlow in 1962 again).

And… the bird research shows that the bonding was not maternal bonding at all. In most cases a man (often the gender of the researcher at the time) was ‘mother’.

Konrad Lorenz wrote in 1997 another book “King Solomon’s Rig: New Light on Animal’s Ways”, and it is a real gem of a book. The father of ethology knows off course a thing or two about the study of animal behavior, but it is not a ‘scientific book’ and still provides a surprising amount of fascinating information in a small, short book, with wonderful drawings and cute stories.

maternal bonding