Thursday, October 29, 2009

How the Concept of Instinct Shapes Our Attitudes About Nonhumans

Instinct is defined as patterns of behavior or specific skills in an animal exhibited in response to environmental stimuli, that are innate, largely unalterable, and not involving reason or conscious thinking. While the basic concept of instinct may have validity, its arbitrary application is clearly speciesist. Very few behavior patterns and virtually no skills exhibited by humans are attributed to instinct. In stark contrast, much of the behavior and skill sets exhibited by nonhumans are assumed to be instinctual. For example, nobody would think that there is no reasoning or thought process involved when humans build houses. We don’t consider this to be merely instinctual behavior. But dictionary definitions of “instinct” frequently cite examples of birds building nests. Nest building represents a relatively complex behavior. We don’t really know what’s going on inside the mind of a bird constructing a nest. While it’s possible that instinct is the initiating force behind her behavior, I highly doubt that there’s no active thinking or reasoning processes going on.

When we arbitrarily choose to explain complex animal behavior as instinct, only when nonhumans are involved, we are being speciesist. Attributing the behavior of nonhumans to instinct has the effect of minimizing their capabilities and accomplishments, reducing them to unthinking machines, denying their sentience and personhood, and justifying our own feelings of superiority and our continued exploitation of them.

To the extent that instinct is something that in fact exists, as opposed to a social construct that serves to advance an “us versus them” mindset, it should be impartially studied and rationally discussed. But it should never be used as a tool to justify oppression, discrimination, and violence towards other animals.


Daniel K. Vegan said...

Instinct, hard-wired, programmed, made that way - it's all the same right? I'm sure that some behaviours in both humans and non-humans are instinctual, like the hair on the back of your neck standing up when you're scared, but to dismiss all animal behaviour as instinct is indeed speciesist.

Great essay Ken!

Roger Yates said...

Mainstream sociology is guilty of suggesting that everything nonhuman animals do is instinctual and everything (virtually everything anyway) humans do is cultural.

I think it is rather more complex than that. This video taps into such ideas:

Elaine Vigneault said...

Another place were nonvegans misplace the concept of instinct:
When attributing women's concern for animals to a "mothering instinct gone awry."

I can't tell you how often I've been told that I wouldn't care so much about animals if I had children. Or how often I've heard that my veganism is simply a manifestation of my "natural mothering instincts."

It's not just speciesist, it's also sexist.

Alex said...

Marx finds the insuperable line between human and nonhuman animals in the ability to conscious create, i.e., we are capable of consciously creating (through instrumental reason; the use of the “mind”) our world by engaging with the natural environment.

In "Capital," he uses the example of someone building X: first, X exists as an ideal creation in the mind of the builder, and then the builder consciously selects the tools and alters the raw materials to realize the ideal of X outside the mind. Marx foregrounds this discussion with the example of a beaver building a dam. Marx labels this "instinctual" (versus conscious activity).

I started to wonder how this would even be possible. Consider the complexity of a beaver dam. Marx would have us believe that a) it is chance that the sticks and various components just happen to end-up looking like a dam. Random placement that happens to result in a dam. Or b) that the placement of each individual component in its correct place is merely instinctual.

The first position makes the beaver dam quite a miraculous achievement. Indeed, given its complexity, the trial-and-error necessary makes it unreasonable to believe that a beaver could ever complete the dam.

While the second position is almost absurd on the face of it. Marx would have us believe that the desire to build the dam (the motive-force) is instinctual, but the end, the dam, doesn’t exist consciously – the beaver can’t see the end he’s motivated to pursue. And that there is also an engineering instinct that forces the beaver to place the raw materials in perfect order to accomplish this end. That is quite unparsimonious, only ludicrously so.

It seems far more reasonable to argue that the beaver has some vision of what a dam looks like that rises to the level of consciousness, and then gathers and changes the raw materials accordingly, and then places them in the necessary order to realize the dam. Like human animals, perhaps the desire for shelter and security is instinctual, but the means to realizing that end, even if for us it is a home, for the beaver, a dam (which may or may not be evolutionarily contingent), must be consciously grasped.

Beavers, it would seem, share some of the characteristics that Marx thought were human alone.