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.