From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Instinct is the inherent disposition of a living organism toward a particular behavior. Instincts are generally inherited patterns of responses or reactions to certain kinds of stimuli. Instinct provides a response to external stimuli, which moves an organism to action, unless overridden by intelligence, which is creative and more versatile. Since instincts take generations to adapt, an intermediate position, or basis for action, is served by memory, which provides individually stored successful reactions built upon experience. The particular actions performed may be influenced by learning, environment and natural principles. Generally, the term instinct is not used to describe an existing condition or established state.
Examples can more frequently be observed in the behavior of animals, which perform various activities (sometimes complex) that are not based upon prior experience, such as sexual reproduction, and feeding among insects. Other examples include animal fighting, animal courtship behavior, internal escape functions, and building of nests.
It is debatable whether or not living beings are bound absolutely by instinct. Though instinct is what seems to come naturally or perhaps with heredity, general conditioning and environment surrounding a living being play a major role. Predominantly, instinct is pre-intellectual, while intuition is trans-intellectual.
History of the concept of instinct
Instinct gets its earliest thorough treatment in biological literature courtesy of the famous entomologist Jean Henri Fabre. Fabre considered instinct to be any behavior which did not require cognition or consciousness to perform. Fabre's inspiration was his intense study of insects, some of whose behaviors he wrongly considered fixed and not subject to environmental influence.
Instinct as a concept fell out of favor in the 1920s with the rise of behaviorism and such thinkers as B. F. Skinner, which held that all behavior was learned. These beliefs, like Fabre's belief that most behaviors were simply reflexive, also proved to be too simplistic.
An interest in innate behaviors arose again in the 1950s with Karl Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen who made the distinction between instinct and learned behaviors. The modern definition of instinct is heavily built off their work.
The term "instinct" has had a long and varied use in psychology and was first used in 1870s by Wilhelm Wundt. By the close of the 19th century most repeated behavior was considered instinctual. In a survey of the literature at that time, one researcher chronicled 4000 human instincts, meaning someone applied the label to any behavior that was repetitive. As research became more rigorous and terms better defined, instinct as an explanation for human behavior became less common. In a conference in 1960, chaired by Frank Beach, a pioneer in comparative psychology and attended by luminaries in the field, the term was restricted in its application. During the 60's and 70's, textbooks still contained some discussion of instincts in reference to human behavior. By the year 2000, a survey of the 12 best selling textbooks in Introductory Psychology revealed only one reference to instincts, and that was in regard to Sigmund Freud's referral to the "id" instincts.
Freudian Psychoanalysts have stated that instinct refers to human motivational forces (such as sex and aggression), sometimes represented as life instinct and death instinct. This use of the term motivational forces has mainly been replaced by the term instinctual drives.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow argued that humans no longer have instincts because we have the ability to override them in certain situations. He felt that what is called instinct is often imprecisely defined, and really amounts to strong drives. For Maslow, an instinct is something which cannot be overridden, and therefore while it may have applied to humans in the past it no longer does.
The book "Instinct" (1961) established a number of criteria which distinguish instinctual from other kinds of behavior. To be considered instinctual a behavior must a) be automatic, b) be irresistible, c) occur at some point in development, d) be triggered by some event in the environment, e) occur in every member of the species, f) be unmodifiable, and g) govern behavior for which the organism needs no training (although the organism may profit from experience and to that degree the behavior is modifiable).
In a classic paper published in 1972, the psychologist Richard Herrnstein decries Fabre's opinions on instinct (see: In biology section).
Some sociologists argue that humans have no instincts, defining them as a "complex pattern of behavior present in every specimen of a particular species, that is innate, and that cannot be overridden." Said sociologists argue that drives such as sex and hunger cannot be considered instincts, as they can be overridden. This definitory argument is present in many introductory sociology and biology textbooks, but is still hotly debated.
In the book An Instinct for Dragons anthropologist David E. Jones suggests a hypothesis that humans, just like monkeys, have inherited instinctive reactions to snakes, large cats and birds of prey. Folklore dragons have features that are combinations of these three, which would explain why dragons with similar features occur in stories from independent cultures on all continents. Other authors have suggested that especially under the influence of drugs or in dreams, this instinct may give raise to fantasies about dragons, snakes, spiders, which makes these symbols popular in drug culture. The traditional mainstream explanation to the folklore dragons does however not rely on human instinct, but on the assumption that fossil remains of dinosaurs gave raise to similar speculations all over the world.