Humans Have No Instincts

The smell of smoke and heavy breathing fills the classroom.

“Okay, okay, okay, okay. Let’s us see here, what we are going to be dealing with eh?” says the Professor who just walked into the classroom, ten minutes late.

He walks behind his desk in front of the room and lackadaisically drops a wad of papers onto it.

Many students in the room look at each other with the same concerned face.

The Professor is wearing thick vintage glasses and has greasy black hair with spots of gray. It’s clear he dyes it, but puts in a minimum amount of effort in doing so. His South American accent is thick and his voice deep and raspy. No doubt he is a heavy smoker.

“A very interesting list I must say here.” he says.

His eyebrows raise for a moment.

“We even have the famous one eh? Miss Miranda.” he says as he looks at a young woman, sitting perfectly centered in the middle of the room, among all the other students.

The Professor moves from behind his desk and leans back against the front, with both hands holding him up.

“Well okay, let’s get started. Answer the following question. Do we, humans, have any instincts?”

Many students in the room look confused after hearing the question.

But someone’s hand in the back shoots up fast.

“Yes? You there in the back.”

“Of course we do.” says the student.

“That is wrong. Humans have no instincts.”

“What?” asks the student.

Many other students in the room look even more confused.

Is this guy crazy?

“If you think we do, name one.” says the Professor.

“Um I don’t know, eating? Hunger.”

“Ah food. That’s an instinct right? The need to eat. To fulfill our hunger. You think that’s an instinct?”

“Yeah.” says the student, confidently.

“Well, you can keep yourself from eating right?” asks the Professor.

“I guess. I guess yeah if you wanted to.” says the student.

“Right. You can just say and decide, “I’m not gonna eat that!” And then that’s it, you don’t eat it. Eating. Hunger. Not an instinct.” says the Professor, smiling.

The student looks back, completely confused.

“I don’t get it.” says the student.

“I think we need to define instinct eh? Oh, and what is your name?” says and asks the Professor.

“Sean.” says the student.

“Yes Mister Sean, a good answer but no good.”

The professor walks to the chalk board in front of the room and begins writing.

“An instinct has three defining characteristics. One, is that it is unlearned. Two, is that it cannot be resisted but for the most extreme of circumstances. And three, it is a complex pattern of behavior.”

The Professor turns back to the students for a moment.

“So, an example. A spider will spin its web no matter what. Nothing teaches the spider how to spin its web, but the web is incredibly complex. If you take two spiders of the same species, and hatch them across the planet, they will both spin the same web, no matter what. Also, unless you torture the spider, it will spin its webs no matter what, that’s its instinct.”

Some students nod their heads.

“Another example you know, is that the sea turtles that lay their eggs in the sand and migrate hundreds of miles back to its nesting beach. Nothing teaches the sea turtle how to migrate back to lay its eggs and it will attempt to migrate no matter what.” says the Professor.

“So with that said, do we have instincts?” asks the Professor.

“What about breathing?” someone asks.

“Not complex. Breathing is a biological process and function, not an instinct.”

“What about reproduction?”

The Professor chuckles, somewhat creepily.

“I mean I can refuse to reproduce right?”

The room goes silent.

“Maybe we did have instincts one day but we do not anymore I don’t think. In my whole thirty years I have never heard one. So moving on, we will apply this theory and many to our journey through sociology as we study-“

The young woman in the center of the room, Miranda, is raising her hand.

“Yes? You are the one they call Miranda yes?” asks the Professor.

“Sure. I think we do have an instinct, just one.” says Miranda.

“Oh? And which one are you thinking?”

“Learning.” says Miranda.

“What do you mean by learning?” asks the Professor.

“Example, if I place my hand on a hot stove, I will feel incredible pain.”

“Okay.”

“Now for the rest of my life, I will know that if I touch a hot stove, it will hurt, a lot.”

“Okay.”

“I can choose to touch the stove again of course, and be burned, but that doesn’t matter because that’s not the instinct. The instinct is that I can never not know, that touching the stove will burn me. Furthermore, there is no possible way, that obtaining the knowledge, that touching a hot stove will burn me, could be have been kept from me.”

“Could you clarify that?”

“Sure. One, no one ever needed to teach me how to learn information about my environment, such as the fact that touching a hot stove will cause pain. Two, it is impossible for me to resist the actual act of learning, there is nothing I can do to prevent obtaining the knowledge that I will be burned. And three, the act of human learning is incredibly complex when compared to nature. This stove example is not that complex, but it would take virtually every other animal, in the animal kingdom, a long time to learn what a stove is, and how to identify it and avoid it. And of course, we can learn things significantly more complex than the fact that a stove can burn you.”

“I think I see what you are saying, but there is a problem. We can choose not to learn. In fact, many people do that all the time eh?”

Most of the students in the room laugh at the joke, partially to relieve the tension.

“Well, we can choose the level of complexity of our learning, but we cannot fully resist it. I would liken it to the spider example you gave. The spider cannot resist spinning a web. But it can choose where it will place it, and when. Human learning is the same. Even if someone just sat on a couch all day and wasted their life, their mind would still be actively learning, constantly.”

The Professor remains silent.

“Also consider that animals follow their survival instincts all day without really thinking. They hunt, reproduce, eat, all on instinct. They engage in very little learning at all. They don’t rely on the learning instinct like we do for survival.”

“You may have an interesting point there. I will have to think about this.”

“Sure. I mean, both our theories rely quite a bit on our subjective human experience and varying opinions on what is complex and what is not. But even if you do not agree, I’m sure now you know at least, that I am as intelligent as you surely have heard.”

“I would agree with that indeed Miss Miranda.”

“And that proves my point. Because of your innate instinct of learning, you could not resist learning how intelligent I am just now, which was a complex behavior pattern because you had to compare the sum total of your experience with humans with this very interaction, so you could make a judgment on my intelligence in real time. And no one ever really taught you how to identify a smart person, you learned that on your own, due to the innate instinct of learning.”

The Professor slowly removes his glasses and reaches into his pocket to retrieve his cell phone. But before he can, the sound of an alarm can be heard outside the windows of the classroom. It sounds like the classic air raid alarms used in wars past.

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