Instinct is the general term applied to unlearned behavior. Behavior is a result of neural wiring and the response of those circuits to sensory input, hormones, and internal feedback. In the early years of the 20th century, Ivan Pavlov studied conditioning of stimulus — response reactions to novel cues. His work led to J. B. Watson’s formulation of “behaviorism.” According to Watson, there were no instincts in animals; everything is learned—even respiration and the circulation of the blood. Behaviorism dominated psychology and the social sciences through at least 1970 and thus had a major impact on anthropological thinking.
The behavioristic formulation required viewing the inborn S — R units upon which conditioning operates as somehow not instinctive. Watson imagined that these building blocks were simple reflexes and arbitrarily excluded reflexes from innate behaviors; with reflexes gone, there was nothing instinctive left. More complex behavior was seen as a learned chaining of several S — R modules into a higher-level unit. Behaviorists thus became fixated on the study of learning.
Ethologists, the biologists who study animal behavior, found overwhelming evidence for complex innate behavior, and neurobiologists were later able to map the preexisting neural circuits that generate some of this activity, insect flight, for instance. Most animal learning is now seen as a way of calibrating or fine-tuning behavior.
Animals are born with behavioral circuits; often, however, the behavior appears spontaneously later at a species-specific time, a process called maturation. Innate behavior is triggered by some combination of simple cues (sign stimuli); the sensitivity of the animal to these cues is controlled by motivation or drive (which may be hormonal or neural, depending on the behavior), so that inappropriate behavior is blocked and creatures can direct their efforts to responses with the highest priority.
Learning, where it can occur at all, is usually specific to each behavioral context; that is, the cues that trigger it, the cues that can be learned, and the way they are organized in the brain for later use are species specific. Learning thus serves to make behavior less dependent on the simple cues that initially guide the response (and, in general, the learning of the new cues).
In short, natural selection has acted to focus learning; in some sense, most learning could be called innate. Reexamination of behavioristic studies of pigeons and rats reveals substantial species-specific and context-specific biases in their learning. More recently, both biologists and psychologists have become interested in self-directed learning, planning, and concept formation—activities formerly considered impossible in animals by both behaviorists and ethologists. Cognitive ethology, as it is called, has shown that many of the intellectual activities once thought uniquely human are in fact widely shared. Whether these behaviors actually require thinking (in either humans or other animals) is another question.
- Gould, J. L. (1982). Ethology: The mechanisms and evolution of behavior. New York: Norton.
- Gould, J. G., & Marler, P. (1987). Learning by instinct. Scientific American, 256(1), 74-85.
- Watson, J. B. (1924). Behaviorism. New York: People’s Institute.