Instinct and ancestors - the genetic origins of intuition

An introduction to the Darker side of Jimmy Powdrell Campbell

One other area, in particular, which interests me is the varying degree to which instinct contributes to intelligence. There is a general assumption that instinct operates only at the most primitive levels, that we derive our instincts exclusively from our primate ancestors but I believe it can be demonstrated that instinctual intelligence is inherited also from our much more recent and more intelligent ancestors.

"Instinct is the inherent disposition of a living organism toward a particular behavior. Instincts are unlearned, inherited fixed action patterns of responses or reactions to certain kinds of stimuli. Examples of instinctual fixed action patterns can be observed in the behavior of animals, which perform various activities (sometimes complex) that are not based upon prior experience and do not depend on emotion or learning, such as reproduction, and feeding among insects. Other examples include animal fighting, animal courtship behavior, internal escape functions, and building of nests.

"Instinctual actions - in contrast to actions based on learning which is served by memory and which provides individually stored successful reactions built upon experience - have no learning curve, they are hard-wired and ready to use without learning, but do depend on maturational processes to appear. Biological predispositions are innate biologically vectored behaviors that can be easily learned. For example in one hour a baby colt can learn to stand, walk, and run with the herd of horses. Learning is required to fine tune the neurological wiring reflex like behavior. True reflexes can be distinguished from instincts by their seat in the nervous system; reflexes are controlled by spinal or other peripheral ganglion, but instincts are the province of the brain."

Terminology and definition can undermine the communication of ideas before we have a chance to correct any misunderstanding.  What I mean by "instinct" and what it is assumed/understood to mean are probably very different things. Instinct is possibly better understood in terms of what it isn't.

"... to distinguish behavior beyond the control of the organism from behavior that has a repetitive component we can turn to the book "Instinct"(1961) stemming from the 1960 conference. A number of criteria were established which distinguishes 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). The absence of one or more of these criteria indicates that the behavior is not fully instinctual. Instincts do exist in insects and animals as can be seen in behaviors that can not be changed by learning. Psychologists do recognize that humans do have biological predispositions or behaviors that are easy to learn due to biological wiring, for example walking and talking."

I can't think, offhand, on a better example of "scientific" thinking establishing, for itself, a rock-solid barrier to scientific thought.  Put a beggar on horseback and he'll ride to hell.  Give him an education and he'll come up with authoritative rubbish like that. If it's not irresistible, it's not an instinct!??  If it doesn't occur in every member of the species, it's not an instinct!??

Let's reduce it to the fundamentals.  Two well-known "instincts" spring to immediately to mind: self-preservation, and the herd instinct.

The instinct for self-preservation might, for example, include an involuntary action such as screaming in terror, shielding your face from an impact.  There is no prerequisite of learning in any of these; we just react.  No experience has to teach us how to do these things.  They're innate.

The Herd Instinct
Human behaviour can be seen to be dramatically altered in a crowd situation and especially where a common fear or desire is involved.  In computer terms, mob violence, for example, might be aptly described as a programming bug, i.e. an algorithm, having been designed/evolved for one purpose, behaving inappropriately in a context for which it was not created.  Basically, when the herd instinct kicks in, we tend to suppress our individuality and to modify our behaviour to match that of the rest of the crowd. Even the scientific community are historically subject to the power of the herd instinct. When maverick ideas seem to threaten to undercut the status and authority of the community, they are quick to remember that the safest place in the herd is right in the middle and attracting no attention.

Instincts, as we generally perceive them, are innate, unlearned modifiers of behaviour. When we act instinctively, we respond to something genetic.  We might, some of us, resist the urge to follow the herd to the crowded exit and opt to separate ourselves from the panic of the crowd but even that might well be an instinctive reaction on the part of an individual whose ancestors have learnt that survival can sometimes depend on keeping the head in a crisis.  N.B. in offering that proposition I'm also setting up the inference, in contradiction to the wisdom of the 1960 conference, that we don't necessarily all share the same instincts.

The article I cited used the term hard-wired: "Instinctual actions - in contrast to actions based on learning which is served by memory and which provides individually stored successful reactions built upon experience - have no learning curve, they are hard-wired and ready to use without learning..."  I see what was meant but it's actually an unhelpful term.  If we are happy with computer terminology, a better analogy might be Read-Only Memory.  We sometimes destroy our potential to understand by accepting the validity of specious concepts on the basis that we can live with them; they seem not to challenge our "knowledge" of the subject.  But instinct is not "hard-wired."  That infers a degree of simplicity that completely precludes an understanding of the actual process.  Instinct is certainly not the "memory" of personal experience but it is, I think I can demonstrate, a form of memory, innate, genetic, inherited from our ancestors.  The term genetic memory isn't inappropriate.

A sheepdog pup which has never seen the adult dog work and never seen a sheep, will exhibit all the characteristic abilities to herd and control before training is commenced. It has inherited the fascinating and sophisticated ability to present, to the flock, a very dynamic and measured level of threat. Its proximity, its profile, its speed and direction are all measured with a subtlety which comes from long experience but that experience lies totally outwith the life of the pup. There is little comparison between a family pet and a working dog, not only in terms of that which we understand as intelligence but also, more importantly, in terms of its instincts.  The working dog can instinctively recognize a situation as requiring a particular action purely because it is descended from generations of working dogs. The cash value of the pup is, therefore, a function of the reputation of its parents and its grandparents. To the shepherd, it comes as no surprise that the ability of the dog is determined by its breeding. He's looking for more in a dog than what we call intelligence. He looks, also, for good instincts. In training, the well-bred dog will learn quickly. In some cases, the animal will learn so quickly, it is almost as if it is being reminded rather than taught.

My own dog is a German Shepherd. His ancestors, all police dogs, include a fairly impressive string of obedience champions. In the first day, as six-week-old pup, he was house trained. This is almost unheard of in the world of family pets. From the first day, he took food from anyone's hand so gingerly and gently that it had to be seen to be believed. I could go on ad nausium with examples of his instincts to behave like a well-trained dog. Enough to say that it's only when when you see his ancestry that his exceptional behaviour is explained. In common with many of his breed and job description, he instinctively understood, from day one, that we would be making the rules and it was his job to obey. German Shepherds that have been bred to work come with the software pre-installed ready for the job, and they live for their work.

Psychology has little use for anecdotal information. Empirical research can be controlled, outcomes verified and the methodology is always open to re-examination. In short, it is, for the most part, reliable. Anecdotes, on the other hand, are utterly unreliable, mixing a soup of subjective interpretations, falsely-enhanced memory, and even imagination, with fact. An anecdote generally provides more information about the story-teller than about the incident itself. For these reasons, the whole immense and rich body of anecdotal information is completely cast aside. I think it's a great mistake. We're closing the door upon the study of some of the most fascinating processes of the mind. Under laboratory conditions, instinct, in particular, can only be investigated at its most primitive level. By formulating a means to evaluate and to group anecdotal evidence, like for like, we open new, unexplored avenues and we expose unimagined vistas.

Anecdotes providing instances of human "intuition" occasionally give us a glimpse into the reality of the instinctive processes at work. This is the sort of thing I mean: a friend of the family used to be with the murder squad in the Edinburgh Police. She spoke of one detective who was known for the uncanny reliability of her instincts. To give one example, - a case of a murdered child - in spite of a complete absence of evidence, she had felt certain that they had arrived at the home in which the murder had been committed and that they were talking to the murderer. On no evidence at all, she called for the house to be dusted for fingerprints. When none were found, she remained stubbornly convinced that there must be something somewhere, something that they had missed. She asked if they had dusted the whole door. As the entire surface of the door was dusted, the print of the child's foot appeared, high and in the centre of the door. The man, as far as she had been concerned, was the murderer. No-one else could see it and no logic could have competed with her "intuition."

My feeling is that it is a mistake to dismiss this type of story as being irrelevant to science.  This detective's ability to recognize, instinctively, that she was talking to a man who was concealing the truth - the truth-or-lie function of instinctual intelligence - is one which we all share in differing degrees. Every study of body languge touches upon the giveaway gestures which most of us make when we are being dishonest. What I'm saying here is that this is not a learned ability; it is inherited. Why waste time on this kind of thing? The short answer is that my instincts tell me this is not rubbish.

Body Language

Facial expressions; intonations; the walk; the posture; body language - we do not all share the same ability to read and interpret unconscious communication. It is an instinct-dependent process. In terms of instinct, as in every other dimension of intelligence, some of us are much brighter than others. I believe - and, hopefully, I can explain why - that we pass on, through our genes, much more than the colour of the eyes and hair, that the skills we practice, the lessons we learn in life are, in a significant measure, bequeathed to future generations.

Another anecdote illustrating the same thing at work:
#2 The family dog had become unwell. It's owner stroked his head for a few moments then she told her son to phone the vet and to tell him that the dog was bleeding internally. When asked how could she possibly know he was haemorrhaging, she said that she didn't know how but that she was sure that that was what was happening and he had to tell the vet exactly that. She later said that the dog seemed to feel "clammy" and, from that, she "knew" he was bleeding internally. There was little or no logic in it - dogs do not perspire - but she was absolutely correct in her "intuition" and the phone call saved his life. There is zero scientific value in an anecdote like this but when the same individual consistently shows exceptional instincts in the same field, then we have the beginnings of a group of anecdotes which can, at the very least, provide a pointer to what we should be looking into. But, just to lay the cards on the table... the instinct for medicine suggests to me a simple possibility: that some of her ancestors may have been physicians - and (thankfully) that proved to be the case. It's genetic, plain and simple. It's also an extremely important and yet an unrecognized dimension of intelligence, one that we all possess to a greater or lesser degree.

#3 (same woman) Her son became unwell. She was sure he had jaundice and the doctor was called. The doctor, however, pronounced that there was a wee bug going around and that he should just be sent back to school. She told the doctor she was sure it was jaundice and that she was reluctant to send him to school. The doctor pointed out that the patient presented none of the symptoms of jaundice and he finished smugly with, "why think you have a nightingale when all the rest are sparrows?" Her son was sent back to school but, the following day, the first symptoms of jaundice appeared and the doctor was invited to come and look at the nightingale. Nothing mysterious about this: he had simply failed to see what had been perfectly obvious to her - the look of jaundice - not the symptoms which will, according to the book, present at the onset, just "the look of jaundice."

This following anecdote - same family - is particularly remarkable in that it suggests the possibility that even vocabulary can be held in genetic memory:
 When the son was about seven years old he had a tortoise. They used to fill up the bath because it liked to swim. On one occasion, all present were surprised to see a trumpet-shaped part of its anatomy protrude from its rear. The seven year old said, "look, its annulus has come out." A few moments later, (as someone thumbed through the dictionary) he could not remember what he had said but it had been quite clear to him, at the time, that its annulus had made an appearance. I'm pretty sure that "annulus" is no longer the term that would be applied but the logic of it is startlingly obvious.

Biological ROM

I find it absolutely fascinating that such a word should surface from the unconscious of a seven year old. A fool will always find a way to explain such a thing away but, in truth, it virtually defies explanation - unless you, like me, are willing to entertain the idea that the word might have been known to some ancestor. The question is: was it possible that he had inherited some part of the brain of an individual who knew what an annulus was? Well, of course that, in itself, is quite possible. Of course we inherit our brains from our ancestors. It might seem ridiculous to suggest that we also inherit some of the structure of the neural paths which existed before they conceived their children but that is exactly what I'm offering as an explanation. He knew, unconsciously, what an annulus was because, as I already said, he is descended from a medical family.

#5 (still the same family) Around the same time, the son also made a sudden comment upon seeing a photograph in a newspaper. He exclaimed, "isn't he like Byron?" When asked who he meant, he replied that he didn't know. The moment had passed. The only "Byron" the family could think on was Lord Byron but, of course, the seven year old son had never even heard of Lord Byron. It was just one of these meaningless things which would have been forgotten but, many years later, the family discovered that their ancestors not only lived very close to Byron but that, for 500 years, their family had been the owners of what became Byron's house. Lord Byron would have been a very familiar figure in their lives.

I believe that the measurement of intelligence, by present methods, completely fails to recognize that which may be the most defining dimension of the intellect. The very process of understanding - even of this (especially of this)? - is limited or enhanced by instinct. Without the instinctual dimension, there is the capacity to learn but there is a limited depth to understanding - because, I suspect, there is not a lot going on in the way of unconscious assimilation. What I am suggesting is that there exists an unconscious process of assimilation coming into operation whenever we encounter a new concept, provided there is a sufficiency of genetic memory to facilitate the process. Over and over, we find ourselves learning afresh what our ancestors knew and it leads or at least tends always to lead us to a radical understanding rather than to just a committing of concept to memory in the mere context in which it is presented. A corrollory of that is that, being accustomed to having a radical understanding, it is so much easier to recognize that which we don't understand, i.e. to know the difference between what we know and what we have merely been taught as being "fact."

Learning something completely new can be hard work. In contrast, being reminded of something we already know, can be quite a relaxed and enjoyable business. A geometry lesson, for some kids, might seem like a real chore whereas, for others, it's all so easy and self-evident that it's not work at all. I remember that's how it was for me. I was learning something that, every step of the way, struck a chord (if you'll pardon the pun), made absolute sense and hardly seemed to warrant more than the briefest passing explanation. That wasn't exactly the universal view of the subject.

Music is another area in which it's clear that we don't all share the same degree of aptitude. Some are completely tone deaf where others have perfect pitch: the instinctive ability to accurately identify the pitch of a note on hearing it. Being a good musician is largely a matter of how much time you've devoted to playing music, but almost all musicians of distinction are what we call gifted or "talented" i.e. they have an aptitude for music that is well above average. You might say they seem to have had some kind of head start. Put most three-year-olds in front of piano and they'll quickly discover that it can make a lot of noise. You could try to persuade them that it can also make a pleasant noise but the odds are not really in your favour. Once again, I've picked on one of my own aptitudes because I understand these best. I started playing piano when I was three years old. Neither of my parents played the piano but my grandfather did, as did some of his ancestors. Unfortunately, he died before I was born, so he couldn't teach me how to play; I just sort of "knew" anyway. It came naturally. Really gifted children are not all that common but they are interesting for that very reason. If their family can be traced at all, their "gift", their "outstanding aptitude" or "talent" can be traced back to their ancestors.

I would define instinct is that part of the intellect which calls not upon one's own experience but upon the experience of one's ancestors. The notion that we are born with a brain which is akin to a blank data disc waiting to be written to by cognitive or behavioural processes is, surely, absurd to anyone who has ever really addressed the issue. My own aptitudes in art, science, geometry and logic have their parallels in the lives of several generations of stonemasons in my more recent family history. A person who can think logically is not accidentally or randomly "gifted" with a better processor than most; he or she will be descended from people who were in the habit of using their minds.

I began with a mention of our interpretation of body language. To one individual and to no-one else in a group, another's motivations, for example, may be completely transparent. But our "interpretation" of speech and body language is neither a conscious nor, primarily, a learned process. The information that we glean from unconscious communication - that immense, continuous stream of data - depends almost entirely upon our unconscious ability to relate/associate that data to, and test it against, similar data which we hold in memory - both physical and genetic memory.

We inherit our brains from our ancestors in the same way as we inherit every other organ. It may, to some, seem preposterous that any residue or derivative of memory could survive the grave to influence and enrich subsequent generations but my own experience and these anecdotes suggest to me that there is something here worth investigating. I could suggest that anyone who has inherited a serviceable intellect would tend to agree.

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Copyright © Jimmy Powdrell Campbell 1996, 2008.



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