Depending on what you believe, we all have animal instincts.
Some would say that our animal instincts evolved from a time when we were animals, others would say we never were animals; I will go with the former for now, otherwise this blog post might be rather short 🙂
Much of human behaviour can be compared with the behaviour of animals, and would appear to originate in animal instincts such as survival instincts.
One of the more prevalent survival traits in mammals is the tendency to gather together in groups. Humans, as with other mammals, tend to live together in groups. They hunt in groups, they gather in groups. Humans work in groups by default; and chatter and gossip with each other in offices, factories and schools even when they are strongly discouraged from doing so.
Hunter S Thompson, author of the book ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas‘, proclaimed that paranoia is another word for ignorance. The fear of the unknown is yet another animal trait, a survival trait. Humans not only fear what they do not know, they are curious enough to peer over the edge of the cliff and study the void to find out what they need to know in order to conquer it; and conquer their fear by gaining the knowledge to control or have power over that thing which is unknown to them.
If a human does not manage to do this by themselves, the human calls out to a member of his group or forms a bond with a fellow human who could potentially form group with him. The humans in that group then talk through the problem, perhaps even getting other humans together to look at the problem. The humans then solve the problem by working together as a group, solving that problem which a human by himself was previously unlikely to solve.
The solving of problems as a group is a survival trait, enabling humans to conquer the unknown; but the power of a group can also be used to overcome adversity, such as the oppressive or unwanted control of a rival group. This is why even when humans are put in stalls or at desks, separated from each other and told not to talk with each other, that they will do their very best to introduce themselves to their fellows and start talking together. They are then forming groups, sharing information and gaining the knowledge and confidence they need to resist and then overcome control. Workers will gossip together and defy the divides between their desks, pupils will defy their teachers admonitions.
Of course, being in a group means working together and respecting and abiding by each other; you want your fellow human to work with you and support you after all, you do not want to behave in such a way as to ostracise a skillful or knowledgeable fellow human or to be ostracised yourself. The loss of a skillful or knowledgeable fellow diminishes the survival chances of the group; and to be ostracised from a group means the loss of potential breeding partners and a diminished chance of survival in the wild after all.
Therefore, there are rules. The survival of a group through times of scant resources, for example, might lead to the rule that no one human shall take more than their fair share of the food and/or water supplies within the group. That would be the unspoken agreement, but it would also be the rule; the law. Those that do break that rule are diminishing the chances of survival of the group overall and in the long term, this is a bad thing; a crime.
Crimes must be deterred, they must be punished. The perpetrator of such a crime is therefore marked out, ostracised and punished by the group.
There are other crimes of course, and these are related to damaging chances of survival of a group or chances of breeding and the succesful passing on of genes.
Take murder for example. By murdering fellow humans, the murderer is killing off a member of a group; and diminishing the chances of survival for that group. The murderer is also potentially ending the chances of immortality for a select combination of genes by killing that one very unique human. The group is horrified at the loss of that fellow human to the group, and horrified that this might continue to happen and even happen to them as individuals; thus ending their chances of handing down their unique gene combination through the ages.
The unspoken rule or law that most humans would therefore logically abide by is that murder is heinous and abhorrent, and must be strongly deterred by the group as a whole.
These traits are observable in various mammal groups including humans to this day; take unions protesting against compulsory redundancies for example. The redundancies may be inevitable, yet groups of humans will gather together to protest against them because it is their jobs on the line and they might not have the money to pay the mortgage next month.
The mortgage doesn’t get paid, that is detrimental to the household and the family as a group.
The family, union, corporation, school are all examples of groups. Humans as a species are living together as groups within groups. We are brought up by our families (and there are variations of families), and taught in schools, work in offices or factories, form unions, make friends, make families who then start the whole thing again. They all live in a neighbourhood, within a town, within a county, within a part of the country, within the country, within a continent. They all have rules, they all look after each other as groups within groups.
Our armed forces are divided into groups; the army, the navy, the airforce. They are divided into groups; the engineers, the infantry, the medics, etc. They are divided into squads and units and so forth. They all have rules, they all look after each other as groups within groups.
Sports are divided into summer and winter sports, contact sports, various ball sports etc. They are divided into countries, divided into leagues, divided into teams. The sports year is divided into competitions and leagues, the decades are divided into competitions or leagues that take place only once every so many years. Each sport is held to be representative of the best group behaviour, there are rules that are strictly followed for the good of the group and for other groups to emulate.
We form groups on the internet as well, joining up all over the world to share and collaborate in our thousands, in our millions.
Our mammalian instincts have led us to evolve upon and use our greatest strength; the ability to form groups. Being in groups has necessitated tolerance, understanding and respect amongst humans within each group. It has necessitated agreements, rules, laws and the marking out of undesirable and heinous behaviour; crime and punishment. The success of that group behaviour has led to larger groups being formed, groups within groups forming super groups which span entire continents; which span the globe.
Humans are not the only creatures on the planet to work successfully in groups, neither are mammals. Ants, termites, penguins, and many other creatures work with each other successfully as groups to ensure each others survival in the long term; but humans have done this so very successfully. We have not only survived for millenia as groups, we have changed the face of the planet. We have literally moved mountains, we have shifted rivers, we have drained seas, we have tentatively reached for the stars.
This great animal instinct, the instinct to form and collaborate within a group, has led to our detriment as well however.
We need fertile land to grow food; fresh clean water that we use to rear animals, grow food to feed animals and ourselves and to make fuel; fresh clean water that we use to wash away our industrial waste and flush our toilets; fresh clean water that we use to drink or make more complicated beverages; the fossil fuel we use to heat fresh clean water with to make steam to drive steam engines to drive turbines to make the electricity to power the computer screen you are reading right now; the fossil fuel that is used to power the torrent of small explosions that drive internal combustion engines, the pumps and cranks and pistons of those engines themselves based upon steam engines from centuries ago.
The knowledge and innovations of all of our groups of humans can overcome some or all of these problems in the future of course, the strength of the group that allowed us to survive as a species all these millenia can and may indeed serve to ensure our survival in the future.
Here’s hoping our animal instincts guide us true.