Robin Fox
Encounter with Anthropolgy

It is often said that man has lost all his instincts. I think this is a bit too extreme. If I may paraphrase Oscar Wilde: to lose some of one's instincts is unfortunate, to lose all of them smacks of carelessness. No species could afford to be that careless. But it is true that of instincts ('innate mechanisms which produce items of behaviour complete at their first performance and relatively unmodifiable by experience') man has very few. Instead, it is often claimed, he has intelligence, foresight, wisdom, and the like, and the enormous capacity to learn. In rejecting instinct for intelligence he took something of a risk, since instinct does provide a sureness of response that has been evolved from trial and error over millions of years. Ant societies are much better organized and more efficient than any human societies and are driven wholly on instinctive mechamsms. But instinct has its costs. It is too rigid. Changed circumstances cannot be met by a rapid adjustment in behaviour. Insects and animals heavily dependent on instinct have to wait for processes of genetic change to effect changes in the instincts themselves before they can adjust. The higher up the phyletic scale the less true this is, and with man it is least true of all. Thus there is a cost-benefit analysis in the shedding of innate instincts in favour of more complex modes of behaving.

The crux of the matter is this: even if a species sheds its dependence on instincts, it still has to do the same things that instincts were designed to do. As Bergson saw so clearly, culture has to do the same job that instinct had been doing. This is another paradox, I suppose, but an intriguing one, because to get culture to do the same jobs that instinct had been doing, cultural behaviour had been made in many ways like distinctive behaviour. It had to be unconscious so that it did not require thought for its operation; it had to be automatic so that certain stimuli would immediately produce it; it had to be common to all members of the population.

How much of man's cultural behaviour is in fact intelligent and conscious, and how much is at that unthinking, automatic-response level? Most human behaviour is automatic, absorbed during socialization, and built into patterns of habitual thought, belief, and response. Indeed, habit is, as William James said, the great flywheel of society. Anthropologists speak of 'covert' or 'unconscious' culture to refer to this iceberg of assumptions, values, and habitual responses. And sitting over all of them is the great evolutionary invention of conscience, superego, moral sense, or whatever you want to call it. The sense of guilt, of having broken the taboos, the rules, the laws of the tribe, keeps most people in line most of the time. Conscience is an empty canister that culture fills; but once filled, it becomes a dynamic controller of behaviour. Most of man's behaviour, however, never even rises to the point where conscience and the sense of guilt need to step in. Man does what he does from habit, even down to the smallest details and gestures and twitches of the facial muscles. Most of this is never thought about; but people who do not behave 'normally' are quickly recognized—and are often locked up in asylums as lunatics. Think only of Erving Goffman's example of the man walking down the road in the rain without a raincoat, smiling, shoulders back, head facing the sky. Clearly a madman. He should be hunched, hurrying and looking miserable, with his jacket collar drawn up at least.

The genius of nature here stands revealed and the paradox is resolved. Of course most of man's learned cultural behaviour operates almost exactly like instinct. This has to be the case. This is not fool-proof, but neither is instinct itself. So the same effect is achieved, and those habits that have proved useful in survival become part of the behavioural repertoire. But these habits can be changed within a generation. It is not necessary to wait for the long process of natural selection to operate before these quasi-instinctual behaviours can be modified; they can be modified very rapidly to meet changing circumstances. Thus man has all the benefits of instinctive behaviour without its disadvantages. At any one time the rigidity of cultural habits will be just as persistence of traditions will confirm—and habits are extremely conservative. Since most of them are passed on by means other than direct tuition, they tend to persist for generations despite changes in deliberate education. But they can be changed relatively rapidly compared with the time span needed for changes in genetic material. Thus man can make rapid adjustments without creating anarchy (which does not mean that he always does so).

Here again cultural behaviour can be seen as yet another kind of biological adaptation. At this level, other spedes also display behaviour of the same kind, and the higher in the scale they are, the more dependent they become on habits transferred through generations by learning rather than instincts transferred in the genetic code. But it must always be kept in mind that this is not a sharp distinction. The code is not silent about learning and habits. Instructions about habitual behaviour are as much in the code as instructions about instinctive behaviour.

This model of behaviour sees the human actor as a bundle of potentialities rather than a tabula rasa: potentialities for action, for instinct, for learning, for the development of unconscious habits. These potentialities or predispositions or biases are the end products of a process of natural selection peculiar to the human species. One consequence of this view is that much of the quasi-instinctive cultural behaviour of man can be studied in more or less the same way and by many of the same methods as ethologists study the truly instinctive behaviour of other animals.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.