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The Cracker Barrel: In praise of instinct

Each year I find myself paying more attention to things I used to take for granted, and at the same time losing interest in certain notions I once found fascinating.

Each year I find myself paying more attention to things I used to take for granted, and at the same time losing interest in certain notions I once found fascinating.

There was a time, for instance, when I thought man's reasoning power was the greatest force in the universe. Now, whenever I hear someone tout the importance of the human mind, I feel embarrassed. Great minds, eh? Look around at the damage we have wrought upon the planet. Look around and weep.

On the other hand, there was a time when instinct seemed to me a thing of little value. So a mallard knows when to fly north, and where to fly to, and how to build a nest and rear its young. No big deal! Filled as I was with the idea of mankind's preeminence, I was blind to a true miracle.

My dictionary defines instinct as 1) "a natural or inherent aptitude, impulse, or capacity," and 2) "a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency by an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason and for the purpose of removing somatic tension." (Somatic is further defined as "of, relating to, or affecting the body, especially as distinguished from the germ plasm or the psyche.")

In other words, instinct is supposed to be some sort of automatic, built-in guidance system, inherited at birth and pretty much unchangeable, that tells an organism what to do and how to live. It's Mother Nature's software, inserted genetically into the embryo like a program popped into a computer.

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If this is true, it strikes me as being nothing short of miraculous!

Imagine trying to write a Life Program for a mallard or a muskrat. To be successful (and all of Mother N's programs are successful, or her creatures would die off), you would have to include every conceivable scrap of information about migration and navigation, feeding and nutrition, site selection and nest-building design and construction techniques, dating and mating protocol, a seasonally fine-tuned birthing schedule, instructions about all aspects of nurturing the young, a predator recognition-and-avoidance system, etc., etc., etc.

Not only would you have to assemble and arrange this staggering sum of information, but you would have to encode it onto the genes in such a way that it would be transmitted intact to each succeeding generation, a task approximately similar to engraving the entire contents of a good-size library onto something much smaller than the head of a pin.

This awesome life-securing arrangement known as instinct is the very thing we humans are so ready to dismiss as unimportant on the grounds that it is inferior to our vaunted ability to reason. Having further decided that we alone among all life forms are possessors of spirits or souls, we can't resist adding a final put-down to those creatures whose lives are guided by less lofty mechanisms.

Instinct exists, we conclude, "for the purpose of removing somatic tension."

What arrogance!

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