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Does anyone know how an instinct is passed on from generation to generation? What is the physiological mechanism for this to occur?

We know that certain traits are passed on genetically. Are instincts also passed on this way, through the DNA?

For example, how do babies know to look for and suck on the nipple of their mothers? Obviously no one taught them that. Then how do they know?

Have humans found this out yet or not?

Thanks. 17:30, 17 July 2005 (UTC)

Genes shape the structure of the nervous system. In humans, the structure of the nervous system predisposes us towards certain patterns of behavior. The key issue is how genes form certain patterns of neuronal networks in the brain. Gerald Edelman wrote a book called "Topobiology" that describes the basic mechanisms by which genes control morphogenesis. --Memenen 23:51, 25 July 2005 (UTC)

True Examples of Human Instinct[edit]

There is enormous debate, it seems, between established science and psychologists as to whether instinct in humans actually exists. I am trying to research the subject for an up-and-coming book and need to find some good examples of true human instincts that have survived the passage of time, but which now have little or no real bearing in modern life. If anyone can help with this I will be very grateful, particularly if the theory is backed up with credible research references or published science papers.

Here is the first list of human instincts I found on Google. --Memenen 23:41, 25 July 2005 (UTC)
The line really needs to be drawn between instinct and reflexes. Getting a snakebite and quickly pulling your foot away is a reflex. Picking up a leaf you've never seen in your life and rubbing it against the bite which neutrilizes the poison is instinct.
That sounds more like intuition to me. Clearly this is a matter of hot debate, but the fact we can override certain instincts with intelligence for social reasons (such as mating behaviour or aggressiveness towards an individual we dislike) does not mean those instincts don't exist - just that we suppress them, usually with consequences for our own mental health. Also, I think we need to be careful with accepting psychological theory as the rule for human behaviour - it's a branch of the arts and fundamentally uses statistics and studies and *support* openions, but the field of psychology is still a body of openion at the end of the day. It is not a science with a clear right and wrong. 04:19, 29 January 2007 (UTC)

That book's from 1906! Surely instincts must bear some relation to the definition of what defines an organism: nutrition, excretion, respiration, reproduction, growth, movement, sensitivity (=response to stimuli). I'm not a psychologist, but I do recognise that it's not purely opinion like in history or art criticism; researchers may have prejudices, but experiments still have to be objective even if results are used to support a particular premiss.

What I think the danger is, is that people regard instinct as an emotional thing. It's probably more useful to regard organisms, whether bacteria or human, as agglomerations of chemicals in a physical universe that act and react in unison. We don't expect an atom, or for that matter a protein, to have any particular motivation to sustain itself or reproduce; so for me, I would expect instinct to be based on some irresistable, involuntary reaction (knowing, as I do, that chemical reactions are large scale physical reactions of electrons and other particles). So I propose that instinct may be a chain reaction at a sub-molecular level, that, at a higher level seems like an involuntary response: like swallowing, coughing, sneezing, shivering, breathing, sweating (or farting, in my case!).

The brain is extremely complex so it is no surprise that there is debate. But to deny instinct outright seems absurd. Fear is tied in with instinct. The instinct to run away, hesitate or to kill. The fact that we can override our instincts or that they can even be tied into our higher brain functions complicates matters immensely. For example, we have a survival instinct and it has been confirmed that some people for one biological reason or another have an absent or reduced sense of danger. Yet our sense of danger can be both learnt and apparently innate (common phobias). You can learn what are sharp objects and to fear them. Your brain can even work out to trigger a fear response in a novel situation.

Useful Sources[edit]

I just found this source. It appears to be of use. I'm just walking out the door, but I plan on working on the article upon my return. Figured I'd provide you all with this source, since the article is now COTW.

- Cobra Ky Flag of the United States.svg (talk, contribs) 21:47, 13 November 2005 (UTC)

Possibly another good source.
k, i'm out. - Cobra Ky Flag of the United States.svg (talk, contribs) 21:53, 13 November 2005 (UTC)

Friedrich Nietzsche and his philosophy of the "will to power" may deserve minor inclusion as well. - Cobra Ky Flag of the United States.svg (talk, contribs) 21:58, 13 November 2005 (UTC)

Improper Image Choice[edit]

  • While this image is cool and all I don't think it really belongs on this page. Sure nipple sucking is an instinct but this image has way too much else going on and distracts rather than adds to the information Headlouse 01:11, 16 November 2005 (UTC)
  • I agree, in fact the image could go on the article for alex grey, considering it dosen't have any at the moment. --Mr. Dude †@£КÇøת†яĭβü†ĬŎИ 18:24, 20 November 2005 (UTC)
  • It is an arresting image, but, as Headlouse said, it's distracting. Joyous | Talk 19:25, 20 November 2005 (UTC)
There's a much calmer image of a breastfeeding baby at breastfeeding. Joyous | Talk 19:31, 20 November 2005 (UTC)
Well, I bit the bullet and made the changes as suggested above. Alex Grey now has a picture and the breastfeeding image is also on instinct. -- 16:41, 21 November 2005 (UTC)

This Subject Needs Elaboration[edit]

My interest in instinct lies not with how academics would prefer to categorize certain human behaviors, such as recoiling from a snake, but rather with the poorly explained behavioral predispositions that many animals possess (including a select few human tendencies, such as a documented, innate fear of falling/heights). I cannot do much in the way of improvements myself, but I feel this article is SOREly lacking in breadth.

I also deem the first question of this discussion to be most provocative, as I've been trying to find a way to reconcile Darwin and Larmarck, Baldwin for a while now. I haven't found a comprehensive answer to any of the lingering questions regarding the behavioral tendiencies of an organism that are not learned but seemingly can't possibly have been transferred via genetic material not affected by direct influence of the parent's experience. The teat-suckling may be a poor example of this. A better one may be the rats that become generationally better at solving a maze, a universal fear of predatory species, or certain simians' talents for using tools to obtain food. Studies of a culture of lactose-intolerant E Coli that quickly adapted so as to tolerate lactose may not be completely germane, but are worth note.

To get an idea of what instinctive behaviour actually is and how important the genetic component is read this article: ^ Dilger, W.C.; 1962; The behavior of Lovebirds; Scientific American

The genetic component of the behaviour becomes very clear in the nesting behaviour of hybrids, which is a totally erratic non functional mixture of the parent species behaviours.

The pathway between DNA and these elaborate behavior patterns is one of the big challenges for science, at least for me it is not easy to conceive such a direct relation with proteins produced in certain braincells and the subsequent subtle changes in behaviour.Viridiflavus (talk) 21:16, 24 December 2008 (UTC)


I'm (instintively!) not really very happy with this sentence...

Instinct provides a response to external stimuli, which moves an organism to action, unless overridden by intelligence, which is creative and more versatile

I just think there's a presupposition that intelligence is superior to instinct, and I'd like to see this statement qualified in some way, because it sounds subjective to me.

My question is, is it possible for instinct to over-ride intelligence; or is intelligence driven subliminally by instincts?

For example: Does a human suppress their urge to act upon the instinct to mate or attack; or are there are spectrum of instincts at play, such as the instinct to form a group and not to compromise the values of the group so as to be ostracised (i.e. as a sex pest, or violent criminal)?

I'm personally trying to find credible sources to put the case that there are several instincts in a hierarchy, but interlinked. The instinct to survive must be the top one, then you may have sub-instincts such as: competition, territorialism, procreation, QoL-seeking, learning, and group-forming; and they all interact to check each other, essentiall ensuring that the top ones of survival and reproduction are not compromised. It might then make sense to say that behaviour that conflicts with instincts are maladaptive, rather than advanced and overriding.

Regardless of whether I do find credible sources that do support this thought, there needs to be more referenced and qualified material in this piece, so that there isn't the whiff of a-priori supposition.

It takes one to know one 19:55, 26 March 2007 (UTC)Promsan

I see no problem with the above sentence. It doesn't suggest intelligence is superior, it merely states intelligence is creative and more versatile, which is the truth; instinct is by definition inflexible. This is not to say one is superior to the other, as both instinctive and learned behaviour can lead to greater benefit or harm to the organism in certain scenarios. (talk) 13:30, 26 January 2008 (UTC)
The sentence doesn't 'merely state'; it judges, expressing an opinion, that intelligence is more creative and versatile. What is the evidence that intelligence is more versatile? Intelligence is possibly more versatile in conditions where it has sufficient information, but the value of instincts surely is to provide the organism with a course of action when it has insufficient experience or information to know how to act.-- (talk) 19:54, 27 May 2013 (UTC)

Contradiction in the article[edit]

In the introduction, one can read:

"In humans they (instincts) are most easily observed in behaviors such as emotions, sexual drive, and other bodily functions"

In the "overview" section on the other hand, it is written that:

"Instinct should not be confused with responses that an organism is born with such as breathing, hunger, sex drive etc."

Could someone fix this? Is sex drive an instinct or not? Also, it seems to me that the article could do with a lot more sources, especially in the intro and the overview (which also states that "humans as a matter of speaking have no instincts past the early stages of infancy" without providing a reference). IronChris | (talk) 21:56, 23 May 2007 (UTC)

I think there's some crucial evidence about instincts that must be included on this page that sheds some light on the chemical processes that produce instincts:

It's also important not to confuse instincts with intuitions and adaptive social behaviours. Instinct is by definition innate genetic programming essential for any living organism species to persist: it's the firmware for the basic cognitive functions of your electro-chemical data-processor (aka "brain"); in other words, things like "jealousy" and "blinking" don't qualify as instincts: the former is an emotion (a sense triggerd by a release of neurotransmitters to parts of the anterior cerebral cortex to be involved in molecular reactions with proteins in the memory centres, used to add extra data to the outputs produced by the "instinct" functions); and the latter a physical response to stimuli (triggered by the release of different neurotransmitters activating different centres of the brain to do with motor functions, which doesn't usually request much input from the cognitive proteins).

(Too many pyschologists spout on this subject without being aware of the neurochemistry and physical processes that go on, never mind philosophers!) it takes one to know one87.112.85.2 21:25, 27 May 2007 (UTC)

Well in that case I'll remove the sentence from the introduction ("In humans they are most easily observed in behaviors such as emotions, sexual drive, and other bodily functions"), until someone can find a citation. IronChris | (talk) 22:35, 30 May 2007 (UTC)

Is "Habit" Used Only for Unlearned Behavior?[edit]

Does the term "habit" ONLY apply to instinctive behavior or can it apply to repeated, learned behavior that is characteristic of on individual, but not another? I am trying to clarify some articles in WP and Wiktionary. DCDuring 02:19, 10 September 2007 (UTC)

Habit refers not to instinct but to learned behaviour, if not always, then mostly. please read a basic experimental psychology textbook before you go around writing articles for public consumption. -unsigned —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 17:32, 28 May 2009 (UTC)

the guy said (s)he was trying to clarify the additions of other editors, not writing the whole of wp from scratch. also, please read Wikipedia:Civility before editing. k kisses 17:23, 8 December 2010 (UTC)

Evolutionary jargon[edit]

"Innate emotions, which can be expressed in more flexible ways and learned patterns of responses, not instincts, form a basis for majority of responses to external stimuli in evolutionary higher species, while in case of highest evolved species both of them are overridden by actions based on cognitive processes with more or less intelligence and creativity or even trans-intellectual intuition."

1, any discussion about "higher" and "lower" species doesn't really make much sense from an evolutionary standpoint. it implies that evolution moves towards increased complexity as an overarching goal in itself. this is, of course, hogwash. and what is a "trans-intellectual intuition" and how do "innate emotions" differ from instinctual predisposition?

2, is there a good basis to the claim that learned behaviour forms the basis for a majority of responses in complex animals? the little I've read on the issue seems to suggest that the distinction between learned behaviour and instinctual behaviour is blurred at best.

the part of the article under Definitions deals primarily with one very strict definition of the term, which is good, but any working definition isn't made clear in this sentence. I am removing it until someone can provide sources that justify keeping it. Neebe (talk) 15:04, 19 June 2008 (UTC)

  • I discovered that one big change was made back in Sept 2007 that introduced the "higher" organism nonsense. Much of the text prior to the change looked good, if you want to integrate it with what you just did, just look at the history; I put it back and then undid myself so you can look at the 'diff'. Phlegm Rooster (talk) 17:27, 19 June 2008 (UTC)

the article looks a lot better to me now, though I don't really know enough about the topic to comment on the finer aspects of it. at least there's little in the opening that stands out to me as being obviously wrong or confused now. Neebe (talk) 23:13, 24 June 2008 (UTC)

Need Sources[edit]

I just did some minor copy editing and added some links, but this page needs a lot of work. The entire section on human behavior looks like original research, and is completing lacking in citations. It looks like a lot of the discussion here has centered on definitions and opinions around instinct instead of finding useful sources on instinct. Does anyone have any books or articles on the subject? That would probably go a long way toward clearing up a lot of the issues. --Aaron.t.phillips (talk) 21:38, 28 January 2009 (UTC)

The overriding argument[edit]

This argument as used by sociologists is false when it is used to exclude humans from having instincts, because a goose busy with rolling an egg back in the nest will probably fly off if the scientist suddenly runs towards the nest.Viridiflavus (talk) 02:21, 2 February 2011 (UTC)

In humans[edit]

Here the article is quite inconsistent, because we have moved away from the definition of instinct in the first part of the article, (released fixed action patterns). I would consider it better to name things as aggression during riots or the human courtship rituals with the accompanying fixed action patterns etc. I think "The Naked Ape" by Desmond Morris gives great examples of that. Especialy when we use a defitition that is a little broader, the innate ability and disposition to imitate language that causes little children in a sensitive period to pick up and imitate the sounds around them are not different from a bird picking up a song.Viridiflavus (talk) 02:33, 2 February 2011 (UTC)

Bad definition[edit]

An innate behabiour is not necesary an instict, and a reflex is definitely not an instict. English is not my primary language, can someone check that out? Look for Konrad Lorenz.

--Lmalena (talk) 13:17, 2 July 2011 (UTC)


The picture of the turtle needs a caption. I'd add it myself, but I don't know how. Omc (talk) 20:43, 18 February 2012 (UTC)

2.3 Sociobiology[edit]

I was going to rewrite the "Sociobiology" section, because it appears to be slightly misinformed, ignorant of current literature, and completely uncited. However, is a separate section for sociobiology even necessary here? If anything, the biology section could be expanded slightly to encompass whatever relevant information might otherwise be put under sociobiology. Any thoughts?

Ringtail Jack 02:45, 21 February 2012 (UTC) — Preceding unsigned comment added by Ringtail Jack (talkcontribs)

Post breeding factors not relevant[edit]

I have removed this passage: "other efforts at self destruction such as tobacco consumption and the self abusive consumption of unhealthy foods."

These behaviours (efforts) might result in an early death, but not one that precedes the typical time required to breed and raise children. In such cases dying early may in fact be beneficial, to free resources for offspring. Basically, it isn't certain that they threaten genetic survival at all or in any significant way.

Additionally, it could be argued that the reason people engage in those particular behaviours is a result of their instincts making false positives. For example, people eat unhealthy food not because they decide to eat unhealthy food but because their sensory system mistakes it for healthy food and their survival instinct compels them to eat more of it. In that sense it does not only mean that survival instinct is being overridden or is absent. A third possibility is that instincts are fallible.

Back on point, the reason that tobacco and unhealthy food consumption do not contradict survival instinct is because survival instinct is not an instinct to live forever or as long as is possible. It is an instinct or drive to live long enough to successfully reproduce. Anything beyond that is a random aberration.

A careful eye must be kept out in future for such biases, inserted by people wishing to subtly promote an agenda.

Serious clean up needed[edit]

Large parts of this article are unreadable. In particular the second paragraph of the “Overview” section looks unsalvageable. Besides the lack of any grammar, there are also no citations and the POV is far from neutral. My instinct (no pun intended) is to delete the entire paragraph, but as I'm new here I don't want to jump in feet first with a potentially controversial edit. So I've tagged the article as “multiple issues” hoping that someone more experienced will share their opinion. JRYon (talk) 16:56, 12 July 2012 (UTC)

this impossible,has not yet come up with the definition of the word instinct because that has already been proved that instinct does not exist — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 22:33, 19 August 2013 (UTC)

Over-ride Maslow?[edit]

I know that this isn't the place to debate the issues or raise questions but it is a place where judicial editing or comment can at least put things in one perspective or another. At present the opinions of some authors (eg Maslow) that instinct cannot be over-ridden or changed seem to be given the status of wide acceptance. Is this the case? Maslow's follow-on conclusion that humans therefore no longer have instincts seems outdated. Humans are animals; if animals have instincts why don't humans (presuming we're all on the science page rather than the faith page)? Instincts are presumably hard-wired responses to the environment that enable the organism to survive at a time before learning has had time to kick in (I know, not all instincts can be explained in this way but it does to be a reasonable case for instincts). It would seem as though Maslow and others are merely trying to reduce the idea to something very close to a reflex. Going away from Maslow, could it not be argued that humans can overcome instinct (this possibility would seem to be a biological advantage) which might bring items like the survival instinct back into play. In other words, our hard-coding is available for early survival but can be abandoned/over-ridden as needed.

Sorry. Probably not a discussion that should happen here. -- (talk) 22:21, 21 November 2012 (UTC)

This s definitely the place for it. Both views should be mentioned otherwise the article is one sided. — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 03:21, 7 December 2014 (UTC)

This is a weird article[edit]

The last paragraph of the intro needs considerable work. This is a weird subject that does not really have an answer, but the last paragraph of the intro is a mess. It starts with elephants and ends up with zoo cats. I won't touch it because I have no expertise in the field, I was coming for some briefing and saw that paragraph and felt like this needed to be said, that is why it needs to be fixed. — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 19:37, 14 April 2013 (UTC)

article can not be left without a word hypothetical until you find evidence[edit]

and instincts are not really there — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 22:10, 19 August 2013 (UTC)