The dangerous denial of dangerous instincts

Power-seeking demagogues appeal, unknowingly, to our dangerous instinct to fear and hate rival groups: unknowingly, partly because the scientific community denies the existence of instinct.

Robert Neild
19 July 2016

Cover drawing by Anthony Gross. Wikicommons/ jonathan229. Some rights reseved.The bloodshed in and around the Islamic world and the outburst of hostility to refugees and other migrants in Europe and the United States are so horrifying that it is hard to believe what is going on, hard to see why Mr Trump and the leaders of ISIS are being so horrible - and so successful.

The principal explanation, I believe, is simple but one that people are reluctant to recognise: ugly human instincts to fear and hate that are normally dormant in us are being aroused, inflamed and played upon by power-seeking demagogues, including European opponents of migration.

As an amateur who has read a lot of the modern evolutionary literature, I believe one can safely say that through the normal process of evolutionary selection we have inherited instincts to fear and hate. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors, like their precursors and many other species, competed in groups, in our case ‘tribes’, for resources, notably territory but also captives and loot. Those tribes that were ready to fight rival tribes in order to defend or gain resources will have survived at the expense of those that, being passive, were overrun. Consequently, defensive-aggressive instincts will have been passed down to us. Since the historic pace of genetic change has been extremely slow, and it is unlikely yet to have been greatly accelerated by man-made changes to the social environment, one would expect these instincts still to be prevalent within us. And what we see around us today is convincing horrible evidence that that is so. 

We also have inherited instincts to be cooperative and altruistic within our group.  These too will have contributed to our survival. In peace they will have made hunting, gathering and nurturing the young more efficient. In war, unity will have contributed to combative strength. Both theory and evidence tell us they too are present within us.

These two sets of instincts which, when in need of brevity, I shall call the combative and the cooperative, have been overlaid by learning, meaning all those habits of mind we derive from our education, secular and religious, and from the customs and values of the society around us: in old-fashioned terms nurture has been mixed with nature. The way this has happened is now a subject of much scientific research. It plainly has differed from society to society.

Sometimes the effect has been bad. Both Christian and Islamic religious teaching, for example, besides prescribing codes of virtuous behaviour, have given rise to terrible religious wars between rival factions and rival religions, and to the savage persecution of heretics.

Benign teaching

On the other hand, since the eighteenth century there has been a tide of benign teaching, based mainly on moral reasoning but still partly on religion, in favour of cooperation amongst societies. The 193 members of the UN have all formally subscribed to those aims; and the UN has had many successes in negotiating the settlement of disputes and in peacekeeping. But there have been many failures.

If one considers the failures, one can see that behind them is group fear and hate that could not be calmed by negotiation or the intervention of peace-keeping forces. And if one looks at the successes one can see that they have occurred where the combative instincts of the opponents could be calmed and progressively moderated by the arousal of their cooperative instincts towards one another.

Since the instinct to fear and hate appears to be a significant cause of conflict and its existence has been recognised by Darwin, Freud and innumerable other scientists (and given many different names), why is it now unmentioned?

The denial of instincts

I see four groups of causes.

1. Geneticists, whose subject has exploded and been popularised since it was given a firm foundation in evidence by the discovery of DNA, have eschewed the use of the word instinct for political reasons. They have been haunted by what Steve Jones has called ‘the dismal history of the subject’. Human ideas on inheritance before DNA, he wrote, had been:

‘….the haunt of charlatans, most of whom had a political axe to grind. Absurd pedigrees claiming to show the inheritance of criminality or of genius were the norm. Ignorance and confidence went together. Many biologists promoted the idea that it was possible to improve the human race by selective breeding or by the elimination of the genetically unfit. The adulteration of human genetics reached its disastrous end in the Nazi experiment, and for many years it was seen as at best unfashionable to discuss the nature of inherited differences among people.’  

This revulsion against the pre-1945 abuse of evolutionary theory may also be felt by physical scientists other than geneticists and by social scientists.

2. Geneticists who study the details of genetic selection and its relationship to surrounding variables and those who study animal and human behaviour today find the word instinct, which means simply an innate impulse, an excessively crude description of the intricate phenomena they are trying to understand. When I have described to my scientific colleagues my concern that our instincts for fear and hate are being aroused dangerously, they have without exception interrupted me to say that instincts are not as simple as I suppose and have gone on to tell me about the latest discoveries in their field: about how primates learn, about the concept of epigenetic effects, and such things. They have recoiled from the word instinct and from my whole argument.

3. Social scientists too have eschewed the word instinct. A cornerstone of the economics that is widely taught in schools and universities today and that has permeated other social sciences is the assumption that human beings are ‘rational’, meaning that, uninfluenced by emotions or instincts, they make choices only by calculating economic gain. Kahneman and others have shown by experimental work that human beings often do not behave like that. But they do not discuss instincts as possible causes of the ‘deviations from rationality’ they observe. This is probably the result of political fear of the kind noted above and a desire to be seen to be engaged in the rigorous production of evidence, untainted by speculation as to possible causes of their findings – a rather emasculated view of what a scientist should be doing.  

4. The evolution of morality. I, like other children of the inter-war years, was brought up to feel that instincts were bad: I learnt that to yield to my instincts was to behave like an animal or a primitive uncivilised person. In the Bible, instincts were associated with sin through the notion of Original Sin and what is supposed to have happened in the Garden of Eden (which I have never been able to understand). Instincts meant sex and violence; and the pervasive message was that they were bad. Good behaviour came from over-ruling them with learnt moral behaviour. The instinct to be co-operative and altruistic was not mentioned. In my lifetime this set of attitudes has faded: instincts and their association with moral problems have been mentioned less and less.

These, and no doubt other factors, have had an extraordinarily pervasive effect. The word instinct has become virtually taboo. It is not to be found in the index of books by today’s leading writers on these subjects, for example, Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene, Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, Daly and Wilson’s Homicide, Bowles and Gintis’s A Cooperative Species, or Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.

Moreover the word instinct is not to be found in the index of Mary Kaldor’s New and Old Wars, or Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence. Both attribute modern inter-group fighting, for example, the civil wars in Yugoslavia and communal violence in India, to conflicts of ‘identity’; and both argue that these have come about when power-seeking politicians have introduced a sense of identity and mutual hostility into peoples that had previously co-existed peacefully without a sense of identity. I am sure they are right to say that the aroused populations they have in mind did not previously have an active, aggressive sense of identity. But they do not explore the evidence that those populations may have had within them a dormant, potentially violent instinct to fear and hate. Sen refers once to instincts, saying ’The martial art of fostering violence draws on some basic instincts and uses them to crowd out the freedom to think and the possibility of composed reasoning.’, but he pursues instincts no further. [1]

Taboos and taboos

Scientists should of course sometimes refrain from pursuing or mentioning a line of enquiry because to do so would be dangerous for society, for example, research into nuclear and biological weapons; and if that leads to a taboo, meaning that the idea of exploring the dangerous subject does not cross the mind of scientists, or if it does, they recoil from it, that taboo may be good. On the other hand taboos, which are passed from generation to generation, may be based on obsolete scientific beliefs or on values that no longer prevail in society, and hence may be outdated and bad. For example, the Victorian taboo on the discussion of sex is now commonly held to have had damaging psychological effects.

The advances in genetics that have been made since the end of WWII have been so great that the instinct taboo may belong in the latter category. Consider this evidence:  

a. The power-seeking demagogues of ISIS and similar warring groups do not appeal to evolutionary theory but to religion, tribal rivalries and to the hostility of their followers to western economic and military intrusion into their lands.

b. The power-seeking demagogues who today oppose migration do not appeal to evolutionary theory. They play on economic fear, together with the normally dormant instinct to distrust, fear and hate foreigners.

c. The genocide in Cambodia in the late 1970s in which one or two million died and the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, in which more than half a million people were killed in 100 days, were conducted, I believe, without reference to evolutionary theory.

d. Stalin’s and Mao’s slaughter of tens of millions of their opponents in labour camps and purges were justified by appeal to political ideals not evolutionary theory.

e. Evolutionary theory was not around to be invoked by Europeans in the two main pre-Nazi genocides, namely the almost complete elimination of the North-American Indians and the Australian Aboriginals by a combination of the unintended introduction of epidemic diseases and intentional slaughter.

The reading of this history that suggests itself to me is this. Mass slaughter and lesser forms of conflict have been recurrent phenomena associated with the competitive pursuit of power.  For a period before WWII when genetics was in its infancy, still heavily based on deductive propositions and short of evidence with which to refute false propositions, crank scientists fed politicians with racist theories and theories of pedigree superiority to use in their pursuit of power. But that has not happened since and did not happen before.  

The discovery of DNA and the subsequent flood of evidence-based genetics have transformed understanding of evolution and keep doing so. Consequently there is less scope, if any, for crank scientists to offer evolutionary theory in support of hostility to rival groups. And, perhaps more important, power-seeking demagogues do not need evolutionary stories. They succeed, as they always have done, in rousing their followers to hostility and combat by playing on group differences of which their followers can be made conscious: for example, differences in religion, language, accent, dress, colour of the skin or relative wealth. In doing this, they appeal, unknowingly, to our dangerous instinct to fear and hate rival groups: unknowingly, partly because the scientific community denies the instinct’s existence.

Which brings us to the question: what might be the benefits of breaking the taboo and recognising the existence of our combative and the cooperative instincts?

Moral educational

Suppose that in the course of their education at home, at school and at college the young were taught that

a. they are the products of evolution;

b. consequently they commonly have within them, inter alia., instincts to be suspicious and hostile towards individuals and groups that differ from them, and also instincts to be cooperative within their group;

c. they may feel these instincts and be tempted to release them in the playground:  ganging up, picking on misfits; and they may experience them in manageable form when playing competitive games (in which the expression of the instincts is constrained and ordered by rules);

d. the arousal of these instincts by power-seeking leaders has led to racism, war, the demonisation of enemies, ethnic cleansing, genocide and other horrifying forms of inter-group conflict;

e. they should therefore beware of politicians and preachers of all kinds who try to stir them to hostility towards other groups; they should be ready to reach out to rival groups who have these same instincts and seek understanding with them.

Teaching along these lines, and its introduction into adult discussion of conflicts, would be in harmony with the message of tolerance that is in most religions, and in harmony with the lessons of moral philosophy. The probability that it would reinforce moral education and increase tolerance seems to me greater than the probability that it would do harm. That is a question that I urge readers to consider.

Conflict resolution

This is such a big and complex problem that it seems best to pose two simple questions, the answers to which that may be relevant across the board:

1. If those who analyse and comment on the behaviour of politicians who today seek power by arousing hostility to outsiders – refugees, migrants, racial and religious minorities and the like - were to say that an instinct to fear and hate rival groups was being aroused and inflamed dangerously, would the chances of calming the tide of hostility be increased, reduced or unchanged?

2. If those who engage in formal and informal discussions and negotiations amongst hostile groups were commonly to acknowledge the existence of that same instinct would their chances of calming the conflict be increased, reduced or unchanged?

My answer to question 1 is that I believe the chances of calming things would be improved. At present those who are shocked by the success of the demagogues are offered counter-arguments that appeal to their reason and moral values, but little or no explanation of how the demagogues are gaining support. Consequently, they may feel baffled and uncertain how to react. If they knew that the demagogues were appealing to dangerous instincts to fear and hate, bafflement might be displaced by conviction, and their reactions might be stronger and more coherent. I doubt if there would be any negative effect.

My answer to the Question 2 is more hesitant. I cannot see why the chances of success in mediation should be reduced; they might in time be improved.

General considerations

A further consideration that weighs with me is that scientists of all kinds should not shy away from the truth; they should seek and speak it, unless there are convincing social reasons against it. If it is true that the instincts I have described exist, that should not be denied. If it is true that they are having something like the effects that I have suggested, those effects should be aired and explored. I can see no legitimate excuse for continuing the taboo. Those scientists who deny the existence of instincts seem to me as mistaken as those non-scientists who oppose GM crops.

It has been suggested to me that the lifting of the taboo from scientists’ minds might be eased if a euphemism were adopted: for example, ‘hard-wired intergroup passions’ HWIPS, pronounced whips. But, apart from my distaste for the corruption of English, I doubt whether a euphemism would be as effective as the familiar word ‘instinct’ in warning the public of what is going on.

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