Animal Instincts

In a civilized society, where does savage behavior come from?

We live in a polite society where, to maintain order and decency, there are some basic, agreed upon codes of behavior. These rules are a means of keeping large groups from falling into anarchy and chaos. Not everyone agrees with every rule but, whether they’re enforced by law (like driving on the right side of the road or not committing murder) or common courtesies (not cutting in line or doing unto others as you would have done unto you), a civilized society has proved, with few exceptions, to operate best when all the members buy into a code of ethics.

On occasion, an individual will do something outside an accepted paradigm. Sometimes, the thwarting of rules is a thoughtful rebellion, a protest against the status quo, and those countercultural acts can lead to great strides forward for a society. Other times, the outlier actions are rash and impulsive, not carefully considered, a spur of the moment reaction to a situation that comes from who-knows-where.

The thin veneer of civilized behavior is shattered when impulse gives way to an instinctive reaction. If you’ve ever shouted something at another driver that would mortify your mother or gotten so carried away at your child’s soccer game that you chest-bumped the referee while defending little Suzie’s right to a hard foul, you may have experienced this impulse.

So where does this ability to snap come from?

Humans are, from a biological perspective, animals. And even though we have an advanced brain and complex, rational modes of thinking, we have not completely evolved past the animal instincts that enabled us to survive through many centuries of human evolution.

On television, survival reality shows drop men into the wilderness to fend for themselves or strand everyday people on an island where they revert back to animalistic, primal behavior. There are growing movements that promote a return to an off-the-grid lifestyle, diets that suggest we eat how our Paleolithic ancestors did and leadership seminars that encourage unchecked aggressive behavior complete with roaring and chest beating. Perhaps these trends merely acknowledge who we are and how we are genetically programmed to behave.

Evolutionary psychology is one way of explaining the roots of human behavior. Based on a combination of biology, anthropology and cognitive sciences, it seeks to explain why humans act the way we do. Similar to the Darwinian theory of genetic evolution and physical adaptation for survival, it asserts that there are adapted behavioral instincts that guide our survival as well.

There are areas of the brain that control behavioral responses to specific evolutionary problems, like finding food, avoiding environmental threats or hostile predators, mating and investing in the survival of offspring. All are directly related to the propagation of genetic material, the survival of self and of the continuation of the genetic line. Not only were physical traits developed to find solutions to these problems, but behavioral instincts also developed to ensure the continuation of the species.

For example, physical strength ensured your ability to withstand the elements and feed yourself. Behavioral traits are no less specifically adapted as response to a survival situation. An individual behaving aggressively and asserting dominance over others ensures that individual’s survival and the success of his genetic line. Protecting a child from danger is a behavior that, from an evolutionary standpoint, comes not from a place of affection but from a desire to ensure the genetic material remains intact.

These behaviors are less cognitive and more instinctive, driven not from a place of thought but from an unpremeditated need to act quickly and sometimes violently. If a tribe is threatened, the instinctive response is likely to be to protect the self, the mate and the child before considering the needs of the whole tribe.

These behavioral traits, much like physical traits, come from over tens of thousands of years of adaptation. It is only recently in the timeline of mankind that having reliable sources of food and shelter and engaging in cooperative communities have become standard. Mankind has only enjoyed a few thousand years of civilized living, as compared to hundreds of thousands of years of survival adaptation and slow evolution toward the animal we are today.

So is it any wonder that the instincts to behave like relative savages still exist within us? A few hundred generations is not enough time for humanity to evolve away from the instincts that were necessities for survival. The thoughtful, conscious and deliberate choices we make, especially as they relate to our interactions with others, will occasionally be overruled by these deep-seated, instinctive reactions to threats, real or perceived.

Occasionally, the polite, civilized and agreed upon rules and mores that normally dictate our behavior get thrown out the window and we become instinctive, reactionary, violent or irrational. After all, we’re still animals underneath.