Do humans have instincts?

I remember learning, in high school, that humans do not have any instincts. The teacher said it was not universally accepted, but he sure made a convincing argument to us.

I recently had a long discussion with some of my friends anout the subject and it was 3 against me. I was in favor of no instinct, and they were against me. I ahve googled for some info and had not much luck.

Please, chime in.


Humans absolutely have instincts. Do you turn your head when you hear a noise? That’s one.

What was your teacher’s argument?

Well, there’s the suckling instinct. Put a baby’s mouth up against a teat, pacifier, finger, etc.

My teacher’s argument was simple: name one instinct. Instinct defined similarly to this: a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason.

Basically what are we born knowing?

From what I understand, eating is not an instinct. It is a reaction to hunger.

Marley23, do you turn your head to every noise? Or just the ones that interest you?
Its not an instinct.

Sounds like Punoqllads has a great example, then, since there’s no way a baby learns that from anyplace else.

You make a great number of responses to things that are pretty much automatic and that you don’t think about. That might be why nobody in your class could think of one. :stuck_out_tongue: I’m not sure what might qualify as a reflex or an instinct, but you don’t need to learn to do a lot of things. Nobody tells you to blink when you’re looking at bright lights, do they? The fight-or-flight response (reaction to stress) certainly seems to be an instinct by this definition.

It’s not the baby eating that I’m talking about. The baby could care less about eating, or whether it’s hungry or not. Just put some surface up against it’s lips, and it will start sucking on it.

See big tits. Dick gets hard.

Where did I learn it from? If I’m surprised by a noise, I’ll absolutely turn my head to be able to see where it’s coming from. It’s a reaction that’s not learned. And at concerts, you can definitely see me turn my head away from the stage so I can hear better sometimes. So while you can choose to respond to the sounds that interest you, if I walked into the room where you are and slammed a book down on the desk (or whatever), I’d put good money on you turning your head.

Fear of heights, to name one.

What about ‘phobias’? There are those who think phobias are instincts… a person with a fear of spiders, has the instinct to avoid spiders.

How about sex? If there’s ANYTHING humans do instinctively, it’s bump uglies. “Complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason”… yep, that sounds like the teenage years to me! Granted, most of us go on to learn techniques, but the instinct is clear… rub THIS on THAT, NOW!

Living near water… I’d call that an instinct. Humans LOVE to live on shorelines… be it a river, the ocean, or just a pond, being near water ‘calms’ us. To the point where we insist on living near water, even when it’s dangerous. Thousands of people die every year (just an estimate, no cite, geez) from floods who could simply have NOT built their houses on a flood plain near water. Complex behavior, little rational thought. And yes, some people just enjoy the view, fine.

And here’s a good one, fire up the discussion a bit. The instinct to get high. You better believe people have one of these… that’s why we will NEVER win the ‘war’ on drugs. It’s a natural thing, there are all kinds of animals who seek out intoxicating substances. Must be some kind of instinct going on in them, they sure aren’t succombing to peer pressure. “Hey, Beary, try some of this fermented honey, you’ll be COOL!”
One final thought… Your teacher’s argument was “Name one”??? That’s it? No reason why we wouldn’t have one, no suggestions that perhaps what we think are instincts, aren’t… just if you can’t think of one, that’s proof?? Geez! BAD SCIENCE!!!

Lenny, if you don’t think a baby suckling or turning it’s head toward a loud noise is instinct, what animal actions do you consider instincts?

Salmon Spawn. Mating during mating season.

We’re able to mate all year long. You don’t think our sexual feelings are instinct? Do you think everything is learned behavior?

Those are both fine examples, Lenny. Now what makes them different from some of the behaviors mentioned above?

I’ll take that one step further…cradle a newborn in your arms immediately after birth. He will instinctually turn his head toward the breast - presumably looking for something to suck on.

a baby’s cry is something that is not taught. they do it by instinct…they even vary the volume and pitch depending on what they want.

Walking and speech are not taught to children, they acquire these skills naturally–and instinctively. And it isn’t true than an instinct is unalterable. For example, dogs instinctively bark at strangers. However, with proper and consistent training, a dog can be taught not to bark.


Welcome to the SDMB. This message board is unique in that it hosts some of the brightest minds on the web, and even in the world. This is one of the rare arguments in which the burden of proof is on you to prove the negative. That is, you must prove the humans do not have instincts. The reason for that is because you haven’t given us your definition of what an instinct is. Once you do that, then we can assume the burden of proof and provide examples of instincts for you. BTW, I believe the examples given above are more than enough evidence but you can have your turn too.

Can you answer for us:

  1. What are instincts?
  2. What are some examples of animal instincts?
  3. Are humans animals or something entirely different?
  4. Why don’t humans possess instincts similar to that of other animals?

Fight or flight response. Everybody exhibits this, and it’s not hard to see why evolutionarily.

Desire to engage in language. All infants babble, and their babbling eventually takes on the phonetic structure of it’s caregivers’ language.

Face recognition. Infants in the crib show a preference for shapes that make faces as opposed to exactly the same shapes in other patterns.

Suckling towards a finger/nipple, as stated, or as it’s more commonly called, rooting. A human newborn doesn’t know factually that if it turns its head towards a touch on it’s cheek that it will be rewarded with food, but if touched on the cheek it will “root” for a nipple.