Does Instinct Play a Role in Human Learning?



At some point in the evolution of humanity we began to go beyond the need to learn basic survival skills towards considering the issue of just how humans actually learned things. In a world in which close contact with a variety of animal species was common, did early theorists wonder about differences in the way animals learn and the way humans learn?

Since even today we look to other species of animals for insight into much of what governs our own well-being, it is likely that early ponderers of the learning question looked to how animals learned.

Since animals did not appear to have language with which to transmit knowledge, we can speculate our early ancient creatures may have assumed animals had some in-born capacity to respond to certain environmental events without having been shown what to do by another animal.

Birthing is a case in point. Imagine an early human family observing an early form of the dog as the birthing process began. There is no other dog around to tell the female what to do. It simply knows what to do. Today, anyone who has experience the joy of watching a family pet give birth can attest to the marvel of instinctual behavior. The mother dog has not read a book or attended a lecture on the need to free the puppy from the protective sac or to bite off the cord. The dog just does it.

That is instinctual behavior. Today a dictionary definition of instinct is an inborn pattern of behavior that is characteristic of a species and is often a response to specific environmental stimuli.

One can only wonder what early humans thought about the role of instinct in human learning, but modern man by and large rejects the notion of a variety of instinctual responses in human behavior. However, there are those who appeal the opposite point of view. Some believe the capacity for language development is innate, meaning instinctual.

Perhaps continued advances in brain-based learning research will shed some new light on the debate. We can return to the example of giving birth to pose an interesting question.

Although it would be impossible to prove with an experiment, it is not likely that a contemporary female left to her own devices would know what to do when giving birth. Birthing is something mothers teach their daughters, having learned from their own mothers.

However, what of pre-hominids and even early hominids? It is likely that birth was instinctual in those early groups. What happened to that instinct? At what point did human females lose the ability to act on instinct and instead require a learning process on what to do at birth?

At some level one wonders if mannish's need to justify our species as not only different from other species but also vastly superior is at the heart of the argument made that little of human behavior is instinctual. Some scientists are only willing to acknowledge a few basic reflexes while others use terms like "drives" instead of acknowledging instincts.

Others, however, are raising interesting questions about hidden instincts deep within the recesses of our brains. Perhaps the most interesting is the "curiosity drive." Who knows? One day we may learn that the desire to learn is itself innate.



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