Re: Maternal instinct

Dwight W. Read (dread@ANTHRO.UCLA.EDU)
Sun, 28 Jul 1996 09:36:26 -0700

Kephart comments:
>I think something like "bioprogram" would be a better word than "instinct".
>Humans (and other hominoids) are almost certainly predisposed thru
>bioprogramming to be good mothers, but this like many other behaviors in these
>species probably requires a "trigger" to be fully operative, the trigger in
>case being experience with the behaviors in an appropriate social context (not
>unlike language in humans, by the way).
>"Instinct" on the other hand, if I understand the term correctly, should, by
>definition, require no such trigger.

As someone previously commented, "instinct" was a term that arose out of a
nature/nurture dichotomy, with a simple distinction between "instinctual
behavior" and "learned behavior." Reality is a bit more complex and I would
suggest it is more useful to think of behavior as having three components:
genetic, learned, and learned/transmitted. The first referring to what the
individual has by virtue of being an organism, the second what the
individual gains through it's direct experience with the environment, and
the third what the individual gains through its interactions with others in
which there is transmittal of information about appropriate behaviors. From
an evolutionary perspective, as we trace from simple organism to ourselves,
we see a changing importance of these three components; e.g., genetic
behaviors --> genetic + directly learned behaviors (with changing
"importance" of each component) --> genetic + directly learned + socially
learned behaviors.

Presumably, instinct lies at the beginning of this sequence and supposedly
should refer to behaviors which do not have any learning component. In this
strict sense of the term "instinct", humans do not have a "maternal
instinct" as maternal behaviors are, quite evidently, affected by both
direct individual experience and socially based learning (e.g., daughters
learning from their mothers). However, focusing on one component and asking
if human behavior x is solely due to that component is probably not very
useful for the kinds of behaviors that interest us as anthropologists, as
the answer most likely is No. Rather, the more interesting question is to
work out what are the relative contributions of these several factors to
behavior as it is expressed. Thus, just saying that there is no maternal
instinct is not very informative either as it only says that maternal
behavior in humans cannot be explicated solely by reference to genetics.
What is still left open by this answer is: In what way do each of these
components affect what we call maternal behavior?

D. Read