As with many, many things in life, looking at the concept of instinct through scientism-colored glasses blinds us to seeing half the nature and wonder of the subject in question—in this case all the organisms in the animal kingdom. The observation of instinct is one more potential path to the understanding of the underlying magic in life and living beings—one more path thwarted by the overlay of the scientistic mindset upon everything we perceive.
The prevailing physicalist, mechanistic worldview of our times causes us to assume that “instinct” is just a kind of programming or hard-wiring of the brain that dictates the animal’s actions, presumably somehow excluding or subverting the animal’s free will exactly where it needs to. We think of it in a mechanistic way, like it’s just neurological wiring which makes animals do things they can’t help but do.
I’ve seen one person describe/define instinct as “behaviors constrained by genetics in response to environmental events.” This assumption is inadequate, for two reasons. One, we can’t be sure they’re genetic. Some behaviors have been known to be passed down neither by genes nor by nurture, in controlled conditions. We just assume everything passed down by means other than nurture is genetic because that’s the only mechanism (we think) we understand.
Two, it’s a rather behavioristic framing, ignoring that what we call instinctual behavior tends to require dynamic intelligence to be applied to it, hence it’s mediated by the organism’s consciousness. It’s paradoxical to try to imagine how an organism can be influenced to do something and apply intelligence to that directive (which also requires directing consciousness to it) while it has no understanding of why it wants to do that thing. Does it come as some kind of feeling, or what? (When I say, in other words, that intelligence is applied to the execution of the instinct, what I mean is, for example, when a spider makes its web, it doesn’t make it the same way every time. It dynamically adapts its web weaving to the particulars of its environment, sometimes even in clever ways.)
The truth, I think, is that there’s a spectrum of consciousness and drives in animals going from pure self-awareness (or at least plain awareness) and conscious decision-making to more primal levels of consciousness (or the subconscious) and drives which we call instinct. Instinct is very much a part of their mind, intelligence and emotions.
It’s still fascinating, though, how the animal mind can be driven by instinct to perform behaviors of its own free will that are too complex and crafty for it to have any kind of coherent reasoning about. But I suppose it’s only slightly more fascinating than the idea that we humans, as conscious and free-choosing as we are, can be driven by instinct to, say, desire sex, or suckle on a bosom, or even that we can be influenced to want to avoid a certain situation by means of the sensation we call pain.
By saying that instinct isn’t “hard-wired” in the brain, I’m not necessarily saying that it doesn’t ultimately exist as an aspect of the central nervous system, or that it’s not determined by one’s DNA, or whatever; I’m just characterizing the phenomenological nature of it vis-à-vis consciousness.
But I’m not saying it is necessarily contained by the brain either. I’m partial to a theory of mine that instinct works by means of Sheldrakian morphic resonance: That is to say, the spider spins its web because the spider falls within the morphic field of its species, and that field contains, among many other things, the instinctive pattern of web-spinning for that species. And the morphic field of the species must have evolved alongside its genetic evolution, in a sort of “symbiotic” relationship.
In other words, as spiders figure out how to do certain things (or do certain things randomly that happen to be propitious for survival), those behavior patterns get embedded into the morphic field for the species so that further members of the species tend to perform the same habit. Thus genetic evolution can progress within the context of that existing habit, along with whatever else is affected and effected by the morphic field. And, of course, conversely, the morphic field changes according to the context of the physical definition of the species as genetically determined.
Some of those “other things” influenced by the species’ morphic field could be the very chemical processes that allow the body to function. After all, Sheldrake claims that after a certain type of crystal was grown in a lab in one place in the world, it suddenly would grow a lot faster in labs in other places of the world. We don’t really know enough about how things work to say for certain that the workings of some chemical processes aren’t undertermined WRT the physics we know; some of it could be up to morphic fields. Indeed, some (or possibly all?) of what we call the rules of physics themselves could actually be due to morphic resonance.
(BTW, this should go without saying, but when I say that a morphic field belongs to the particular species, I don’t necessarily mean that there’s exactly one morphic field for each species in some kind of discrete way. The delineations between morphic fields for sibling species are most likely blurry. The divisions between hierarchies of morphic fields corresponding to hierarchies of animalia are also probably blurry.)
(Also BTW, I know it’s a little late in the game to explain this, but in case you don’t know already, the idea of morphic resonance and morphic fields is an idea that when some manner of thing/process behaves in a particular way it’ll be more likely to behave in the same way in future instantiations of it, even if they’re in a completely different place. Hope that helps clear up the last four paragraphs.)
Another alternative to the idea that instincts are stored in the brain—and this isn’t incompatible with the idea that they operate via morphic resonance at all—is that they’re stored in the whole body. I don’t think all aspects of mind are necessarily in the head. (I don’t think all aspects of mind are necessarily in the body at all, but that’s another issue.)
You feel emotions in places in the rest of your body, so the natural conclusion is that emotions can reside within other parts of the body. Assuming that they’re completely generated in the brain and that feeling them extended to the rest of the body is therefore an illusion is tendentiously scientistic.
Also, I once read a story of a man who had had a heart transplant from another guy who had died in a car crash. For a while after receiving the new heart the man would hear (or maybe he would dream he heard? I don’t remember) a mysterious ticking sound. It was later concluded that the ticking sound he heard was the sound of the turn signal that was still ticking for a while after the car had crashed.
But more to the point, the story also said that the heart recipient’s tastes in food and other things started to change, and, if I remember correctly, upon conferring with the relatives of the heart donor it was found out his tastes were changing to be more like those of the donor. So, if personality can be housed in the rest of the body, then maybe instinct can be, too. After all, it’s all interconnected.
I shouldn’t have written so many paragraphs about where the instincts might be stored, though. The main takeaway from this essay should be that instinct is just as much a part of mind as free will and emotion are, and that looking at it in a scientistic or mechanistic way bars us from seeing the magic in life that instincts intimate.