The role of instincts in modern society - Managing human instinct



This essay gives a view of the meaning of instincts in the life of modern man and the meaning of "Panem et Circences" in modern society from an evolutionary psychology and ethology point of view. It discusses some of the "decompression valves" of society as they have grown over the last centuries in order to deal with the basic instincts of both men and women as they increasingly had to live in modern societies. Modern society has moved away from our ancient environment and this causes some problems in day to day life for a lot of people. Over time society has developed ways to manage the tensions arising form living in an "artificial" environment and this has kept pace with our changing environment.

We use our rational capacity to adapt our environment to our instinctive need and to adapt ourselves to our environment. This capacity of the human species has allowed us to spread over the planet and inhabit a wide range of ecosystems, such as deserts, barren mountain ranges and modern environments. Life in a desert may be more natural, but for our species it is not more optimal compared to life in the environment the human species came into existence. Due to our economic and technological capacities, we have been able to compensate for our loss of a "natural" environment in modern society, albeit at a cost.

Modern life as such is largely not better or worse than a primitive life, but it is different in its requirements for extensive technological support and its cost. The pro capita cost of modern life has soared over the last centuries, which necessitates us to drive our economies at an increasingly higher pace and reduced marginal efficiency. The maintenance of this delicate balance also makes modern societies more vulnerable for external and internal destabilizations, either by natural disasters (hurricanes, earthquakes) or crime, war and terrorism. We maintain a delicate balance with a lot of weight at both sides, which strains the construction of our society more than a more primitive society. We also have to run our modern society and its many institutions with the same brain structure and instincts which we used to live a hunter gatherer life long ago.

Our instincts have evolved over the ages to guide us through life and to provide the necessary basis needed for our survival. Instincts, in all species, deal with life and death, survival of individuals and each species. They regulate and guide the competition in and between species, mating behavior and the care for offspring. One could summarize the social meaning of instincts as outward competition and inward care, where the "scale" of the social group we refer to as in and out may differ (children, clan, tribe, …) .

Some of our instincts may look a bit antiquated in modern society, but nevertheless they are our companion through life and while our ratio may deal with, in general, short term problems and adaptive solutions, our basic instincts take the long view. As a general rule, no behavior or opinion can survive for generations without having its roots in instinctive patterns. Although our minds have to start over and over again with each generation, our instincts steadily flow through the generations and they are our companions in life for better and for worse. Our instincts act as road maps for life, so we do not have to reinvent the wheel with each new generation, but an individual can take different roads in life, which are not all interchangeable "ad infinitum". Inter-individual differences do not equal intra-individual choice.

Science has often tried to avoid mentioning instincts as a driving force in human life and has given it other names, such as sub conscience, ego, etc... The reason for this is that mankind, just like the individual, has tried to put itself above and apart from its fellow creatures. Our ambition makes us compete with other men, but also with other species, not only by winning fights but also by creating a beautified image of ourselves. Although this beautified image may seem harmless at first, it causes havoc at the scale of social and political interactions.

I will discuss behavior grown out of our instincts which may be horrifying but keep in mind I only mention it as an example and by no means agree with some of the excesses men over the ages and up to now have inflicted upon themselves and their fellow men and women. This document does not attempt to be politically correct, but to show a small glimpse of how modern science and personal thought can shed a light on the roots of our behavior and its impact on the organization of 21st century society.

I haven't written a beautiful peace of prose, nor a complete and well documented essay as it isn't meant to answer questions in the first place, but to question answers and make people think. I will often make a link to the more instinctive side of the human mind, it is by no means meant to be degrading as this is not the more primitive part of our mind, but is of equal stature of what we call our ratio. Modern man acts through a continuous dialog between his instincts and his rational mind throughout his life.

This text is meant to provoke some thought, not to offend or insult anyone. As English is not my native language, my wording may be imprecise or wrong at some point(s). Feel free to comment on anything.


Instincts are those behavioral patterns which are not modified by experience and transmitted through generations, without the prerequisite of learning. They do not need to be actively in use at birth, but they may appear only at a certain age or in a certain situation. An instinctive pattern acts as a road map, not necessarily as the car which drives the road.

As stated in the “Harvard Law of Animal Behavior, which says that “under carefully controlled experimental circumstances, an animal will behave as it damned well pleases", animal behavior has an intrinsic stochastic component. So understanding a behavioral mechanism is not the same as predicting it one-on-one. Variability of behavior is itself a highly adaptive mechanism for dealing with the reality that the context for behavior is always largely unknown to the acting individual.

Nature keeps a minimum of variation in species, as you may never know which features may be beneficial if selective pressures change. Instinctive behavioral patterns also come is variations, such as dominance vs. submission.

Accepting the influence of human instinct on our lives, does not equal deterministic reductionism, but simply adds a component which we can use to understand and explain some part of our behavior.

Creating our natural environment

Human history probably began on the African savanna, a region of open grasslands punctuated by scattered stands of trees and denser woods near rivers and lakes. When offered a choice of landscapes, people react most positively to savanna-like settings, with moderate to high depth or openness, relatively smooth or uniform-length grassy vegetation or ground surfaces, scattered trees or small groupings of trees, and water, a finding that is consistent across every culture studied (see also Rebuilding the Unity of Health and the Environment: A New Vision of Environmental Health for the 21st Century, Institute of Medicine (US), Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2001).

When allowed for, we recreate landscapes which resemble our original ancestral environment, a mixture of open spaces with water and forests. When you take a look at a park, you will notice that it resembles the environment in which man has evolved, open spaces combined with trees and a pond. The locations which allow us to live in close proximity to these habitats are also most expensive in modern society. The environment has an impact on the psychosocial wellbeing of its inhabitants as it matches closest to what our evolution and instinct made us to search for. The slums of modern cities, compared to the suburban areas do not provide an environment in which man likes to live, however in the competition for the best living space; those who do not make it to the better environment are pushed into the decayed centers of big cities or the slums. Psychosocial stress is one of the major causes of drug abuse, certainly of the heroin-type, but allowing for a limited (ab)use of drugs instead of creating a better environment to live in for the poor, is the choice made by politics in most modern nation states. Fighting a war against drugs is more natural for men, than planting a tree in a slum or digging a pond. Wealthy people spend a lot of money on big estates in which they mimic our ancestral living space and a much reduced population density, which better matches our ancestral situation.

The life and games of modern man

The basic groups in ancient times were the clan and tribe, the clan or family being part of a tribe or local community. The roles of men and women were clearly divided and remained stable over many centuries. In primitive society men were the hunters and protectors of their tribes, while women in general took care of the children and gathered fruit. When resources were plenty the men hunted animals, while when resources were scarce they hunted other tribes to reduce competition for the scarce resources or to steal their food. Instinctively a man only cares for his closest relatives; members of other tribes are regarded instinctively as competitors or even prey. A tribe or local community ideally exists of a, stable, mixture of both alpha and beta types of personalities, where the ratio of both types is to provide both types an optimum for survival.

Being a tribal leader is as much a matter of instinct as it is a matter of talent and skills. Nurturing a dominant nature up to the level of social dominance is the path taken by the social elite in modern society. The reduction of emotional behavior is important to take ones place upward the social ladder, as one can witness in the more "cold" appearance of members of the social elite. When traveling through the social structure of society, there is a gradual shift in the balance of emotionality and rationality, although the instinctive needs remain relatively constant. -Panem et Circences- is needed throughout society.

All people may born/created equal, but are not the same in their role in life. Like with other social animals, there are alpha males ("hawks") in the group that are the leaders of the pack and beta males ("doves") which take a more subordinate role. In all social living species, there is a ranking in the group which facilitates the organization of the group in different aspects of life. In society the alpha and beta males behave differently, which may lead to conflicts when they have to work together and not always understand each others needs. They are both driven by different intensities and variants of instincts for dominance; they don’t always “understand” each other, which may lead to confusion and conflicts. The alpha male is more one-dimensional in his thinking and behavior and as such the ambitious alpha male is the easiest to manipulate by women, as they are the ones who need most to show off their status and yearn for admiration. In modern society men are hunting each other for their money, which is a bit less dangerous than ancient tribal wars, but it is still based upon the urge to get to the resources for survival and status.

In modern society alpha males have a greater urge to get "to the top" and yearn for admiration for their "practical" skills instead of enjoying social interactions. Becoming an alpha or beta male is based on your hormonal balance and the way your upbringing rewards or punishes alphaish behavior. Growing up with an alpha father (and mother) will in general allow you to develop the same skills, while a beta father will try to lead you to the same behavior that enabled him to survive in society. Society makes use of these instincts and exploits the longing for careers by men, it makes them work hard and employers make money out of it. Ambition acts on all levels, as there will always be someone to whom a man can feel himself superior to. High ranking men, such as “Captains of Industry”, religious or political leaders have their focus almost entirely on their status and wealth and women. Most men focus on technical skills to impress each other, only a minority has the right skills to deal with their fellow men and use them as an "instrument" for their own purpose. In addition the further the distance of two men from each others clan or tribe the less they regard each other as "partners" and the more they will be "prey". They will in general spare their own clan members, but can be ruthless to men from competing communities, parties or companies. Modern organizations, such as parties, companies, etc. are substitutes for the ancient hunting groups and satisfy our needs for competition. Men nowadays do not hunt for prey but try to "steal" resources from "competitors". In ancient times, thieves and merchants shared the same God to indicate that trade or theft are the extremes of the same process, they only differ in the (a) symmetry of the exchange.

The food problem has been solved in modern western society, so only competition with other "tribes" has remained. By feeding both our cattle and people on an industrial scale, we can now make time to put our competitive need to fight each other with something else. Providing ample food to people is one of the most important elements in reducing tensions in society, so it should not be taken lightly. Food shortages have been a major cause of social and political conflict in the past and present.

Men hunt for prey and try to prove they are successful in giving shelter and supporting their family. While most men nowadays have to do without a good kill, we have mastered to create substitutes for our basic instincts. Modern society has learned to make money more than ever from the primal instincts of men and women as since ancient time’s people get food (earn money) by satisfying the need of their fellow man. For every human need there is a modern day substitute which at best gives in many cases only partial satisfaction, this can create new problems, because it doesn't willful the basic need in full as in "real life". People lacking a well developed social network rely on substitution to fulfill their need, but this is often not good enough to keep them functioning well in society as it destabilizes them somewhat.

It is not only modern technology, which we use as a substitute for our primal needs. Walking the dog, is a substitute for men patrolling their hunting ground and it feels good for both the man and the dog. There is even more resemblance between both hunters as both men and dogs pee against trees, but at least the dog still understands why he does it. Men have an instinctive need to leave the tribe now and then and to wander around in a group or alone.

The meaning of the media

Our perception of reality can be extended and partial substitution is possible by using modern technology. We see and look at what we crave for. Perception is an active process, not passive ingestion of sensory stimuli. Modern media are a substitute for story telling, an ancient capacity of humans. Technological progress has changed how we do things, but not what we do.

The media and telecommunication devices have to some extent extended and also distorted the perception of reality in man. The medium defines the capacity but also the defectiveness of transmission of a message as we use all our senses in communication and technology only transmits a part of reality and also with a different "intensity" as related to direct human to human communication. The media also distort our perception of geographical distance and as such the perception of benefit or threat of what is going on around us. But they can transmit the much needed "threats" and "emotions" sometimes lacking in modern life to satisfy our emotional needs. With the support of the media society can move on and become more productive and efficient, albeit that we increasingly live in a golden cage, detached form reality. Of course life in ancient times was not pleasant in all its aspects too.

Living detached from reality was a prerogative of noblemen as they perceived a beautified reality through their servants and so could create an artificial world for them selves; now with the modern media we can all enjoy this feat. But as they paid the price by being toppled by revolutions as they did not notice the changes in society, we can perish too when our environment might change too much and we have drifted away from appropriate perception ourselves. The French revolution and the Russian revolution are an example of a lack of contact with reality, which caused the fall of (part of) a ruling class.

TV and movies will bring "reality" from the other side of the planet before your eyes and although you may more or less know that this is not the same reality as is happening in your local community, people become confused as fiction and reality easily merge in our minds. We cannot always make a clear distinction between our own observations and the observations brought to us by the media. Repetitive perception and transmission of a message always distorts it, even more if something "mechanical" has been put in between the "sender" and "receiver" of the message. In the long run our brain cannot distinguish between our own experience and the ones we were artificially exposed to, they will be mixed and both used to create a new "inner reality" from which we will draw when fitting new perceptions into our reference frame. We bond to other people by regular exposure to their presence and personality, which is why we start to extend our "tribal" feeling to the people we see on the screen on a regular basis. TV has done a great deal to open up the minds of people for a wider geographical range of people and events than could be reached by living in our local communities, but made them more vulnerable to manipulation. A message become more acceptable as being the truth when it is repeated more often and coming form different sources (different channels), but the difference between the information sources may be nonexistent.

Face to face communication is the most natural way of communication and everything else is only a partial substitute. By "electrifying" human interaction, machines have come in between human relations, but "machines" relay inter human communication in a defective way. One of the consequences is that young people are growing up with defective communication skills which as adults make them an easy prey for "predator" commercial extortion as they are conditioned to accept this way of communication as "reliable". Men are more vulnerable for a lack of socialization than women as women are better "protected" by their better developed instinctive social skills. As TV fulfills the need of the TV star for adoration and admiration and gives the viewer a way to see more of "reality" than is possible in his or her local community, it is in a way harmful as it only transmits one way and doesn't allow communicating in full. The same goes for every other artificial communication device man has developed, such as radio, books, etc.

Men in general have less trouble with artificial communication as their capacity for exchanging messages is more limited to "mechanical" information than for women. A woman will feel more uneasy as she will miss the wealth of direct communication; as such the phone is better able to transmit a message than an email as voices are important for women to "perceive" the meaning of the message. People still prefer "real" communication as they even in the 21st century gather at conferences or meetings than using video- or teleconferencing, so they can meet face to face and exchange more than just "facts". As a remark, men should always take their wives or another woman they can trust if they engage in social interaction, so the woman can pick up those parts of the communication a man will miss.

Media stars, pop stars and other artists use their public appearance to draw admiration and adoration from their audience, so the audience will fulfill the instinctive need of the pop star and by joining the fan group or "tribe" of a successful pop star the audience will fulfill its own need as "beta" personalities. As such adoration for public personalities is a way of mating behavior or a role model for the alpha personality about how to reach the top itself, because as other primates we learn by observation and copying. At best we extend somewhat these copied ideas and behavior, but most of us just make it to copy and ought to survive and live our lives. The direction and range of this extension will either make you "John Doe", a genius or a lunatic, but both extremes extend what they have learned further than most people are capable of. We all constantly run a feedback loop to verify whether what we "observe" is "real", but this loop is not perfect.

One of the "disturbances" for our perception of reality is our hormonal status. Men often laugh at women for their monthly hormonal and emotional cycles, but the behavior of men follows daily and seasonal changes. Their testosterone levels are at their peak in the morning and decline over the day and may cause morning temper. Men in general have their highest peak of testosterone in the fall, which is luckily still the hunting season when libido and aggression in men is at its peak; as such ambition and libido go almost hand in hand in men. For those alpha males at the peak of society, killing animals is the next best thing to tribal wars and makes them feel successful, luckily the hunting season is in fall when they most of all need a kill. This may also be on of the reasons why a fox is called a "smart" animal, the better your opponent, the higher the hunters esteem. Women accompany the hunters and cheer their skills; the cheerleaders in sports also serve the same purpose and make the "warriors" feel better. Governments should be aware of the fact that if they take away hunting from the alpha males, they will have to provide a substitute in order to manage their instincts. These alpha males should be aware that although they have a need for hunting and killing, their beta brothers don't like killing and going to war as much as they do.

Killing people far away from home is also more acceptable than violence at home. This has not only to do with geographic distance, but with a perception of "otherness", this can be skin color, religion, nationality or social class. Racism is only one of the forms of perception of "otherness" albeit one of the most stupid. From a scientific point of view as a white Caucasian male can have more in common, genetically, with an aboriginal woman of Australia than with his white Caucasian neighbor. Men are tuned to be looking for possible enemies to fight and they will use visual and behavioral signs of "otherness" to identify them no matter how "real" these signs are. Of course creating "otherness" by manipulating perception is always a good way to make aggression acceptable when it is needed dearly for political purposes.

Not only is interaction with a different culture a cause of trouble in human interaction, belonging to a different tribe or local community is often enough for creating some animosity. When we migrate over the planet to another country or continent, this often leads to violence and war. Europeans almost exterminated the native people of America as they had superior technology to fight the indigenous people when they invaded their territory. At the end of antiquity the Huns and other tribes invaded the Roman Empire and plunged Europe into the Middle-Ages. In modern times migrants from developing countries try to improve their lives by migrating to Western countries, but the Western world defends its territory and its resources with immigration laws and by force. In our pursuit of happiness and prosperity by wandering outside our own tribal territory we first killed many animals in the early stages of our migration over the planet and later on when we tried to occupy territory already taken by other tribes, we fought them instead (colonization and migration).

People moving form the city to the countryside and the local people don't understand each other either; everyone moving in to a different "tribe" will have to adjust and this is not only true for migrant workers. The perception of "otherness" adds up in a non-linear way, but is a multi-factorial process. Moving into another province is already enough to be regarded as a stranger and country people joke about city people and vice versa. People feel close to people surrounding them on a regular basis, they get "used" to each other. Intruders are always regarded as unwanted and the more if they differ in more aspects from ones own clan and the more they resemble adult men. Put people together long enough and they will get used to each other, but men and women respond different to other people. Women look upon other women as competitors for finding a partner, but women with little children tend to flock together for child rearing as was the case in primitive society. Women will stay relaxed as long as a man isn't around for which they have to compete or when they already feel safe in a stable relation. Repulsion between women is instinctive and instantaneous and women will try to downgrade other women with gossip as she sees them as competitors for her lover/husband even if the man did not pay any attention to the other woman. Soaps and human interest magazines are a modern substitute for tribal life. Gossip either directly of through human interest magazines creates bonds and allows women to enjoy sensing and guessing for other people's intentions if they approach.

Defending the own tribe makes men braver and this still works through today in a home match in sports. The closer to their own "tribe" the more men fight defend their home turf; there is even an almost exponential decay in performance with the traveling time (not physical distance) away from the nest. Taking the women of their "tribe" with them when playing abroad helps to keep them in a "defending" state. The same goes for business men, always take the women you love with you on business trips, for men this is a women whom they are sexually attracted to, which is not necessarily the mother of their children. Distance in this case is measured in travel time, not in physical distance, as long as we can reach our tribe in a decent amount of time we will feel "safe". Flying reduces our sense of distance, as we calculate distances in travel time, not in miles.

Higher ranking men prefer individual sports, as they don't have to share the price with other "tribe" members while sports like soccer are a substitute for the hunting group of ancient times. The human brain is able to cheat its own instincts, as looking at a soccer match is a substitute for playing the game or fighting with their tribe itself. Fantasy is a good substitute for the real thing, so watching soccer on TV already provides enough relief in most cases, but of course extending the fight outside the stadium creates even more relief for hooligans. Having to work in a mind numbing routine job demands a compensation for men high on testosterone, so hooliganism is a symptom rather than a disease. Hooliganism is a substitute for tribal war. The more restrictive modern society has become to be more economically efficient, the more help it needs form the media and sports to provide a substitute for "real life" and most of the time "cheating" our instincts by the mass media works well enough to give us relief (see also Soccer's tribal wars, P. Harrison, New Society, 5 September 1974, pp. 692-4).

Sports costs society a lot of money, but the alternative would be tribal wars and cost more lives, which have become more valuable now we have fewer children than before. A reasonable man should manage his instincts and take up some kind of sports as a form of self hypnosis, do not ignore your instincts, but manage them. Sportsmen both manage their own male instincts and help other men to fulfill their needs.

Men who have been prepared to take higher risk, such as migrating to another territory have a higher aggression index than other men who stayed behind. It is significant that countries populated by migrants and as such higher risk taking males need more violent sports to keep them happy. In Western Europe, where the wars of the 19th and 20th century purged society of a lot of aggressive alpha males, sports can be less violent and still serve its purpose as a decompression valve for the aggression of men. But men still need enemies to face and with and by society becoming more restrictive because violence has become non-productive, violence in sports is on the rise again.

Managing violence in young men

Males with a high alpha potential can either join a "tribe" or its modern day equivalent, a gang, or join the army or police corps. The army and sports are the only parts of modern society where men can still live their primal instincts as they were designed for by nature. Even in modern societies care is taken to keep the army as one of a few escape routes out of poverty and a way out for male (and female) aggression. For those who find out that they are born in a social group devoid of chances to reap the benefits and glory of the modern society, becoming a "warrior" at least gives them some sense of identity. In the army and in gangs, before men are allowed to join the "hunting group", they have to prove their skills for which they invent all kinds of often painful initiation rituals.

Modern society lacks the ancient initiation rites which allowed a boy to prove that he was ready to enter the hunting group. Most of these rites tested the ability to endure pain, fatigue, etc. all skills needed to hunt animals for food or fight other tribes. Instinctively men are ready in their early teens to join the world of adult men, but modern society denies them the "honor" to participate in adult live. Instead they have to create their own "adult" world with their own rituals, such as smoking cigarettes, motorbikes, tattoos, etc. . . . It is important for the pubescent boy to artificially increase the distance to the younger boys who haven’t yet entered to glorious world of "adults". Young girls circle them and measure their potential and if their instincts soar at the moment of ovulation they might even attempt to mate. An increasing problem is the lowering of the age at which both boys and girls start puberty. Crossing the no-man’s-land between childhood and adult status has never been harder and taken longer, much to the frustration of our teenagers. One of the best ways to calm young boys, heavy physical labor, is becoming scarce in modern society and not everyone is involved in sports enough to keep his raging hormones in check. Maybe an ever increasing level of estrogen like substances in our environment can chemically keep young males in check, so they do not cause havoc.

Young testosterone filled alpha males will always attack if they can see victory in the end, but they will abstain if they will almost certain perish the fight. The cold war was an excellent example of two alpha countries keeping each other mutually in check and in addition both political blocks both provided each other with a much needed enemy. Although modern wars are very destructive, the pro capita victims of war in modern societies are much less in relative numbers compared to the total population, than in the tribal wars of the Yanomami. With the improvement of destructive power up to the nuclear level, our instinctive fear of becoming victims ourselves has helped us to live without war for a while. Men have a different balance between their instinctive aggression-potential and fear for losing a battle (fight to flight balance), compared to most women, so they require a more powerful enemy to keep them quiet (see also War Before Civilization, Lawrence H. Keeley, Oxford University Press, USA, 1997).

Nowadays the world is running into trouble, because the game of power is too much out of balance and young men are most likely to engage in violent fights as they are soaked in testosterone. In general the balance shifts somewhere around their 40s, when they become more relaxed. But the decline in physical and sexual performance is not always in sync with their mental state. Men need less testosterone to feel their urges, than they need to keep up their physical capacity and this sense of loss may be one of the causes of a midlife crisis in some of them. They will still feel brave, but instead of fighting themselves when necessary they will send other men into the fight who are more suitable and willing to take risks. At his stage the elderly top-level alpha male may chose golf as a sport as it allows him to show off even when he can no longer compete with younger men in more physical sports. Golf provides a good combination of competition and social networking as he now becomes less masculine and is able to "communicate" better by now as their wives may notice. In general we create separate competitions for the sexes as well as for different age groups to cheat ourselves that we can still "win" and feel good.

Competing at the Olympics is less dangerous than hunting bison with primitive weapons, but we still yearn for a trophy in the end. Modern sports are also derived from those skills most required for hunting prey or fighting other tribes, which is why changing a diaper or breastfeeding are not an Olympic discipline.

We need to feel important for our peers, not for some distant group we do not identify ourselves with. For men it is important that they feel themselves in some way successful, either by having the most beautiful stamp collection or by becoming the leader of a country or a religious leader, but unless your family has found a perpetual success formula, most families rise and fall in social status through the generations. Success formulas may change with changing conditions in society and you are most vulnerable if you rely solely on technical skills. Families who understand how to use their fellow men as a resource for their own purposes are generally more successful in the long run as the technological environment may change, but people and their instincts remain the same over longer periods of time. It is amazing how you can transpose political analyses and skills from ancient civilizations, such as the Roman Empire, to the present time and apply them successfully to present day situations.

It doesn't matter much if men fight with sticks or with nuclear weapons; these are merely multipliers of damage. Men strive to find way to kill without being killed themselves which is why they are so happy when allowed to work in the war industry. Also uncoupling the development of weapons from their use reduces the perception of responsibility for the damage they inflict. Also uncoupling the act of launching a weapon from the place where it causes harm reduces the mental burden on the user of the weapon. We are not very well equipped mentally for perception at a distance.

In countries with scarce resources, like mountainous regions or deserts, sports are not enough to keep the men in check and only tribal violence satisfies their needs. Tribal wars are also a way of postpartum birth control to reduce the number of competitors for food and shelter and may give access to the women of the other tribe for "gene exchange". Mostly the men kill each other and rape the women as they regard women as price money when in a frenzy after a kill. When men are in frenzy from fighting each other their sex drive goes up and women are the victims when they can gain access to them. The rape by strangers gives a serious blow to the women for various reasons, first it is humiliating as it violates the "normal" rules of mating in which women decide whom they allow to mate and it leaves them alone to raise the child when they become pregnant. A man should approach a woman "unarmed" and leave the final decision to mate up to her and not impose himself upon her. Afterwards the men of their own tribe do not want to take the burden to assist in raising the child of an enemy and they will leave the woman alone or even kill her.


An artist creates a materialization of an inner reality, which can be added to someone’s environment. We look at what pleases us and although we call a beautiful painting of a naked woman art, the instinct of men which makes them look at naked women is also at the basis of their fascination for nude paintings. The model and the artist use the artificial setting of a studio as an excuse to fulfill their instinctive needs and so becoming a painter or sculptor is a good excuse to look at naked women. By becoming an artist, one can also achieve a higher social status.

Politics and politicians

Politicians are just like other people and they are as much instinctive as anyone else. People engaged in politics have a strong ambition for power, but that does not equal freedom from other instinctive flaws. One can satisfy the needs of a beta-type male with a stamp collection, but alpha males will require real political power or they will cause havoc to society. The perception of not sharing power as one needs it is enough to engage in political violence and even terrorism. Control and ownership of resources is a driving force in alpha male violence and requires careful management. Providing alpha males with some, albeit fake, control over resources brings peace to a society and rids the community of a dangerous source of conflict. Poor men may cause havoc by stealing, but high ranking alpha males cause havoc by leading their people into war and terrorism.

Democracy is a luxury a society can support when enough resources are available to support large elites and as such it absorbs political ambitions without the necessity of political violence. Mechanisms to manage the access to power have been in place throughout the ages, with varying success. The ambitions for power by a new group are either managed by importing them into the existing elite, such as granting them nobility if the influx is manageable on a relatively small scale. If the new group knocking on the doors of power is too large, this often leads to a revolution, such as in France in 1789. The conversion of the monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in the United Kingdom was in part less dramatic and required at certain stages less bloodshed. Those who crave for power usually want to give their longing for power a more noble meaning; instinct as such is not acceptable. But unless the living conditions of the masses deteriorate below a certain level, the “leaders” of revolutions have no chance of success. Of course one’s ambitions are often best served by helping this process a bit by destabilising a country.

Democracy is made possible by prosperity, but it is not the primal cause of prosperity in society. Democracy is the consequence of prosperity, not its cause. It only works when tensions in society are low, not in times of crisis, e.g. pre-war Germany due to the economic crisis and the Treaty of Versailles, which made Germany vulnerable for extreme political adventures. The Marshall Plan after World War II jump started prosperity in the Western Europe and was a major cause of social and political stability. People occupied with improving their conditions of life, have no need for violent conflict, let it be a small minority. Both the Marshall Plan and the creation of the European Union kept European aggression and the Europeans in check. Prosperity buys stability albeit up to a certain level as the middle class cannot be allowed to become financially independent as they need to perform labor in order to keep the economy going. Driving consumption in order to make people destroy (just) enough capital to keep them from becoming financially independent is important to keep the work force active. Robotization of the modern economy increasingly pushes more and more people out of their job and back into uncertainty, which leads to social and political instability. The "bread" in "Panem et Circences" is something to be taken into account when we create an army of surplus workers for which we cannot create enough jobs to keep them busy and make a living. Democracy measures the "fever" of a society and warns the elites of trouble to arise due to the decline of the lower and middle class and allows for measures to be taken in order to avoid the "Execution of Louis XVI". Gated communities are the gettoes of the wealthy, but they won't protect them any longer when social and political tensions grow due to increasing inequality (see also The United States and the European Union: The Political Economy of A Relationship, Terrence R. Guay, Routledge, 2001 and Gated Communities: Social Sustainability in Contemporary and Historical Gated Developments, Samer Bagaeen, Ola Uduku, Routledge, 2010, p. 73).

Democratic rights are only extended to those layers of society who have an interest in sustaining the status quo and who are no threat to the stability of society, so the definition of "the people" varies over time. Bringing a democracy to a country which has no democratic tradition, which evolved over time, is an almost impossible task. Democracy is not a switch you can turn on overnight, but it is a delicate answer to both the ambitions for power of the alpha males in society and the needs of the citizens of a country. The struggle for power is mainly the playing ground of the ambitious men, while the fruits of democracy mainly benefit the fathers, women and children of a tribe or country. When the fight for power becomes less muscular and more a matter of social and verbal talent, we see an increasing participation of women in politics.

Granting benefits to those who are perceived as your enemies is counter-instinctive for a politicians and citizens. Adhering to instinctive defense mechanisms can be a cause of spiraling violence from which it becomes increasingly hard to get out.

The instinct of love in men and women

Primarily men are a resource for women to assist in child rearing. Men are not easily convinced in participating in raising children, so elaborate strategies have evolved over time.

In history societies have gone far in keeping their women in check to avoid become pregnant without having a man to assist in child rearing. A women giving birth to a child without the support of a father places a burden on the community, this is punished harder in regions where resources are scarce (e.g.; desert regions). When regions become more prosperous and men become less vital for child rearing, "illegitimate" children are no longer a reason to oust women from society. It takes some time however to adapt, as is shown by migrants from underdeveloped and poor regions coming to Western countries and without understanding the reasons for this behavior, stick to their old customs as dictated by their religions in their new environment. As a remark the custom to give a child the surname of the father is a way to create a bond, to ensure that the man will take up his part in raising the children. Prostitution is the extreme example of exploiting men as a resource for "food" and women for basic sex.

This brings us to the primal fear of each man that he is always at risk in having to assist in raising a child which is not his own. Women when straying for other men’s alpha characteristics go to great lengths to conceal the fact for their (beta) husband. In regions where raising a child is an enormous burden for a man, women are willing to sacrifice a lot to keep their men attached to them. In desert regions, care is taken to make married women conceal themselves in order not to attract the attention of other men. Religion is only a rationalization of a behavioral necessity which came into existence in a desert region. In the desert regions of northern Africa FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) serves a similar purpose and is inflicted upon young prepubescent women mostly by elderly women. In western society women pierce their ears and today even other parts of their body to increase their attractiveness for men. Shaving their armpits and their legs makes them look more juvenile and solicit paternal, protective, instincts in their partners.

Adopting a child is a substitute for the “real thing” and a man has to be convinced to assist in rearing a child which is not his own. Giving a man sufficient sex in the period before the adoption will help in letting him accept the situation.

In cities where competition for a mate is harder, people will show more extreme behavior to attract attention. They are often regarded as strange by their countryside peers where mating behavior can do with less time pressure. It is horrifying how far the instincts of man can drive our species. However condemning other cultures for their sometimes cruel customs without understanding the background will not win them over. Both women and men inflict pain and damage upon themselves to attract the other sex and always use the other sex as an excuse for what they are doing, but heir motivations are more complex than pleasing the potential mates.

Behavior of alpha males is a lot driven by the need to show women that a man is a good partner to have children from. They do not have the beautiful tail of the peacock, but they can adorn themselves with other signs of status and success. The trouble is that the signs of status which impress other men and women are not the same. On the one hand they have to keep other men away and at the same time they have to attract women, for which different actions need to be taken. The alpha men go to great lengths to impress women in a way they believe attracts them. A man should be strong in defending his tribe against other men and predators, but put down his aggression and weapons when approaching a woman. The alpha males are the more ambitious and violent and also more prone to sexual assaults on women as they not always manage the flip-flop between opposing competitors and gentle handling of women. A woman will test a man for his ability to live together and have a non-aggression pact, which is needed for her own safety and the safety of her children. A romantic evening at candle light is one of the ways to test this. A man will lower his aggression towards children which he regard as his own, so a woman goes to great lengths to convince him of this fact and society has been very creative to draw up rules by which this game has to be played.

Alpha and beta personalities also exist in women, but here the more social beta type dominates and the extreme alpha women behave somewhat different than their male counterparts. Women are in general less muscular than men, so they have developed other skills to "win". The "instruments" they use to conquer men are different, but can be ruthless as well. For those women who feel the need for physical competition, sports has been split into different competitions for men and women, so they can compete with each other and win too.

Men in general dream of women who are every day willing to mate, but mostly choose women who resemble their caring mother to bond with for along term relation. The women have to deal with the dilemma to persuade a beta-type male to provide them with shelter and care and at the same time get the genes of the alpha male to increase the chances of survival for their children; an ideal man should be both at the same time. For the reason of combining alpha genes with beta partners women and men are not as promiscuous as bonobos, but they are not entirely monogamous either. Instinctively the bond between men and women is at its strongest when the child is up to about 4 years old, after which a woman may relax the bond and go for another set of "genes", thus being serial monogamous.

Mating behavior in men and women has a strong instinctive component, opposed to the notion of romantic love in the Western world. Women are looking of a man to impregnate them at the moment of their ovulation, they will smell and sense the partner which is best suited to donate his genes and competence. Getting his genes is one thing, but convincing him to participate in raising the children is another issue. The dilemma is that alpha males are good "impregnators" but beta males are better for raising children. Modern oral contraceptives may disturb this instinctive behavior and will cause women to choose the wrong partner and it disturbs their cyclical behavior. When after years they change to non-hormonal contraception, both partners "awaken" and marital trouble may begin.

When it is impossible to have children, a substitute will be sought, at best an adopted child or when not available or not possible a pet. Maternal and paternal instinct can be reoriented to achieve at least partial fulfillment of this instinct.


The evolution of man as a tribal creature in a hostile environment has left its marks even in modern society. Features and behavioral patterns have been selected for, which helped man to survive in its prehistoric environment, but may cause some side effects in a modern post-industrial society. Fundamentally however no behavior can exist without a connection to our basic human needs. If we want to "cure" the excesses of human behavior, we must find the roots and reasons of this behavior otherwise we will fail. As such accepting an instinctive mechanism as part of human behavior does not equal a deterministic philosophy, but mainly the introduction of an additional parameter in the equation of human life. We nurture our nature, but they are functionally intertwined and not mutually exclusive. We use our rational capacities and our instincts to buffer the environment we have to live in towards our biological needs and vice versa. As such our ratio is an add-on to our instinct, but not a replacement. Ruling a country, managing a company and living in a family is easier when you incorporate human instincts into your decisions.

Behavior = uncertainty x (a x ration + b x instinctn) + c x environmentt

Behavior = a x naturen + b x nurturep

Environment <-> ratio <-> instinct <-> human biology

Some modern day behavioral patterns and opinions which seem counterproductive at first, can be understood when viewed for their historic meaning for the survival of our species. Our instincts are our companions through our entire life and should be regarded as being of equal importance for our survival as is our ratio. Managing a modern society should take into account the interaction of human instinct with a modern society and its environment. A significant part of our actions is aimed at keeping a balance between our instinctive needs and the necessity to have a stable post-industrial society. Philosophy and religion are nothing more than artificial buffers to facilitate our adaptation to our environment and vice versa, but no matter how we think of them, their role in streamlining human existence should not be underestimated.

There is also no fundamental difference in instinctive needs in different layers of society, but there is of course a difference in the capacity to fulfil them.

Further reading

Evolutionary psychology

Nigel Nicholson, How Hardwired Is Human Behavior?, Harvard Business Review, July–August 1998 Issue

Dorian Furtuna, Social Ethology

Alexander, B.K., Beyerstein, B.L., Hadaway, P.F. & Coambs, R.B. Effect of early and late colony housing on oral ingestion of morphine in rats. Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior, 15, 571-576, 1981

Alexander, B.K., Coombs, R.B. & Hadaway, P.F. The effect of housing and gender on morphine self-administration in rats. Psychopharmacology, 58, 175-179, 1978

Blaffer Hrdy, S. Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species Ballantine Books, 2000

Cosmides L., Tooby J. The adapted mind: evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture Oxford University Press, 1992

Darwin C. The Origin of Species Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1998

De Waal F. Chimpanzee politics: Power and sex among the apes Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998

Pinker S. The Blank slate, The Modern Denial of Human Nature Penguin Group, 2002

Wilson, E.O. Sociobiology: The new synthesis Harvard University Press, 1975/2000

The role of instincts in modern society Peter Van Osta Poster 64, abstract p. 182 Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES), Annual Meeting, Berlin, 21-25 July 2004

P. Van Osta - panel member The Role of Instincts in Modern Society (Managing Human Instinct) Session B-11 (4 Sept. 2004), Biobehavioral Approaches to the study of Politics: I, Abstract p. 37 24th Annual Meeting of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences (APLS) Hyatt Regency Hotel, Chicago, Illinois, 2-5 September, 2004

First draft September 2002
Latest major revision 14 September 2004 and minor revision 5 august 2016

The author of this Web page is Peter Van Osta.

Email: pvosta{at}gmail{dot}com