Science & Tech

Elephant goes to school
Elephant goes to school Kai Holub/ Fulcrum
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For a long time, scientists have looked at incredible animal behaviours, like spiders spinning a web, a mother lifting a car to save her child, dogs herding sheep, etc., and used the term instinct as something that an animal seems to do without being taught — something it just knows. It comes up in nature documentaries, textbooks, and even in some of my biology classes, but how does instinct actually work? Is it genetic or learned? And how can anything just know something from birth?

One American researcher from the University of Iowa can’t stand the term, and essentially finds it an insult to science. Mark Blumberg dislikes the use of this word so much he wrote a book about it, titled Basic Instinct: The Genesis of Behavior. Thanks to Blumberg, I now have a deeper understanding of the longstanding, heated disagreement over the concept, and if you stick around long enough, maybe you will too. 

The herding instinct

Let’s begin with Katy (a Bordie-collie mix), who has a peculiar habit of nipping at the heels and rumps of Blumberg’s other canine family members (two bichons). She’s also been caught stalking and chasing the others. According to Blumberg, these behaviours broadly fall under the herding category and serve as the jumping-off point and an interesting line of thinking that suggests this behaviour stems from a long lineage of previous hunting and herding dogs and wolves.

As it turns out, determining what an instinct is and where it comes from is proving to be difficult considering the amount of literature that uses misleading definitions.

Now consider author Vergil Holland of Herding Dogs: Progressive Training. He says, “Herding instinct refers to the desire of the dog to do something with the stock,” and that “natural ability is an extension of instinct.” However, Blumberg argues that this definition leaves unclear the precise relationship between natural ability and trainability, since a dog’s herding ability can just as easily be shaped by the handler (trainer) and the dog’s willingness to be trained.

Along the same vein is Farmer’s Dog by John Holmes, which details his belief that the herding instinct is unrelated to intelligence, and that “what intelligence the dog has may be completely over-ruled by an abnormally strong instinct.” He even goes as far as to explain that the situation of a dog stubbornly insisting on performing a behaviour is the result of “the instinct [telling] it to do so.”

In some herding dog clubs, there exists an official “herding instinct certified” designation, which involves a series of tests relating to the dog’s approach to herding, their eye or concentration level, bark, power, grouping strategy, etc. Interestingly, recognized herding experts state that a dog who tests well may prove to be a poor herder and vice versa. 

According to Blumberg, the herding instinct is not a stable canine characteristic — and I have to agree. Thus raising the question of what the herding tests actually reveal about individual dogs. Given the uncertainty, is it possible that instinct is just a shorthand to skirt complex issues? If so, no phrase, no matter how convenient, should be allowed to distract us from the complexity of the behaviour it denotes.

If the herding instinct truly is more complex than we think, it’s important to satisfy the numerous components of herding behaviour that, evidently, some breeds exhibit readily and others do not. Perhaps we can turn to Raymon Coppinger and Richard Scheider, dog behavioural researchers, to accurately describe the connection between genetics and genealogy, and to help us understand the developmental origins of instincts.

They’ve been quoted to have used the following metaphor: “one might imagine an inherited tape-recording with all the canine motor patterns programmed on that tape: search, locomote, attach and suck would be on the early portion of that tape, while submission and food begging are part of the juvenile section, followed by eye, stalk, chase, grab.”

Again, this raises questions about whether or not behaviour is genetically programmed, and if breed-specific dog behaviours are truly akin to playing a tape.

Let’s take a look at one final book, The Animal Mind by James and Carol Gould. The authors describe innate behaviour as being based on inborn neural circuits. “These circuits are responsible for data processing, decision making, and orchestrating responses in the absence of previous experience. The knowledge encoded by this genetically specified writing is commonly called instinct.”

Similarly, cognition can be “an innate — passive knowledge encoded in an animal’s genes and used as instructions for wiring a nervous system to generate particular inborn abilities and specialization.”

But isn’t that just a little bit boring? “Behaviours are inborn, programmed in the genes, prewired…preordained.” Snore! I mean, where’s the developmental biology perspective in all this? Turns out, a group of scientists about 50 years ago already had this entire conversation, and basically landed on the concept of epigenesis to help tie everything together in a nice, tidy bow.

What is epigenesis or epigenetics? 

Much like basic instinct, it’s a bit complicated, and the definition changes depending on who you ask — Nessa Carey, in a YouTube video from the Royal Institution, brings up some interesting examples of epigenetic phenomena, such as the case of inbred mice. If you were to inbreed mice (inbreed to the point of having the same genome) and keep them under identical laboratory conditions interestingly, you’d find that the mice are not identical. They will vary in things like body weight.

And if you consider us humans, we all start from one cell and end up as roughly 50 trillion cells. What’s fascinating about all these cells is that genetically, they’re not all that different from one another (with the exception of a small percentage — there are always exceptions in biology). So, our cells have exactly the same DNA code, yet skin cells are different from liver cells and brain cells are different from muscle cells.

Going back to Blumberg, he describes epigenesis as the view “that anatomical, physiological, and behavioural features arise developmentally from the continuous and inextricable interrelations between genes and the environment in which genes are embedded. It does not merely entail both nature and nurture are important but rather that the dichotomy itself is meaningless, tantamount to arguing about whether hurricanes are more wind than water.”

(A really satisfying collection of definitions comes from a number of scientists in an interview series by Science Magazine.)

But, if genes can be influenced by their environment, what does this say about basic instinct?

According to Blumberg, all experiences, starting from the chemical environment of the first embryonic cell to the social environment in which the organism develops and lives, are essential for the journey from fertilized egg to fully-realized organism. Perhaps basic instinct is too simplistic after all, and to view the natural world through the lens of design would be a disservice to biological complexity.


  • Emma Williams was the Fulcrum's science & tech editor for the 2021-22 publishing year. Emma is a passionate third-year environmental science student at the University of Ottawa. As a returning editor she hopes to continue sharing her love for science with the U of O community. When she isn’t studying, she can be found outdoors hiking in Gatineau Park, reading or biking with friends.