Human Instincts

Can Human Instincts Be Controlled?

© Eric R. Pianka

Abstract. Like all animals, humans have instincts, genetically hard-wired behaviors that enhance our ability to cope with vital environmental contingencies. Our innate fear of snakes is an example. Other instincts, including denial, revenge, tribal loyalty, greed and our urge to procreate, now threaten our very existence. Any attempt to control human behavior is bound to meet with resistance and disapproval. Unless we can change our behavior, humans are facing the end of civilization. Our problem has several elements. (1) We have invented economic and social systems that encourage greedy behavior, and we have actually institutionalized runaway greed. (2) We are in a state of complete denial about the growth of human populations. (3) Earth's finite resources simply cannot support 7 billion of us in the style to which we’d like to live. (4) We must make a choice between quantity and quality of human life. (5) To head off the inevitable collapse, we can no longer wait and merely react but we must become proactive. We must find ways to control dangerous human instincts, especially denial, revenge, tribal loyalty, greed and our urge to procreate.

People have an instinctive fear of snakes. We are afraid of snakes because humans evolved alongside these creatures, many of which are dangerous. This fear saved the lives of our ancestors and became hard-wired innate behavior, also known as instinct. Similarly we possess many other instincts that were adaptive during most of human history. Our immense propensity for denial may have enabled prehistoric humans to cope with menacing situations, but today we use denial to avoid confronting reality, especially overpopulation (a word that has become politically incorrect). Tribal loyalty and revenge made sense when we lived in small tribes, but both these instincts now threaten our very existence.
Human instincts evolved long ago when we lived off the land as hunter-gatherers and took refuge in simple shelters like caves. Although our instinctive behaviors were adaptive then (that is, they enhanced our ability to survive and reproduce), many do not work so well in modern man-made environments. Our brains appear to be organized in ways that promote such duality (download Morrison’s “Evolution's Problem Gamblers”). In fact, some of our instinctive emotions have become extremely serious impediments now threatening our very survival. Let us focus on denial, tribal loyalty, revenge, greed, and procreation. Any attempt to control human behavior is bound to meet with resistance and disapproval -- however, we have reached the point where we have no alternative.

For example, greed must certainly have been adaptive for early cave dwellers. In times of scarcity, a greedy caveman who refused to share his food stores at the onset of winter would have been more likely to survive until spring and hence would have enjoyed higher fitness (reproductive success) than a generous one who shared his limited resources with the less fortunate. Natural selection programmed us to be selfish. Greed is a natural human instinct -- we are all selfish and greedy at heart, and for sound evolutionary reasons. Currently, we have institutionalized runaway greed, allowing others to become billionaires -- what sense does it make to have more than you can actually use?

Similarly, tribal loyalty and revenge made sense -- if another caveman messed with your tribe, you bashed him over the head and he was unlikely to do it again. Such instincts worked to our advantage when we were cavemen, but have become dangerously maladaptive in today's man-made artificial world. Revenge makes no sense when one contemplates pushing a red button to set off nuclear explosives that will destroy yourself as well as your enemies. Likewise, an instinctive urge towards tribal loyalty was useful when we lived in small bands, but such loyalties are now exploited to pit nationalities, political parties and religions against one another, often leading to deadly confrontations.

The driving force behind all living entities is Darwinian natural selection, or differential reproductive success. Unfortunately, natural selection is blind to the long-term future -- natural selection rewards just one thing: offspring. It is a short-sighted efficiency expert. Individuals who leave the most genes in the gene pool of the next generation triumph -- their genetic legacy endures, whereas those who pass on fewer genes lose out in this ongoing contest. One of our most powerful instincts is the urge to procreate, which manifests itself in different ways in males than in females. Males simply want lots of sex whereas females are programmed with nesting behaviors that involve a safe home place for their family (of course, sexual selection is much more complex than that one sentence brief synopsis). Primitive humans did not even know how babies were formed, but nevertheless they made them. By favoring parts that fit and nerve endings that tingled in just the right places, natural selection, that ultimate puppet master, made certain we’d reproduce. Hence we are programmed to have instincts to breed. And breed, we do, in fact, we are much too good at it for our own good, all 7 billion of us. If we don't stop reproducing soon, human civilization is doomed.

Some humans, unfortunately the most successful from the perspective of natural selection, combine greed with breeding and have obscenely large families. Rather than be celebrated on TV, such people should be social outcasts, ostracized from society, because they are stealing other’s rights to reproduce. Earth simply doesn't have enough resources to support all of us in the style to which we’d like to become accustomed. Moreover, resources such as water, land, and food, are finite, whereas human populations are always expanding, steadily reducing per capita shares. People are encouraged to think that resources are ever expanding when the opposite is true. We are in a state of total denial about the overpopulation crisis -- instead of confronting reality, people only want to relieve its many symptoms, such as shortages of food, oil, and water, global climate change, pollution, disease, loss of biodiversity, and many others. Overpopulation is a near fatal disease that cannot be cured by merely alleviating its symptoms. “Take an aspirin, get a good night's sleep, and come back in the morning.” Unless we face reality and reduce human populations, we are in for a world of hurt and even greater human misery. Of course, eventually, our population must decrease, but we could lessen the upcoming misery by taking action now. Unfortunately, most people are unlikely to be proactive and are much more likely to procrastinate until they are forced to react.

Competition is ubiquitous wherever resources are in short supply. Plants compete for light and water. Fungi and microbes compete for nutrients. Animals compete for food and space. Competition leads to behaviors we identify as greed. Humans have institutionalized greed -- we allow, even encourage, runaway greed. Our political and economic systems facilitate greed. Greed is the underlying driving force for both capitalism and entrepreneurship. Our banking and insurance companies, coupled with the formation of limited liability corporations have allowed greed to explode. Corporations control politicians, who pass legislation that allows tax evasion and assures obscene corporate profits. With amazing prescience, in 1864 Lincoln said, "corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow . . . until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed." Runaway human greed now threatens our very future and must somehow be controlled. Any attempt to control greed will be strenuously opposed, especially by the rich and powerful. Indeed, it may prove to be impossible to overcome such destructive human instinctive behaviors.

Nevertheless, some of Earth’s greedy enemies can be identified -- overpopulation, banking and economic systems, insurance companies, corporations (especially big oil), and corruption in governmental officials, to mention a few of the most important.

Corporations cannot be abolished because we can’t live without them, but we must find ways to restrict corporate privileges. Obscene CEO salaries should be a thing of the past. CEOs should be held liable and should pay exorbitant taxes. Corporations have no conscience and because they are not people, they do not qualify to have constitutional rights despite the Supreme court's Citizens United decision that gave them such powers (indeed, America no longer enjoys a democracy but with that court decision, it has become a corporacracy). Corporations should not be allowed to evade taxes by moving offshore. Corruption in corporations must no longer be allowed -- we cannot allow them to own our politicians, and politicians must become more responsive to opinions of average citizens. Executive and political privileges must be eliminated. Politicians should not enjoy all the special perks they have given themselves -- they should have the same health insurance as the rest of us and should ride in tourist class alongside us in airplanes.

As a wise woman from a third world country once said at the UN: “If the rich countries refuse to share their wealth with us, we will certainly share our poverty with them.” We need a more egalitarian society with assured health care, shelter, food, and water for all. What’s the point of having more than you can actually use? No one should own more than he/she could earn with his/her own effort and skill. One way to reign in greed might be to set an upper limit on income so that nobody could become obscenely wealthy. One practice that contributes to or even drives much economic growth is usury: we should seriously consider limiting or even abolishing interest.

Our tax laws need to be revised and our economic system must be changed radically. Taxes would escalate to 99.9% with rising incomes. Instead of getting a deduction for each dependent, we should tax people for having children. Taxes on the first child would be moderate, but they would escalate rapidly so that nobody could afford to have very many children. This would reduce population growth and discourage irresponsible parenthood. Unwanted children and juvenile delinquency would diminish. We should impose a similar taxation scheme on vehicles, graduated by size and fuel efficiency. Hopefully, combined with high fuel prices, such taxes would eliminate SUVs and Hummers. This would conserve diminishing fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many other changes are needed, for example, solar water heaters should be mandatory in this new world. But all such changes only provide symptomatic relief. We must confront our life threatening disease and reduce our population. If there were fewer of us, the average quality of life for each could be improved.

Our economic system is based on the principle of a chain letter: “grow, grow, grow the economy.” Ponzi schemes like this cannot work for long in a finite world. We must replace the archaic concept of an ever-growing economy with a sustainable one in equilibrium where each of us leaves the planet as it was when we entered it (Nadeau 2008; Daly 1991, 1997).

John Stuart Mill (1859) pointed out that wise people have seen this coming for a long, long time:

“I cannot . . . regard the stationary state of capital and wealth with the unaffected aversion so generally manifested towards it by political economists of the old school. I am inclined to believe that it would be, on the whole, a very considerable improvement on our present condition. I confess I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels . . . are the most desirable lot of humankind . . . It is scarcely necessary to remark that a stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary state of human improvement. There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture and moral and social progress; as much room for improving the Art of Living, and much more likelihood of its being improved.” (my italics).

Mill wrote that almost 150 years ago -- it’s basically a statement about how a stationary world can be desirable. In a stationary world, you don’t have to worry about inflation, bubbles bursting, stock market crashes, or survival kits. A stationary world is sustainable and the world stays the same from day to day, so that we can focus in on things that really matter and plan for future generations. Let’s take Mill’s advice and get to work on improving the “art of living”. Let’s be proactive and show some concern for our afterlives: let’s save something for our grandchildren.


Students in my freshman human overpopulation crisis seminar class helped me distill these ideas down. I thank Professor Lawrence L. Espey for commenting on the manuscript.


Daly, H. E. 1991. Steady-State Economics. Island Press, Washington, D. C.

Daly, H. E. 1997. Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Beacon Press

Mill, J. S. 1859. On Liberty. Ticknor and Fields, Boston.

Nadeau, R. 2008. The Economist has No Clothes. Scientific American, April 2008, p. 42.

Download a pdf of this essay



ERP: Arrogant Ignorance and Blind Optimism

Diamond: "The Worst Mistake Humans Ever Made"

Reg Morrison's "Evolution's Problem Gamblers"

Last updated 19 September 2012 by Eric R. Pianka

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