Our brains are designed with complex pathways to assure our survival and the survival of the human species. The brain accomplishes this through a system of sensation rewards and punishments. Our brains are designed to interpret our environment and judge whether that environment is safe or harmful. Our brain takes in all sorts of information: temperature, vibration, position, texture, sight, sound, taste, and smell. If our brain determines our environment to be dangerous or damaging, then it will generate an unpleasant, noxious, or painful sensation. Our brain is also set up to generate powerful sensations of reward, joy, happiness, well-being, laughter, and pleasure when our brain interprets our environment to be favorable to our survival and our ability to pass on our genetic material.
Our brain also has intricate chemoreceptors that monitor the amount of water, salt, and sugar in our bodies. If we are dehydrated our body will generate a thirst sensation. If we are low on salt, we will have the sensation known as the “munchies.” If our blood sugar is low and we are burning reserve fat and glycogen in our liver and muscles then we will feel hunger.
All of these sensations also stimulate a complex array of behaviors and reflexes. If we feel pain, we automatically withdraw from the stimulus. If we are cold we will start to shiver to generate more body heat and seek shelter. If we are hot our bodies will sweat and we will seek shade. If we are fighting an infection, we generally will feel tired and “malaise” or ill-feeling, and want to rest and sleep more in order to devote more energy to fighting the infection and healing.
Because our species requires sex between the genders to procreate and because the creation of social bonds with other humans can be beneficial or harmful to survival, our brains are designed to recognize and interpret a complex assortment of interpersonal and empathic information such that we can guess how another person is feeling. Our brains are designed to recognize language, facial expressions, body position and other forms of non-verbal communication. Our brains also create a complex array of sensations and feelings as rewards and punishment. Feelings such as jealousy, envy, hatred, heartbreak, guilt and shame can be as noxious and unpleasant as “somatic” physical pain from a burn or cut.
Human instinct is not infallible. Therefore, relying on our human instincts alone is not enough. In one example, it is clear that while working outside on a hot day, a person cannot rely alone on his or her sense of thirst to prevent dehydration. Human science has discovered that it is best to drink so many ounces of fluid with electrolytes each hour to prevent heat illness or death. This small example suggests another important aspect to behavior.
Humans are notoriously unpredictable. Many people in many situations do things they don’t want to do. Freud called this influence the “superego.” Others more commonly refer to the superego as the conscience. In contrast, Freud referred to the animal appetite or instinct as the “id.” What is conscience? Some experts would interpret the conscience as just an extension of the id. This familial protective instinct is used to explain charitable or altruistic behavior. Because family members carry similar genetic information, a person my feel influenced to help and protect them. However, I don’t think this explanation completely explains why people would send money to help children in foreign countries and not tell others about it. When I talk about conscience, I am not talking about the religious notion of the Holy Spirit. I am talking more about what the Bible refers to as the Light of Man or Light of Christ. Conversely, when I talk about the id, I am not talking about demonic temptation. I am referring to what the Bible refers to as the natural man, or appetites of the flesh.
So, what is the conscience or the Light of Man. Is it a real influence on behavior? I say yes. Many look at the conscience as a manifestation of nurture, or rather, a reflection of the morals and norms of society. When a person goes against the norms and values of society, the body can generate severe and powerful feelings of depression, guilt, shame, and worthlessness. This influence has been pointed out as playing a role in the high suicide rate of homosexuals in Utah. In response, gay-rights activists are seeking for more tolerance in the Utah community. This example would tend to support the idea that conscience is a powerful influence transmitted and acquired by our social environment through teaching and example.
In light of this destructive example of conscience, should conscience be suppressed and Darwin reign supreme? I think not. Because we all know that unbridled passions can equally be destructive. It is human nature to be generally lazy, self-serving, and intolerant. Somewhere along the way, a human ancestor discovered upon the concept of sacrifice, which is to set aside what you want now and work for something better in the future. The most successful humans of our species are able to visualize the end reward and the steps necessary to arrive at the end goal. Our society calls these people CEOs, presidents, visionaries, seers, or prophets. Others who follow these leaders may not have the same vision as their leader but are asked to work towards the goal based on faith and trust. However, the best workers are able at some point to arrive at the point where they share the vision of their leaders.
It should also be pointed out that new genetic and social science has discovered that instinct and conscience or nature and nurture are not mutually exclusive. Our environment can change our genetics and visa versa. If fact, new research is verifying that human baby brains are set up to acquire and incorporate information from their social environment from birth. Whooping Cranes are an excellent example. Whooping cranes are the tallest bird in North America but unfortunately they are an endangered species on the verge of extinction. The only few thousand birds remaining spend their summers in Canada and migrate in the fall to winter in South Texas. A new program is being developed to establish new breeding grounds and new wild populations for the cranes. A group of scientists is currently raising cranes in Wisconsin and then imprinting the young birds to follow an ultra-light aircraft with is then used to lead the cranes to new winter breeding grounds in Florida. This crane experiment illustrates the relationship of instinct and conscience. Bird migration has always been a mystery. How do animals learn to migrate back to the exact place where they were conceived? This crane experiment suggests that they imprint and follow someone who knows the way.
From these explanations it seems clear that nature and nurture, instinct and conscience are critical in the survival and fitness of the human species. Therefore, any arguments that would emphasize one influence over the other are false arguments. Examples of these arguments are found on both sides on every issue: “just let the free markets work,”
“It’s not personal, it’s just business,” “I can’t help it, I was born this way,” “if it feels good, do it,” “just do whatever makes you happy,” “what’s right for one person isn’t right or another person,” and “I deserve it because I earned it.”
Social scientists are discovering a troubling shift in the rising generation. Past generations were guided by the values of honor. In a so-called honor generation, individuals find self-worth and importance by contributing or being part of something bigger and more important than themselves. This is called being “internally motivated” or having an “external locus of control” or just simply being unselfish. Experts are seeing evidence that generation X and generation NEXT are becoming more and more selfish. The rising “Me Generation” (of which I belong) seems to be obsessed with acquiring more wealth, fame, power and glory as it can get however it can get it. Lying and cheating in school, business, and in our personal relationships is almost become a virtue. On the other hand, the concept of an honor generation can go too far the other way. No one wants to go back to the age of duels and honor suicide. But it is my opinion that the pendulum has swung too far away from honor and selflessness.
An interesting argument to support same-sex marriage, adoption of children, and invitro-fertilization is that a more diverse social arrangements would make our species more fit according to the laws of natural selection. However, these social arrangements are against the traditional foundation principles of our society and therefore, against the conscience of a majority of people. Supporters of alternative lifestyles and families support a change in society morals and values claiming benefits according to instinct at the expense of conscience. Both are important. Conscience is not necessarily unchangeable. But, to warrant a change, they would have to prove a benefit to society with real outcome data such as better health, increased wealth, and psychological wellbeing. I have yet to see such data to support a change in our traditional values.
In conclusion, as we engage in the discussion of social issues such as legalizing marijuana and abortion I would hope that we would get past the simple arguments that instinct trumps conscience or conscience trumps instinct and talk about the real benefits or risks, pros and cons are with regard to the issues.