Sunday, May 24, 2009

Baby instincts

Just got home with my first baby, and man is she delightful. In learning the ancient tricks of parenthood, though, I've been constantly amazed at the amount of knowledge already packed into the baby when she arrives. Not intellectual, abstract knowledge, but instinctual knowledge. For example, she knows how to make sucking faces when she's hungry. Or cry when she's cold.

On the surface, this looks pretty simple. But the closer I look at it, the more remarkable it seems. What mechanism makes her want to do that? The common and superficial Western answer is "Instincts developed and refined by evolution." Well and good, but what is an instinct? What is it, actually, in the organism that makes them perform a behavior?

The articles on the web give only the superficial answer -- "inherited." How so? If genetically, then shouldn't it be possible to "shut off" the instinct with genetic manipulation? We haven't done that yet to my knowledge, so this doesn't strike me so much as an experimental and scientific explanation as an "everything came about through evolution of genetic material, so the answer to every question in biology must be found in evolution." And anyway, how many complex interactions of genes must go into telling a baby how to make a sucking face, manipulate the tongue, and periodically swallow to get milk from a nipple they've never seen before in a world they can't possibly understand?

Or is instinct non-genetic? Is it something else?

Reductionists would argue that the child has some sort of pleasure sensor, and that the release of pleasure-chemicals is triggered by the instinctual behavior. Perhaps. But what pleasure chemicals are released by crying when cold? And what tells the body that those particular chemicals are "pleasure chemicals" to be sought, as opposed to "pain chemicals" to be avoided. This solution seems only to beg the question.

I really have no idea. And that makes watching my little girl eat that much more of a spiritual experience. Because every day it seems more and more obvious to me that somebody put those instincts in her, and I'd really like to shake his hand.


sadunkal said...

Congratulations. I bet she'll become much more awesome years from now.

My parents had always told me that I'll understand "it" once I have children too. They say that they became true believers because of my brother and me. I suspect that this has to do with the parents' bias towards their own offspring though. I mean it's not like we were the first babies they ever saw in their lives you know... Anyway, it may also be because you examine a baby more closely if it's yours, and you discover things you never thought about before. And I can't answer the questions you brought up obviously. But someone like Lynn Margulis might have an idea: Lynn Margulis, Neo-Darwinism, and Kin SelectionBy the way, it's usually swept under the carpet when people talk about her but she's another "AIDS denialist", and that's what led me to learn more about her and her science too. Especially the story of how she pushed the endosymbiotic theory through the "scientific" community is significant.

ungtss said...

Interesting stuff ... and all valid points. I suspect that one's interpretation of the facts is filtered through either the "design" or "spontaneous origin" lens prior to being analyzed ... thus Dawkins can look at his baby and say, "Wow, how incredible that billions of years of selfish genes produced this." After all, I don't have any better explanation than Dawkins, since neither of us can replicate an instinct in a lab:).

Margulis also sounds like a fascinating character ... I especially like the quotes at the beginning of the article, while I'm going to have to repost:). But I'm always skeptical when people say "My area of research holds all the answers!" Even if invasion of one species by another could explain the origin of eukaryotes, I doubt it could explain the origin of the billions of other facets of life ... like sexual reproduction, circulation of blood, or the eye ... the way science is institutionalized seems unfortunately to pressure scientists to make claims beyond the ken of science and in the realm of personal opinion in order to get more funding for their departments ... and that makes me sad.