What Are Your Instincts?

Man – Know Thyself

Last week I went to a book signing at a local bookstore. Some guy was going to sign some books, and give some kind of lecture. I hadn’t planned on going, but a friend of mine dragged me along. I think there is a girl that works there that he would like to ask out, but he is too shy to go by himself. On the way there we ran into this group of kids that were having a semi organized race with their remote controlled formula one cars. Maybe that’s not the best way to describe them. They were cars that were designed to look like formula one cars. They were pretty loud for how small they were, and much faster that you’d expect.

I don’t know if they got special permission from the city, but they had designed a small course in a park. They had set up some markers to create the points on each side of the track. There were about fifteen kids in all. I didn’t see any adults, so I’m not sure if it was a sponsored event or some sort of school club.

So while we were hanging out and watching this race, this guy came up and stated talking to us. We had about an hour before the guy’s speech at the bookstore started, so we had plenty of time. Plus my friend promised me that if I went with him, he’d ask out that girl. So he was likely stalling for time.

The guy started talking to us about genetics and determination. It was quite a strange topic to just bust out of nowhere with. I thought for a minute that he was some homeless bum that walks around blurting out word salad to whoever will listen, but it turns out he is a university professor. Halfway through his impromptu dialogue, he stopped and apologized for coming in out of the blue with such a potential divisive topic. The nurture/nature debate never ends well. I suppose he could have been talking about which is the best manufacturer of shoe polish, and my friend would have eagerly listened. He was really getting nervous about asking out that girl.

It’s funny when that happens. The human brain has this powerful mechanism for self-protection and self-preservation that comes out in many forms. Whenever we perceive a threat, we will do anything to get away from it. If there is no getting away from it, we will ignore it at all costs.

I’m always reminded of biology class I took in college. We were studying various primates, and great apes in particular. There was some lady that came in to our class once that had actually gone to Africa and studied them up close. She said the trick in not getting beat to death by the silverback, the alpha male leader, was to never ever make eye contact. You can get very close to the group so long as you don’t make eye contact with the leader, or any of the other powerful members of the group.

People spend a lot of time pretending to be really interested in something, but in reality they are avoiding making eye contact with what they perceive as a threat. In the jungle of course, making eye contact with the silverback will get you a good thrashing. But in real life, staring your fears right in the face is usually the trick to making them vanish.

Which is lucky for this weird professor who was going on and on about the way the mind comes pre-wired for certain instincts. He was saying that people used to think that man was different from all the other animals, because animals have instincts, and we have to learn everything as we go along. That’s why they used to think that humans took so long to make it to adulthood compared to all other animals. That we were born like some computer with only a hard drive, and no software.

But in reality, we come with many more instincts that all the other animals, AND the ability to learn along the way. Making us extremely flexible and agile when it comes to surviving. Our instincts are just as strong as migrating birds who know exactly where to fly every winter, but ours are flexible, so we get to change the where they point. Of course, the draw back is that if you don’t consciously evaluate your instincts and where they are pointing, you’ll be covertly guided by all the messages and advertising we are surrounded with on a daily basis.

Of course this agility makes it very easy for us to come up with unique and interesting ways to avoid overcoming our fears and our problems, like pretending to be really interested to some blathering professor in the park, like my friend was doing.

I was finally able to pull him away from the “professor,” who apologized profusely when he checked his watch. I guess he had lost track of time as well.

Which was just as well, because by the time we got up to leave, the kids had finished their tournament. The kid that won was being congratulated by all the other kids as we got up to leave. I saw a school bus pull up, and some adults got off and pulled out some boxes, into which the kids put their cars. I guess it was a sponsored event after all.

And when we got to the bookstore, the guy that was signing the books was the guy that we just talked to in the park. I guess he had written several textbooks on evolutionary psychology, and this was his first book targeted at normal people. As it turns out, his dialogue with us in the park was practice for tonight’s, lecture. I guess he thought if he could get a bunch of random strangers to understand his theory, then he could explain it to some eggheads in a bookstore. He made sure to thank us for being his guinea pigs. His speech was actually pretty good.

And my friend finally asked that girl out. Sort of. He got her name, and phone number, and a vague commitment to “maybe do something together later, or something.” I guess that’s pretty much what we came here for.

Her phone number.

But this sure was a round about way to get here, wasn’t it?