I recall in the 1960s and 70s, it was popular in many circles to insist that human nature was uniquely malleable. It was frequently said that, while other animals had many instincts, human instincts were few and far between.
Instead of instincts, human behavior was governed solely by learning. We lacked any instinct to have sex and had to learn to have it. Again, we lacked any instinct for defending a territory and had to learn both the concept of a territory and to defend ours. And so forth…
Learning and instinct were seen as oil and water: They didn’t mix. An animal’s behavior was either instinctual or it was learned. If it was instinctual, then it was unvarying and reflexive. If it was learned, then it was almost infinitely variable and far from reflexive. The most widely used definitions of instinct at the time precluded just about any other interpretation. Konrad Lorenz was around, but his pioneering work on instinctual behavior was not nearly so well understood and accepted as the work on learning of, say, B. F. Skinner.
My impression is that people believed humans had so few instincts because they wanted to think of our species as improvable. The 60s and 70s were in many ways an optimistic time when folks thought humanity could fundamentally change for the better. And, of course, if that was true, then it made sense to think that human behavior was limited only by what humans could learn.
There might also have been a bit of Christian theology underlying the expectations of scientists. In Christianity, man occupies an unique place in nature. He is the only animal who has a soul, and perhaps the only animal with free will. I suspect the scientists of the 60s and 70s were unconsciously influenced by those beliefs. Hence, they expected to find a human quite unlike the other animals. A human whose behavior was uniquely malleable if not through free will, then through learning.
I only know a small handful of people today — mostly sociologists — who still deny that humans have any significant instincts. Instincts are not always called “instincts” today. Sometimes, they are called “predispositions”, “behavorial tendencies”, “predilections”, or other terms. But regardless of what name they use, you everywhere run across people talking about instinctual behavior. Or, at least I do.
Some of the behaviors that one or another person has conceived of as instinctual to our species include tribalism, territorialism, war, rape, reciprocity, language, certain morals, and a belief in spirits and other supernatural entities. Those and many other things have been thought of as either instinctual or having a strong instinctual component.
There is much more to the history of human instincts than I have the space for here, but I think you can now get an approximate idea of the change in thinking about instincts that’s taken place over the past few decades.
In my own view, instincts and learning are not oil and water. Instead, they mix. Moreover, the instinct is not an unvarying reflex, but rather more like a predisposition towards a certain behavior. If humans have an instinct for sex, that does not mean that humans will necessarily have sex every chance they get. It does not mean that humans are like automatons who cannot vary their behavior in order to adapt to circumstances. Instead, an instinct for sex means, among other things, that humans have a pronounced tendency towards having sex.
Politically, the notion of instinctual behavior in humans is potentially dangerous to liberty. My guess it is only a matter of time before some inbred fool comes along to claim that his or her inherent instincts are superior to everyone else’s inherent instincts, giving his or her family a right to rule the rest of us for the next ten generations. Minimum. And of course, if that wannabe aristocrat has enough money, he or she will have many supporters. In other words, the recognition that human behavior is not determined by learning — and learning alone — can seem to be an implicit recognition that some of us might be born better people to govern than others of us.
On the other hand, it seems to me that liberty for everyone is justified on many grounds. Thus, one does not need to prove that all people are born equal — or born with equal potential, as it were — to justify everyone possessing the same political liberties.
But what do you think?