Going back to David Eagleman’s Incognito for a moment, one of the key things that stuck out for me was a finding he refers to by the nineteenth-century psychologist William James, who was the first to get suspicious of the idea that humans were somehow better than other animals because we had fewer instincts. He felt this to be completely wrong, and instead suggested that we are more intelligent and neurologically flexible than other animals because we possess more instincts than they do.
Eagleman makes much of the idea that the ‘conscious’ part of the brain is just a small fraction of the whole brain, and that the rest of the unconscious is, in the large part, made up of these pre-programmed instincts, almost like computer routines, that have been so hard-coded into us, that in a lot of cases that they are in our DNA and we are born with them. These instincts are tools in our toolbox, and as we have the most tools, we became the most adaptable creatures.
Now, for fans of Hayek, this ties in with his ideas of the Extended Order, but it doesn’t sit too well with them. He saw the Extended Order as coming from somewhere between instinct and reason. The problem is, his appreciation of neuroscience was based on what we knew in the 60’s and 70’s, which means that he may have been a bit off the mark. But the fact that we know so much more about the functioning of the brain and the subconscious now doesn’t mean we have to write off his ideas. Instead, I would say that what he understood to be meant by instinct was perhaps a bit too simplistic, perhaps nothing more than ‘gut reactions’ or ‘basic instincts’, and that it is this huge array of more complex instincts that drive the Extended Order.
This is reinforced when you consider the way our brains are very much programmed to be social, even to the point where solutions to complex puzzles we humans would normally struggle with can be easily solved when they are presented in a social context. We are wired from the ground up to be social, and it is this that drives the Extended Order – the traditions and politics and religions and laws and everything else that we create around us to keep society civil.
And for the most part, we have no idea these instincts are there. Which raises some interesting questions…0