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Instinct And Learning: A Continuum

We use the term instinct to describe species-typical behavior that is seemingly performed without aid of prior experience, but what we seem to mean is that the animal moves and behaves as if mysterious and unknown forces were guiding it. Many people who study animal behavior argue that the term instinct is not ultimately helpful because it tells us little about the real mechanisms underlying behavior. The use of the term indicates only that the behavior is relatively closed to modification by experience—nothing more. Since nervous system tissues are soft, delicate, and often very complex, understanding the operation of these structures in producing behavior presents a great challenge. This, combined with the role of experience in producing many superficially "instinctive" behaviors, makes things even more difficult.

Many behaviors held up as examples of instinct are shown to have an experiential component: for instance, as new gull chicks continue to peck at bill-like objects, the accuracy of their pecking improves and the kinds of bill-like objects they will peck at are increasingly restricted. Thus, the wide variety of behavioral patterns observed in living organisms surely represents a continuum, from those not much influenced by learning to those that are greatly influenced by it; a strict "nature versus nurture" dichotomy is probably too simplistic to describe any animal behavior.

The answer to the question "Under what conditions should a behavior be genetically closed, and when should a provision be made for learning?" seems to be related to the situation's predictability in nature. When it is crucial that the correct response to some occurrence be carried out the first time (like a kangaroo rat faced with a striking rattlesnake), natural selection should favor a fairly rigid, infallible program to underlie an appropriate response. The existence of a reliable relationship between some environmental cue and a biologically appropriate response permits the development of a releaser for triggering the "right" reaction the first time, whether to a predator, potential mates, or one's own offspring.



Alcock, John. Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach. 4th ed. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer, 1989.

Campbell, N., J. Reece, and L. Mitchell. Biology. 5th ed. Menlo Park: Benjamin Cummings, Inc. 2000.


West, Meredith J., Andrew P. King, and Michele A. Duff. "Communicating about Communicating: When Innate is Not Enough." Developmental Psychobiology 23 (1990): 585-98.

Susan Andrew


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Brood parasite

—An animal that deposits its eggs or offspring into the nest of another individual (often of a different species) to be cared for by that individual.

Critical period

—A developmental phase in the life of a young animal, usually with a measurable beginning and end, during which some crucial experience must occur if the animal is to develop normally.


—A scientist of animal behavior, with particular focus on instinctive behaviors.

Fixed action pattern

—Triggered by a particular cue or stimulus, fixed action patterns appear as a sequence of programmed behaviors which are performed to completion once they have been activated.


—The cue or stimulus that acts as a signal to induce a behavior in an animal.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Incomplete dominance to IntuitionismInstinct - Classic Examples Of Animal Instinct, Instincts Can Be Exploited, Instinct And Learning: A Continuum - The role of instinct in learning