I Can’t Help Myself; It’s Innate

Humans, oddly enough, come with very few things hardwired, so to speak, in their consciousness. Most things that are, and those that develop shortly after birth, are related to survival. Things like breathing and regulating the heartbeat. In terms of cognition and how people think about things, socialisation plays a huge role. Yet, people are very fond of saying that dislikes or prejudices are ‘innate.’ They can’t help it. They’re instinctual. They’re bred in the bone, you see.

To pick a relatively neutral topic, let’s take snakes. (Or not, it’s ok if you’d rather someone else take them.) How do you feel about snakes? I happen to be a huge fan of them, myself. I love interacting with snakes and I love looking at snakes, although I also try to avoid snakes known to be dangerous because they carry venom. A lot of people I know are afraid of them; they don’t like being around them, they jump at a garter snake in the grass, they prefer not to think about them (my apologies to those of you who feel this way for using snakes as an example, I promise, we’re almost done).

The fear of snakes is often described as innate. Makes sense, right? Poisonous snakes are dangerous to human health so it makes sense that people would instinctively avoid them and things that look like them. Lots of animals have instinctive responses like this, hard wired fears designed to keep the species alive; horses, for instance, tend to react badly not just to snakes but to things like hoses and strings, which could reasonably be mistaken for snakes when you’re in a hurry. Humans are animals, ergo these things should be present in us, too.

Except that studies have shown that the fear of snakes is entirely socialised. Young children will play fearlessly with snakes and will freely approach hazardous snakes as well as harmless ones, much to the dismay of their parents. In cultures where snakes are revered, entire temples are dedicated to them and attended by religious officiants who are not afraid of their charges. Visitors aren’t quaking in fear. And, as people like me can testify, lots of people freely handle snakes, including potentially dangerous ones like boas, without experiencing a flight or fight response. The fear is socialised; parents telling children to avoid hazards, scary snakes in books, and so forth.

I see this with food, too. Lots of people assure me, upon smelling durian for the first time, that they instinctively avoid things that smell like that. Same can be said of some people and blue cheese. The food smells/looks wrong, they tell me, and their distrust of it is ‘innate.’ It’s a natural response designed to keep humans from eating things that are dangerous. This doesn’t explain why lots of people eat durian and blue cheese very happily. They don’t have to overcome fear of smell or appearance; in fact, it’s the smell and appearance that is part of the pleasure of the experience for them.

People aren’t born with an innate dislike of insects as food or dairy products or anything else. They’re culturally trained. They grow up in households where some foods are served and others are not, where some things are prized and others are considered repulsive. Their parents wrinkle their noses when they encounter certain foods and smells, so they learn that these things are bad. It’s not like babies are born thinking blue cheese is disgusting and a huge swath of the population works to overcome this ‘instinct.’ People are trained to it.

Just as people are trained to other prejudices. And I think what’s telling with things like food dislike is how clearly you can see the cultural differences, showing that this cannot be innate, because the dislike is based on the culture you are raised in. Most people growing up in white communities in the United States will profess profound distaste for durian if they’re presented with this fruit. A platter of durian is a pretty great way to empty a room of these folks. This is not instinctual. People have learned to associate that odor with bad things and they don’t think of it as edible.

And many of these ‘innate’ food fears express themselves in racist ways, when it comes to talking about the foods consumed and used in other cultures. People who eat such-and-such are ‘weird,’ the cuisine of a given culture is ‘gross.’

When it comes to things like snakes, a little learned prejudice isn’t that harmful, although it might deprive people of an opportunity to have new experiences. In situations where it involves other human beings, the myth that prejudices are ‘innate’ becomes a real problem. People say they can’t help themselves; they just fear dark skin. That’s the way it is. No point in trying to overcome something that’s instinctual, and there’s certainly no reason to work for social change so that the next generation of people won’t be socialised to fear dark skin.

It’s a great way to avoid responsibility, both culturally and personally. After all, when you tap a person’s knee and the person kicks, it’s not that person’s fault. You triggered a reflex and you should have known that was going to happen. If hatred of a group of people; wheelchair users, say, is reflexive, than people can’t help how they react when they’re exposed to that group, right? You can’t ‘overcome’ a reflex because the neural wiring skips cognition entirely.

I encounter the attitude that ‘fear’ of other groups of people is innate a lot more often than I like, in a variety of settings. People use it as an explanation for why things will never change, why there’s no hope for us as a society, why it’s pointless to work for social equality. Because the inequalities, you see, are innate.

They can’t help themselves.