Metalogue 7: What is an instinct?

turtleIn this seventh metalogue, Gregory Bateson’s daughter asks him, “Daddy, what is an instinct?”

Their conversation takes them on a journey that covers gravity, genes, chromosomes, learning to play the guitar, birds singing, language, tools, purpose, objectivity, subjectivity, Good and Evil, dreams, and the way animals experience the world.

On the one hand the underlying message is that there is always a limit to what we know, and though simple explanations are good, sometimes things are complicated. More importantly, the way we look distorts what we see. And the more objective we try to be, the more we lose connection with what is most personal about being human.

The implications for business range from revealing the shallowness of so much corporate jargon to showing us what wisdom is. What this metalogue shows about the nature of the human experience also reveals the priorities that enabled Apple to become the largest corporation on the planet.

You can read the full original metalogue here.

What Bateson Tells Us:

Gregory Bateson’s daughter asks her father, “Daddy, what is an instinct?”

Bateson tells her it is an ‘explanatory principle’. Something that can be used to explain pretty much anything you don’t understand.

We use “instinct” to explain, for example, how baby turtles somehow ‘know’ to head straight for the sea as soon as they have hatched out of the egg, the only world they have ever known; how young birds are able to migrate to countries they have never visited, even though their parents set off a week before them; and how baby kangaroos ‘know’ to climb up into their mother’s pouch as soon as they are born.

Really what we mean when we say something is an “instinct” is “we don’t know”.

. . . .

If you wanted to you could say that gravity is an ‘instinct’: you could say that the Moon has an ‘instinct’ to orbit the Earth, and the Earth has an ‘instinct’ to orbit the Sun, both with a strength that varies with the inverse square of distance*. But we don’t call gravity an ‘instinct’, we call it a ‘force’ instead.

‘Forces’ and ‘instincts’ are both explanatory principles. They are “a sort of conventional agreement between scientists that they will stop trying to explain things at a certain point*.” They are like the ‘black box’ that engineers use when they draw a diagram of a complicated machine. “Instead of drawing all the details, they put a box to stand for a whole bunch of parts and label the box with what that bunch of parts is supposed to do.” But they don’t explain how it does it.

For physical objects, like planets and moons, we call the explanatory principles words like ‘force’, and for things that are alive we use words like ‘instinct’. These are labels for what a certain black box is supposed to do in controlling part of what an animal does: a behaviour that is performed without having been learned.

But really, it’s a way for us to pretend we understand what is happening when we don’t.

. . . .

[And, Bateson doesn’t say this, but isn’t “alive” an explanatory principle as well?]

. . . .

The daughter asks again what the idea of instinct is supposed to explain. Bateson finds this difficult because the idea of ‘instinct’ was invented before the ideas of ‘genes’ and ‘chromosomes’ were invented. Instinct was invented as a simple way to explain how part of the behaviour of animals was controlled. Genes and chromosomes are more complicated.

Nowadays we know that genes and chromosomes partly explain how animals develop, learn, and behave. So it becomes difficult to know what part of the behaviour is being controlled (explained) by instinct and what part by genes. Or maybe what we used to call instinct is actually controlled by genes?

We can think about this further by thinking about structure. Nowadays we know that animals contain cells, cells contains chromosomes, chromosomes contain genes, and genes contain ‘letters’ (ATCG). Together, the structures of the genes and chromosomes contain messages about how the structure of the organism as a whole will develop, learn, and behave.

This is like the letters of the alphabet (ATCG), which have structure and form words (genes), which have structure and form sentences (chromosomes), which have structure and form paragraphs, sections, and chapters (cells, organs, limbs), which have structure and form books (animals) that might develop to be about anything.

Genes and chromosomes have form and shape. And the structure of those genes and chromosomes influences (is ‘about’) the structure (anatomy) and development and behaviour (physiology) of the larger animal: how it develops, learns, and behaves.

Although we know that some genes influence some characteristics, we also know that each gene doesn’t necessarily only influence one characteristic, and any characteristic can be influenced by more than one gene, and their combination.

So, instead of one simple big explanatory principle called ‘instinct’ controlling how animals behave, we now have lots of smaller, more complicated explanatory principles of genes and chromosomes that control how animals develop, learn, and behave.

We have replaced one big black box with several very small ones. And at some point our knowledge still ends. We still don’t really know how instinct works. And we still don’t know what “alive” means.

. . . .

As an aside, the daughter asks whether, since genes and chromosomes have anatomy and physiology, like animals, do they also have development? This leads to the question of whether genes and chromosomes can learn.

When he wrote this metalogue, Bateson wasn’t sure about this. But recent discoveries in epigenetics show that genes are turned on and off as a result of environmental factors, which suggests genes and chromosomes do indeed ‘learn’. Which means, as Bateson puts it, that “they are much more complicated black boxes than anybody at present believes. Scientists are always assuming or hoping that things are simple, and then discovering that they are not.”

. . . .

The point is that even though we now know about chromosomes and genes, we still don’t really understand how they drive instinct (or development or behaviour). All we know is that structure at a microscopic level somehow leads to structure at a macroscopic level. And may or may not control instinct.

Let’s get back to the initial point.

The idea of instinct was invented as a way to keep things simple.

Scientists call something an instinct whenever they see four things happening:

  1. A creature does something it did not learn how to do, and
  2. The creature is not clever enough to understand why it should do that thing, and
  3. All members of the same species will do the same thing under the same circumstances, and
  4. The creature repeats the same action even when the circumstances have changed so that the action fails.

To the daughter this all sounds a bit like what in humans we would call a habit or a custom.

How would we tell whether a behaviour was an instinct or a habit or custom?

Habits have to be learned twice, like playing the guitar. First you have to ‘find’ the chords with your fingers. And then you have to ‘practice’ to get into the ‘habit’ of playing them that way every time. (And sometimes we can get into the habit of playing them wrong.)

If both parts of learning (the finding and the practicing) were not there, scientists might say that guitar playing was instinctive. But if only one of those parts was missing, then the other missing part could be explained by instinct.

Perhaps birds have an instinct to sing, and then a habit of practicing? Or perhaps the practicing is instinctive as well?

How could we tell?

. . . .

If we knew that the practicing was for a purpose then it would clearly would be rational and not instinctive. So if birds practice singing, do we think they have a purpose? (Like attracting a mate or defending a territory.) Or do they do it instinctively? And how could we decide objectively?

Well, first we’d have to decide what ‘objective’ means.

Bateson says that objective means “that you look very hard at those things which you choose to look at.”

And how do the objective people choose which things to be objective about? “They choose those things about which it is easy to be objective.” (Easy for them.)

How do they know which are the easy things? “They find out from experience.” Which is, of course, subjective.

And what that means is that in trying to be ‘objective’ people are trying not to be human. They are cutting out the subjective experiences that make our human experience most vivid, alive, and worthwhile, like play, exploration, humour, love, hate, and practicing).

. . . .

The daughter asks whether animals are objective. Her father thinks probably not. But then they’re probably not subjective either. They are not split that way.

They wonder what could explain this. They ask themselves what are the biggest differences between people and animals, and decide that the answers are intellect, language, and tools.

It’s easy for us to be objective about tools and language and intellect. And it’s difficult for us to be objective about the more “animal” parts of ourselves, like play, exploration, humour, love, hate, and practicing.

So it seems that inside people there is first of all our subjective experience, and then there’s “a sort of second creature within the whole person”: “a whole set of ideas and whatnot” that has a different, “objective”, way of thinking about things.

. . . .

What happens when we try to be objective about the parts that are difficult to be objective about is that “It slices everything to bits.”

“The first slice is between the objective thing and the rest. And then inside the creature that’s made in the model of intellect, language, and tools, it is natural that purpose will evolve. Tools are for purpose and anything which blocks purpose is a hindrance. The world of the objective creature gets split into ‘helpful’ things and ‘hindering’ things.”

[Or as my own eight year old daughter asked brightly one Christmas morning, as we started to prepare lunch, “Is there anything I can do, either helpful or not helpful?”]

Father: “Then the creature applies that split to the world of the whole person, and ‘helpful’ and ‘hindering’ become Good and Evil, and the world is then split between God and the Serpent. And after that, more and more splits follow because the intellect is always classifying and dividing things up.”

Daughter: “Multiplying explanatory principles beyond necessity?”

Father: “That’s right.”

So when ‘objective’ humans look at animals they see them through the ‘objective’ lens, of purpose, good and evil, and so on, even though the world of the animals has not been split by consciousness.

Bateson calls this “a sort of inhuman anthropomorphism”: anthropomorphism because we are interpreting the animals through a lens that actually applies only to us; and inhuman because by being ‘objective’ in this way we are cutting ourselves off from all the vital, joyful, ‘subjective’ parts of ourselves to leave only the machine-like ‘objective’ part.

This is the psychology of seeing the world only as stimulus-and-response. It is easy to be objective about sex, but difficult to be objective about love.

. . . .

How could we find out more about our non-objective selves?

We know that the royal road to consciousness and objectivity is language and tools.

Freud said that the royal road to the other side, the side that is like the animals, is dreams.

How are dreams put together?

Dreams are suspended in time. They aren’t necessarily about the past, or the future. And sometimes they can be about the opposite of what they seem. The night before an important interview, an ex-fighter pilot had a nightmare about being shot down. Rather than seeing this as a prediction of impending doom he realised that the dream meant that, compared with his experiences in wartime, the interview was nothing to be scared of. In this case the dream was ironic.

Can animals ever be ironic?

Well, perhaps they can deal in opposites. A puppy can lie on its back to bare its stomach to a big dog, which sort of invites the big dog to attack, but works in the opposite way by stopping the bigger dog from attacking.

The dream said “You in fighter plane is not the same as you in an interview,” so can animals say ‘not’?

Certainly a dog can show its fangs and then not bite. If two dogs do the same then there is always the danger that they will get into a fight, so in a way it’s a sort of an experiment, to find out whether they are going to fight or not. Even if they do fight, they might still find out that they are friends.

Dreams use metaphors. Dreams elaborate on the relationships between things.

. . . .

And what it all boils down to is that communication between (non-objective) animals has a lot in common with (non-objective) dreams: both deal in opposites, both have no tenses, both don’t have a ‘not’, both work by metaphor, and neither of them pegs the metaphor down. (The metaphor is left open to interpretation.)

The bird that practices singing isn’t “practicing” in the sense that we might practice guitar. The bird is just being: it sings because singing is a way for it to be itself most fully, and instinctively.

And neither dreams nor animals have any way of asking, let alone answering, nor even any desire to ask, “Daddy, what is an instinct?”

Implications for Business

This metalogue covers a lot of ground and it would likely be possible to take any section and discuss how it applies to business. But I want to stick to just a few strategic points, an overview.

The world of business is about finding better ways to deliver what people want. This involves a constant cycle of what Joseph Schumpeter called creative destruction and innovation. So business is at the applied end of what Bateson is talking about: finding out how the world works and putting that to practical use for customers.

What this metalogue tells us about that process, in summary, is that:

  1. Sometimes we think we know how the world works, but actually what we know is just an explanatory principal
  2. When we find out in more detail how things really work, our new understanding sometimes makes things more complicated (as with genes and chromosomes), and we still don’t know what is really going on (What is “alive”? What is “instinct”?)
  3. The way we find out and test new knowledge is by being objective, but when we are being objective we are not being fully human
  4. Being fully human involves combining our subjective and our objective selves

In showing us this understanding, Bateson has been rigorously objective. He has also been highly subjective, involving his daughter and talking about animals and dreams and so on. He has been objective about being subjective, and subjective about being objective.

How can we use this knowledge to improve our effectiveness as leaders?

I offer three points and a world-leading example.


1. Sometimes we think we know how the world works, but actually what we know is an explanatory principal

Management has its own buzzwords and jargon. Some of this is useful and some is meaningless “explanatory principles” that tell us nothing.

Forbes has listed some leading examples here. You can decide for yourself which are explanatory principles.


2. When we find out in more detail how things really work, our new understanding sometimes makes things more complicated (as with genes and chromosomes), and we still don’t know what is really going on (What is “alive”? What is “instinct”?)

As a business example, big data brings huge potential to understand our customers better and to influence sales. But it also brings the need to address whether or not we can trust our data. And as several observers have pointed out, “Big data is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it.”

Big data isn’t the only example — the worlds of technology, marketing, and consulting are filled with them — and it does have real potential value.

But at the same time it doesn’t change the real fundamental drivers of our performance, which are what our customers want, whether our service delivers that better than competitors, and how our customers experience that.


3. The way we find out and test new knowledge is by being objective, but when we are being objective we are not being fully human

Our modern world places great emphasis on being rational and objective.

In the past 50 years this has brought us huge advances in business, especially in the field of IT, which has transformed our world and continues to do so.

One of the mantras of the IT world is the data-information-knowledge hierarchy:

data → information → knowledge

Multiple pieces of data, combined together with a context, become information.

Multiple pieces of information, which can be applied to get the results we want, become knowledge.

But where does that lead us?

The cynics (or realists) amongst us might say that knowledge is power. And power is money and money is time, so we might say:

Data → Information → Knowledge → Power / Time / Money

But when I was around eight years old I was taught that there was one thing even better than being clever and that was to be wise. Because wisdom was about having great knowledge and also knowing what is important: being able to prioritise.

Data → Information → Knowledge → Wisdom

How do we know what is important? We have to call on our subjective sides and combine and integrate that with the objective.


4. Being fully human involves combining our subjective and our objective selves.

Apple Computer offers an example of what can happen in business terms if we manage to achieve this.

How, in just 14 years, did Apple go from being just another failing personal computer company, with 3.3 percent market share (and falling), to becoming the biggest corporation in the world (in any industry)?

It focused on just three things.

First, it had a relentless focus on creating technology that outperformed rivals. To achieve this it had to be very good at the part of being human we call objective.

Second, it had a relentless focus on design. This shaped customers’ subjective experience of its products in ways that rivals still have not matched.

And third, it communicated these subjective and objective elements to customers through a focus on relationship:

The most important thing was people’s relationship to the product.”

It’s a simple explanation. But sometimes the world is simple.

These are the three things that Apple focused on with a vengeance. It chose the products in which it would do so. And in just fourteen years it became the world’s largest corporation.


Business operates at the applied end of what Bateson describes. But what Bateson describes is a map of the territory that business operates in: he provides the strategic priorities for business to focus on.

Ask Yourself:

  • What are the fundamentals that drive your firm’s success?
  • How much of your and your company’s time is focused on those?
  • How much of your time is focused on explanatory principles?
  • To what extent do you engage with both your customers’ objective and subjective natures?
  • Are you focused on building relationships or transactions with your customers?
  • What do your competitors do?
  • Where is your opportunity for improvement?

Footnote 1: *Gravity
The gravity Bateson is referring to here is Newton’s description of gravity, which says that the force between two objects is proportional to the masses of the objects, multiplied, and divided by the square of the distance between them.

Einstein’s theory of gravity explains gravity differently, by saying not that there is a ‘force’ but that the presence of mass distorts space-time and causes it to bend. In this way, Einstein’s theory is simpler because it removes one item from the explanation (‘force’). This simpler theory has recently been confirmed by the detection of gravity waves. But it still leaves us with the explanatory principles of ‘mass’ and ‘space-time’.

Footnote 2: Relying on Our Own Instincts
If deeper understanding of the way the world works will always leave us with unanswered questions — understanding about genes, for example, still doesn’t explain what ‘instinct’ is or what ‘alive’ means — then business leaders will always to need some other, subjective, basis on which to take decisions.

If we set aside self-interest and self-delusion then maybe ultimately instinct is all we really have.
(h/t Kate Colquhoun)

Photo By Jolene Bertoldi via

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