Animal instinct vs. learned behaviour

Written by jacobs
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Animal instinct vs. learned behaviour
Motherly instinct is one of the most powerful in the animal kingdom. (ape mandrill with child image by Astroid from

Nurture vs. nature is a popular psychological debate, and it is one that extends to many walks of life. Unravelling the mystery of where instincts end and adaptability or learning begins is one of the questions that has fascinated scientists for a long time.

Instincts vs. learnt behaviour

Instincts are inherited behaviours that come naturally to an organism, whereas learnt behaviour comes through memory and experience. Differentiating the two is very difficult. Even if organisms have the capacity to learn, much of their behaviour may still come from instinct. For instance, mating behaviour, even in humans, is a very instinctive process. Sometimes behaviour requires a mix of both. Birds instinctively sing, but their particular songs are "dialects" of an area taught to them by their parents. Learnt behaviour must be highly adaptable and specific.

Tool use

Tool use is one of the most complex learnt behaviours because it requires that the organism thinks abstractly about the world in order to solve a problem. The capuchin, a monkey from Central and South America, will drink what is inside a palm nut and then let the rest turn brittle. Then it uses rocks to open the nut, which can take young monkeys years to perfect. Crows and many apes use sticks to fish out ants from a hole (birds, lacking nimble hands, also use passing cars to crack open nuts). Octopuses can turn two coconut shells into a portable home.


Dolphins can learn several unique methods for hunting. One type of behaviour is to herd fish into a small area and then take turns ploughing through them. Another type occurs when a fish has entered shallow water; a dolphin may sometimes get a swimming start and use its momentum to glide along the bank and capture the fish. Killer whales can teach their children how to knock a seal off a patch of ice in the middle of the water in order to eat it.

Social behaviour and language

While there are general instincts by which organisms may bond to each other, most social behaviour is acquired through experience. Family or group rituals and relationships between individuals are learnt during the life of the organism. Many animals can associate concepts with certain words or sounds. However, there is a lot of debate about whether animals, primarily apes, can learn language by abstractly combining concepts together, describing objects or using verbs.


It is tempting to ascribe many complex behaviours to an organism's propensity for learning, when in actuality they represent nothing more than instincts. Bee hives, for instance, are based on a couple of simple instructions that a worker knows from birth. The ability to sense danger or the drive to mate, which usually involves a test of power or endurance or some kind of show, as well as knowing when or where to reproduce, are also generally instinctive. Raising young may involve a motherly instinct, which is sometimes so strong that a mother will allow itself to be eaten by her young for food.

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