The Homing Instinct


The homing instinct: We think of pigeons that can travel miles over unknown territory to return to their place of departure. We’re not sure how they do it. Is it magnetic fields, topography, the sun, the stars? Salmon do the same thing. They find the river that spawned them and swim up the currents against obstacles until they are “home.” It is thought that they do it by smell. Animals in Africa look for the same waterholes in their yearly migrations. Some birds and fish migrate for hundreds and sometimes thousand of miles for better feeding grounds or safer birthing places.

One theory is that these routes were much shorter before the tectonic plates started moving apart. In other words, there is a very long memory that propels animals to seek an ancestral home.

It does not take too many mutations for animals that were of the same species to differentiate themselves enough to not be able to mate anymore. They recognize each other by a stripe, a feather, a fin, and become a subspecies that is incompatible from a formerly compatible one.

And so it is with us humans. Coming from a common ancestor, we have diverged into cultural and ethnic subspecies, able to mate, but unwilling to, yet with strong homing instincts we call territorialism. To wit, the Israelis and Arabs claiming that same ancestor and that same spit of land; the Quebecois feeling French; the people of Nova Scotia reviving a Scottish brogue - emphasizing, with great pride, their Celtic connection.

Separatist movements are everywhere: the Basque in the South of France, the Irish, the former Yugoslavs now split up, the Flemish and Waloons in the Netherlands, Corsica wants independence and so do all those separate countries that used to be part of Soviet Russia.

Differences not visible to us separate Tutsis and Hutus as well as Shiites and Sunnis. I can’t tell the difference between a Protestant and a Catholic, but the animosities have run high at different times in our history.

I went to a French lycee in Paris as a child; the walls near the entrance spelled out Mort aux Juifs (death to the Jews) in large graffiti. In Switzerland, where I lived for many years, Mort aux Jesuites (death to the Jesuits) was frequently scribbled in public places. And now there is Jihad (death to the infidels), and that’s us!

Is it really important for people to be surrounded only by others sharing the same belief in the same god? Is a different one necessarily an enemy? Can that enemy corrupt the population and thus endanger the beliefs being taught? Is it territory, not only in a geographical sense, but in a moral sense as well, that propels us into tribal wars or global ones?

Freud, in his “Civilization and Its Discontents,” writes that these early directives can be counteracted with education. In other words, we can be reprogrammed. Children who watch videos on compassion are more caring than the children who watch violent scenes, and children who watch violence also behave more aggressively than the children who watch neutral subjects. Yet, throughout history, it is the more aggressive hordes that have overrun other groups.

The homing instinct goes back to our roots: religious ones, ideological ones, political ones. The resurgence of extremism is a return to centuries-old explicit directives on how to live our lives.

In times of uncertainty, in order to feel safe, do we need stricter boundaries and so turn to rigid rules?

The battle is between the stern, vengeful gods who demand sacrifice and the free will to choose how we relate to others: understand, communicate, compromise, tolerate and forgive.

I hope we still will have a choice.