Natural Instincts

“Music exists in every culture, and infants have excellent musical abilities that cannot be explained by learning. Mothers everywhere sing to their infants because babies understand it. Music seems to be part of our biological heritage.” So says Dr. Weinberger of the University of California (Dess). With this in mind we can understand how necessary it is for music to be all around us.

Some say we listen to music at least a couple of hours a day (according to my radio host). With music being everywhere, songs come and go as they are needed. We can use them if we’re in a bad mood by listening to sad songs like Last Kiss by Pearl Jam or Under the Bridge by the Red Hot Chili Peppers that potentially might cheer us up by showing us that we are not alone. If we’re angry, one can slip into a more heavy style and play Metallica to expiate our rage and calm down.  In both situations music helps us explain and manipulate who we are and how we feel.

Have you ever turned on music when you were feeling blue? I know when I need to unwind I turn to music. It allows me to escape my present reality and go somewhere further. Runners and other athletes use music to pump themselves up, allowing them to go that extra mile. We can even stretch the influence of music further and call it a unifying and divisive force.

Some melodies bind people together. For example, the National Anthem of the United States of America brings many people to tears. Any place it is played, it is customary for people to remove their caps and place their hands over their hearts. Military personnel will salute for the entirety of the song. Yet music can also divide groups, such as in the rap genre. For example, there is a deep chasm separating those who love Eminem and those who love the Insane Clown Posse.

Even though music has these diverse influences, can it also illuminate other scenarios in the world?

Certain traits or instincts of human beings, or Homo sapiens, are easily found in music and literature. Using a literary Darwinism perspective we are going to look at the fight or flight instinct, in terms of facing death, and the overarching reproductive instinct it helps support.

The reproductive instinct compels us to try to pass on our genes to the next generation.  It is so engrained in our species that women actually appear to have a narrow window where they are driven to reproduce. The song Biological Time Bomb by Christine Lavin can even remind one of that limited time. “Do you hear something ticking? I do…. It’s inside me it’s inside you. A biological time bomb.” (Lavin). She very casually reminds us that women need to reproduce as soon as possible. Lavin continues to remind us of the ticking “you can barely hear it when you’re twenty. But when you’re thirty, it’s plenty louder. Your mother warned you. But you had to doubt her. I got plenty of time mom!”

We can compare this human instinct to the perfect human creations in Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood.   In her tale, the perfect humans can smell when someone is ready to procreate. In fact, their penises actually turn blue to show that they are ready. “ “We wished her to choose which four of us she would copulate with,” says the main one. “Perhaps the woman with you will choose. She smells very blue!”  “ (Atwood 493). This quote clearly shows the connection between Atwood and Lavin. Lavin states that there is a biological time bomb and the perfect humans only want to procreate with the woman who is of optimal childbearing age and at the optimal moment. This would then allow for the continuation of genes and species.

This then brings us to the fight or flight instinct.  The fight or flight instinct is quite interesting in that it is a survival instinct. It has served our ancestors over the years by protecting them from predators, including other humans. Fighting and winning is an obviously good result (unless, of course, it was a Pyrrhic victory).  But even fleeing allowed others to survive and have enough fitness to have offspring. But is it time for this instinct to be forgotten? Is it so imperative in our world today that we still have this fight or flight instinct? Or should we take on a new approach and accept death as just part of the circle of life and energy?  For example, in Atwood’s book, the character Toby experiences a moment where this instinct takes over “Yet each flower, each twig, each pebble, shines as though illuminated from within, as once before, on her first day in the Garden. It’s the stress, it’s the adrenalin, it’s a chemical effect: she knows this well enough. But why is it built in? she thinks. Why are we designed to see the world as supremely beautiful just as we’re about to be snuffed?” (Atwood 498).  According to the group Blue Oyster Cult, this instinct may have outlived its time.

In their song, The Reaper, Blue Oyster Cult argues quite powerfully that we shouldn’t be afraid of death. “Seasons don’t fear the reaper. Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain. We can be like they are. Come on baby. Don’t fear the reaper.”. So maybe we should consider this new tactic instead of fighting or fleeing. Would it be better to understand our place in the world and our place in the cycle of life and energy? I think that in our cosseted world of today, we are no longer in immediate need of this fight or flight instinct. However, if we were to ever revert to a less advanced era, or if something were to terribly wrong on our luxury safari, it would be a crucial trait.

So, music and literature can evolve over time, explaining, illustrating, and even questioning human instinct and behavior.  Despite this evolution, and acknowledging that music and literature can have some effect on behavior, it also seems clear that the arts do not affect our instincts.  Whether these instincts may ultimately evolve is the subject for another time.


Works Cited


Atwood, Margaret. The Year of the Flood: A Novel. New York: Nan A.

Talese/Doubleday, 2009. Print.


Blue Oyster Cult. Don’t Fear the Reaper. Columbia, 1976. Vinyl.


Christine Lavin. Biological Time Bomb. Philo, 1987. CD.


Dess, Nancy. “Music on the Mind.” . Psychology Today, 1 Sept. 2000. Web. 10 Jan.

2014. <;.


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