Human Instinct Is A Beautiful Puzzle: The Cat Who Became A Wife

Over the weekend I saw Isabella Rossellini’s Link Link Circus. Not a circus (oops—I took a 9 year old to the show), but an eggheadedly interesting theatricalized lecture about the links between human and animal nature. The show was … a mess, but then just about anytime we begin to delve into the issues of instinct versus reason borders get nebulous almost immediately.

This next fable of LaFontaine’s is a good example of the mists surrounding the topic.

A man cherished his cat passionately. He thought her adorable and beautiful and dainty, with the sweetest meow. He was more fool than the most foolish. 

By dint of prayers, of tears, of spells and of charms, he so besieged destiny that one fine morning he was granted this—his cat became a woman. That very morning our ridiculous man made her his wife. As much as he had loved his cat, his love for his wife reached new extreme heights. The most beautiful woman in the world has never charmed her favorite suitor as thoroughly as this new wife won over her crazy husband.  

He tamed her. She flattered him. He could see nothing more of the cat in her. His error went too far. He thought of her as a woman in everything and in every way. That is, until a couple of mice started nibbling on the straw mat by their bed, disturbing the newlyweds’ pleasures.

The woman jumped to her feet. She missed her mark. The mice came back. The woman lay in wait. This time she got them. With her transformed appearance, the mice didn’t fear her. Her new look was bait, a thin veil over her true nature, which could not long be disguised.

Our instincts laugh at our efforts to change. After a certain age, the vase is full of water; the fabric has taken its fold. We may try in vain to alter our reflexive course. No matter what we do, we won’t be able to change. Neither blows from a pitchfork, nor lash of a bullwhip will convince us to act differently. Even if we had the biggest stick, we will never be boss.  

We can shut the door in the face of our nature, but it will come back in the window.

When I first read this fable, I thought it was saying something similar to The Drunk and His Wife. Remember the alcoholic whose wife locks him in a tomb to scare him out of his bad habit? Spoiler alert—the ruse doesn’t work.

But our feline-wife’s behavior was ingrained deeper than habit. These reflex grooves in our mental and physical response patterns are etched into us at a cellular level (notably in our basal ganglia) before we are born.

LaFontaine is not very precise in his fable—while he is using the reflexive hunting nature of a cat as example, he then refers to age sharpening the folded crease of habit, confounding the line between nature and learned behavior.

The mushrooming numbers of personality tests, which purport to categorize us into our “natural” type, are another example of this blurred line. Too many people interpret their results as some kind of received wisdom that alleviates their responsibility to self-investigate any further or make any changes. As if the test was identifying some instinctive truth and not pointing at environmentally socialized ways of being. We can change our habits.

But our instincts are immutable. Or are they?

Over the course of the last week, it happens that I was served an assortment of insights, in addition to the not-circus and the fable, on the tangled topic of instinct and acquired nature.

It got me thinking. What are our deepest instincts? Some people say that violence is at the core of human nature. Others say love is our primary instinct. Likely both are correct, depending on context. How about creativity?

A Radiolab episode looked at how our reptilian or reflexive brain adjusts when higher brain functions recede. In primary progressive aphasia, the disease explored in the podcast, as the ability to access language shuts down, the brain is able to forge new neural connections, previously overridden by language, and the operation of the reptilian basal ganglia is more overt. Yet instead of narrowing a person’s creativity, a trait many think of as a hallmark of being human and which we might think would diminish as we rely more on our lizard brain, in its early stages the condition may provoke an outpouring of creativity.

Our instinctive nature is creative. How wonderful! We often think of children as being more creative, if less sophisticated in their manifestations of creativity. As we age, habit and societal norms progressively shutter those instincts in many of us. Our instincts may be with us always, but they can be decommissioned. Somewhere under our hardened carapaces of personality type and accumulated habits of thought and action, we have hidden wellsprings.

Yet instead of seeking to cultivate our instincts, our everyday lives are increasingly saturated with creativity-killing crutches. What could be less reflexive than a robot?

We are besieging destiny with tears, pleas, spells, charms and science to develop ever more sophisticated AI. Chatbots are starting to ace the Turing Test, a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior indistinguishable from humans. Many of us can barely tell whether we are exchanging messages with a chatbot or a human when we get online with a help desk. Our own inter-human exchanges are mediated by predictive typing, a phenomenon that has reduced the breadth of vocabulary and turn of phrase we use in our virtual conversations. I sometimes just give up the fight when my iPhone keeps replacing the word I want to use.

Our fable may be just a 17th century version of the movie Her. Where the cat is Scarlett Johansson, the voice of the operating system that our man falls in love with. Their bedtime revels would be interrupted not by mice, but by a new software install requiring a restart.

Even as we walk down the aisle with our personal devices, preparing to take our vows, let’s revel in our humanity, in all its contradictory complexity, its creative, loving and yes, sometimes violent core seething with possibility. Let’s recognize that we don’t know the half of what’s going on in our own minds, never mind anyone else’s. That alone should give us pause the next time we are angry with someone who doesn’t see eye to eye with us.

We don’t have to sort out the border confusion between instinct and habit to know that to be fully human is a gorgeous and daunting call to keep plumbing the mystery.

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