Animals do amazing things. Some migrate thousands of miles across oceans without either chart or map to guide them. Others build nests from scratch without any instructions. Still others follow extreme rituals to win a mate. How do these animals know to do these innate behaviors? What causes them to do what they do? The answer is termed instinct. Most animals have at least some basic instincts that they rely on for at least some portion of their existence. This article will discuss animal instincts and how they relate to the origins debate.
Instinct in terms of biology is defined by Britannica.com as follows “an inborn impulse or motivation to action in response to specific external stimuli” The definition is quite good and explains animal instincts quite well. Animal instincts vary from simple things like finding food and water, to complicated like nest building, caring for young, and migration. This of course raises the question of where do these instincts come from? How do animals know how to do these tasks, ranging from simple to incredibly complicated and difficult?
Evolution claims to have an answer for this dilemma. They claim that a process referred to as methylation. Methylation is a process which adds a methyl group, composed of one carbon and three hydrogens, on to the DNA strand. In their theory, this change in structure changes the function but not the make up of the DNA strand. However, only some bases of the DNA double helix can be methylated. Adenine and Cytosine are the only two which can have a methyl group added. The purpose of these methylations appears to be for regulation of genetics post development. The added methyl groups serve as markers, identifying which copy of the DNA came from mom and which came from dad. However, these tags are removed during the formation of gametes so that new tags can be attached, identifying the gametes as being unique to that individual. The added methyl groups seem to be a natural way of guaranteeing that each new creature will have two parents. Evolutionists want this function to expand to incorporate learned behavior into the genome. If this is true, it would allow a dog that learned to howl the ability to pass that knowledge to their offspring. The offspring would have thus have the ability to howl innately.
Even some evolutionists recognize that this is unproved. Dr. Andrew Barron, an Australian neurobiologist, in discussing learning and instinct in animals said “But we haven’t discovered the mechanism for how instinct gets passed on,” Barron and colleague Dr. Gene Robinson of the University of Illinois are the one’s proposing methylation as the mechanism of instinct. Effectively the man proposing methylation admits he doesn’t know if it is the right answer.
Just how important is it for evolution to provide an answer for the existence of instincts? Consider that every animal, great or small, comes equipped with at least some instinctive behaviors. Honeybees somehow know that flowers contain the nectar their colony needs to survive. Sea turtle hatchlings somehow know which direction the ocean is upon hatching. Their mother is long gone so no one was there to tell them. The Australian Incubator Bird builds a nest that requires an exact temperature for the chicks to hatch. When the chicks finally dig out of the nest, no parent is there to tell them what temperature the nest should be, yet they somehow will know when it its their turn to parent. The list of examples for this is nearly endless. Evolution must be able to provide a naturalistic explanation for the origins of instincts, or the theory comes apart.
Evolution has two options. Either accept that learned behaviors can be passed to offspring through the genetic code, or reject that premise as most scientists who came before them have done. However, if they determine that learned behavior cannot be inherited, they are left with a second problem. They must explain the origin of instincts. Therefore, because they must, they believe learned behaviors can be transmitted to offspring, hence the methylation theory discussed above. However, just because evolutionists are forced into a position does not necessarily make it without merit. Let us examine their position.
Based on what methylation is known to do, could it be used to pass learned behavior to offspring? The short answer is a definite “no”. Consider breeds of dogs. If you were to purchase a beautiful golden retriever puppy for the purposes of breeding it, you would still train it the basic dog commands such as “sit”, “stay” and “come”. Yet despite the millions of dogs which have learned these basic commands over the years and later have been breed, their offspring are not inborn with the knowledge of those commands. Having two puppies in the house right now is ample proof of that.
The longer answer comes from what methylation is. Adding a single carbon atom and three hydrogens to a DNA strand adds no new information. When the DNA is transcribed into the information for proteins, the methyl group is not read at all. It is completely extraneous to that process. In fact, there is no real evidence that methylation affects DNA replication or protein construction at all. Since it does not, it cannot have an impact on instinct. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that instinct must be inborn, not learned. Evolution has no explanation for an inborn instinct. It had to have been designed.
Yes, all Christians can and should affirm that instincts are designed just as all parts of all organisms and creation are. That is pretty easy. Its a bit like asking 2nd graders why the sky is blue and getting the response “God made it that way”. A very true answer but not terribly helpful if you are interested in why the sky is blue and not green. The challenging part is to wonder how that design came about and that is where I think we can all acknowledge that we all are challenged by that no matter our view of origins.
Just taking the example you used of migration. Migration is a product of design, but how? Many species of shorebirds migrate long distances but each has its own migratory path. But in one view of the origin of diversity shorebirds are all one “kind” and the species of birds came from pair on Noah’s ark. How did they end up with different “instincts” if they came from a single lineage of birds or a single genome? Did God add information to each one as they were formed? There is also the question of why God made the migration instinct in the original creation. In the prelapsarian world where there was not winter and summer and only on large continent why migrate at all. And even if they did, the continents were all different after the Flood and so whatever instinct they had for their exact place to go would do them no good after the Flood so they had to either be divinely reprogrammed after the Flood or been given the capacity to learn new instincts and migratory routes. Epigentics is not the only mechanism for making changes to expression of the genome. I would also add there are certainly genes involved in the mechanism of instinct with respect to migration. Not long ago I saw a study of birds of the same species that show up in the wrong places and genome sequences have revealed that these birds all share a mutation associated with their different migratory path. So clearly changes to DNA sequences change the birds internal map and “instinct” of where to go. Because the new site they end up in allows them to survive natural selection has not eliminated that mutation and there is a growing population of birds that are now making that new migratory path each year. BTW, that is a good way to begin to make a new species of this bird since the birds are mating in a new place separate from all the other members of the species.