The power of the survival instinct

I recently wrote a story in The Economist about the influence of our genes on our political leanings. It turns out that genes do have something to do with them, and not just a little. Sometimes genes take 60% of the blame, more than any other environmental factor.

On some thought, it doesn’t seem all that surprising. Genes play an important role in the most basic of our instincts: survival and procreation. These instincts, then, manifest into some behavioural traits. For example: Immigration concerns threats from out-group members. Welfare issues deal with the question of resource-sharing. Sexual freedom matters to issues of finding mates and raising children.

This behavioural manifestation has important implications to our search for sources of motivation. Consider fear, for example. When our survival is threatened in any shape or form, our first reaction to it is fear. For a man at war, fear is an ally. It helps get his mind and body ready for action (or reaction). It is also an ally to cavemen hunting in jungles. They need to kill their prey and avoid becoming one. Fear helps to keep them on their toes.

For the modern man, though, fear, in many cases, is not just useless but harmful. The fear of failure is the single biggest reason why people fail. And yet, I spot a missed opportunity. The survival instinct is a great source of motivation, if not the greatest. If manipulated, it can be tapped to our advantage.

Simpler said than done, of course. But there is a way. Whenever we put ourselves on the line by making a decision or starting a venture or promising to deliver, it involves going against our natural instinct. Having met the basic need for survival of food, clothing and shelter, doing anything more means doing more than is necessary. At such a point, in essence, we are deciding to take a risk. That is the first step forward. But with that risk comes the fear of failure that causes anxiety. If we give in to the fear and anxiety, we take two steps backward.

If we can separate fear and anxiety from the nominal risk that we are about to take, then we’ve got a way to bend this once-useful manifestation of our survival instinct back in our favour. After taking the plunge, the fear of not being able to deliver could be channeled into a motivation for action. So that separation of risk and fear, once achieved, can mean access to an infinite source of motivation.


3 thoughts on “The power of the survival instinct”

  1. One reason for our genes to be developed in the way they are is geographical. Nature has given so much to this land that for centuries residents were not required to put in hard work . The ancestors used their time well to develop great philosophical knowledge like Ved , geeta and so on. One thing they had never known and anticipated was the attacks by the barbaric uncivilized people who attacked India on the strength of muscle power. The attackers, be it Moguls or British not only did not understand the knowledge that existed here , they never made any effort to know it either. Muslims forcibly converted population to Islam by marring locals and by force. The fear has entrenched in the genes since then. It is at least 800 years. That is why we see what we see. We can not execute the death penalty on some one who attacks the parliament. We allow our neighbor to keep 400,000 squar Km land for 65 years and do not force him to get out even when we have 90,000 prisoners of war in our possession. Very rarely have we shown guts to fight out, more often intellectual battles than wars. I fully believe this to be a genetic phenomenon. I am still most surprised that Hinduism remained intact in spite of repeated attacks by all and sundry from middle east, Europe and now east and west. But I am afraid, out of the same fear, in next 100 years Hindus would be a minority in this country. What will happen next is what has happened to several parts of the world in last 500 years. And that would be due to our genes..

    1. Dear Sir,

      800 years is a little more than a flash in the timeline of genetic evolution of man. Organised religion is a new phenomenon, but religion is not. Man had been worrying about the meaning of life even before he could articulate his thoughts on the subject. So I suspect that putting blame on genes to the cause for the non-violent past of Hindus is a rather flawed argument. Not just because there is no scientific proof to support it, but because there is no logic to support it.

      Despite that I would not be surprised if your prediction of Hinduism’s minority comes true. I am of the opinion that all of religion will be relegated to the minority. Not because of genetic evolution but because society would learn to overcome the need for an all-controlling being to give meaning to their lives.


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