The Motivation of Genius, Part II


February 2017
Ivan Obolensky

The last article asked how induced behavior (instinct) plays a part in the motivation of genius. This article will examine instinct more closely.

There are differences between learned and instinctual behavior.

Instincts are hardwired into us and are programmed through our genetic makeup. Genetic adaptations take about 25,000 years to emerge as traits in the human population. Fundamentally, we are not much different from who were many thousands of years ago. Societies, languages, and our preferences may have changed over time, but our basic instincts are still the same.

Certain instincts can be overridden.

Being afraid of the dark is likely instinctual, but given time and maturity, we can manage our fears.

Some cannot be overridden. Isolating ourselves from any human contact for an extended period is destructive, because doing so goes against our instinct to connect with others of our kind.

Instincts are biases that help us act in a genetically proven direction. Over time, experience can modify our urges. We observe our outcomes and either continue in the same way or change what we are doing so our results meet our expectations. Such feedback builds up a library of experiences in our minds that we can draw on in the future. This is learning.1

Neural networks learn by noting the difference between the value presented and the value the network calculates. If it is different, internal weights are adjusted, and the process repeats until the observed and the learned values approach each other. Learning is about observing mistakes, changing, and trying again.2

Education and learning are not necessarily the same thing.

The system of modern education tends to discourage mistakes. Students are graded down if they are wrong. If modern education is not about learning, what is it? Today, schooling is mostly about indoctrination.

Having been educated into the rules of society, one would think we would simply follow them. Oddly, we don’t. Some days we just don’t feel like it.

The question is why? Our instincts are likely to have played a part in that decision.

One of the dark secrets of early pioneer life in North America was the almost continuous attrition fledgling settlements experienced when individuals decided to “go native”, and they did so in large numbers. If not for an almost continuous influx of immigrants, it is likely that such outposts in the new world would have disappeared. The situation was further exacerbated by the fact that those who left rarely wanted to go back to the civilized life they had led before. This flow was one way, because no Native American on record desired to become part of the modern culture that was offered.3

In 1753, Ben Franklin wrote to a friend:

When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return, and that this is not natural to them merely as Indians, but as men, is plain from this, that when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.”4

Tribal life was no picnic. It was hard, violent, and short, yet it was alluring in ways that the society at that time was not.

To understand this paradox, it is necessary to go back to our very beginnings and the rise of agriculture. Agriculture is learned behavior, not instinctual. It is only some 10,000 years old. What necessitated such an extraordinary shift of behavior from nomadic to stationary is likely lost to us. Changing climates are a possible cause. Being successful hunters may have led to prey populations becoming unsustainable, thus making  a new food source necessary.

Human societies are thought to have started some 2 million years ago, beginning with Homo Erectus. Homo Sapiens came into being some 0.2 million years ago. Much of that time was spent as hunter-gatherers in groups of some fifty individuals. Life was communal with resources spread evenly amongst individuals. Wealth disparity was non-existent because individuals had to carry what they owned. Tyranny was discouraged by other members of the group and when it showed, it was up to the other males to band against the tyrant and get rid of him.5

Such behavior is shown in other primates, particularly chimpanzees, who, as a recent study described, not only overthrew the alpha male that was their leader by murdering him, but ate him as well.6

Laws were minimal in those early human communities and there were few taboos other than hoarding and cowardice.

Even today most of the objections people have to modern society, such as wealth disparity, lack of a voice in the community, lack of purpose and relevance, lack of connection to one’s fellows, stress, the constant drudgery, economic serfdom, mental illness, and disease rarely existed in earlier hunter-gatherer societies.5

According to Self-Determination Theory, people in general have three basic innate psychological needs:

  1. Competence – to experience mastery of the environment
  2. Relatedness or connection – to be able to care for others
  3. Autonomy – to be in command of one’s own life

These needs are irrespective of wealth, social position, or aesthetic considerations.7

Competence gives us pride in accomplishment and is self-fulfilling. Connection allows us to experience others. It fills us with a sense of community and a feeling of being part of something bigger than ourselves. Autonomy allows us to be responsible for our lives and the choices we make. We are in charge of the direction we wish to travel.

As population size increases above a certain threshold, it becomes harder for the individual to fulfill these needs.

Agriculture paved the way for urban development and much larger human populations. It is no wonder that most of the important religions of the world were born during this time. Adjusting to such fundamental changes required the substitution of the divine for what was lost in the transition.

The densities that humans were used to, and had been familiar with, changed forever. The result was a new emergent structure based on hierarchy, status, resource allocation, specialization, and crowding. The change was irrevocable in the same way that emergent structures have coherence—once formed, they tend to persist with new attributes.

Many of the early population density studies, particularly those of John Calhoun during the 1960s, formed our perceptions of population density. One study involved an experiment with mice that were given unlimited resources within a restricted space. The result was a population that rose, plateaued, and eventually died out as social breakdowns occurred, and females ceased to reproduce. The conclusions drawn at the time were that population density left unchecked would lead to competition, stress, breakdowns, and the demise of the population. One of the odd results was the formation of what was dubbed ‘the beautiful ones’. These mice spent all their time eating, sleeping, and grooming themselves. They did not reproduce or interact socially with others. They were also less intelligent.8

When this tendency to self-destruct in the face of excessive population density was looked for in human populations, it proved not to be particularly valid. Humans seem to be able to sidestep this tendency by coping. It is possible that language skills play a part in our ability to hang together in large numbers and not self-destruct completely, although this is still an open question.

Population density matters to us, but humans react differently to density factors than other species. Human population density has at least two components.

There is the number of individuals per unit of area. This is the strict definition of density. There is also the perception of density called crowding. Crowding is an internally generated perception.9

To someone living in a high-rise tenement in Hong Kong, moving to Chicago might cause them to believe that there is very little overcrowding. They might even marvel at the expansiveness they feel. A person from the Midwest moving to Hong Kong may find the conditions intolerable.

The fact is that humans can get used to almost anything. How can we be happy while living in complete poverty? Yet genuinely happy people exist in almost all economic circumstances. Part of this has to do with our ability to reset our baseline standards. People who make $50,000 a year might feel that making $120,000 a year will make them happy. When they finally make that amount, they are satisfied for a time until they realize that $250,000 a year is closer to what they need.

Part of this adjustment is the result of the consumption orientation that defines modern economics, but also involves how we react to changing conditions. The same-old-same-old, even if utopian, becomes boring eventually. Our considerations of what we think we need, change as we become accustomed to them, in the same way that a frog placed in gradually warming water will cook without realizing it. Sleep may be one of our ways of readjusting our equanimity to existing conditions. To humans, every morning starts a new day.

That being said, unless one is center stage, one is not going to be heard in a sea of 20,000 spectators.

In a group of fifty, you will be noticed, if you stand up. You will know what your fellows are doing and they will know what you are doing as well. There is accountability. Good performance is noted and so is bad. There is also comradeship, and a sense of belonging. The tribal nomadic lifestyle of the hunter-gatherer filled those psychological needs. Modern society does not. Nor did earlier agriculture.

The history of humankind is the conflict and resolution of the nomadic tribal lifestyle versus the reality impressed upon us by society, or the state. This rivalry plays out throughout economics, religion, warfare, societal status, structures of the state, government, and work.

Truly modern society is no more than 1,000 years old, and one could make a case that 400 is closer to the mark. Because much of our instincts, similarly to genetic traits, take years to change, there is conflict between instinct and modern society, and that underlying theme is observable in modern life.

Modern societies tend to eradicate tribal nomadic cultures in the same way that locust swarms subsume the individual.

An emergent structure such as our modern urban environment has its own rules in the same way that a locust swarm dictates its own behaviors on the individual. An individual must keep an eye on its neighbor’s flight path and be able to respond to changes in direction while maintaining uniform distance between itself and others. These rule-based behaviors make flocking and swarming possible. Flocks of thousands of birds change and move in almost hypnotic patterns that defy prediction and have a life of their own. Order manifests in the seemingly random movements of thousands.10

The interplay of order vs. chaos is one of our oldest concepts. Most early creation myths have this dichotomy as a common theme.

The Egyptians, according to their core myths, believed that the creator came into being in the nun, the primeval ocean. The solar child emerged with the first sunrise but was threatened by the forces of chaos and was saved by protective deities. Life is a continuing war between isfet, chaos, and maat, order. The pharaoh’s duty was to create order in the place of chaos, which he did by building temples, making offerings, giving justice, and defending borders.

The order that early agriculture required in the form of water management, planting, harvesting and warehousing was extensive. Set in contrast to this was the nomadic life found in the deserts and marshes.

The rule of the pharaoh was tenuous, but the solar child would always survive to triumph over the enemies of order.11

Interestingly, complexity theory points out the robustness of emergent behavior and order. There are several reasons for this.

Elements, when packed together, tend to form complex compounds because complex structures distribute energy more uniformly amongst their connections and contain less free energy than individual elements. Complexity is the universe’s prevailing tendency rather than simplicity. Maintaining the status quo takes far less energy than is required to break it apart. This applies in human terms as well.

We live in a divisive society that might be viewed as highly unstable, yet complexity theory says this is not the case. The coherence of emergent structures makes the complex structures formed far less volatile than the individual elements that make them up, and such structures tend to persist to a remarkable degree in spite of being stretched and twisted. Societies and economies such as ours exhibit similar characteristics.

I will end part II of this series with another idea. Emergent structures are self-sustaining, but to be self-sustaining they must alter the behavior of the individual components that make them up. The natural tendencies of the individual elements are suppressed or altered to support the emergent structure.

With one of humankind’s most basic psychological needs being relatedness or connection, society has evolved in such a way in order to try and fulfill that desire, while damping down the requirement for competence and autonomy in the hope that concentration on the connection part will hold the other two at bay. This has consequences.

The consequences and how technology plays into them, we will explore in the next article.


  1. Junger, S. (2016). Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. New York, NY: Hatchett Book Group.
  2. Hall, J. S. (2007). Beyond AI: Creating the Conscience of the Machine. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
  3. Junger, cit.
  4. Franklin, B. (1753). Letter to Peter Collinson. Retrieved February 6, 2017 from
  5. Junger, cit.
  6. Whyte, C. (2017). Chimps beat up, murder, and then cannibalise their former tyrant. New Scientist. Retrieved February 6, 2017 from .
  7. A. (2014). What is Self-Determination Theory? Retrieved February 6, 2017 from
  8. Fessenden, M. (2015). How 1960s Mouse Utopias Led to Grim Predictions for Future of Humanity. Smithsonian. Retrieved February 6, 2017 from  (N.B. The imbedded YouTube on John Calhoun’s experiment is worth viewing.)
  9. Boots, B. N. (1979). Population density, crowding and human behaviour. SAGE Journals. Retrieved February 6, 2017 from
  10. Johnson, N. F. (2007). Simply Complexity, A Clear Guide to Complexity Theory. Oxford, UK: Oneworld.
  11. Pinch, G. (2004). Egyptian Myth, A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

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    SILVIA LLORENS02-11-2017

    I agree, education and learning are not the same. You can learn to be an engineer or whatever, but you cannot learn to be honest, polite, etc. That is education.

    Another factor that enters in is ‘culture’. What is polite for me as a Latin American, may not be polite for an Asian individual.

    Very interesting observations Ivan, thank you again for sharing this knowledge.

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