Is biting a human instinct?

Firstly, an apology. This post has nothing to do with Hillsborough so if you arrived here with that in mind please accept my apologies. I had something on my mind that I wanted to share, it was more than 140 characters, and I had nowhere else to house it.

Luis Suarez was today handed a ten-match ban for biting an opponent during a football match. This article in no way whatsoever seeks to defend what he did, but it does seek to try and understand why he might have done it.

I have no firm answers, but hopefully some interesting questions.

Any behaviour is said to be instinctive if it is performed without being based upon prior experience, that is, in the absence of learning. So blinking if somebody claps his or her hands in front of our face is instinctive because we didn’t learn to do that. Resisting the temptation to pick our nose when we have a really uncomfortable obstruction causing us severe discomfort is a learned action. A small child would pick their nose instinctively, but we are taught over time by society that it is wrong to do so.

I have always believed that we are born in our natural state, and then taught to behave how society wants us to behave. Manners are not instinctive; manners are the result of societal pressures. I’m no physiologist, but if you watch young children you’ll see that they will often lash out if they are feeling extreme emotions such as frustration, anger or fear. How often, or to what extreme they lash out will depend on the individual temperament, but lashing out is an instinctive reaction to a set of extreme circumstances. More children than we might like to admit also lash out in the form of biting. They didn’t learn to bite; nobody taught them, but they instinctively did so in response to an extreme emotion such as anger or frustration.

On the biting front, I don’t believe that children simply ‘grow out of it’ to use the hackneyed phrase by the way, I believe that they are ‘taught out of it’ by their parents because it is not socially acceptable to bite somebody. It might be instinctive in certain circumstances, but it is not socially acceptable.

So society and education as we grow up help us to unlearn how we are programmed to behave. We deny deep-rooted human instincts by learning new ways to behave, based largely on what society expects. Surely though instinctive reactions are stronger than societal teachings? Surely instinct must always be there, bubbling just under the surface of our educated selves.

If that is the case then those instinctive behaviours can be triggered. I assume every person has the limit that will trigger it, and I am assuming the most of us wouldn’t cave in to the hugely irritating bogey by pushing a finger up our nose at a dinner party. But in the street? Still no? What about in your bedroom on your own?

Imagine this scenario. You are playing in a football match and you have just given away a soft penalty that has allowed the opposition to score. You’re angry with yourself and with the situation that your team now faces. You’re hugely competitive, and incredibly frustrated at the situation you feel you have just caused. Your team is on the attack, and you are busting a gut to get into the box and make up for your error, you are straining with every sinew to get into a goal scoring-position. Something however is holding you back.

An arm a body, pulling, holding, stopping your progress. Pulling you back, holding you, in your way. You’re angry; you’re desperate to win. Would you bite the arm that was holding you back? For the majority of us the answer is no, of course not. Its not the done thing in our society, and the emotions we are feeling are not enough for most of us to override what we have learned is right with instinct.

What about more extreme circumstances? What about if you were walking down an alley late at night and two blokes pushed you against a wall. One of them had your arms pushed against your sides so hard that you couldn’t move no matter how much the adrenalin course through your veins. You couldn’t move, you’re scared and the other man has his hands around your through, slowly strangling you. Would you bite the man strangling you? I’d say that for the majority of us the answer is yes, because the human instinct to react to extreme danger overrides any teaching you may have had about it being wrong to bite.

Suarez was brought up on the tough streets of Uruguay, and none of us know what that was like so there is no point talking about it at length. We also don’t know if he was taught to stop fighting when he was young. Some people in this country aren’t taught not to fight.

Maybe he had a different life, was brought up with a different set of values. Maybe he wasn’t taught to hide his instinct to lash out. Maybe he was taught to fight because he lived in a rough neighbourhood, and being nice and polite wouldn’t get him very far. Who knows, not you or I.

As I said before, I am no physiologist and I am not condoning what Suarez did. When in Rome do what the Romans do goes the saying and these Romans aren’t for biting. Suarez has to except that. Society says that is not acceptable behaviour.

Maybe though we’re all programmed to be capable of such an act, as alien and appalling as that might seem to us. Maybe some people are raised to cover human instincts better than others, and that is the difference.

3 thoughts on “Is biting a human instinct?

  1. Nice article, well written and an interesting point too. But it looks like you’re trying to imply that maybe Suarez has an ‘animal instinct’ inside of him that he cannot control or overcome.
    Now I know you used the term ‘human instinct’ in your article, so if you feel more comfortable with that phrase then I’ll use that, but you have to understand ‘where’ these instincts come from. They weren’t just in us when we took on human form, these ‘human instincts’ have been with us through evolution. They are a defence mechanism, as you said when we are trapped or in danger. Go to any zoo and watch the animals there or walk in a park and see what happens when two dogs are fighting. But for some it is a reaction to attack when we want something that bad and we cannot get it… seagulls at the beach fighting over a chip. They are not always fighting or being threatened, sometimes they are just hungry and want that chip so bad that it is just their instinct to attack. And I believe this is what Luis Suarez did. It wasn’t that he was under attack or was threatened or even frustrated with himself for giving away a goal. it was simply a matter of wanting something so bad and not being able to have it. In ‘society’ it’s called a temper tantrum and it has absolutely nothing to do with where you’re from or what neighbourhood you were raised in. It’s something that is inside of us all but… we all ‘mature’ over time.
    Granted some slower that others, but we do all mature. Even professional footballers who get paid $26 Million.
    Now I have a question… If Suarez’s ‘human instinct’ or ‘natural instinct’ was to head-butt instead of biting, would we be even having a conversation like this. Because as we all know head-butting has no place in profession football these days and is also an automatic red card . (Meaning that he wouldn’t have scored that equaliser in the 97th minute and Chelsea would now be sitting in 3rd place where we belong) But anyway, I got off point for a minute there. As I was saying head-butting is most certainly a ‘human instinct’ when we are being threatened or attacked and it is something that we all still have from our days of being cavemen and Neanderthals.

    Thank-you for this discussion I have really enjoyed it.

  2. Hi Mike you said you were going to send me a copy of the film we did are you in a position to send so I am able to view it please. Regards


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