The Herd Instinct – is it good or bad?

In addition to the basic human instincts described in “The Last Faith: a book by an atheist believer” here we consider another, the so-called herd instinct. By ‘herd instinct,’ we mean the inexplicable striving of the individual (also a herd animal) to gravitate towards the herd.

In “The Last Faith: a book by an atheist believer” we explain that this striving is derived exclusively from the ‘Law of Gene Preservation,’ since the individual can most reliably preserve their genes when they constitute part of a group. So, essentially, the herd instinct does not give us anything new. However, recently I came across the following definition of the herd instinct in Wikipedia:

The herd instinct is the mechanism underlying the instinct of self-preservation, applicable equally to both people and animals. The herd instinct shows that a group of individuals, human or animal, can act collectively without centralized direction. As noted by W. Trotter in his work ‘The Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War,’ it is pointless to search for the causes and derivatives of the herd instinct, since it is something primary and something ‘which cannot be split up’.

Coming across this definition, I realized that it is worth looking at the issue of the herd instinct in more detail.

First and foremost, drawing entirely on “The Last Faith: a book by an atheist believer” as a source, we express our total disagreement with all the provisions of the definition cited above.

  • Firstly, as pointed out in “The Last Faith: a book by an atheist believer“, the self-preservation instinct does not exist entirely in and of itself. It is a consequence that derives from the Law (or Instinct) of Gene Preservation.
  • Secondly, it is NOT at all pointless to look for the causes and derivatives of the herd instinct, since it is NOT in fact something primary.

If we recall what distinguishes primary from secondary assertions (or instincts), we see that if assertion B derives from assertion A, and assertion A does not derive from assertion B, then assertion A can be called primary, and assertion B secondary, or a consequence of A.

If the herd instinct is primary, then how does one explain regular examples of herd disintegration, in particular, constant examples of expulsion from the herd in the case of young males who have reached reproductive age, as well as elderly males?

This phenomena can be quite easily explained in the context of the Law of Gene Preservation.

  • Young males pose a threat to the genetic purity of the offspring of the harem that belongs to the strong, dominant but not yet elderly male.
  • Young expelled males seek the opportunity to form their own herd for the sole purpose of gene preservation, in response to the herd instinct.

‘So why are the elderly males pushed out?’ You may ask. Well, for almost the same reason.

  • Usually, this happens to an elderly male who has lost a harem tournament to a young, aspiring male, but has not yet lost all reproductive power and, therefore, must be constantly controlled by the newly established dominant male. In addition, an elderly male in a herd soon becomes a burden and an extra mouth to feed, when he is unable to forage for food independently. Old, lonely males of this type generally come to a tragic end.

As you can see, there is no evidence of the herd instinct here. It all comes down to the Law of Gene Preservation!

And now the challenging reader will ask, ‘Why then aren’t the elderly females who are incapable of procreation expelled?’ Again, the answer is simple.  

  • As a rule, older females make excellent nannies and often help raise the offspring of the dominant male, i.e. the explanation is the same: The Law of Gene Preservation!

Hereinafter, we use the term ‘herd instinct,’ with the proviso that it exists as a simple consequence of the Law of Gene Preservation.

The type of scenario described above can be particularly well-observed in a pride of lions or herd of elephants. The unenviable fate of male lions and elephants after they have fulfilled their role in the program of the Law of Gene Preservation is no exception.

In other species, males suffer an even more tragic end: among bees, the drones die immediately after copulation and among grasshoppers and spiders, the males are eaten by the females instantly after mating.

This sad list could go on forever, and evoke even more morose thoughts. Right now, I am plagued by the vague idea that in the distant historical past, our brother ‘man’ was treated in the same way or at least in a manner very similar.

‘On what grounds?’ You ask. Let me explain.

For 3-4 million years, humanity has lived in many respects no differently from the surrounding animal world driven only by the same Law of Gene Preservation. Scientists have found traces of human cannibalism in all areas of the world until relatively recently. The same goes for evidence of human sacrifice.

The rudiments of a humanist morality appeared in human society, you could say, just yesterday in terms of historical time, and there are no weighty reasons to believe that in the human herd, males in antiquity were treated any better than males in the rest of the animal world.

Now, we are beginning to examine the herd instinct in the most interesting herd of all, human society. I say the most interesting because human beings have another important option, which is not present in the animal world, and that is Freedom of Choice!

The herd instinct is present in humans, as in any other herd animal, and is followed by the majority of the masses. Should we perceive this fact to be a blessing or a curse? Here, we will try to give an exhaustive answer to this question as far as that is possible.

Because the human individual has Freedom of Choice, a human being often finds themselves in types of situation that do not arise in the animal world such as when society splits into two, three or an even greater number of groups, which are all pushing in different directions. The individual finds themselves in a position where they have to choose one particular group, if of course, they have free choice.

In the absence of any strong personal conviction, we often choose to follow the choice of the largest group, in an example of what we call the ‘herd instinct’.

Why? Because if the group we have chosen really is the largest, we intuitively hope that it will include others smarter and more experienced than ourselves, who will, with all probability, lead the group in the right direction, and in the case of intra-species conflict, win victory over the rest.

Indeed, this hope is most often justified, which further reinforces the herd instinct. At least, in the majority of cases!

Here, once again, I should emphasize the difference between the herd instinct as expressed in human and animal groups. Remember the biblical parable about the herd of mad swine who rushed into the sea? If it had not been pigs but humans instead, there would undoubtedly have been those among the herd who would have tried to turn the herd around and avert the tragedy.

We do not always listen to our sages and seers because they are so ahead of their time, and so we end up learning the hard way. But their messages are never wasted becoming realized in time and history is created according to their predictions in a manner that is most desirable for the majority.

Do individuals exist who are truly free of the herd instinct and if so, what is their role within the human herd?

In “The Last Faith: a book by an atheist believer“, we wrote about people with absolute Freedom of Choice, who appear to be capable of finding revolutionary solutions to seemingly hopeless social crises, be it in the area of legal relations, the economy, science and technology, or art and sport.

  • I recall how academician Andrei Sakharov sat immersed in complete solitude after his speech at the First Congress of People’s Deputies in 1989, when a huge hooting crowd of party deputies raged around him.
  • Suffice to recall how calmly and stubbornly Albert Einstein continued to insist on his new space-time concept, which was met with hostility by many authoritative physicists of the time, who led a fierce attack against him in the press and in scientific journals.

In “The Last Faith: a book by an atheist believer“, we refer to individuals such as these as geniuses and revolutionaries. Now, we can add a new facet to their character – absolute freedom from the herd instinct.

It is these individuals, who embody absolute Freedom of Choice and who are completely free of the herd instinct that lift us from one level of Freedom of Choice to the next, higher level, thereby realising the effect of the Law of Humandynamics.

Over human history with all its many different spheres of activity, the list of such figures is extremely short, consisting of a few thousand, no more, a very small percentage of the total population.

Once, in my youth, I asked a friend, ‘If all civilization was created by this small fraction of a percent, then why did God create everyone else?’ His answer was brilliant: ‘To give birth to that small fraction of a percentage!’

Anyway, it is impossible to imagine a society consisting entirely of geniuses completely free of the herd instinct! It would instantly fall apart!

The other day, I was listening to a television interview between two very clever people, Dmitry Gordon and Viktor Shenderovich. They were talking about the herd instinct and came to the conclusion that the instinct is always a force for evil, citing examples of destructive influence of the herd instinct in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Likewise, they concluded that everything that is right and good is undertaken by individuals, who are acting from some impulse other than the herd instinct.

With the greatest of respect to both interlocutors, I cannot agree with either statement.

  • First of all, what can be found lacking in the herd instinct, when it calls a person to defend the Motherland or support Revolution?
  • Secondly, individuals like Stalin and Hitler were also totally free of the herd instinct. The point is that at the same time, these people hated Freedom of Choice, and skilfully manipulated the herd instinct of the crowd, leading their people in the twentieth century into the most terrible catastrophe in human history.

In all totalitarian societies, be they fascist or communist, managing the ‘herd’ or, in other words, grooming the herd instinct becomes state policy, and any deviation from that policy is met with severe punishment. Those who lived under the Communists or the Nazis, will remember this very well.

The attitude towards the herd instinct in society, especially among the intelligentsia, tends to be rather superior and derisive. If you do a Google search on the topic, you will immediately come across a bunch of articles on how to be rid of the herd instinct. At the same time, an overwhelming portion of society, obeys the instinct blindly and religiously, although they might not want to admit it.

The book Jonathan Livingston’s Seagull, written by Richard Bach in 1970, was once like an anthem for all those who considered themselves free from the herd instinct. 

But is the herd instinct really something always to be ashamed of? Why, for example, when we find ourselves in danger do we instinctively follow the crowd?

I remember seeing television images of the floods after the tsunami in Thailand in 2004 when crowds of people fled randomly in different directions. The only survivors were those who managed to get to raised areas, or climbed the stairs of sturdy, multi-storey hotels, and those who ran after them simply following the herd instinct.

At the end of the conversation, Gordon and Shenderovich expressed the shared opinion, that when you see a huge crowd running in one direction, you should run in a different direction. As we can see from the examples above, generally speaking, this is not great advice.

You have to know why the crowd is running, what slogans it is using, and ask yourself whether it is encroaching on anyone’s rights to Gene Preservation and Freedom of Choice.

In the well-known examples of communism and nazism, slogans openly called for the elimination of these rights among the nobles and the rich, the bourgeoisie in the case of the former and the Jews and other non-Aryan races in the case of the latter.

The principle of democracy by which the minority is obliged to obey the majority is none other than an expression of the herd instinct! Who ever proved or said that the majority had to be right? No-one did, ever! Nothing other than the herd instinct can explain the need for this principle. Yet, as the above examples illustrate, democracy does not always guarantee the right decision is made, 1933 Germany being a point in case.

Democracy’s most recent mistake must be Brexit. Brexiteers won by a majority of less than 2%. Brexit is a mistake because it will never increase Freedom of Choice in any way at all. Quite the opposite in fact; it will lower the overall level of Freedom of Choice in Britain. This will become blatantly obvious within a few years after Brexit is delivered, if of course, Brexit is not canceled by a second referendum. This will be obvious already to the most ‘aware’ among the British people.

However, in democratically accepting the power of the majority, we generally expect the decisions the majority make to prove to be the most expedient, and history back this up. Moreover, even if a democratic majority does make a mistake, as long as the mechanisms of Freedom of Choice (democratic institutions) have been preserved, there is no reason why the mistake should not be quickly corrected.

Powerful opponents of democracy in authoritarian and totalitarian countries hide behind various national peculiarities and special historical pathways as a way of justifying their authoritarian government regimes. But there are no special historical pathways! This is simply an example of distortion and primitivity, which can be easily demonstrated.

If, for example, two imaginary states A and B have different forms of government and ways of life, but after some time state B’s form of government and way of life changes to become the same as state A, then this can only mean one thing: state B was lagging behind State A in terms of evolutionary development.

We know many examples of countries in which women who have traditionally worn the hijab start to remove them at the risk of losing their personal freedom (Iran), yet we can cite no example of a country, in which the reverse process would be the case. The recent case of Islamists who came to power in Egypt and for a short time forced women to wear the hijab obviously does not count. This was purely a short-lived fluctuation in Freedom of Choice.

We know many examples of countries in which an authoritarian government has gradually changed to a democratic system, yet we know of no opposite example, with the exception of a few fluctuations and failures, which are described in sufficient detail in “The Last Faith: a book by an atheist believer” .

And for one more interesting thought: countries in which permanent presidents strive to extend their power by fraud and artifice resemble animal herds and flocks, who are controlled by permanent leaders and dominant males until such time as they become weakened and are overthrown by younger, stronger males. The reader can decide for themselves, which type of society would appear to be closer to its primitive, bestial beginnings.

Now we come to the question posed in the subheading, ‘The herd instinct — good or evil? Should we be following the herd?’

Considering all the above, there is clearly no categorical, conclusive answer to this question! There can only be a probabilistic answer. Either way, it is always best to use your head and think for yourself. However, if you cannot come up with an individual decision or solution to a problem, then it is best to join a group represented by authoritative intelligent individuals.

And if you find yourself in a position where you have to make a decision randomly, then join the largest group, based on the assumption that it will include clever, experienced individuals. None of these tips are 100% watertight, but they give good chances of success based on probability!

Generally speaking, the world around us is fundamentally non-determinable in character. It consists of probabilities, and the number of questions to which the answers are probabilistic is far greater than the number of questions to which one will find a suitably determined, categorical answer. The physicists were the first to reach this understanding when at the beginning of the last century, they dived into the truths of the microcosm.

To conclude, let me give an example from a recent news feed on outbreaks of measles in civilized countries like France. The outbreaks occurred because some parents had refused to vaccinate their children, some for orthodox religious reasons, others after reading that the vaccination had certain side effects. Both groups cite their right to personal freedom of choice in matters concerning their children.

However, whereas the chances of suffering from side effects is one in a thousand, there exists an almost 100% chance of a healthy child catching the condition when coming into close contact with an affected child. Moreover, given how much people travel in today’s world, it is practically impossible to provide total quarantine.

So, choose whichever probability you think sounds most attractive. In this regard, discussions have arisen in France concerning forced restriction of personal Freedom of Choice, where there is a threat to society i.e. the Freedom of Choice of others.

I remember when in the Soviet Union all children were vaccinated, without asking permission either from the child or their parents. I personally would have no objection to compulsory vaccination.


Karmak Bagisbayev, professor of mathematics, author of “The Last Faith: a book by an atheist believer

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