My father often lamented that after helping me to acquire a university education I wound up becoming literally a penniless beggar. My degree in Biology has helped me to be a monk, however; in fact Biology and Buddhism have one very important characteristic in common: they are both the study of life. The main difference herein is that Biology studies it from the outside and Buddhism, if it is practiced and not just followed dogmatically, studies it from the inside. One of the main spiritual advantages I've gotten from having a degree in Biology is that I see much of human behavior, and my behavior in particular, as deeply conditioned by reflexes and animal instincts.
I think it is scandalous that throughout the 20th century most psychologists, who supposedly should know the human mind better than anybody, were of the opinion that human beings are without animal instincts. Some would admit that babies have a suckling instinct, and that they also instinctively know how to swim, but still these were considered to be anomalous vestiges, and we humans were confidently declared to have replaced instinct with culture and reason.
Yet it seems to me that we are chock full of instincts, and recent cognitive science seems to corroborate this. I don't think it is purely cultural, something to be learned completely from society, that boys like girls, girls like babies, babies like sweet food better than sour or bitter, we smile when pleased, laugh when amused, frown when displeased, and run or freeze when scared---etc. etc.
Living in Burmese forests gave me plenty to study, outwardly and inwardly, with regard to Biology. For example, Burma being a tropical country, there were lots of small, many-legged creatures to watch. I noticed, for instance, that there are several species that mimic ants---I saw at least two species of spider, two species of beetle, and a kind of wingless wasp that all resembled ants (because ants are very acidic, and most insect-eaters don't like to eat them, so looking like an ant reduces the odds of being eaten). I consider it very likely, though, that none of these imitation ants realize that they actually resemble ants.
Also I saw lots of strange butterflies, many of which looked backwards: that is, they were shaped in such a way that the head end looked like the tail end, and vice versa. Many had an eyespot on the backs of their hind wings and tendril-like extensions sticking back that looked like antennae. The backwards butterfly would sit there rubbing its hind wings together slightly to draw attention to its wiggling "antennae." (The survival value of this is that a predator is likely to go for the wrong end of the butterfly, missing the head and just breaking off the back part of the wings, allowing the rest of the butterfly, sometimes, to escape.) But it's a pretty safe bet that not a single one of these butterflies knew that it looked backwards, or knew why it was rubbing its hind wings together.
Once long ago I was sitting under a tree in a Burmese forest during the dry season, and a breeze was blowing, causing dry, brown leaves to flutter down from above. In the corner of my eye I noticed that one leaf fluttered upward and stuck to a large boulder. Its unusual movement drew my attention and I looked at it: it was a dry leaf stuck in a spiderweb and fluttering in the breeze…until I looked more closely. Then I saw that it wasn't a leaf at all, but a butterfly mimicking a dead leaf, holding onto the boulder with only one foreleg in order to flutter and twist just like a dead leaf stuck in a cobweb. Probably no hungry bird or lizard would have looked at it twice. It struck me at the time that the butterfly had absolutely no idea why it was holding the boulder with only one leg, or that it even looked like a dead leaf. It just did it.
But insects are pretty mindless creatures; an insect's "brain" may have only a few hundred neurons. This could be called mindless, mechanical reflex, not instinct.
I also observed frogs. One thing I noticed is that when a frog is caught by a snake it often squeals, but if caught by a bird it rarely does so, and if caught by a human it never does (as far as I've heard). I figure the reason is that, first of all, it takes a while for a snake to swallow a frog: it has to maneuver the frog around so it can swallow it head first, which the frog tries to prevent; and also there is the complication of the frog gulping air and inflating itself like a balloon to make it bigger and harder to swallow. It squeals to draw attention to itself---and to the snake---during this sometimes prolonged struggle. A larger predator may hear the squeals and come to check out the situation, and sometimes the startled snake lets go of the frog to save itself. Presumably the strategy allows the frog to get away from the snake, and from whatever the sound attracts, only a small percentage of the time; but it works well enough with snakes that it has evolved into instinctive behavior. I know from my own experience that it saves a frog now and then, because sometimes the squeals would attract a weird American monk who wanted to see what kind of snake was there, sometimes startling the snake so that it released the frog. The frogs, however, really don't know that they are strategizing in the case of snakes. It just happens that when they're caught by a snake they very much feel like making noise and gulping air, but when caught by a bird or cat they don't. They don't know why they feel this way, or even care. But a frog is also a pretty stupid animal, with presumably rudimentary perceptual powers, and its behavior may not seem very applicable to humans who want to understand themselves and their own behavior.
But birds are getting closer to humanity in their capacity to be perceptually aware of their surroundings; and I watched plenty of birds also. One of the most common birds in the forests of Burma is the red jungle fowl, the ancestor of the domesticated chicken. They are smaller than common barnyard chickens but larger than bantams, and they fly like pheasants---it is a strange sight to see a flock of chickens flying over the treetops. (I suppose the reason domesticated chickens don't like to fly so much is that all the ones that liked to fly flew away, leaving behind the more ground-loving chickens to pass on their ground-loving genes to their progeny. Consequently, sometimes a chicken will ridiculously try to outrun a dog instead of simply flying up into a tree.) The wild roosters all look pretty much the same, like the standard little red rooster, rather like a brown leghorn, with glossy green-black tail feathers, golden hackles, and lots of orange and red on the wings and body; the hens all look the same also, an earthy yellowish color with a lacy pattern like a partridge. They seem to be more intelligent than barnyard chickens, and have a more varied "language." For example, the chicks (which also all look the same, light brown with a darker brown racing stripe) are able to fly by eight or ten days of age, and the mother hen has at least two different alarm calls for them: if the danger is from above, as from a hawk, she gives one call that sends the chicks scurrying under bushes and dead leaves for cover; but if the danger is from below, as from a cat, she gives another call that has the chicks fluttering up into the trees.
Anyway, I lived for years in a small wildlife refuge where the local king of the wild chickens was a majestic rooster that I named Chickenlord. He was a benevolent and noble bird, truly worthy to be a king, and I actually respected him. I would avoid walking towards him quickly, as it would cause him to behave like an ordinary chicken and run away, and I considered it to be demeaning to the dignity of such a king to run away. I had consideration for his dignity, and liked him very much.
Once jungle fowl learn what peanuts are they come to especially like them, and I would often keep a jar of peanuts on hand to feed the jungle fowl and squirrels. One day, instead of coming with his flock (as was usually the case during the cold season), or with a little harem of hens (as was generally the case in the mating season), he came alone. I tossed some peanuts on the ground for him, but even though I knew he liked them, he didn't eat any. Instead he started making a crooning sound which in chicken language means "Hey come here, I found something good." But his bevy of hens were too far away to hear it. So, he walked away from the peanuts (which, as I say, he very much liked) and strutted up a hill a little way and crowed. (Red jungle fowl don't give a throaty "cockadoodledoo" like their domesticated brothers; they crow with an abbreviated soprano "cockadoot-doo.") Two or three of his hens came running, whereupon he led them back down to the peanuts, made the "Come here, I found something good" sound again, and even picked up a peanut with his beak and held it out for one of the hens to take.
I was impressed by this. In a human being that sort of behavior would be called generosity, even gallantry. But in a wild bird it would more likely be called only animal instinct. Obviously, it is to the advantage of a wild rooster to find food for hens; that makes him a "good provider," and when he calls they come running. Then, if he happens to be in a rather different kind of mood, he crows, a hen comes running, and he chases her down and rapes her, thereby passing on his DNA sequences to another generation and making him quite a biological success.
Anyhow, I began comparing Chickenlord's behavior with my own. I remembered that in the past I used to get a rush of pleasure from giving presents and being sweet to girls that I liked. It really made me feel good, and I felt drawn to doing it. It didn't take much logical deduction for me to arrive at the hypothesis that this behavior (giving things and being sweet to attractive females and feeling good about it) was conditioned by human animal mating instinct---like so much else in the behavior of male/female relationships.
This is not to say that my behavior, or Chickenlord's behavior, was not generous; it's just that even our generosity and love is conditioned until we get to a stage that completely transcends conditioning and conditions, and I'm not so sure that even a fully enlightened being ever becomes completely unconditioned in his or her behavior.
Another similar comparison is with regard to a mother's love for her children. Almost the only time I saw red jungle hens behaving in a generous, unselfish way was when they were raising chicks. That's when they would make that same "Hey, I found something good" sound and not simply gobble up the food themselves. They squabbled awfully with each other sometimes, but were nurturing and patient with their own chicks. In wild birds, again, this may be called animal instinct; but the love of a human mother for her child is considered to be something noble, even holy. I think in mainstream humanity the closest to be found to absolute, unconditional love is with a mother and her children. She loves them whether they are beautiful or ugly ("a face only a mother could love"), intelligent or stupid, healthy or sickly, good or bad. In fact a mother may give more love to the ugly, sickly, bad child, knowing deep down that this one is more in need of love. Yet a mother's love for her child is almost certainly also conditioned by animal instinct reinforced by motherhood hormones. Her selfless love is still conditional---she still loves the baby so much on the condition that it is hers. She may adore babies in general (another instinct), but the greatest love is for her own.
Even if this is true, it doesn't nullify her love, any more than conditioned generosity or gallantry, in a man or in a rooster, is nullified for not being absolutely unconditioned. So long as there is goodness, that goodness will have its positive effects. Conditioned goodness has its conditioned reward, and unconditioned goodness has its unconditioned reward. Small causes produce small effects, big causes produce big effects, and infinite causes instantaneously produce, or rather are the same as, their infinite effects. When one gets to the Unconditioned, cause and effect are transcended. But we animals do the best we can.
Orthodox Theravada Buddhist tradition asserts that animals (non-human ones) usually are incapable of generating good karma; but I have seen too many cases of remarkable goodness in animals, especially dogs, to believe it. Also I've read stories of, for instance, dolphins trying to help harpooned whales and saving humans from drowning. It may be largely instinctive, but I don't see how it matters whether our behavior is conditioned by instinct or by such cultural artificialities as religion. Goodness is still goodness, and there can never be too much of it, regardless of where it comes from. Conditional acceptance is incomplete and temporary, but it is better than no acceptance at all. Even a lecher's lust or a junkie's love for his heroin contain some spark of genuine love, which is a tiny spark of Divinity.
In conclusion, I would like to recount a traditional Buddhist story of an exception to the rule of animals being incapable of "earning merit": it is a story of a frog that went to heaven. It seems that one time the Buddha was delivering a discourse to a large audience outdoors, and a frog happened to be there. It couldn't understand what the Buddha was saying, but the soothing, resonant sound of his voice as he spoke fascinated the frog, and it listened in rapt attention. Then, suddenly, a shepherd who was also listening moved his sheep-goading stick and accidentally crushed the frog's head with it. The frog at the moment of death was in such an expanded, uplifted state from hearing the voice of a fully enlightened being that at the moment after death it spontaneously reappeared in Tavatimsa Heaven, and became known as Manduka Deva, "The Frog God." ɵ_ɵ
Burmese Red Jungle Fowl
(Some of Chickenlord's Descendents)