Ok, I've been racking my mind on this a while, and I think it might be able to, but I was wanting to get some more viewpoints on this.

You see, a couple of my stories involve sapient animals and creatures with annual heat cycles, animals that have been sapient since the 1790s. I know that in the real world, keeping an un-spayed female dog in heat apart from males is a very difficult task, caused by hormones spread far and wide on the wind.

The crux of the issue I'm having is this: if a species is sapient, can they decide to rise above their natural instincts and act on conscious thought instead of biological urges?

To use an example, say an intact male dog meets an intact female dog who is in heat. In the real world, they'd probably be mating in a heartbeat. But in this imagined world, could both male and female think logically instead, and decide that puppies right now would be a bad idea, then simply go their own ways without any contact?

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    $\begingroup$ Isn't this question inherently self-answering via the definition of sapience? How is your scenario any different than two human teenagers? What are you using for the definition of sapience? $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Oct 5, 2020 at 1:44
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    $\begingroup$ Consider the Catholic priesthood. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Oct 5, 2020 at 2:38
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH Personally, I didn't see the scenario as being any different from "Do people crap their pants just because they have to go?" People probably won't do that even if in the middle of an empty field and hold it in until they find a restroom, unless things get real desperate Hell, some will go so far as to hold it in until they get home. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Oct 5, 2020 at 4:39
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    $\begingroup$ If you concede that I'm sapient, the answer is a resounding "no" on almost all fronts. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 5, 2020 at 12:36
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    $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen, I actually tried to do some investigation on that point a while back, and came to the conclusion that animals are more continent than we perhaps give them credit for being. It's the same principle, though; it's not that the animal is incapable of not taking such an action, it's that they have no reason to not do so. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Commented Oct 5, 2020 at 13:17

3 Answers 3



Not only is sapience sufficient, it's unnecessary. We train animals to do things that go against their instincts all the time. Horses don't naturally like to jump over things, but there's an entire sport dedicated to teaching them to do just that. Animals (including humans; well, most of them anyway) don't naturally want to run into places that are on fire, but there's a whole profession of people who do just that (thankfully!).

All you need to get an animal to go against its instincts is practice and motivation. For non-sapient animals, that usually means food, or a distraction, or something else the animal would rather have. Sapience opens the door to more "abstract" motivations... for example, "this really isn't a good time to bring puppies into the world".

The problem with animals copulating when one is in heat is largely because they don't have a reason to not do so... except when they do. A male might decline to copulate because the female rejected him, or because he lost a dominance fight with another male, or because the female is his sister¹. Wolves go into heat and yet their dominance hierarchies affect which wolves get to breed. Even among non-sapient animals, there are plenty of factors where animals can "overcome their instincts".

(¹ Disclaimer: Unlike the other examples, I'm less sure to what extent this actually happens.)

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    $\begingroup$ Then I wonder why Universities all around the world have to enforce access blocking on porn sites. They should be gathering la crème de la crème of human sapience. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Oct 5, 2020 at 7:25
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch-ReinstateMonica: Because there is no motivation against visiting porn sites? $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Commented Oct 5, 2020 at 10:50
  • $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch-ReinstateMonica, true. The OP did ask if it was possible though, but yes, just like humans, "they can" isn't the same as "they will". $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Commented Oct 5, 2020 at 13:11
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica: But the great majority of those who view porn sites don't go out and force other people to have sex with them whenever the urge strikes. So arguably porn sites ARE an example of sapience dominating normal bodily instincts. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Oct 5, 2020 at 16:52
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf, Oh gosh...now you're making me think of that 'adult bonus' moment from the Disney show 'Dog with a Blog' when the mother Ellen found the computer with a google search of 'pretty female poodles' or something like that and said to her husband "We're not getting another dog!" (I have a feeling that's not why your dog Stan was looking at those pictures, Ellen) $\endgroup$
    – Jazzyamx
    Commented Oct 5, 2020 at 17:08

Some will... some won't...

Humanity has this very same problem — it's just masked by sapience, cultural experience, and time.

There are articles aplenty that demonstrate that the human female experiences estrus, "a regularly recurrent state of sexual receptivity during which the female of most mammals will accept the male and is capable of conceiving." For example:

In humans, signs of sexual interest aren’t nearly so obvious. The male of the species generally doesn’t broadcast his constant readiness for sex, and during her window of fertility at ovulation, the female doesn’t display any outward signs. Some biologists and anthropologists have theorized that this “loss of estrus” in people makes us less driven by sex hormones than other animals.

But according to a steady stream of new studies by evolutionary and biological psychologists, that may not be the case. This research indicates that the hormonal changes of a woman’s monthly cycle may be more powerful than we’ve ever conceived — compelling women to advertise when they’re ovulating, and men to notice. Although women aren’t showing off swellings, yowling or spraying, studies suggest they may dress more provocatively, flirt more, and possibly become more sexually excitable, for roughly six days mid-cycle, before and after ovulation. They even show minuscule shifts in voice pitch, scent and skin tone, some studies suggest.

These changes are not lost on men, whose own hormones and mating behavior respond to a woman’s cues, as well as how the woman treats them, says Jon Maner, PhD, a hormones researcher and associate professor of psychology at Florida State University. To illustrate: In one of his studies, men actually inched closer to a woman — and mimicked her gestures more — when she was ovulating. (Source)

Your creatures will develop the same behaviors. The act of training a sapient creature (both intellectually and behaviorally, both academically and culturally) has the effect of refining the mating process. In other words...

It becomes more complex, more subtle, and more susceptible to intelligent judgement.

Generally speaking, human females during estrus don't parade around hunting for sex and the males aren't parading around...


Actually, they are. And that's why the studies are appearing. The "biological clock" that drives the male and female of our species is very much part of what drives the way we dress, the way we act, etc., but it's muddied (for lack of a better word) by the need to go to work at 6:00 a.m. and the expectations of clients/customers and the need to pay bills, shop for food, etc. Intelligent creatures have very complex lives, and that complexity gets all wound up in the genetic drive to procreate.

So, yes, your sapient animals will experience estrus... a very complex estrus

So why did I say "some will... some won't...?"

Because a byproduct of that very complex mating process (not the sole byproduct... It's really important that you understand what I'm saying) is that it's a component of sexual crime. Not the only component (do NOT accuse me of suggesting that women get raped simply because of estrus. It's NOT that simple!). So, why bring it up?

Because your sapient creatures will have similar (if not the same) problems within their society. The rules of the animal kingdom are much simpler because "no" literally doesn't come with the threat of police action or a lawsuit. In the animal kingdom, males do betimes rob other males of their females. Humans call that everything from "having an affair" to "rape."

My point is, I expect your creatures will have the same complex "how do you find a decent person at a bar?" problems that humans have, based on the nature of their own societal, educational, philosophical, and estrus rules.

And just to make this really complex, among them will be people who for reasons varying from physiological to religious choose to be celibate — regardless what a million years of evolution is telling the body to do.


The generally accepted answer is no. The simple proof is that we are not above our base instincts, and we consider ourselves to be sapient.

Now the devil is in the details. Are you talking about dominion over all instincts at all times? Or dominion over a select few. We humans do a half decent job of suppressing the instinct to mate, but once someone is terrified, it is almost completely impossible to get them to act in anything but the most base instinctual ways.

Most of us cannot control our heartbeat, but some monks claim to have substantial control over this, consciously driving their heartbeat to levels that would be considered fatal in demonstrations of their willpower. And famously Thích Quảng Đức lit himself on fire and remained still and apparently aware, unlike the response one of us more sane people might have in such an agonizing situation.

The question will be one of evolution. Which instincts are beneficial to suppress, and which are not. The ones that are beneficial will eventually be overriden by sapience, and the ones that are harmful will not. Which behavior is in which category depends on the evolution of your creature.

An example I just found, and find very pertinent is the position of the Amygdala and the Hippocampus in our own brain. The hippocampus is the seat of memory. It is fundamental in our conscious mind's ability to form and retrieve memories. It is remarkably close to the amygdala, which is responsible for fear and anger responses. Most of the time the hippocampus is permitted to do as it pleases. However, in times of great fear or rage, the amygdala, a tiny brain structure from the reptilian era of our evolution, chemically suppresses the hippocampus. Try as we might we simply cannot form memories once this happens. If you've heard of someone blacking out from fear or blacking out from rage, this is the neurochemical explanation of this perception.

If this happens, it does not matter how sapient, or even wise you are. The parts of your brain which contain those traits are literally taken out of the loop by the reptilian parts of the brain while they deal with the issue.

One of the best models of the brain I have come across is that of the elephant rider. We have an emotional trained elephant with a logical rider atop it in our brains. Who is in control? We like to say the rider is in control, but any elephant rider who lives very long is aware of just how tenuous that control can be.

The training one undertakes when going to war is partially to deal with this. It is learning how to use the controls we have over the amygdala's behavior to keep it from choosing to drop us into a base animal instinctual behavior.

Most of us have not had such training. We consider ourselves sapient with or without such training, so we can comfortably say that sapience is not sufficient to override the base instincts.

Of course, the devil is in the details. I have talked about neurochemical things here, but a sapient creature has a great deal of control over their environment before such stimuli occur. I'm thinking of Odysseus, as his ship had to row past the Sirens. He had his crew put beeswax in their ears so that they could not hear the Siren's calls. Does this count as sapience overriding base instincts by avoiding the stimulus all together? Perhaps more interesting is Odysseus's approach himself. He just had to hear the Siren's call. So instead of relying on beeswax, he commanded his crew to lash him to the mast, and refuse to let him free, no matter what orders he issued, until they were safely far away from the Sirens. He experienced the full force of his mind wracking itself under the draw of the siren's call, but could not act on it due to the bindings of his body. The stories talk of the agony in his voice as his men dutifully rowed away from the sirens, knowing he would never again hear their call.


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