On Robert Sapolsky’s Behave: mending one creaky relationship

How detoxified biology can enrich humanities

9 mins read

The need to write this review struck when I was reading a social science textbook. At some point, the author had made a point that we shouldn’t be too sure of a cooperative human nature, as the scientific authorities suggest that humans are innately aggressive and competitive. The cited authority was Konrad Lorenz.

Konrad Lorenz was a prominent biologist and a Nobel laureate. But don’t let those nice pictures of being followed by geese fool you. He also was a devout Nazi sympathiser, studying the “degeneration” of human individuals through race-mixing. He strove for creating a new science that would, in his jargon, help to weed out the unworthy. In short, he’s not the sort of authority that should tell us what scientists now think. So why on earth was he taken for one in my social science textbook?   

I believe the answer lies in the huge gap that stretches between humanities and science. Nowadays, political arguments that include biology are controversial, to say the least. No wonder, when you look at Lorenz’s case. The tendency to ground political aims in the findings of biology was at the roots of some of the worst human deeds ever committed – think holocaust, eugenics, or imperialism.

Then there is the other extreme, evident from that textbook of mine. Separating those areas for good creates ground for confusion and ignorance, displayed by the well-meaning author of my textbook when she mistook Lorenz for a credible authority in 2016.

This is where Robert Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst comes in. Although the book is mainly a lifetime of a scientist’s knowledge of all the things that make us do stuff, it also charts a course between the two extreme approaches described: the tendency of acting as if biology doesn’t exist and doing biology in a way that makes other people not exist.

Image credit: National Geographic

Beware of the lobsters – the tragedy of narrow thinking

First of all, the Lorenz problem. Before we accept that some facts deserve to be brought from the darkness of the labs to the spotlight of the political debate, we need an answer the following: how do we ensure that we aren’t giving a voice to someone with a pretty freakish axe to grind? A right approach might do the trick.

Behave is highly interdisciplinary. Neurochemical studies are related to the endocrinological, linked to anthropological, all combined with the insights of sociologists and psychologists and fused into a coherent whole. The author has a good reason for this. Firstly, to reach the goal of the book – understand what factors influenced human behaviour from seconds to millennia before, you need to combine a lot of disciplinary views. Secondly, history teaches us that the problematic, or straight-out twisted biological views arise when you think in narrow brackets.

What we need to get rid of, he says, is the tendency to explain complex things from a narrow perspective, or isolated scientific brackets. Trying to distil human behaviour down to a single factor – “the gene”, “the environment” or “the synapses” – has serious drawbacks. At best, it makes one blind to the fact that you cannot really mention one without implicitly referencing all the others. At worst, it makes one prone to committing terrible things in good conscience.

If we’d only sever these connections in the brain, we would stop the symptoms of mental illness, thought Egas Moniz. In his wake, thousands lost their personality. If we’d just kept our genes pure and maintained racial purity, thought Lorenz, the world would be a better place. In his wake, the biggest tragedy of the 20th century. Both are examples of thinking within a single bracket, making us think that we know “what’s best” for others.

The antidote? Whenever you hear about some silver bullet that explains it all or works as a solution to some grand problem, you have almost certainly stumbled on a gross oversimplification. So when there’s a Canadian professor trying to convince you that to solve humankind’s discontent we should all get into hierarchy stuff, because lobsters do it and it just works great for them, you should smell something…well, fishy. Rooting out such thinking by applying context is the first step for making sure we don’t misuse biology.

What can biology tell us?

When we know what to steer clear of, what are the lessons to be learned?

It could be useful to know what underpins racism, for example. Knowing what made Derek Chauvin tick when he suffocated George Floyd is crucial knowledge for anyone who wants to prevent these events from happening again. And biology can provide. Sapolsky weaves countless neuroimaging studies into a narrative that shows that even though racism results from some pretty ancient hardwiring, it is by no means inevitable.

But it takes a lot of scientists poring over neuroimaging studies to figure out what can tackle racism, be it individuation, perspective-taking or uniforms. Knowing this is the first step to put in place incentives that would make us see the world in a way where race is not the dividing line.

The studies in Behave can also cast moral doubts on some political attitudes. It makes sense that someone believes that “It’s all hard work. No matter what cards life dealt you, it’s the effort that matters.” Yeah, sure it is. Except that, by the age children are five, there are already significant differences in their brains, depending on whether they grew up in poverty or not.

The poorer one grows up, the less developed are the parts of his brain responsible for memory, impulse control and the ability to make the harder thing when it´s the right thing to do. The poorer the child, the larger its amygdala, meaning poorer emotion regulation and more stress throughout its life. Justify that.

Image credit: Britannica

Half a millennia ago, people thought it entirely rational to burn people who had epileptic seizures. What else should they do? They’ve slept with the devil. Then it turned out they didn’t, and now we don´t blame them nor burn them. The question that bothers Sapolsky – who is the contemporary equivalent of these poor epileptics – is one only a good science can answer. Politicians should be listening.

The bottom line? Like any discipline, biology did at times serve as the will-o’-the-wisp that leads our best intentions into terrible places. But given the injustices it puts a finger on and the problems it can offer solutions to, Behave begs us to ask the question: who will be the Lorenz of today? The one who pays heed to biology, or the one who doesn’t?

Feature image credit: Public Radio Tulsa

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for taking the time to write this review. As someone peripherally interested in evolutionary biology and its implications on human nature, I am considering purchasing Sapolsky’s book.

    I have just a few minor points regarding the review. One is that after reading, I was left not knowing much about the specifics of what Behave was about. I also would like to know if Lorenz’s work was disproven scientifically or simply discredited due to his unfashionable ideological views. Lastly, in your allusion to Jordan Peterson, I think that you mischaracterize his point about hiarchy. It’s not that we should do it, rather hierarchical behavior is observed across the natural world and thus it is a dominant way in which humans organize themselves.

    I do agree with your points heralding the importance of interdisciplinary outlooks. Studying biology and genetics is a fascinating endeavor, but it is always to tether these with other perspectives to retain a more humane outlook.

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