Robert Sapolsky Rocks – Stanford University –  Introduction to Human Behavioral Biology 1 and Behavioral Evolution-


Introduction to Human Behavioral Biology

This is the first class in the Human Behavioral Biology series. Professor Sapolsky goes over a few stories, riddles and quotes and outlines the course curriculum. He stresses the importance of “buckets,” which is a term he uses to refer to conceptual filters people employ that keep them locked in particular worldviews. He highlights the inherent dangers of getting too wrapped up in a preconceived notion of what’s what.

He begins with a few captivating examples of ways in which changes in the genes or even diet can impact behavior and then makes the first point of the course, that sometimes the stuff that’s going on in your body can have a major impact on what goes on in your head. The second critical point is that what’s going on in your head can affect what’s going on in your body. The course is about the interconnection between physiology and behavior and the way that the psychological, neurological and biological elements impact each other to create the wildly unpredictable thing known as human behavior.

Because of the complexity of human behavior, we think about things in categories, which makes them easier to understand. We have lots of references that we use to understand things. This makes things easier to recall once we can think of it as an”It’s a…” situation.

But, there are problems with categorical thinking. They can limit, distort and misrepresent thinking. You have trouble seeing differences among items that are in the same category, you overestimate how different they are when there’s a boundary between them, and when you’re focused on the categorical boundaries, you don’t see the big picture. 

To show the importance of these buckets, he provides three quotes and examples of the harm from the limited thinking these quotes reflect. 

1. John Watson: “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.” 

Watson is commonly viewed as the father of behaviorism, a theory of psychology that peaked at the time of B.F. Skinner and which posited that if you could control the rewards and punishments (the positive and negative reinforcements) you could turn anyone you wanted to into anything you wanted. 

Sapolsky flat out dismisses this, citing a simple example of massive protein malnutrition during childhood. And he’s right. Humans are not so modular and there are so many levels that impact behavior that simplistic behaviorism can’t handle even the most basic behaviors, let alone items of true complexity.

2. Egas Moniz: Normal psychic life depends upon the good functioning of brain synapses, and mental disorders appear as a result of synaptic derangements. Synaptic adjustments will then modify the corresponding ideas and force them into different channels. Using this approach we obtain cures and improvements but no failures.

The adjustments in question are actually frontal lobotomies. This was what he had to say on the occasion of being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1949 for his work.

3. Konrad Lorenz: “The selection for toughness, heroism, social utility…must be accomplished by some human institution if mankind, in default of selective factors, is not to be ruined by domestication-induced degeneracy.”

He was one of the founding fathers of ethology, he discovered imprinting in birds and he was an unrepentant Nazi propagandist.

The point being that these are not insignificant scientists. Their thinking impacted who was educated and who considered to not be worth the effort. The flawed thinking led to hundreds of thousands of lobotomies and to the genocidal slaughter of 9 million people. These are scientists that lived pathologically within the bucket of their choosing.

Resist the temptation to think only within one bucket or to look for the answer. There are no real buckets.

There are three intellectual challenges.

1. There are circumstances in which people are just like every other animal out there. The challenge is to accept that. He cites the Wellesley effect as an example. This is the synchronization of females’ cycles in the absence of any disruptive males.

2. Circumstances in which we appear to be similar but we do something very different. He uses competitive chess as an example. Chess grandmasters will show metabolic activity similar to what a marathon runner would have going on. That is that the mental aspect can drive a physiological response as if there was a true physical stressor. Empathy, emotional bonding, jealousy – it’s the same nuts and bolts physiology, but we use it in a different way. 

3. Other times we are truly unique, engaging in behaviors that no other animal out there does. Human sexual relations are used as an example. Language use. 

He next provides an overview of the course direction.

This includes an introduction to the various buckets. In the second section topics are examined critically via the buckets.

He mentions the two books for the course, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky

and Chaos by James Gleick. Both books are good, though the Zebras book has more relevant to everyday life information. The area of Chaos he is most interested in is the challenge to reductionism, which is defined as the belief that a complex system can be broken down into its component parts and once those are understood, the whole thing can then be figured out. The Chaos book gets into lots of examples and ways in which this is not true or in which the underlying system is both predictable and seemingly random and we don’t have a clue how to accurately measure or depict it. Additionally it discusses patterns where there seem to be no patterns within a reductionist model, such as the manner in which atoms conform to the Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle while somehow being predictable on the whole. The impact this has on humans with their cells, DNA, genes, environment and choices is massive.

Check out “The Biology of Human Behavior,”, which recaps this same info.

2. Behavioral Evolution

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