robert sapolsky


intro’d to Robert here:

@The_Lagrangian @sarahdoingthing The Wellesley Effect effect (learning?), but for synchronizing ideas in a network.

Original Tweet:

Are Humans Just Another Primate? (2011)


4 min – genetics don’t make us special.. just like other animals.. so what does..

5 min – 1\ just like the others: ie..ovulation.. w hamsters… dominate syncs you.. then male de syncs you .. all via olfactory… totally well studied.. seen in all sorts of exactly the same in us.. the welsley effect

8 min – sometimes exact same machinery but we use it in diff ways

9 min – 2\ partially so: we have same.. but novel .. physiology in zebra astonishingly similar to what’s going on with us when we contemplate mortality.. or traffic jams..or who knows what.. that’s why humans get stress related diseases.. we turn on the classic mammalian stress response meant to get you running across the savannah.. and we turn it on for 30 yr mortgages..

10 min – 3\ not in the slightest: do things no one else does… come home.. talk.. go to bed.. have sex.. talk .. go to sleep… this non reproductive sex is a novel terrain… confusing sex with aggression.. et al.. in those times.. there is no precedent .. we are on our own..

11 min – same design used in novel ways: aggression; theory of mind; the golden rule; empathy; pleasure in anticipation and gratification postponement; culture  (so showing these things that we think are just human.. are not.. just that humans do in diff ways)

15 min – drone workers.. living day to day.. daughter to ballet.. after drone killings.. highly troubled psyches..

19 min – tit for tat strategies.. studied by game theorists.. economists.. war strategy people.. built around math and that we are rational enough.. to max diff strategies..

i don’t know.. perhaps when we are not us in a manufactured world.. i don’t think tit for tat works for toward optimisation of what it means to be human..

21 min – stable reciprocity

? i don’t buy it.. i think that is what messes us up most..

23 min – chimp empathy..

of course..

28 min – monkey study.. dopamine on y axis… signal-work-reward on x axis.. everyone thought dopamine would go up after the reward.. it’s not.. it goes up with the signal comes on…  dopamine is not about pleasure.. it’s about the anticipation of pleasure..

30 min – intro work .. maybe.. into equation.. sometimes work sometimes doesn’t.. maybe is addictive like no other.. dopamine pours out like’s the uncertainty of the reward… instead of 50% reward rate.. either 25% or 75% reward rate.. this is the world of brilliant social engineering

this is all not human nature..

with humans it’s the time dimension.. how much lag time between work and reward to still illicit the behavior.. we have just entered unique terrain.. ie: somewhere along way most of us worked good in school.. to get good grad school to get good retirement.. to we keep those dopamines up like crazy.. even if reward comes after our death.. no monkey would do that

33 min – culture.. the non genetic transmission of learned behavior either inter/intra generationally.. we are not the only species that have culture..

35 min – ie: baboons showing culture in e africa

39 min – understanding other humans because we have things like symbols.. analogies.. metaphors.. figures of speech.. no other species has this.. we can understand all sorts of things..

40 min – we can to things that are astonishing and unique in the realm of metaphor.. but what’s most interesting about it is how our brain processes it.. we have a classic mammalian brain but we’ve got to handle something utterly unprecedented.. ie: notion of metaphors/symbols..

42 min – we not only do gustatory disgust we do moral disgust with the same part of the brain..  brain handling abstract concept in novel way..

44 min – anterior cingulate.. part of brain that reacts when you are in pain and when you’re just thinking about being in pain and…. when you are thinking about others in pain.. on very concrete level.. this part of the brain feels someone else’s pain

45 min – this part of brain (anterior cingulate) is hyper active in people with major clinical depression.. people who are pathologically feeling the pains of everything..

mental health

part of brain that does physical and psychic pain processed same way

48 min – our brain has trouble telling .. holding ice and if a person is like ice queen.. a part..

49 min – kind of chair your sitting in .. determines way you judge people..

50 min – another ie: if just read about bacteria.. you were more likely to be hostile to immigration.. immigrants as dangerous pathogens…

what we do with our conscious decision making is justify the intuitions and visceral responses we have already had..

why i’m so against how we bow to decision making.. it’s science of people falling into peer pressured.. consensus ness.. so no conscious (ie: this is what i believe/want/et al) decision really..

52 min – hamas saying if peace is going to go forward. ..israeli’s have to at least once say.. we got screwed in 1948.. it was not fair that our land was given away.. the israeli hawks are saying.. if peace is going to go forward..  they’ve got to get that protocols of the elders of zion crap out of their hs text books..not..we need to get a better deal with water/mineral rights.. but purely about symbolism.. it’s not when two waring nations learn how to share a river.. but when king of one comes to funeral of another and notices the power in those rituals..

53 min – uncharted precedent domain: gaining the strength/will to do x from the irrefutable evidence that x cannot be…. kierkegaard: christian faith requires that faith persists in the face of the impossible, and that humans have the capacity to simultaneously believe in two contradictory things….. what religiosity is often about

nun – ellen projhoun.. taking care of men on death row in max security prison.. she is could you do this.. she says.. the less forgiveable/loveable.. more we must find means to forgive/love them..

54 min – from atheist viewpoint that is one of most irrational/nutty/magnificent things we can do as species.. the more something can’t be the more we have to make sure it is… that is the realm we can do our most uniquely human things.. built out of danger of a certain human wisdom… learn about world.. an inevitable conclusion.. none of us can make things better.. we are too small..  and what we have to deal with.. the more you can’t make a difference.. the more you have to make making a difference the moral imperative..

55 min – q&a – q: how can be articulate.. a: i don’t know

1:01 – q: hypocrisy  a: human.. scary individuals.. everybody says x and i agree.. but i’m a special case..

1:05 – q: plasticity and being formed by words and experiences  a: when child abuse.. that is not physical.. purely verbal.. traumatized/ptsd.. from an environment that was entirely verbally abusive.. ptsd induces very characteristic changes in the brain.. so power of the word big time.. sometimes the pen is more destructive than the sword

1:06 – q: singulet .. ads .. brains being manipulated.. what’s effect of brain in future..  a: been going on forever.. made good livings.. charismatic religious/political leaders.. just ramped up now.. here’s a word that should give all of us shivers: neuro economist..linguist/philosopher/marketing.. people making livings understanding how you get marketing on people.. done forever.. just.. more scientific.. more syllables in the name.. ie: neuro economist..

1:08 – communications in other species.. ie: elephants via movement.. we don’t yet understand.. amid all that complexity two things we do: 1\ communicate about abstract states.. 2\ same over the top emotional expressions.. about events that occurred 2000 yrs ago or on other side of planet.. so the abstract ness seems unique.. on other hand.. used to say things are unique to us.. so stay tuned…

1:10 – if want to understand how complex systems work.. ie: cell, individual, society… can’t understand it by breaking down into parts.. never understand a human by having sequenced all of their genes.. never figure out why society do what they do by looking at individual… we have these non-linear.. non-additive.. emergent properties.. that is a very vibrant area of research.. but caution against extreme faith in reductionism.. in my work what that translates to: don’t be overly impressed what genes have to do with the brain

1:12 – urban myth.. we share 98.9% dna with chimps.. sequenced human genome and chimp genome.. and .. turns out we share 98.9% of dna with chimps.. not based on ridiculously guesses…  there is that much overlap.. so question.. where are the differences… right off bat.. about half diff’s have to do with genes for olfactory receptors.. chimps better than us.. ie: if wipe out 1/2 chimps olfactory.. on way to being human… others.. pelvis arch; we walk upright; body hair; immune recognition; reproductive isolation; that’s about all diff’s .. there’s hardly any relevant to brain..  few id’d.. we’ve got 3x as many neurons.. number of rounds of cell division during fetal development.. so let chimp go a little longer and have human.. w/enough quantity you invent quality..


human nature talk (2011) with Robert Sapolsky, Gabor Mate, James Gilligan, Richard Wilkinson



human nature

1 min – robert: it’s virtually impossible to understand how biology works outside the context of environment

2 min – robert: genes are unchangeable.. sheer nonsense.. and very dangerous thinking


2 min – gabor: adhd/schizo.. genetically programmed..  the truth is the opposite.. nothing is genetically programmed.. (w exception of handful of diseases).. predisposition not the same as pre determination

3 min – gabor: whole search for cures in genetic genome.. failure.. most diseases are not genetically pre determined… heart disease; cancer; stroke; .. mental health conditions; addictions; …  none of them genetically determined .. ie: breast cancer.. only 7 in 100 carry breast cancer genes.. and out of 100 women who do have the genes.. not all of them will get cancer


richard: genes aren’t responsible.. just give us diff ways.. ie: kind of child rearing effect gene expression

4 min – gabor.. ie: study in montreal looked at suicide victims.. if victim had been abused when young.. abuse caused genetic change in brain.. absent from ones who had not been abused.. that’s an epigenetic effect.. epi means on top of.. so that the the epigenetic influence is what happens environmentally to activate/deactivate certain genes

5 min – james: study in new zealand.. 1000 individuals from birth to 20s.. found.. could id a genetic mutation.. abnormal gene .. which did have some relation to the predisposition to commit kind of violence.. but only if the individual had also been subjected to severe child abuse.. in other words.. a child with this abnormal gene would be no more likely to be violent than anyone else.. and in fact.. actually had a lower rate of violence.. than people with normal genes.. as long as they weren’t abused as children..

6 min – robert: ie: a study.. take out gene in mouse.. that has to do with learning/memory.. and have mouse that doesn’t learn as well.. media ran with that.. ooh. a genetic basis for intelligence.. what was much less appreciated in that landmark study.. is take those genetically impaired mice and raise them in a much more stimulated/enriched environment than your normal mice in the lab cage.. and they completely overcame that deficit..

rat park ness

so.. when one says in a contemporary sense that oh this behavior is genetic.. to the extent that that’s even a valid phrase to use.. what you’re saying is.. there is a genetic contribution to how this organism responds to environment.. genes may influence the readiness with which an organism will deal with a certain environmental challenge… that’s not the version most people have in their minds.. and not to be too soap boxing.. but run with the old version of .. it’s genetic.. and it’s not that far from history of eugenics and things of that sort.. it’s a widespread misconception.. a potentially fairly dangerous one..

7 min – james: one reason the bio explanation is potentially dangerous.. not just misleading.. it could really do harm.. because if you believe that.. you could very easily say.. well there’s nothing we can do to change the predisposition people have to becoming violent.. all we can do if somebody becomes violent is punish them.. lock them up.. or execute them.. but we don’t need to worry about changing the social environment/preconditions that may lead people to become violent because.. that’s irrelevant

8 min – gabor: the genetic argument allows us the luxury of ignoringi past/present historical/social factors.. quote from new yorker:

“it’s all in the genes”: an explanation for the way things are that does not threaten the way things are.

why should someone feel unhappy or engage in antisocial behavior when that person is living in the freest and most prosperous nation on earth? it can’t be the system. there must be a flaw in the wiring somewhere. – Louis Menand

so the genetic argument is simply a cop out which allows us to ignore the social/economic/political factors that in fact underly many troublesome behaviors

case study: addiction

9 min – gabor: addictions are usually considered drug related.. but looking more broadly.. any behavior that is associated with a craving.. a temp relief..long term neg consequences.. along with an impairment of control over it.. so that the person wishes/promises to give it up but can’t follow through.. and when you understand that.. you can see there are many more addictions than simply those related to to work/shopping/internet/videogames/power/acquisition/… oil..  and look at what that’s doing to our planet.. these addictions are far more devastating in social consequences than cocain/heroin.. yet they’re rewarded/considered respectable.. higher profit gets bigger reward.. respected member of board.. but kill5.5 mill a year.. and these people are addicted to profit.. but in denial..  so what is acceptable/respectable.. highly arbitrary phenom in our society.. and it seems.. the greater the harm.. the more respectable the addiction..

the myth

11 min – gabor: that drugs in themselves are addictive.. war on drugs predicated on this.. but.. see that nothing in of itself are addictive.. so the real issue is what makes people susceptible.. because it’s the combo of a susceptible individual and the potentially addictive substance/behavior.. that actually then makes for the flowering of addiction.. in short: it’s not the drug that’s addictive.. it’s the question of susceptibility of the individual to being addictive to a particular substance/behavior


12 min – gabor: to understand what makes people susceptible.. you have to look at their life experience.. the old idea.. although it’s old it’s still broadly held.. that addictions are due to some genetic cause .. simply scientifically untenable.. what the case is actually .. is that certain life experiences make people susceptible.. life experiences that not only shape the person’s personality and psych needs.. but also their very brains in certain ways.. and that process begins in utero


13 min – robert: environment does not begin at birth.. environment begins as soon as you have an environment.. so fetus subject to any info..coming thru mom’s circulation.. great ie: dutch hunger winter.. 1944 – nazi’s take all food .. 3 months.. 10s of 1000s of people starve to death.. if you were a fetus then.. your body learned something during that time.. 2nd 3rd trimester.. your body programs forever after to be ie: stingy with sugar/fat.. 1/2 century later.. more likely to have high blood pressure obesity or metabolic syndrome..

14 min – gabor: can stress animals in lab when pregnant and offspring more likely to use cocaine/alcohol as adults.. stress human mothers.. ie: british mothers.. abused during pregnancy.. higher levels of stress hormone cortisol in placenta.. and their children are more likely to have conditions that predisposed them to addictions by age 7 or 8

15 min – gabor: ie.. mothers pregnant prior to 1967 war.. offspring higher incidence of schizo.. plenty of evidence now that prenatal effects have huge impact on developing human being


gabor: point about human development.. specifically human brain development.. is that it occurs mostly under the impact of the environment and mostly after birth.. compare horse to human.. can run day 1.. human 1.5 yrs..  because brain development of the horse happens in the safety of the womb..  in the human being it has to happen.. after birth… and that has to do with simple evolutionary logic.. as head gets larger.. which is what makes us into human beings.. narrower pelvis.. larger head.. so have to be born prematurely and that means brain development… neural darwinism: the circuits that get the appropriate input from the environment will develop optimally and the ones that don’t will either not develop optimally or perhaps not at all… if you take a child with perfectly good eyes at birth.. and put him in a dark room for 5 years.. he’ll be blind thereafter for the rest of his life.. because the circuits of vision require light waves for that development and w/o that.. even the rudimentary circuits present and active at birth.. will atrophy and die.. and new ones will not develop..


17 min – there’s a significant way in which early experiences shape adult behavior.. and especially early experiences for which there’s no recall memory.. there are two kinds of memory 1\explicit – which is recall.. but the structure in the brain.. the hippocampus.. which encodes recall memory doesn’t even begin to develop fully until year and a half.. and not fully developed until much later.. which is why.. hardly anyone has any recall memory prior to 18 months  2\implicit – an emotional memory.. where the emotional impact and the interpretation that the child makes of those emotional experiences is engrained in the brain.. in the form of nerve circuits ready to fire without specific recall

18 min – gabor: ie: people who are adopted have a life long sense of rejection very often.. they can’t recall the adoption.. the separation of the birth mother… there’s nothing there to recall with.. but the emotional memory of separation/rejection is deeply embedded in their brains.. hence.. they’re much more likely to experience a sense of rejection and a great emotional upset when they perceive themselves of being rejected than other people…. that’s not unique to people who are adopted.. but it’s very strong in them..because of this function of implicit memory… people who are addicted.. according to all research lit..  certainly in my experience.. the hard core addicts.. virtually were all significantly abused as children or suffered severe emotional loss.. their emotional/implicit memories are those of a world that’s not safe and not helpful.. caregivers are not to be trusted.. and relationships that are not safe enough to open to vulnerably.. and hence their responses tend to be to keep themselves separate from really intimate relationships.. not to trust caregivers..drs.. and other people who are trying to help them.. and generally see the world as an unsafe place.. and that sense is strictly a function of an implicit memory which sometimes has to do with incidents they don’t even recall


19 min – gabor: infants born premature are often in incubators.. for weeks and perhaps months.. it’s now known.. that even if these children are touched.. stroked on the back for just 10 min/day that promotes the brain development.. so human touch is essential for development and in fact infants who are never picked up will actually die.. fundamental need to be held

20 min – gabor: in our society.. parents being told to not pick up their kids.. not to hold them .. not to pick up babies who are crying for fear of spoiling them.. or to encourage them to sleep through the night.. you don’t pick them up.. which is just the opposite of what the child needs.. and these children might go back to sleep because they give up and their brains are shut down as a way of defending against a vulnerability..  or being abandoned really .. by their parents.. but their implicit memories will be that of a world that doesn’t give a damn...


richard: a lot of differences are structured very early in life.. in the way like parental experience of adversity.. ie: depression.. stress.. have very powerful effects programming children’s development.. not even an evolutionary mistake.. but for humans.. the adaptation is to the quality of social relations.. a taster of the kind of world you may be growing up in .. parenting .. almost unconsciously.. is a system for passing that on

22 min – gabor: winnocot said: fundamentally two things can go wrong in childhood.. 1\ things happen that shouldn’t happen 2\ things that should happen but don’t… 1\ traumatic/abusive/abandonment experiences of my (?) patients..  and of many addicts..  2\ non stressed/attuned attention they don’t get .. no presence of available parent.. alan shore calls proximal abandonment – parent is physically present but emotionally absent.. from ie: stresses of world..

23 min – james: i have spent the last 40 yrs working with the most violent people our society produces.. murderers/rapists// and so on.. in an attempt to understand what causes this violence.. i discovered that the most violent of the criminals in our prisons.. had themselves been victims of a degree of child abuse that was beyond the scale of what i ever thought of ever applying the term to.. i had no idea of the depth of the deprevity with which children in our society are all too often treated.. the most violent people i saw were themselves survivors of their own attempted murder.. often at the hands of their parents or other people in their social environment.. or were the survivors of family members who’d been killed

24 min – gabor: buddha argued.. you can’t understand anything in isolation from its environment.. true for human development.. the modern term for it: the bio psycho social development: the bio of human beings depends very much on their interaction with the social/psych environment..

25 min – specifically.. the psychiatrist/researcher daniel siegel coined a phrase: interpersonal neurobiology: the way our nervous system functions depends very much on our personal relationships… true throughout lifecycle.. particularly true when dependent/developing.. but also throughout rest of life


26 min – richard: human beings have lived in all kinds of societies.. h&g most egalitarian.. based on food sharing.. gift exchange..

robert: small bands of people living off of predominately foraging.. little bit of hunting.. predominately with people you have known most your entire life.. where there is a great deal of fluidity between diff groups.. not a whole lot in terms of material culture.. this is how humans have spent most of their hominate history.. and no surprise.. makes for a very diff world.. one thing you get as result of far less violence.. organized group violence is not something that occurred at that… where did we go wrong..

voluntary compliance et al.. to make us more efficient.. et al..  (if we ever had that common ing ness.. )

27 min – james: violence is not universal.. it’s not symmetrically distributed throughout the human race… there is a huge variation in the amount of violence in different societies.. there are some societies that have virtually no violence.. others that destroy themselves.. some antibaptist religious groups.. that are complete/strict amish/mennonites/hoterites.. in some of these.. there are no recorded cases of homicide.. during major wars.. like ww2.. they would refuse to go to war.. they would go to prison.. in the kibbutz in israel.. the level of violence is so low that the criminal courts there will often send violent offenders to live on the kibbutz.. to learn how to live a non violent life

28 min – robert: so .. we are amply shaped by society.. our societies in the broader sense including our theological.. metaphysical.. linguistic.. help shape us to think whether our life is basically about sin or about beauty.. about whether the afterlife will carry a price for how we live our lives our if it’s irrelevant…. in a broad sort of way .. different large societies could be termed as individualistic or collectivist and you get very diff people in diff mindsets.. and diff brains come along with that.. we in america are in one of the most individualistic of societies.. capitalism being the system that allows you to go higher and higher up a potential pyramid and the deal is it comes with fewer and fewer safety nets.. by defn the more stratified a society is.. the fewer people you have as peers.. the fewer people with whom you have symmetrical/reciprocal relationships.. and instead all you have are differing spots and endless hierarchies.. and a world in which you have few reciprocal partners is a world with a lot less altruism..

i’d question the reciprocal ness.. i think that’s a measuring game.. no matter how kind..

29 min – robert: this brings us to a total impossible juncture.. to try to make sense of perspective sciences as to what the nature is of human nature.. on a certain level.. the nature of our nature is not to be particularly constrained by our nature.. we come up with more social variability than any species out there.. more systems of belief.. of styles of family structures.. of ways of raising children.. the capacity for variety that we have is extraordinary

30 min – gabor: in a society which is predicated on competition.. and very often the ruthless exploitation..of one human being by another.. the profiteering off other people’s problems.. and very often .. the creation of problems for purpose of profiteering.. the ruling ideology will very often justify that behavior by appeals to some fundamental and unalterable human nature.. so *the myth in our society is that people are competitive by nature.. and that they’re individualistic..  and that they’re selfish.. the reality is quite the opposite.. we have **certain human needs.. the only way you can talk about human nature concretely is by recognizing that there are certain human needs.. we have a human need for companionship and for close contact.. to be loved.. to be attached to.. to be accepted/seen.. to be received for who we are.. if those needs are met.. we will be developed into people who are compassionate/cooperative/.. and who have empathy for other people..

*science of people

**2 needs.. deep enough..

31 min – gabor: so the opposite.. that we often see in our society is the distortion of human nature.. precisely because so few people have their needs met.. so yes.. you can talk about human nature.. but only in a sense of basic human needs that are instinctively evoked.. or i should say.. certain human needs that lead to certain traits if they are met and a diff set of traits if they are not


find/follow Robert:
wikipedia small

Robert Morris Sapolsky (born 1957) is an American neuroendocrinologist and author. He is currently a professor of biology, and professor of neurology and neurological sciences and, by courtesy, neurosurgery, at Stanford University. In addition, he is a research associate at the National Museums of Kenya.


Sapolsky is currently the John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor at Stanford University, holding joint appointments in several departments, including Biological Sciences, Neurology & Neurological Sciences, and Neurosurgery.

As a neuroendocrinologist, he has focused his research on issues of stress and neuronal degeneration, as well as on the possibilities of gene therapy strategies for protecting susceptible neurons from disease. Currently, he is working on gene transfer techniques to strengthen neurons against the disabling effects of glucocorticoids. Each year Sapolsky spends time in Kenya studying a population of wild baboons in order to identify the sources of stress in their environment, and the relationship between personality and patterns of stress-related disease in these animals. More specifically, Sapolsky studies the cortisol levels between the alpha male and female and the subordinates to determine stress level. An early but still relevant example of his studies of olive baboons is to be found in his 1990 Scientific American article, “Stress in the Wild”. He has also written about neurological impairment and the insanity defense within the American legal system.

Sapolsky’s work has been featured widely in the press, most notably in the National Geographic special Stress: Portrait of a Killer, several articles in The New York Times, Wired Magazine and the Stanford University Magazine.


tweet via Carol

Carol Black (@cblack__) tweeted at 8:24 PM – 8 Jun 2017 :

And if anybody thinks that’s “romantic,” I’ll point out that even baboons can stop being such hierarchical assholes:

Why hierarchy creates a destructive force within the human psyche (by dr. Robert Sapolsky)

the link between stress and hierarchy in baboons

2 min- findings: a baboon’s rank determined the level of stress hormone in his system.. so if you’re a dominate male.. you can expect y our stress hormones to be low.. and if you’re submissive.. much higher

stress ness

4 min – findings.. basic troupe.. eats food tainted w tb.. half males in troop die

5 min – it wasn’t random who died.. every alpha male was gone (if aggressive and non social) .. so left w twice as many females as males.. and males left with.. were ‘good guys’ – not aggressive jerks.. nice to the females.. socially affiliative.. completely transformed the atmosphere

6 min – tragedy left robert with fundamental lesson – how absence of stress could impact a society

8 min – if they’re (baboons) able to transform in one generation what are supposed to be textbook social systems sort of engraved in stone.. we don’t have an excuse when we say there’s certain inevitabilities about human social systems..

a nother way

supposed to’s

are we brave enough to learn from a baboon – to thrive w/o stress.. can we