Interview with Robert Sapolsky

Robert Sapolsky is an American neuroscientist. For more than 25 years he was “his” both in the academic environment and in the pack of wild African baboons. With the latter, the professor spent months every year studying the relationship between social behavior and the neurobiology of stress.

The professor compares himself with the male of the pack: "lush head of hair, always stumbles on his legs and sits on insects." Humor and love of stories - Sapolsky's business cards, and the ability to submit scientific material in an informative and comic manner earned the professor a reputation as one of Stanford's best lecturers and an outstanding scientific writer.

Robert Sapolsky is familiar to the Russian-speaking audience as the author of the course “ Biology of Human Behavior ”.

Biology in feeding Sapolsky is addictive. It is possible to change the role model or the meaning of life.

This course covers a wide range of disciplines-platforms for the study of human behavior: what is common to the Renaissance architecture and male nipples? What animals use game theory? Why do scientists regret their tattoo with the central dogma of molecular biology? How to ruin the reputation of a bee or a behaviorist using a competent experiment? - lectures are replete with analogies from the animal world and stories from the professor’s research experience.

In the fall of 2016, after the translations of the first lectures of the course were released, the Vert Dider team had an idea to interview Professor Sapolsky. We wrote him a letter with a proposal and, to our great surprise, the professor agreed! Today we are pleased to present this interview to you:

[Vert Dider] What brings you to field biology?
[Robert Sapolsky] Three-quarters of the field specialists come from families accustomed to such a lifestyle. Their parents can be missionaries, researchers, or anyone else. A quarter are those who grew up in a godless urban environment. They accidentally discover the museum of natural history and understand: “Lord, there is a completely different world!”. So it was with me. The museum in New York has become my second home. I was eight years old when I decided that one day I would do field research. At twelve, I wrote fan letters to primatologists. And in high school I already taught Swahili, knowing that I was to go to East Africa.

[VD] How safe is it to apply one's opinion on one species of animal to other species? You watched the baboons and make conclusions about human behavior.
[RS] It’s tempting to think that since you spent the last eighty years studying such and such ants, and you dream about them at night, then you have a scheme that applies to everything in the world.
I have been studying baboons and lab rats all my life. And those and others will tell a lot about people, if you carefully choose the area of ​​comparison. Baboons are suitable for studying stress. They live in savannas in large organized groups, predators do not particularly bother them. And if you are a primate, you have nine free hours a day and you do not have to worry about predators, then you can devote yourself to wiles. Create competition, hierarchy, social pressure. Baboons are a great model for studying Western society. At the same time, a terrible model for the study of intersexual relationships is one of the most polygamous primates in the world.

[VD] To what extent do instincts affect our behavior?
[RS] In most cases, when scientists called something “instinct,” it was only a trend. From the classical point of view, people are instinctively afraid of snakes and spiders. And it all comes together until you meet people who keep snakes at home, give them cute names and celebrate their birthdays. Or children in New Guinea who have spiders for breakfast. In reality, there is only a predisposition: it is easier to cause fear of heights than to teach people to be afraid of playing on a computer. There are serious exceptions, and much in the biology of behavior is only a tendency, aptitudes, potentialities. Behavioral genetics speaks about this.

[VD] Can antisocial behavior be predicted based on brain structure and genetics?
[RS] If you look at someone's brain and find damage to the frontal lobe, then with a probability of 90% expect from this person something socially unacceptable. He is a serial killer or chomping while eating. Genetics outside the context of the environment says little. In theory, if you know the human genome, its prenatal environment, in which epigenetic effects occur, his experience from childhood, the level of all hormones, the state of the brain, and so on, up to the color of his underwear, then maybe you can predict something.

[VD] How about the neurobiological beginnings of religiosity?
[RS] Religion is present in every culture. People love causation. This is a good psychological defense against stress. In the face of all the depressing events in life, I want to believe that everything has an explanation. Especially if some merciful creator is behind this explanation who listens to people. And best of all, if the creator is more willing to listen to you and those who look, speak and pray like you. The whole hierarchy of control and predictability. And if you do everything right, you will relieve yourself of stress.

An interesting point about the types of religious faith. In one study, world cultures were compared and a pattern was found: the gods of hunters and gatherers cannot be called moralizers. People are not interesting to such gods, they do not judge them and do not punish them. Such gods are interesting revels. Moralizing gods appear in communities where anonymous contact is possible between people. When the culture grows to large cities, people can anonymously put a pig - because you will not see them again. In a small group of hunter-gatherers, all of each other are at least second cousins ​​and sisters. They don't need to invent a god who cares about them.

[VD] Do animals, besides humans, have a fear of death in the absence of a clear threat?
[RS] Take the low rank baboon. He sits, goes about his business. Then a terrible male of high rank appears and passes by him. There is no threat.

Studies where outpatient cardiology was used — they put a baboon's heart rate sensor — showed that he was sitting quietly, without any contact with an aggressive male, but when he passes by, the baboon's blood pressure begins to go off-scale. He is terrified. The question is from what exactly. Is he afraid that that guy will kill him, afraid of death? Psychological humiliation? Or just thinks: “Please, don't beat. In general, don't notice me! ”Rather, the last. Something is known for certain about primates and corvids: they hide food for the future. So, they have some idea of ​​the future in the sense of planning. But there is no reason to believe that this also applies to existential issues.

[VD] Did you have a conflict between religion and scientific curiosity?
[RS] I grew up in an orthodox family, but when I turned thirteen, religious ideas miraculously ceased to fit in my head. I woke up in the middle of the night from the illumination: there is no god, there is no free will, life has no meaning. Obviously, puberty was involved. Much of what I write and what I teach casts doubt on free will.

Between the lines, the idea sounds that the Universe can exist with a clear organization, structure of rules and laws, but without the need for a certain being or entity, who would create all this. Mathematicians call this the emergent properties of systems. I am promoting these ideas a bit.

An interesting technique is being developed in the field of neurobiology - transcranial magnetic stimulation. It allows you to activate or deactivate certain areas of the cerebral cortex using a magnetic field. You can temporarily change the judgments of a person about morality. Change the amount he is willing to donate in a hypothetical situation. Which is no longer just a demonstration of interconnection, but the allocation of neural paths responsible for a specific course of action. This undermines our understanding of free will. Sooner or later, people will sort out the mathematics of complex and chaotic systems enough to apply it to the brain and behavior.

[VD] Sounds like a dangerous technology with the ability to manipulate behavior.
[RS] No more dangerous than those techniques that already exist. For example, the marasmic direction - neuromarketing is gaining momentum. They study the brain in order to sell people junk more efficiently. “Let's spray oxytocin clouds in stores and people will buy!” The story was full of scientists willing to misquote the research to harm people. And in the case of neuroscience, this danger is great.

[VD] Can human behavior be explained through reductionism?
[RS] The standard answer I received from most scientists when the reduction approach did not work: we are not reducing enough! Genetic reductionism will explain why neurological diseases change behavior. But he will not make it clear why the person sitting next to each other is different from you in those little things that make life interesting. Reductionism gives narrow explanations. Many of them are very important. They allowed us to invent the same vaccines. But the most interesting aspects of behavior cannot be explained this way.

If you need to understand why the clock stopped working, science is better than offering sheep to the gods in the hope that the clock will work. This is a suitable problem: we disassemble the clock, put it into pieces, find the part, repair it, collect everything, and the clock goes. And if you want to understand why there is no rain, although there are clouds in the sky - it is useless to divide the cloud in half and, not finding the answer, divide each half in half and so on. Yes, you will understand how the cloud is arranged at the basic level, gather back and what? Repair "nedodlivost"? This is not how it works. People, when they have problems, are more like clouds, from which it does not rain, than watches that have broken. We are not so easy to reduce.

[VD] In your lectures, you divide views into tournament and doubles. What is the place of people in this typology? [ typology in the framework of sexual selection - approx. Vd ]
[RS] A classic example of a pair primate species is gibbons that live in southeast Asia. They form a pair for life. Baboons - Classic Tournament View. And people are somewhere in the middle for most of the signs: genetically, anatomically, by hormonal regulation. This explains why most cultures in history are polygamous and at the same time people prefer monogamous marriages. At the same time, a large percentage of people in monogamous couples change their halves. It is in this area of ​​behavior that one can see that we are somewhere in the middle of all standard evolutionary models, ask a poet or a lawyer for divorce. In terms of evolution, we are completely confused.

The full version of the interview is available in video format in both Russian and English .

We also selected the most interesting moments from the interviews in the video quotes:


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