How can humans be so compassionate and altruistic — and also so brutal and violent? To understand why we do what we do, neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky looks at extreme context, examining actions on timescales from seconds to millions of years before they occurred. In this fascinating talk, he shares his cutting edge research into the biology that drives our worst and best behaviors. ( Original TED site)

Why you should listen:

We all have some measure of stress, and Robert Sapolsky explores its causes as well as its effects on our bodies (his lab was among the first to document the damage that stress can do to our hippocampus). In his research, he follows a population of wild baboons in Kenya, who experience stress very similarly to the way humans do. By measuring hormone levels and stress-related diseases in each primate, he determines their relative stress, looking for patterns in personality and social behavior that might contribute. These exercises have given Sapolsky amazing insight into all primate social behavior, including our own. (Op. cite)

Who is he?

He has been called “one of the best scientist-writers of our time” by Oliver Sacks. Sapolsky has produced, in addition to numerous scientific papers, books for broader audiences, including A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: Stress Disease and Coping, and The Trouble with Testosterone. [Op. Cite] (see links in Making Connections below)

Discussion Questions:

  1. ”In other words, I’m your basic confused human when it comes to violence.” Says Sapolsky. Describe your feelings about violence and acting violently to someone.
  2. And when it’s the right kind, (of violence) we cheer it on, we hand out medals, we vote for, we mate with our champions of it…. in addition to us being this miserably violent species, we’re also this extraordinarily altruistic, compassionate one. Can you think of a time when you were violent and compassionate in the same day? Games count.
  3. What does Sapolsky mean by “The challenge is to understand the biology of the context of our behaviors, and that’s real tough.”?
  4. Explain to someone the process that Sapolsky uses to explain by the second, the minute, the weeks, months, lifetime, and evolutionary history of the biology that led to the moment of pulling the trigger.
  5. “there’s a variant of a gene called MAO-A, and if you have that variant, you are far more likely to commit antisocial violence if, and only if, you were abused as a child. Genes and environment interact, and what’s happening in that one second before you pull that trigger reflects your lifetime of those gene-environment interactions.” Explain how this would work.
  6. ” Those who don’t study the history of extraordinary human change, those who don’t study the biology of what can transform us from our worst to our best behaviors, those who don’t do this are destined not to be able to repeat these incandescent, magnificent moments.” Explain this with reference to John Newton and Hugh Thompson.

Making Connections:

Books by Sapolsky, available on Amazon…

Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst

Why Zebras don’t get Ulcers

The Trouble With Testosterone: And Other Essays On The Biology Of The Human Predicament

A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons

In addition…

You might want to check out the Tedtalkspsychology presentation of How Your Worst Behaviors Do Not Define You:

The biology of our best and worst selves with Robert Sapolsky


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