Friday, September 8, 2017

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst I

I've just started this relatively long book by Robert Sapolsky, which takes a close look at human behavior, drawing from his background in neurobiology, primatology and other disciplines. Of all the books I've read on the subject, Sapolsky comes with the best background, which is extremely multidisciplinary by academic standards. E.O. Wilson's work in sociobiology offers quite a stretch from ants to humans, though I think he's a better writer and possibly a bigger thinker than Sapolsky. There is a gradation in scientific rigor that one encounters in topics such as this. The books I recently read by Daniel Kahneman, Steven Sloman, Philip Fernbach and Jared Diamond are comparatively "soft" with respect to scientific rigor, because they either ignore many of the biological details of humans or gloss over them because they are not central to their research. According to reviews I've read, Sapolsky takes a hard, deterministic stance on human behavior, like E.O. Wilson, and this is the approach that I have found most fruitful. Practically all of the significant research on humans over the last few decades has occurred within the framework of biology.

This is not to say that I will enjoy reading the book. First, its length automatically causes it to flunk my concision test. Second, Sapolsky's writing style is like a presentation made by a popular university lecturer. He seems to want to come across as accessible to the clueless students clustered in front of him, and one reviewer describes him as a "hipster." When I see a male professor using "with it" language and displaying long, curly hair, I am reminded of the pot-smoking, student-seducing college professor played by Donald Sutherland in the film Animal House, and I find their pedagogic techniques more distracting than appealing. This may be an academic version of the insertion of irrelevant personal details about scientists made by journalists such Elizabeth Kolbert, and I could do without it.

Perhaps because of my own ignorance, I had thought that hard determinism was off the table in some scientific disciplines because of the existence of random events. I'm probably still not completely clear on this, but my current thinking is that the thesis of hard determinism is universally valid, and that it seems implausible to us only because we are incapable of knowing exactly how something happened in every case, and the word "random" is simply a cover for a particular, intractable kind of cognitive deficiency that we possess. The idea of randomness has always been more reputable than concepts such as ESP, telekinesis and magic, but it may actually belong in the same class. My current view is that the universe does in fact move like clockwork, but that our feeble little brains are unable to fully understand the exact mechanism for every event. We have made up secondary concepts such as mind, consciousness and God to fill in the gaps, but these only reflect our local, unprivileged status as finite entities within the world.

Even given that everything anyone does is predetermined and unchangeable, we labor under the illusion of free will and still must try to think of better ways to organize humanity. Therefore, there has been no change in my thesis that we ought to be studying what kind of beings we are and which habitats we are best suited to. We have both altruistic and destructive tendencies and seem to have evolved to coexist in cooperative groups. The end goal, I think, is not an immortal race of super-geniuses, as has been suggested by some futurists, but the creation of a sustainable habitat which allows all people to live the kinds of lives for which evolution has prepared them.

This book is jammed full with information, and I will attempt to pick out anything that seems worth discussing.

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