Thursday, September 14, 2017

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

I haven't been reading much this summer and am moving very slowly through the book. The writing style isn't as bad as I had feared it might be, and I am finding the topic interesting. By describing the biological processes behind psychological processes, a deeper understanding of human behavior becomes available, because the causal mechanisms are readily apparent. For example, where Daniel Kahneman documents "fast" and "slow" thinking, Sapolsky specifically links some aspects of these processes to hormones and various regions within the brain. The amygdala is the home of many emotional and irrational reactions that occur instantaneously, and the prefrontal cortex is the home of many deliberative processes; both regions are activated in complicated ways by hormones and pheromones. Other mammals have similar regions and processes, and human behavior is merely a recent manifestation of brain functions that have been in existence for millions of years.

Sapolsky looks in some detail at testosterone and shows that its effects are far more complex and subtle than those mentioned in common parlance. Rather than simply boosting male aggression, it serves as an amplifier to reactions and is context-dependent. In other hormones, I've only got as far as oxytocin and vasopressin and still have a long way to go. I'm not particularly literate in this subject, so this isn't an easy read. I am more interested in the implications of this kind of work than in all of the particulars. Sapolsky's discussion is wide-ranging, and I am paying more attention to his general thoughts than to the biological specifics that determine our behavior. In later chapters, which I'll get to eventually, he discusses groups, hierarchies, morality and free will, which have greater appeal to me.

The sense I get is that Sapolsky is going to demonstrate how complex all behavioral processes are, so that while it may be possible to identify behavioral patterns on a broad scale, in individual cases multiple outcomes are possible due to the large numbers of variables in operation: it is easier to predict general human behavior than the specific behavior of an individual. I don't think that Sapolsky has many philosophical proclivities, though he is familiar with the work of Daniel Dennett, so I'm not expecting much on that front. Still, it looks as if I will be able to incorporate the ideas in this book with my own ideas about human limitations and the theoretical desirability of external AI-based management for our species. For me, it is simply a matter of risk management to ensure that human errors don't lead to disastrous consequences for all of us. We ought to arrange our circumstances in a manner such that outlier groups such as ISIL or incompetent political leaders such as Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump don't ruin the world for everyone. Furthermore, we need an unbiased authority to enforce limits on our freedom, such that we can't have as many children as we like or despoil the planet in pursuit of riches. These are the directions in which I would take Sapolsky's work, but he does not so far seem ambitious on those fronts.

I might also note that I view it as a responsibility of educated adults to maintain at least some familiarity with these scientific developments, because I think that is necessary in order not to engage in avoidant behavior. There is enough information available for us to collectively improve our situation, and we would be fools not to make an effort. One of the reasons why I have become disenchanted with fiction and the arts in general is that they have veered off into alternate realities in which style trumps substance, and authors take no responsibility for their own educations, let alone those of their readers. They are taking the easy way out, which never bodes well in the arts.

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