Sunday, October 8, 2017

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

I have picked up my reading and finally finished the book, but I haven't had much to say about it. Despite writing in an informal voice, Sapolsky is a dutiful academic, and he surveys various research in some detail. He is not a grand synthesizer, and time after time he seems simply to reiterate "it's complicated." For a reader like me, who prefers the short answer to the long answer and an elegant theory to a hodgepodge of scientific facts, the book as a whole is not satisfying.

In broad outline, it is hard to disagree with Sapolsky. He shows how the endocrine system, neurons, genes and the environment, the latter including cultural influences, work together in complex ways to produce behaviors which, though causal in origin, are highly variable. I found the parts on neurology the most interesting, the parts on primates and other mammals less so, and the parts on social psychology obvious. Some of the academic disputes interested me a little. I enjoyed his historical perspective on the disagreement between sociobiologists such as E.O. Wilson and paleontologists and geneticists such as Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin over genetic determinism. Since Sapolsky is, like the latter two, a New York Jew, he is allowed to frame the dispute as political in nature, South versus North. A related schism exists today, with an odd mixture of conservatives and impartial scientists on one side and political correctness and liberals on the other. He also discusses controversial experiments in social psychology such as those of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, which I had heard of before. He disagrees with some of Steven Pinker's ideas in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which I haven't read and don't intend to.

Where I am in greatest sympathy with Sapolsky is in his assertion, which is extremely well-documented in this book, that human behavior is fundamentally irrational. Although he seems to go out of his way to avoid the appearance of a polemicist, like me he does not believe that we are rational agents at all. Without making much fuss about it, he specifically repudiates philosophers who suggest that morality falls within the domain of reason. However, it seems to me that he offers no prescriptions and in the end resembles a standard American liberal who believes in social justice, understanding others who are different from you, blah, blah, blah. In contrast, I find it more useful to discuss specific ways in which society might be reordered in a manner that is both fair and sustainable. On this front, Sapolsky seems to draw a complete blank. For example, although he is fully aware that how people vote is essentially irrational, he offers no critique of the current democratic process. Similarly, despite convincingly demonstrating that male leaders usually have no particular talents that extend beyond the promotion of their self-interest, he makes no comment on how, in a capitalist system, they endanger the world. While he is broadly in agreement with E.O. Wilson, he doesn't lift a finger to warn us about the risks of destroying the planet or precipitating our extinction.

Sometimes Sapolsky's attempts to be humorous and entertaining become annoying. On page 385 he finishes a paragraph as follows, with the footnotes shown:

This was a bold assertion that the heuristic of dialectical materialism not only extends beyond the economic world into the naturalistic one, but is ontologically rooted in the essential sameness of both worlds' dynamic of irresolvable contradictions.* It is Marx and Engels as trilobite and snail.†

*I have no idea what it is that I just wrote....
†Ditto.

Considering the complexity and seriousness of the topics under discussion, I would have preferred fewer distractions and more focus. However, if you can tolerate Sapolsky's writing style and the length of the book, it is a good source of information.

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