Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, by Robert M. Sapolsky
Stanford University professor Robert M. Sapolsky, in addition to being a world-renowned primatologist, biologist and neurologist, is also the recipient of a McArthur Foundation genius grant. Additionally, he must be blessed with the gift of prescience — the ability to accurately peer into the future.
Sapolsky’s magnum opus, Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst, is a tour de force that was 10 years in the writing. The tome traces the development of mankind back millions of years, explaining in detail (and layman’s terms) the biology of the inner workings of the brain and the societal forces that make us — for better or worse — who we are. The subtitle of this amazing work could easily be “Why We Do The Things We Do.”
But the “prescience” part is this: Although the book was in the works over 10 years before Donald Trump ever came on the political scene, and published right before he became president, the scientific explanations Sapolsky provides in regards to human behavior is a primer on what we are currently witnessing in America in the political realm. His book explains the calamity hatred causes in great detail.
Starting with what stimuli triggers the brain, to what goes on neurologically in the brain before a person engages in a particular action, Professor Sapolsky examines everything, from an individual’s genetic makeup, to what occurred when they were in the womb, to how they were raised (and by whom) to explain why we as humans love — and more importantly why we hate. And while we might not care to learn it, reams of scientific studies prove that hate is indeed more powerful a determinant in terms of the behavior of primates than love.
And similar to virtually all other human beings, Sapolsky admits to having “… a confused array of thoughts about violence, aggression, and competition. We are always shadowed by the threat of other humans harming us.” And therein the problem lies. To us Americans, violence as a means to an end is as American as apple pie.
One of Sapolsky’s fellow social scientists whom he quotes states unequivocally that he could go into any medium-sized American city and recruit all the men he would need to fully staff a Nazi prison camp. All that is required is something that already exists: the “Us” versus “Them” paradigm. With that in place, the rest will take care of itself. That’s why we are currently witnessing the rise of White Nationalism around the globe; it’s always been in the DNA of some going back to ancient times.
Stir up enough fear, convert it to hatred, provide leadership that knows how to skillfully manipulate the masses. and conditions will soon give arise so that strongmen leaders such as the newly-elected Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, and Donald Trump gain ascendancy.
But Sapolsky’s work is entirely apolitical; he never once mentions political leaders (other than Hitler, whom, as a child, he fanaticized about taking prisoner at the barrel of a gun) but instead focuses on the “why” of this oftentimes intense hatred of others.
It all has to do with testosterone. His 30-plus years of studying some of our closest biological cousins — great apes and baboons — helps to explain the tribalism that causes most of the conflicts and hatred we see in the world. But what he and others have observed is that, while the males in clans of apes and baboons bare their fangs at other clans, the females (due to a lack of testosterone coursing through their bodies) show a distinct lack of concern regarding other “tribes.”
There perhaps is a lesson here: If we want to de-escalate tensions and end the constant cycles of war, we undoubtedly are in need of more females in leadership roles around the world, and certainly here in the United States. But those are my words, not his. He simply presents facts; facts that only a fool would fail to agree with. But let’s be honest, there’s no shortage of fools out there, now is it?
Sapolsky, at the end of this most enlightening (and often humorous) read, readily admits that “It’s complicated … but you don’t have to choose between being scientific or compassionate.” Amen to that.
From CoolCleveland correspondent Mansfield B. Frazier mansfieldfATgmail.com. Frazier’s From Behind The Wall: Commentary on Crime, Punishment, Race and the Underclass by a Prison Inmate is available in hardback. Snag your copy and have it signed by the author at http://NeighborhoodSolutionsInc.