The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

“Behave” By Robert Sapolsky

For much of last year my daily routine included sipping a drink and reading a book at a coffee shop in a big box bookstore.

I went thru a lot of books that way. A few standout, and Behave was the foremost among those.

When you’ve read a lot of books, you rarely read much that is new to you, but Behave told me things I didn’t know. Some were because when I learned biology and neuroscience, a lot wasn’t known. Some I’ve caught since then (brain cells do keep growing in adulthood, which the neuroscience of my childhood said was the not the case), but some I didn’t.

Behave is a genuinely comprehensive book. Too many books these days amount to magazine articles padded with another seventy thousand words, but Behave actually requires its length, so I’m going to pull out four piece of knowledge to share, but encourage you to read the book. (I have it on my “read again” list.)

The first is about the prefrontal cortex, and there’s a good chance that you know the prefrontal cortex is the part of the cerebral cortex (the outer skin of the brain which evolved last) we use to override decisions from the lizard and monkey parts of the brains.

The problem with cerebral cortex is general is that it’s slow: the lizard and mammalian parts operate faster. For the prefrontal cortex to override a decision made by the parts of the brain that are closer, as it were to the metal (run! fight! fuck!) you need to slow down. If you act instantly, it isn’t a judgment call, it’s your reflexes and conditioning working. That might be good, it might wind you up in a fight you can’t win or having sex with someone you’re going to hate after you spend two years with them.

The prefrontal cortex doesn’t finish growing until you’re 25 or so, which is reflected in automobile actuarial tables, as it happens: younger than 25, more accidents. This doesn’t mean those younger than twenty-five have no self control, no ability override the older parts of the brain, instead younger brains use other regions, such as the ventral striatum to help the under-developed prefrontal cortex.

Still adolescent and childhood impulsiveness and difficulty with self-control is entirely real and based on brain development. It’s not that they (we) don’t want more control, especially more emotional regulation, they just don’t have it.

Anyway, if you want more control, slow down. Also, fairly standard Vipassana and Shamatha meditation will give you more control over time. A couple teachers I know have sped up their perceptions so much that they can decide whether or not react to a flinch reflex.

The first “holy shit” moment in the book, for me, was about testosterone. We have been propagandized to view testosterone as related to violence.


Oh, it can be. But what testosterone appears to actually be related to is status seeking. If violence and bullying is what a society rewards with status, then yup, testosterone is about violence.

But if hugging and caring for people will get you more status, suddenly high-T individuals are the biggest huggers and carers around.

Rather changes the question of what society types are viable, doesn’t it? Makes nonsense of the idea that society has to be nasty because people (high status men) are nasty.

And here’s the thing, in hunter-gatherer bands (note the word bands), the high status individuals are caring, wise and slow to anger. The high status caring men also spread their genes around plenty.

Then there was the simple revelation about Oxytocin, the so-called love hormone, which is supposed to make both men and women more caring and nurturing. (Insert picture of man cradling baby if this was a magazine.)

It does. It does!

Er, but there’s a thorn on this rose. What it actually does is increase tribal behaviour. You act better towards members of your tribe, your people and worse towards others, because it reduces your empathy to outsiders. Oxytocin, one imagines, along with baby hugging, probably has a role in genocides and not that the groups and people who commit violence to outsiders tend to have strong internal cohesion. (This clearly isn’t the only factor, but it is interesting and suggests that ideas involving increasing our Oxytocin won’t work to solve our larger problems.)

Finally, something which younger readers probably know: the effects of many genes are turned on and off by the environment.

This sure isn’t what I was taught in biology. Back then it was “genes are one thing, the environment is another.”

What’s even more lovely, if like me you had to sit thru hours of listening to Lamarck being castigated as a fool for saying that developed characteristics could be passed on to offspring “hahahaha, what a fool, and those Soviets are obviously ideological cretins for believing it, hahahaha!” — well, it turns out that genes being turned on and off can be passed on. And yeah, genes involved in building muscle are among that group, so Arnold Schwarznegger’s kids, if they lift, probably put on muscle easier than you do.

As Sapolsky notes, the question “nurture or nature?” in light of this, is very close to nonsense. The answer is “both”. For a lot of things you need both the genes and the environment. Saprorsky hammers relentlessly on this, one example is a genetic predisposition to less sensitive mothering that occurs only if the mother herself had an adverse childhood; another increases violence only when drunk.

On top of all that, the effects of most genetic determinants of behavior were small, even when activated by the environment.

These four points are only a small part of what Saporsky offers. There may be a more comprehensive, up to date book (if you think so, drop it in the comments), but this one is extraordinary. It’s not a fast read, it’s packed with information, and I think it really will require a re-read to digest properly, but I can recommend it whole-heartedly if the question “why do we behave how we do?” interests you at all.

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Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – September 27, 2020


Open Thread


  1. GlassHammer

    “Arnold Schwarznegger’s kids, if they lift, probably put on muscle easier than you do” – Ian

    I wonder if obesity and hypertension work the same way.

    Diet and exercise (really any set of indivifdual choices) never fully explained how some friends and family members ended up in such horrendous health. (It looked generational but I could never bring myself to tell them that.)

  2. Brian A. Graham

    Obesity and hypertension are two manifestations of hyperinsulinemia which is caused by ingesting two many carbohydrates. Insulin is the fat storage hormone which is activated by eating and eating sweet tasting foods. Hunans did not evolve to eat grains, nor did early humans eat three or lot meals a days. Look at nature. Fruits ripen in the fall and early humans would gorge and put on fat which would carry them through the winter.

    Do the research on low carb diets and fasting.

  3. GlassHammer


    Thanks for the information.

    I have seen those affected by obesity and hypertension change their diet and exercise for the better. (Though progress for them is slow and frustrating. Wish I could help them more.)

    Fasting and reducing the number of meals might be a good suggestion.

    Some friends and family members keep the three meals a day but they switch the portions so dinner is small and breakfast and lunch are large. That seems to help a bit.

  4. Mel

    I wonder about oxytocin. How does the chemical know who’s in the tribe and who’s out? (Not rhetorical, this. What could the mechanism be?)

  5. Ian Welsh

    Presumably Oxytocin works thru the neural networks which recognize in and out group members. Humans are very good at that. As for the specific mechanisms/locations/etc…, damned if I know. But they clearly exist.

  6. Should eat like a Prince at breakfast and a pauper at day’s end.

    And don’t eat shit. A bit of exercise doesn’t hurt.

    “Humans did not evolve to eat grains…” Humans evolved omnivorous, eating anything. There’s a reason the pastoral grazers, the vegetarians in our family tree didn’t make it: humans evolved to eat anything. We did, however, evolve squatting to vacate our bowels (shit).

    This is not that far off of conversations we’ve had about race as a man made construct, a religious (itself a man made construct) artifact, a tool for the subjugation of the population. A conditioned response. Painting a picture of the world.

    Learn to look out of the corners of your eyes.

  7. GlassHammer

    Since some have a better grasp on what a proper human diet should be, I am curious what proper rest and recovery looks like.

    I always feel a bit too sedentary and a bit lacking in sleep.

    I hate to say it but unless I do a hard days worth of work my sleep is awful.

  8. S Brennan

    “genes are turned on and off by the environment”

    Epigenetics; the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself.

    Not many people have heard of it, one would assume younger people would be taught it in high school biology but I have seen evidence of that in the young people I encounter?

  9. StewartM

    Finally, something which younger readers probably know: the effects of many genes are turned on and off by the environment.

    This sure isn’t what I was taught in biology. Back then it was “genes are one thing, the environment is another.”

    I actually had know that. Simplest case is nearsightedness. You can have the genes for nearsightedness, but you won’t become nearsighted unless your environment demands a lot of close-up viewing and focusing (i.e., reading, playing video games etc). The combination of genes + environment is why so many Asian children become nearsighted.

    It’s also believed to be a factor in disorders such as schizophrenia (genes + alcohol/drug “abuse”) and drug/alcohol addiction. With these, where say 40-60 % of the risk seems inherited by simple Mendelian biology, epigenetics (the interaction of the proteins which surround the DNA) may be the key. A Scientific American article on a trait which gave sheep large posteriors gave the results of one such investigation, where a trait was inherited but if both the mother and the father had big posteriors their offspring would not (like I said, not your Mendel from high school). The solution was far, far more complex–some of the genes were sex-specific (some had to come from the mother, some from the father, etc). but in the end the authors found the key to make big-butt sheep every time.

    What you said about hunter-gatherers also rings true. But even with ‘tribal behaviors’ remember there can’t be too much hostility even there as mates are selected from outside the group (the true origin of marriage)

  10. Mel

    Most of my theory of The Brain comes from Iain McGilchrist’s book _The Master and his Emissary_. McGilchrist posits that the right cerebral hemisphere is the Recognizer, finding known things in the sensory Gestalt. There are strong parallels with Kahnemann’s Fast Thinker.
    So the right hemisphere would be impartially picking faces, or even walks or postures out of the immediate Gestalt, and one of the results of the recognition would be a flag for what kind of oxytocin treatment to give this situation, now that we know that that person is in it. Seems logical. (logic being a left hemisphere operation 🙂

  11. Willy

    I’ve been trying to figure out the idiotic reasoning of my own evangelical family members. College educated, they should be reasoning more clearly. I sensed that something ‘genetic plasticity’ was involved.

    They speak of NFL quarterback Russell Wilson, who openly makes God the secret to his success. But I’ve learned that while he may always speak of the power of God, he’s also a highly disciplined and diligent mental visualizer.

    It seems that prayer, with the core motive being the asking for something from a supreme being, may actually weaken self-reliance ‘muscles’. But meditation strengthens them because meditation is all about one’s own ‘mental fitness’.

  12. GlassHammer

    “They speak of NFL quarterback Russell Wilson, who openly makes God the secret to his success.” – Willy

    “prayer, with the core motive being the asking for something from a supreme being” – Willy

    American Christians see only a transactional relationship with God, prayers for his bounty.

    And it has to be transactional for them because they have to have agency and control over their spiritual relationship with God.

    It has to be “I give and the Lord gives”.

    And what they give has to be confined to “words and prayers” because “great deeds and actions” would cost them something materially. God can’t materially cost them (the actual meaning of sacrafice) because they would be in a one way transaction where they get the bill to pay, they would have less control.

    It’s just Materialism/Greed with a Christian veneer.

  13. Willy

    It’s just Materialism/Greed with a Christian veneer.

    …which would be proof of the success of decades of corporations advertising that one can’t be considered a good person unless one owns their products, and live like the successful young wealthy families usually portrayed in their advertising.

    The Christians of today seem a pretty tribal bunch, who now have to collectively rationalize that lucrative prosperity gospel which flies in the face of Jesus teachings. I’m thinking that if they were better meditators than they were prayers just asking for shit, they’d be better at understanding what’s happened to them.

    But then this reasoning is coming from somebody who doesn’t have to own the latest of everything when it doesn’t make practical or socially responsible sense.

  14. GlassHammer

    “if they were better meditators” – Willy

    Try to get them to read a bible passage and ponder it in quiet.

    I think the term for this approach is “discoursive reading”.

    It’s the only viable path to meditation for them.

  15. S Brennan

    Meant to say on my Epigenetics comment;

    “Not many people have heard of it, one would assume younger people would be taught it in high school biology but I have seen [little] evidence of that in the young people I encounter?”

  16. nihil obstet

    Slightly off topic — there’s a fascinating one hour documentary up on YouTube that includes a section on Sapolsky’s work on baboons: Stress: Portrait of a Killer. It addresses the issue of what’s basic nature in humans and baboons.

  17. Hugh

    A major split between Protestantism and Catholicism revolved around the emphasis on good acts (medieval Catholicism) and redemption through accepting Jesus as their savior (Protestantism).

    I would note, however, the story of the rich man and Jesus found in Matthew, Luke, and Mark. This is “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” story (Matthew 19:24)

    Also Matthew 19: 16-22:

    “16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

    17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

    18 “Which ones?” he inquired.

    Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’[”

    20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

    21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

    22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.”

  18. Willy

    It’s the only viable path to meditation for them.

    My in-law, the one who with his “Christian” buddies turned a highly competent reasonable-cost asset-to-his-community kind of medical clinic into just another institutionalized money grabbing operation, has bible studies at his house all the time. I’m fairly certain that these gatherings are a little bit of rote Bible reading with a whole lot of Trump-praising thrown in. When I was a kid we had to do family devotions after every dinner. I’m curious what his family does. Indoctrination time with Judge Pirro? Funny enough to make into an SNL skit if it wasn’t so serious.

    Anyways, I was just trying to tie together genetics, human mental and physical plasticity, and meditation into one neat package.

  19. GlassHammer

    “A major split between Protestantism and Catholicism revolved around the emphasis on good acts (medieval Catholicism) and redemption through accepting Jesus as their savior (Protestantism).” Hugh

    Yes the pursuit of good deeds makes you a “works salvationist” in the eyes of many Protestants.

    “Action” cannot be “lived belief” or an actual material sacrafice would be required.

    No, its better to affirm your belief in the Lord and stop there.

    It’s an infuriating schism to deal with.

  20. Hugh

    Last time I studied genetics it wasn’t accentuated but the descriptions of how DNA worked were pretty dynamic.

    You can’t express a gene if you don’t have it. Even if you have, it must be expressed and in an appropriate way. You get a chromosome from each parent, but the process of “imprinting” can, appropriately, shut down one of them from a specific parent. Failure of this to occur can result in syndromes like Prader-Willi where, if memory serves, the paternal copy is the one that needs to be active.

    Genes are also turned on and off at different times in growth and differentiation. And non-coding segments of DNA can play crucial roles in acting as accelerators of gene productivity.

    Then there is the immune system which is the prime example of individual genetic modification.

    Conceptually, we can and do draw sharp divisions about the components of genetics. The reality is more complicated and those divisions are not as absolute.

  21. trhys

    I found Sapolsky on u-tube at the beginning of the pandemic.

    The biology of humans at our best and worst:

    Stanford Lectures: Human Behavioral Biology

    I\’m sure that Sapolsky\’s magnum opus \”Behave\” covers all of this and more, but I found the above pretty darn interesting.

  22. bruce wilder

    Do we have the slightest clue how genes relate to behavior?

    I do not know exactly how genes encode for eye color or adult height, but I feel like I could grasp the basic mechanisms, almost regardless of what those mechanisms precisely are. Plenty of room for subtle interaction between nature and nurture, I am sure. But, conceptually I feel I could grasp the ideas involved.

    But, how is the herding instinct encoded in the genes of a border collie?

    I think a lot of trivial behaviors are grounded in genetics to an extent that would astound, but mediated the nature of the behavior. Language has a logic of its own that must interact with the social evolution of languages, yet some aspects of language from the ability to vocalize, to the ability to hear, to the ability to tell and appreciate stories, gossip, profanity must have a genetic basis.

  23. Hugh

    bruce, the short answer is no. As I was saying, multiple genes working on multiple systems and individual susceptibility to any and all of these at a particular time (say pre- and post pubescent) and particular condition (diet, health, age, etc.) A relatively isolated behavioral genetic effect is much more likely to be the exception than the rule.

  24. Stirling Newberry

    I am surprised you have discover him until now.

  25. Tony Wikrent

    That human development is determined by both nurture and nature raises a very interesting, and I think, critical, question, regarding the effects of industrialization, but only if you have an understanding of Veblen’s class analysis. ( Marx’s class analysis, being based on Ricardo and “classical” economics, which views humans entirely as economic determinists, though extremely useful for investigating and explaining the exploitative characteristics of the leisure class, just doesn’t get you there.) Veblen’s schema is producer class versus leisure class, and is at its sharpest when he analyzes the difference between industry and business. But more importantly here, Veblen explains how modern industrial society requires the highest level yet of meticulously organized social cooperation.

    Combining Veblen’s analysis with that of Sapolsky as presented here, leads me to hypothesize that it was indeed the institutions of organized labor unions that were required for moving away from the social darwinism of gilded age capitalism and to the New Deal.

    Is this the larger bio-social reason why the agrarian revolt in USA in the 1870s-1890s largely failed after nearly succeeding, even as it tried to cooperate with urban-based labor organizations? And then, when the agrarian revolt surged again in the 1910s-1920s, actually did succeed to some extent in certain states, such as North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin? It should also be noted that those states were settled by large numbers of Scandinavians, who brought with them traditions of social cooperation – such as farming cooperatives (duh) – needed for even agrarian communities to survive in the regions of the Arctic circle. And what about the German revolutionists of 1848, who arrived in USA after that movement was crushed?

    Combining Veblen’s analysis with that of Sapolsky is also validated by the large supporting role of organized labor in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s-1960s, particularly the United Auto Workers under Walter Reuther. (The UAW, of course, being the largest and most important of the industrial unions. Reuther was continually vexed by George Meany’s AFL-CIO luke-warm support for the Civil Rights movement.)

    Deindustrialization of course dismantles the industrial base of USA. In the Veblen/Sapolsky model I’m hypothesizing here, the greatest damage done by deindustrialization is the destruction of the an industrial economy based on meticulously organized social cooperation, and replacing it with a financialized economy based on intense personal and institutional competition, in which what Veblen termed the “barbaric” traits of business — force, fraud, deception, conspicuous consumption, waste, sabotage, etc. come to predominate (Again, Veblen draws a very sharp distinction between business, and industry.)

    “It may even be said that in the modern industrial communities the average, dispassionate sense of men says that the ideal character is a character which makes for peace, good-will, and economic efficiency, rather than for a life of self-seeking, force, fraud, and mastery.” – Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, Chapter 13: Survivals of the Non-Invidious Interest.

  26. somecomputerguy

    All statements about human potential should be considered agenda-driven. My agenda is that all such statements should be considered hogwash as a default, because I yet to see anyone benefit from them, and usually the purpose is to curtail opportunities. That is the point of ‘Mismeasure of Man’. Elites are always desperate to believe their own PR, and they will invent “science” to legitimize their status.

    Their usefulness lie in bringing into question, the reality of the qualities supposedly being enhanced–ex.; why do we need the concept ” intelligence”, does it serve us, really? Status-seeking kind of bothers me as a behavior you can take a hormone to advance.

    This doesn’t support the idea; “nature and nurture”, wouldn’t it only weaken the nature side, since even genes are contingent on environment.

  27. Willy

    That unions “are bad” makes about as much sense as teaching kids that banding together against bullies is bad. Or (trying to make some genetic sense) the clan banding together against a physically larger enemy is bad for the health of the clan. Hell, I even see videos of hyenas vs lions where clan cooperation is an obviously important part of successful genetics. It’s rarely about individualism and the weaker clan usually loses. Current human society is unbalanced.

  28. Mark Pontin

    Ian wrote: ‘There may be a more comprehensive, up to date book (if you think so, drop it in the comments)”

    Sapolsky is good. A book on neuroscience — though addressing larger, more foundational issues that Sapolsky — which came out eighteen years ago, and whose *comprehensive* theory about the neural correlates of consciousness, how brains evolved, and how minds and consciousness emerge from brain I found absolutely plausible and that I recommend as worthy of any intelligent person’s attention is —

    I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self
    by Rodolfo Llinas

    It was originally published in 2002 by MIT Press.

    Llinas is one of the founding fathers of modern neuroscience —ás

    He’s got a long list of achievements, including more recently some of the work done with the architectures of non-human intelligence in cephalopods —ás#Contributions

    Here’s the book in downloadable PDF form, including as separate chapters.

    So for instance, Ian, you write, “the lizard and mammalian parts operate faster. For the prefrontal cortex to override a decision made by the parts of the brain that are closer, as it were to the metal (run! fight! fuck!) you need to slow down. If you act instantly, it isn’t a judgment call, it’s your reflexes and conditioning working.”

    You’re talking about fixed actions patterns — as you may know if you’ve had some biology/neuroscience — or FAPs. (Yes, folks, that’s where the word comes from.) And in his chapters 7 and 8, Llinas addresses these.

    7. Fixed Action Patterns: Automatic Brain Modules that Make Complex Movements

    8. Emotions as FAPs

    There are twelve chapters because Llinas covers it all from bottom to top, from neurons to self, jas he claims in his book’s title.

    Here’s a link to the Amazon reviews, so you know it’s not just me who’s convinced by Llinas’s theory/theories —

    Yes, as some reviewers say, the book is somewhat technical. But; firstly, as with maths there’s no royal road around addressing the technical specifics and components of the CNS if you’re going to have a theory of mind and consciousness; and, secondly, I didn’t have a technical background but Llinas wrote lucidly enough that I followed him provided I read slowly and with care.

  29. Ian Welsh

    Mark, sounds good, on my to-read.

  30. Dan H

    Mel already mentioned it, McGilchrist’s Master and Emmisarry is the other book to read on this front. Evolution has selected for separate but layered attenuative processes that literally form our perceptions…

    The manner in which you attend determines what you will see

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