If scholars with literary and narrative talent are relatively rare, those who manage to use that talent to produce books that are both hilarious and moving can be counted on a single hand. American primatologist and neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky belongs to this very select group, and his latest work, Behave, shows his mastery of the art of turning cutting-edge science into raw materials for laughter, tears and a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.
“Behave”, a catalog of more than 800 pages that is arriving in Brazil four years after the book was originally published in English, aims to summarize much of what is known about the behavioral biology of our species. As the subtitle suggests, the focus is on the biological aspects of “our best and worst” – that is, the murders, genocides and prejudices that characterize Homo sapiens, as well as the acts of cooperation, friendliness and altruism that we repeat in between experience people.
The problem with our species, notes Sapolsky, is that these two facets are interwoven in many ways. It is precisely altruism and cooperation within various human groups – from tiny groups of hunters and gatherers to states with millions of citizens in the modern world – that enable discrimination and warfare to be used against those outside these groups. It is common for people to say they don’t like violence – but in general this objection only relates to the “wrong” type of brawl. When violence is the “right” kind, against those who “deserve” it, it is common for many people to worship it, he says.
As a professor at the prestigious Stanford University in California, Sapolsky spent several years studying the behavior of a baboon community in East Africa (this is the primatological side of his curriculum, touchingly described in the book “Memories of a Primate”). Rather than just documenting the Machiavellian intrigues that characterize the surprisingly complex animal society, the researcher also uses blood and other tissue samples from baboons to document how their hormones and other molecules affect the behavior and status of monkeys – and vice versa.
This scientific double life is one of the great virtues of the book because it gives Sapolsky the intellectual discipline to look at human behavior (large primates of African descent, it’s always good to remember) from multiple explanatory angles.
Social and behavioral psychology, neuroscience, endocrinology, genomics, anthropology, and archeology, among other branches of knowledge, provide important insights into understanding why we do what we do, and it is the complexity of the interaction between these factors that explains the strange dual personality the kind. Man in his best and worst form. Nothing is more misleading than pointing out a single gene, hormone, or part of the brain that is responsible for complex behaviors, he says.
“Instead of causes, biology often includes inclinations, potentials, vulnerabilities, predispositions, distortions, interactions, modulations, contingencies, if / then conditions, contextual relationships and reinforcements or decreases in existing trends. Circles and loops and spirals and Möbius strips. Nobody said it was easy. But the matter is important, ”writes Sapolsky.
And this does not exclude culture for a moment – a product of human biology that, if not exactly beyond it, is capable of evolving in parallel and surprisingly influencing the very biology that produced it. The author discusses this process in one of his most revealing and entertaining examples of the hormonal differences noted between men in the northern and southern US.
Ingenious experiments have shown that northerners and southerners produce stress hormones in very different ways when exposed to an insult (a bump and a curse). While the natives of the north (e.g. Boston or New York) don’t normally produce more stress hormones than normal in a situation like this, the levels of those who grew up in the American south (e.g. Virginia or Alabama) explode in the same context. The possible cultural explanation: the south has been colonized mainly by immigrants from Scotland and Ireland from rural areas who were used to tackling cattle thieves and settling their differences at the base of the knife.
Tasty stories about these multi-factor interactions are ubiquitous and are often told with a geeky sense of humor that is hard to resist. Many, in turn, are paradoxical, for example the evidence that testosterone, the supposed “macho” hormone, actually plays a much more complicated role in the development of violence, or that oxytocin, the so-called “empathy molecule” could end up being a facilitator of tribalism , like “for friends, everything; for enemies the severity of the law ”.
A self-proclaimed pessimist by nature, Sapolsky views some triumphant claims about the decline in human violent tendencies over the past few centuries with some suspicion. After the accounting, however, he sees good reasons to be cautiously optimistic. “As I learned more about the subject of this book, an unexpected clarity emerged: that the spheres of action of people who harm one another are neither universal nor inevitable, and that we are gaining some scientific knowledge on how to avoid them.” writes. Here is a message that cannot be repeated enough.