If scientists with literary and narrative talent are relatively rare, those who manage to use that talent to produce books that are equally hilarious and moving can be counted on the fingers of a single hand. American primatologist and neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky is part of this very select group, and “Behave,” his most recent work, shows his mastery of the art of turning cutting-edge science into raw material for laughter, tears, and a deeper understanding of what means to be human.
“Behave”, a catatau of more than 800 pages that now arrives in Brazil four years after the original release of the book in English, aims to summarize much of what is known about the behavioral biology of our species. The focus, as the subtitle says, is the biological aspects “of our best and worst” – that is, both the murders, genocides and prejudices that characterize Homo sapiens and the acts of cooperation, kindness and altruism that we see all the time between the human beings.
The problem with our species, notes Sapolsky, is that these two facets are intertwined in many different ways. It is precisely altruism and cooperation within different human groups — from tiny bands of hunter-gatherers to states with millions of citizens of the modern world — that allow for the use of discrimination and warfare against those outside these groups. It’s common for people to say they don’t like violence — but generally this objection only refers to the “wrong” type of brawling. When violence is of the “right” kind, against those who “deserves it”, it is common for many people to adore it, he says.
A professor at California’s prestigious Stanford University, Sapolsky has spent several seasons 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 society of animals, however, the researcher also uses blood and other tissue samples from baboons to document how their hormones and other molecules influence monkey behavior and status — and vice versa. -versa.
This scientific double life is one of the great assets of the book, because it gives Sapolsky the intellectual discipline to see the behavior of human beings (large primates of African origin, it is 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 to understand why we do what we do, and it is the complexity of the interaction between these factors that explains the strange dual personality of the species. human at its best and worst. Nothing is more misleading than pointing to a single gene, hormone or piece of brain as responsible for complex behaviors, he says.
“Instead of causes, biology often involves propensities, potentials, vulnerabilities, predispositions, biases, interactions, modulations, contingencies, if/then conditions, contextual relationships, and amplifications or diminishes of preexisting trends. Circles and loops and spirals and Möbius ribbons. Nobody said it was easy. But the matter is important,” writes Sapolsky.
And this does not for any moment exclude culture — a product of human biology that, if not exactly transcends it, is capable of evolving in parallel and affecting in surprising ways the very biology that spawned it. The author discusses this process in one of his most illuminating and entertaining examples of the hormonal differences detected between men in the US North and South.
Ingenious experiments have shown that northerners and southerners produce stress hormones in very different ways when subjected to offense (a bump and a curse). While natives of the North (say, Boston or New York) don’t usually produce more stress hormones than normal in a situation like this, the levels of those who grew up in the American South (in Virginia or Alabama, for example) skyrocket in the same context. The possible cultural explanation: The South was mostly colonized by immigrants from Scotland and Ireland from pastoral regions, used to fighting cattle thieves and settling their differences at the base of the knife.
Tasty stories about these interactions between multiple factors are ubiquitous, often told with a geeky sense of humor that’s hard to resist. Many are, once again, paradoxical, such as the evidence that testosterone, the supposed “macho” hormone, actually plays a much more complicated role in the genesis of violence, or that oxytocin, the so-called “empathy molecule” , may end up being a facilitator of tribalism, like “for friends, everything; for enemies, the rigor of the law”.
A self-proclaimed pessimist by nature, Sapolsky views with some suspicion some triumphalist claims about the waning of human violent tendencies over the past few centuries. After putting it all in the balance, however, he sees good reason to be cautiously optimistic. “As I learned more about the subject of this book, an unexpected clarity emerged: that the spheres of action of human beings who hurt each other are neither universal nor inevitable, and that we are getting some scientific insights into how to avoid them,” he writes. Here is a message that cannot be repeated too often.