Robert Sapolsky: We’re uniquely violent and compassionate
Humans are on the one hand capable of mass genocide, and on the other hand, great self-sacrifice. Why are we capable of such extremes? We talked about this with Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Robert Sapolsky, Professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, it's so great to have you with us because we have so much to talk about. So in our previous program, we were talking to German director and screenwriter Mr. Herzog about the fear factor in metaphysical forms and then we thought that today's program would be dedicated also to where this fear factor comes from, but in a more biological way. So I wanted to start off with this. So many times I've heard this expression that humans are the most dangerous animals on Earth. You study the animal world to trace the origins of human behaviour, and you know how our brain works and what drives us. So tell me is being the most dangerous just a metaphor, or is it actually true?
Robert Sapolsky: Well, it certainly is true looking at the number of species we're driving into extinction. Although, the lesson of this season may be that microscopic viruses can do at least as good of a job in the other direction. When you look at humans, the challenge is that there's this terribly confusing paradox, which is, we are indeed the most dangerous species on Earth, we are a miserably violent species, we have a remarkable array of ways of making each other miserable, damaging, all of that. Yet, at the same time, we're also the most cooperative species on Earth we’re the most altruistic, we’re the most compassionate. And for me, as a scientist, what is the most challenging thing to make sense of is the biology of how we can be so awful in some settings, and so wonderful in others, and often it's the same behaviour. So it's very dependent on context.
SS: So that's exactly what we're going to talk about today, we're going to try to actually deconstruct what you've just said. Your colleague, primatologist Frans de Waal has argued that there is no supreme force that makes us good or bad, but there are moral rules that we abide by fostered by the evolutionary need to survive as a species. If we follow the argument that being good to others is evolutionarily beneficial, I've also heard you say that certain chimp groups, for instance, wipe out neighbouring chimp groups so that they settle the territory and prosper. And as we see from the war that ended 75 years ago, humans are just like chimps in this regard. So if evolution is responsible for norms of good - “do unto others”, is it also responsible for acts of evil as well?
RS: Yes, although after a while when you study this, words like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ begin to seem irrelevant, unscientific, we are, we are nothing more or less than our biology and biology of behaviour does not have a whole lot of room for concepts like evil, or soul or sanctity or any such thing. The thing about us that's most striking is yes, we can be exactly like chimps, chimps have now been shown to have organized violence, premeditated violence, something resembling warfare, territorial disputes, something resembling genocide, which is sort of the formal World Court definition is being willing to kill somebody not for who they are, but simply for what group they belong to. And chimps do this and it's enormously familiar and it’s just like us. And they are physically violent, they make weapons as do we. But then we have something that no chimp could ever make sense of, we can press a button and kill someone on the other side of the planet, we can kill someone whose face we have never seen. We can kill someone where we don't even know for certain if we've even had an interaction with them, if we have had any effect on them. And at the same time, what's also clear is lots of other primates have altruism, have moments of compassion, have moments of self-sacrificial compassion. And then we do something utterly bizarre with it, in that we can press a different button on our computer and send money to help a refugee on the other side of the planet. We can feel pain and lose sleep over the misfortune of someone we’ve never met, whose face we’ve never seen. And in those regards, we are very, very strange primates.
SS: So how do you explain that? I mean, you're saying we're so much like chimps and anything that is good or evil or soul doesn't make sense in a scientific way, it's irrelevant. What is it that makes us different? For instance, a lot of neuroscientists would argue that what makes us different from anyone else is consciousness - the one thing that we can't see, we can't pinpoint. But it's obviously there. Would you agree with that?
RS: When you look at the human genome and compare it to say, the chimpanzee or the bonobo genome, there's more than 98% similarity. So they've been sequenced and you can then sit down and have this incredibly exciting thing of asking: so, 1.5 per cent differences in the DNA, where are the differences? What is it that makes us humans as opposed to the chimps? And for the most part, the list is really boring. It's not... half of the genes have to do with olfaction. Others have to do with immune function. Others have to do with reproductive isolation. Others have to do with how much hair you're growing on your shoulders. These are not very exciting things. And as a neurobiologist, you sit there and say, “where are the genes that have something to do with brains? There's got to be dramatically different ones, if that’s what makes us who we are”. And when you look closely, there's very few genes related to neural function. And the ones that are, do something very simple. They have to do with rounds of cell division. Basically, if you want to turn a chimpanzee brain into a human brain, just let it go through three, four, more rounds of cell division. So you've got four times as many neurons as you would have had as a chimp. And that's all you've got to do. It's the same neurotransmitters, it's the same enzymes, it's the same everything else. But if you put enough neurons together, all sorts of stuff will start emerging, including consciousness. And a wonderful way of sort of describing it, the people who do emergence complexity science, they say things like “with enough quantity, you invent quality”. Just stick enough neurons in somebody's brain and consciousness is going to pop out the other side. Not because any given neuron is any fancier than it would be in a chimpanzee, or in a fruit fly, but simply with enough of them emergent properties come out, and somewhere in there is consciousness, and aesthetics and theology and all these other things that chimps could never make sense of. But which they could, if they only had four times as many neurons. It's really all that's needed.
SS: Well, there you go, with the quantity of neurons you've just killed my romantic notion of consciousness that made us special as human species. But ok, thanks for explaining that to me. So I want to go a little bit back to what you were saying. You say that humans tend to draw a line between the so-called right kind of violence and the wrong kind of violence. How to explain that and what do you exactly mean by that?
RS: Well, that's the huge puzzle of us. Like, every single culture on Earth has prohibitions against killing. At the same time, virtually every culture on Earth will reward you enormously if you have killed the right person, if you have killed an enemy of the state... If you have, you know, do the exact same thing with your brain and the exact same thing with your muscles where you pull a trigger on a weapon, and in one setting, it is the most horrendous damaging thing imaginable, and in another setting, is it a wondrous thing that they will give you a medal for, that people will vote for you because of it, that people will mate with you because you're good at doing that sort of thing. And it's the exact same behaviour. It's just in a different context. And that's not just the case for our damaging behaviours. It's the same for our affiliative ones as well. Okay, so a wonderful moment, somebody is troubled, they're emotionally distressed, and you put your hand on theirs, and depending on the context, that's a moment of deep compassion, a wonderful moment, or in another setting, you were doing the first step of betraying a loved one by straying into a direction you shouldn't be. And it's the exact same muscles, it's the exact same behaviour. In other words, understanding the biology of our behaviours and mechanical bases of them is not very interesting. It’s not very challenging. The challenge is understanding the context for them because they mean totally different things in different settings.
SS: Professor, in your latest book about the biology of good and evil, you refer to military psychologists who suggest that in the middle of combat soldiers shoot at each other not out of hatred, not out of fear of being killed or because they were told to stand up and fight by the commanders, but out of the feeling of kinship with others, so they shoot and kill because others do so. And if you think about it, I mean, we do a lot of stupid and appalling things because others do so. How does it work? I mean that things that we might be uncomfortable about suddenly seem fine if others do them. What happens?
RS: We're a very conforming species. Classic studies in the 1950s: you sit somebody down, you show them a picture with three parallel lines, where one of the lines is clearly longer than the other two, and you ask the person, which is the longest line and 99% of the time people say that's the longest one. Then you do the study where the person is sitting there, and there's 10 other people in the room, and everyone looks at this picture. And you get to ask everyone, which is the longest line and the other 10 people who are working for the experimenter go first, and every single one of them says the line that shorter is the long one, and what we're seeing classic psychology stuff, 75% of people are willing to conform under those circumstances to be willing to say, “Well, I guess I was wrong, yeah, I guess that is the longest line”. So those were studies in the 50s. But more modern versions of it now have involved doing neuroimaging on people when that's happening. And what do you see? The second the first person says, “Yeah, that's the longest line. Wait, that's not the longest line. That's not what I thought was the longest line”, and what you see in a fraction of a second is activation of this part of the brain called the amygdala, which has to do with anxiety, and with fear. And what you see at that point is being different from everybody else is a terribly anxiety-provoking thing for humans. And you see at the point that subjects decide, okay, I don't know what they're talking about but good, I'm going to say that also. A second they do that the amygdala quiets down, - “I'm safe. I'm part of the crowd again, I'm not standing out by myself”. We're a terribly conforming species. Because, at least in the United States, where there's such an emphasis on individualist cultures and all of that, we are very individualistic in the ways that we go about conforming with everyone else. Now, being a nonconformist is very anxiety-provoking for any primate out there, but in particular, humans. So that can bring out the best of our behaviours, but far more often, it brings out the worst of them because we go along with the crowd.
SS: So could that explain then millions of people following Nazism to the death with the idea that they did it out of kinship, just you know, doing what everyone else was doing around?
RS: Well, the interesting thing there is sort of by the time you get to humans, if you're looking at a hamster, a hamster cooperates more with a full sibling than it does with a stranger. How does the hamster know this? This could be a sibling from a different litter or whatever. They genetically recognize relatives through olfactory signatures. Humans don't do that. How do we figure out who was a relative? We have to think about it. And as soon as we think about it, we can be manipulated into thinking that “this person feels so close to me, they're practically a relative”, or “that person feels so different from me that they hardly even count as human”. And the jargon used for it is pseudo-kinship and pseudo-speciation. Pseudo-kinship is what every military on Earth is really good at whether you’re looking at, you know, high-tech armies, or, you know, nomadic pastoralists with spears. What they do is the military is trained to think of each other as brothers, brothers-in-arms - English cliche - you become a band of brothers when you join the military, pseudo-kinship, so that at a critical moment, you are willing to give yourself your life up for this other person. And normally, there's a fair degree of, like, relatedness. Everyone who joined the Nazis was German, and of German gene stock. But during World War II, you had American troops fighting the Nazis where one guy in this American group would be an Italian-American guy and then a Polish-American guy and a Russian-Jewish-American guy and a black guy. And you would have a guy fighting on the American side who is German-American, and he was more related to the guy he was trying to shoot at the other end of the field than he was to the black guy or the Jewish guy or the Italian guy right next to him, and he would be willing to give up his life for this guy. Sure, when you do this pseudo-kinship stuff, it is very easy to manipulate us into feeling so related unconsciously, implicitly to each other, that that's where you get some great human moments and some terrible ones.
SS: But it's kind of scary when I think about it, the whole pseudo-kinship, because I suppose pseudo-kinship is a force that makes humans rise and march to kill each other in droves. I mean, when you look at the past big wars, they showed us that a little bit more and the whole human race could have been wiped out...
RS: Yep. And you know, pseudo-kinship could have its good moments if you're the Dalai Lama, you can say that every person on Earth feels like a sibling to you. And as far as we can tell, he actually feels that way. And you can have great moments like that. But yes, for the most part, pseudo-kinship is a scary thing. And even scarier is pseudo-speciation. If you want to have a genocide go successfully against the people you don't like, convince everyone on your side that those people are like rodents, those people are like cancers, those people are like vermin, they're like viruses, they hardly even count as human. And the Nazis were brilliant at that. All of Nazi propaganda posters were about Jews as rats, Jews as rodents. When the Tutsis of Rwanda were killed genocidally by the Hutu there, the Hutu painted all of them as cockroaches, as vermin. When Donald Trump tries to make Americans turn against immigrants trying to come to the country he refers to them as a disease, as an infection, - Mexicans coming to the United States are coming to infect the country. That's like what every good, you know, demagogue and fascist and leader of that sort knows how to do is, if you could make your followers think of them as less than human, you're three-quarters of the way towards completing your genocide.
SS: So I want to touch, because we don't have that much time left, but I want to touch a little bit upon the pandemic that we're living through right now, maybe also in the context of pseudo-kinship, but first, I've heard many psychologists say that the current COVID-19 pandemic has put us in a survival mode. Would you agree with that? I mean, I fully realise that right now I'm in a pretty comfortable situation in my home. No one's holding a gun to my head. It's not like a lion’s chasing me in the savanna. How exactly does this situation trigger the survival mode - one of the most ancient, actually basic instincts in us, in humans?
RS: Well, if you had a zebra in your room with you, and the zebra was getting all the same reasons that you were about COVID-19, it would not be having a stress response. It doesn't have the capacity to abstract over space and time. And we can sit here and we can think about all the people who have died, we can think about what it must feel like to have your lungs fill up with fluid, what it must feel like to go to an emergency room and they don't have a ventilator for you. We can think about what it must feel like to be in the United States, one of the 20 million people who have lost their jobs in the last two months, or thinking about the food shortages that could well be happening or any version of this. And we can think about somebody else's emotions. And we can think about a scenario that's imaginary at this point, but has a decent chance of occurring in the future. And we can be as panicked at that point and as sickened and feeling as if we are being hunted by a lion, as the zebra would feel if it really was being hunted by a lion.
SS: So if you look at this pandemic in terms of the pseudo-kinship, which you've said could be a horrible thing, but it could also be a wonderful thing, do you think this pseudo-kinship was brought out in us in a good way or in a bad way during the pandemic? Because I do feel like a lot of people are consolidating, and the whole world has put aside their differences. I'm not even talking about the presidents, I'm talking about people to sort of be in this together and fight this together, and I see people helping each other, volunteers helping old people that I've never thought I would see in a normal environment. What are your impressions of what this pandemic has brought out in us?
RS: So far, it's been surprisingly good and I have the same impression you have. The people risking their lives in emergency rooms, the people risking their lives, delivering food to people and working as pharmacists with sick people coming in therecoughing and all that. We've seen some incredibly heroic stuff. And yeah, this has been a good time for people pulling together. After the 9/11 attack in the United States in 2001 people in New York City, I'm from New York City originally, and people there are trained to be rotten and miserable to each other because that's what all New Yorkers are like. And for months afterwards, people were kind to each other. It was so unnerving. Yes, at times like this people pull together. But then there are the people who are refusing to wear face masks. And there are the people who are refusing to go along with public health measures because they don't care if they get somebody else sick. So we have this, like… Initially, pseudo-kinship is doing some pretty great stuff, my guess would be, as this pandemic goes on longer and longer, and as more people lose their jobs, and as more people die, we're gonna start seeing far less of the good pseudo-kinship and far more of the bad stuff.
SS: In the now, like, I'm also considering the dark sides, and I see how the domestic violence has risen, 35% was the number a couple of weeks ago, it could be even more now. What do you think could be other bad moments that could resurface in us because of uncertainty, because of stress, because of fear and, you know, instinct of survival? What can we expect?
RS: Well, at our worst moments in terms of stress, our memory gets bad and we get anxious and we get depressed. What's probably most important is what stress does to the frontal cortex in the brain. What stress does is make the frontal cortex work less effectively. And what the frontal cortex is good at is keeping you from doing something stupid and disastrous because it gets there in the very last second, and tells you, “that may not be such a good idea, I know you think that's exactly what you should do right now, but trust me, you're going to regret it”. It controls our worst impulses. And what stress does is make us more impulsive and our behaviours. What stress also does is make us less empathic. We feel more empathy for the people immediately around us, but who counts as an “us” gets much narrower during periods of stress, when we even know what part of the brain is involved in that. So you see people making terrible decisions, and what that often takes the form of is looking for somebody else to take your pains out on, scapegoating, looking for who's weaker and you know, there's no shortage of people looking for somebody to blame for every disaster out there, people who are if anything weaker and poorer than you are.
SS: Professor Sapolsky, it was such a pleasure talking to you. And you know, I loved picking your brain. I wish I could have an opportunity to do it one more time in some foreseeable future. But anyways, stay safe. Thank you very much for your thoughts.
RS: Thank you, you too, I hope everyone at your end is safe and healthy.
SS: Thank you and I hope we'll talk soon when times are a little bit better.
RS: Yes. Let’s hope it’s...
SS: Thank you so much. Thank you.
RS: Good. Take care.