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Thursday, March 09, 2017

Review: Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality

I enjoyed the previous Great Courses work by Robert Sapolsky that I audited, so I picked up Biology and Human Behavior. I feel like the subject had great promise, but Professor Sapolsky under-delivered.

For instance, early on in the lecture series, Sapolsky stated that the Blue Whale Axon has a neuron that's so long as to be about 30m long! Wow, what a cool fact. To me, that immediately brought out all sorts of questions:

  • Why does it have to be a single cell?
  • What were the evolutionary pressures that drove this? Does anything ever go wrong? Why isn't this considered "a single point of failure?"
But Sapolsky never brings it up again, and in fact, there's relatively little to indicate that this has any relevance to human behavior.

Another interesting factoid that came up later on: While studying a tribe of baboons in Africa, members of the tribe started raiding the local tourist safari in search of human discarded food. The members that did so were the least socially connected members of the troop and also the most violent. Then those members caught tuberculosis and died, which effectively meant that the rest of the tribe was now composed of much fewer males, all of which were socially well adjusted. The culture of the tribe completely changed, and new male members added to the tribe (this form of tribal member exchange is apparently the norm) would get acculturated to the new culture, which was matriarchal. The mechanism of assimilation wasn't through imitation and teaching, but through the females of the tribe bestowing favors only to well-behaved males. Sapolsky asserts that if a single such generation shift can lead to lasting cultural change, there's no excuse for genetic determinism when it comes to humans. I then waited for a follow-on example of such single-generational cultural change in humans... and it never came!

I feel like the entire course consists of lots of little places like this, with many missed opportunities to pursue interesting venues of thought but very little follow up. The material itself is interesting, but somehow I felt like I'd heard it all before in my various readings over the years. The examination of human behavior was also limited: Sapolsky focused almost entirely on violence. Near the end of the series he claims that this selection was because while most other problematic  behaviors were unmitigated problems (e.g., schizophrenia), violence could have potentially positive impact on genetic survival and reproductive fitness, and so was a fit subject of study. I immediately thought to myself, "So's bipolar disorder, and to me that would be a much more interesting subject of study!"

This is the first Great Courses series that I'm disappointed by. It was still worth a listen, but perhaps some of the other audio books would be more interesting to you.

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