A quirky look at why hu­mans help, or hurt, each other

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY DINA TEM­PLE-RASTON

Ihave a weak­ness for sci­ence made sim­ple. This could be be­cause I am just fin­ish­ing up the first sea­son of a pod­cast that ex­plores how ado­les­cents make de­ci­sions and how parts of their de­vel­op­ing brains may play an out­size role in those choices. For three years now I have been strug­gling through med­i­cal re­search and wrestling with com­pli­cated read­ings only to find out that what I re­ally needed was Robert M. Sapol­sky and his lat­est book, “Be­have: The Bi­ol­ogy of Hu­mans at Our Best and Worst.”

If you ever thought that neu­ro­science was deathly bor­ing or too com­pli­cated for plea­sur­able read­ing, “Be­have” will change your mind. You’ll find your­self lit­er­ally guf­faw­ing at Sapol­sky’s quirky, hip­ster hu­mor, and at about 100 pages in, you’ll be­gin to ques­tion whether that de­ci­sion you made so many years ago not to go into the sci­ences might have been too hasty. The book is that good. Sapol­sky is so im­mensely com­fort­able ex­plain­ing com­pli­cated things in ac­ces­si­ble ways, more than once you’ll feel he’s pulling you aside to whis­per, “Don’t worry, this isn’t as dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand as you thought.” (It is, by the way, as dif­fi­cult as you thought; it is only in Sapol­sky’s ca­pa­ble hands that you’ll al­low your­self to be tem­po­rar­ily con­vinced oth­er­wise.)

“Ado­les­cence and early adult­hood are the times when some­one is most likely to kill, be killed, leave home for­ever, in­vent an art form,” he writes, “help over­throw a dic­ta­tor, eth­ni­cally cleanse a vil­lage, de­vote them­selves to the needy, be­come ad­dicted, marry out­side their group, trans­form physics, have hideous fash­ion taste, break their neck recre­ation­ally, com­mit their life to God, mug an old lady, be con­vinced that all of his­tory has con­verged to make this mo­ment the most con­se­quen­tial, the most fraught with peril and prom­ise, the most de­mand­ing that they get in­volved and make a dif­fer­ence.”

A pro­fes­sor of bi­ol­ogy and neu­rol­ogy at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity and a re­cip­i­ent of a MacArthur Foun­da­tion “ge­nius” grant, Sapol­sky brings to­gether a bas­ket of sci­en­tific dis­ci­plines to tackle a fun­da­men­tal mys­tery: What drives hu­mans to harm each other or help each other? He finds the an­swers in our bi­ol­ogy and takes read­ers on a jour­ney through the ner­vous sys­tem, hor­mones, evo­lu­tion and en­vi­ron­ment to make his ar­gu­ment.

“On a cer­tain level the bi­ol­ogy un­der­ly­ing the teenaged mug­ger is sim­i­lar to that of the teen who joins the Ecol­ogy Club and do­nates his al­lowance to help save the moun­tain go­ril­las,” Sapol­sky writes. “It’s the usual — height­ened emo­tional in­ten­sity, crav­ing for peer ap­proval, novelty seek­ing, and oh, that frontal cor­tex. But that’s where sim­i­lar­i­ties end.”

In a chap­ter ti­tled “Ado­les­cence; or Dude, Where’s My Frontal Cor­tex?” — that ti­tle alone should as­sure you that this is not your mother’s neu­ro­science — Sapol­sky moves briskly from the chang­ing frontal cor­tex (it is, by the way, fully de­vel­oped in ado­les­cence, it just isn’t very ef­fi­cient) to the neu­ro­log­i­cal and en­vi­ron­men­tal un­der­pin­nings of ado­les­cent be­hav­ior in all its forms.

“Ev­ery hic­cup of ex­pe­ri­ence has an ef­fect, al­beit usu­ally a minis­cule one, on that brain,” he writes. “Vi­o­lent crim­i­nals are more likely than non­vi­o­lent ones to have wit­nessed vi­o­lence as kids,” and “ex­pos­ing chil­dren to a vi­o­lent TV or film clip in­creases their odds of ag­gres­sion soon af­ter. In­ter­est­ingly, the ef­fect is stronger in girls.”

Those kinds of ex­pe­ri­ences, Sapol­sky writes, aren’t uni­ver­sal but rather make the strong­est im­pres­sion on kids who are al­ready prone to­ward vi­o­lence. As a gen­eral mat­ter, “pretty straight­for­wardly, the more cat­e­gories of ad­ver­si­ties a child suf­fers, the dim­mer his or her chances of a happy, func­tional adult­hood.” I should has­ten to add that “Be­have” goes way beyond the ado­les­cent brain; that area just hap­pens to be my cur­rent ob­ses­sion.

In a chap­ter called “Us Ver­sus Them,” Sapol­sky rolls out re­search show­ing that “fans at a soc­cer match are more likely to aid an in­jured spec­ta­tor if he’s wear­ing home team in­signias,” and he sug­gests that we “give the right of way to peo­ple driv­ing cars with the ‘Mean peo­ple suck’ bumper sticker, and re­mind ev­ery­one that we’re all in it to­gether against Lord Volde­mort and the House of Slytherin.”

The book is filled with geeky anec­dotes that Sapol­sky clearly de­rives plea­sure in telling. He writes about be­ing a fu­ture pri­ma­tol­o­gist (one of his many hats) and be­ing mes­mer­ized by the 1968 movie “Planet of the Apes” only to find out later, to his de­light, that stars Charl­ton He­ston and Kim Hunter both re­counted that “at lunchtime, the peo­ple play­ing chimps and those play­ing go­ril­las ate in sep­a­rate groups.”

He tell us that cul­ture shapes our at­ti­tudes about suc­cess, moral­ity and even love — no sur­prise there — but then he adds that re­search shows cul­ture also has an ef­fect on sen­sory per­cep­tion. When look­ing at some­thing as sim­ple as a pho­to­graph, Western­ers fo­cus on the cen­ter of the pic­ture, Asians fo­cus on the scene.

All in­ter­est­ing stuff, but the book’s great­est con­tri­bu­tion may be in lay­ing to rest many as­sump­tions we’d made about why we do what we do. Con­sider the much-bal­ly­hooed “war­rior gene,” the one that al­legedly pre­dis­poses those who carry it to vi­o­lence. Sapol­sky ex­plains that the sup­posed links be­tween ag­gres­sion and the MAO-A “war­rior” gene are far from proven, and he muses that “amaz­ingly, pri­son sen­tences for mur­ders have now been less­ened in at least two cases be­cause it was ar­gued that the crim­i­nal hav­ing the ‘war­rior gene’ vari­ant of MAO-A was in­evitably fated to be un­con­trol­lably vi­o­lent. OMG.” (Yes, the OMG is Sapol­sky’s, not mine.)

He re­minds read­ers that the re­search pa­per that be­gan all the hub­bub about a gene that pre­de­ter­mined ag­gres­sion looked at a Dutch fam­ily that not only had that mu­ta­tion but also had “bor­der­line men­tal re­tar­da­tion.” Ev­ery­one re­mem­bers the gene, Sapol­sky sug­gests, but they have for­got­ten a lot of the un­der­ly­ing de­tails. “Re­spon­si­ble peo­ple in the field have re­coiled in hor­ror at this sort of un­founded ge­netic de­ter­min­ism seep­ing in the court­room,” he writes. “The ef­fects of MAO-A vari­ants are tiny . . . [and] most of all there is non­speci­ficity in the be­hav­io­r­ial ef­fects of the vari­ants.”

But wait, there’s more — as the au­thor him­self might say: Sapol­sky leaves lit­tle sur­prises for his read­ers in the foot­notes, which read like in-jokes from the lab. “By the way, what does mouse anx­i­ety look like?” Sapol­sky writes in one. “Mice dis­like bright lights and open spa­ces — go fig­ure, for a noc­tur­nal an­i­mal that lots of species like to eat. So one mea­sure of mouse anx­i­ety is how long it takes for a mouse to go into the cen­ter of a brightly lit area to get some food.” How can you tell if a rat is sex­u­ally at­tracted to an­other rat? Sim­ple, Sapol­sky says, they will push the lever to give them ac­cess to a fa­vored (per­haps hot­ter) fe­male rat more of­ten.

The only hes­i­ta­tion is that sci­ence, by its very na­ture, is pro­vi­sional and Sapol­sky is de­pend­ing on re­search that may al­ready be over­come by events. The fields of psy­chol­ogy and neu­ro­science have been in up­heaval in the past five years as new dis­cov­er­ies be­gin to cast doubt on what was once thought to be ir­refutable. Sapol­sky’s work may be­come en­tan­gled in those kinds of pro­fes­sional squab­bles. That said, for any layper­son try­ing to un­der­stand why we be­have the way we do, Sapol­sky has cre­ated an im­mensely readable, of­ten hi­lar­i­ous romp through the mul­ti­ple worlds of psy­chol­ogy, pri­ma­tol­ogy, so­ci­ol­ogy and neu­ro­bi­ol­ogy to ex­plain why we be­have the way we do. It is hands-down one of the best books I’ve read in years. I loved it.

Sapol­sky writes about be­ing mes­mer­ized by the 1968 movie “Planet of the Apes” and find­ing later that stars Charl­ton He­ston and Kim Hunter both re­counted that “at lunchtime, the peo­ple play­ing chimps and those play­ing go­ril­las ate in sep­a­rate groups.”

Dina Tem­ple-Raston has been NPR’s coun­tert­er­ror­ism cor­re­spon­dent for a decade. She is on leave from the net­work to work on a pod­cast that looks at the brain sci­ence be­hind ado­les­cent de­ci­sions. It will be avail­able in the fall.

BE­HAVE The Bi­ol­ogy of Hu­mans at Our Best and Worst By Robert M. Sapol­sky Pen­guin Press. 790 pp. $35

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