A bozo of a baboon
April 30, 2019 11:53 PM   Subscribe

Working my way through this now. Will say that the article covers so many interesting topics. Sapolsky's description of evolutionary debates in the 1970s is fascinating. We've got Chomsky, Gould, Wilson, and Lewontin all bickering with each other. There's Hammerstein's apparent falsification of IQ data. There's the rise and fall of Wilson's sociobiology and its rebranding as evolutionary psychology. It's great to get some personal context. This is a really good read and I haven't even gotten to the baboon punchline yet.
posted by Telf at 1:15 AM on May 1 [3 favorites]

Ok, finished the article, really good read. Finishes abruptly but contains many interesting points. My takeaways:

• Baboons are assholes.
• Alpha Baboons can have midlife crisis where they quit their job as Baboon CEOs and just try to find themselves as Lebowsky-esque dudes.
• Be nice to people, don't burn bridges.
• Children are effectively psychopaths but they'll get better.
• Cult leaders/gurus may have highly developed frontal cortexes (cortices?) with a robust theory of mind that allows them to understand people.
• I suspect that this is not the case for Donald Trump and that something about the social media environment creates perverse incentives that rewards impulsive behavior and punish delayed gratification strategies. The disconnection between bad behavior and immediate social repercussions means that people can essentially act like psychopaths and not deal with the consequences while feeding off of the clicks generated by rage engagement.
•In conclusion, we should be more like Bonobos, but the internet is turning us into Baboons.

*Sapolsky doesn't mention the internet, but that my axe and I will grind it.
*When did we all start spelling axe with an e? Ax just doesn't look right anymore.
*Nevermind, I looked it up. Both are ok but ax is more associated with US spellings.

posted by Telf at 1:35 AM on May 1 [18 favorites]

I found this a really good read once I got into it, but was irritated and put off by the pull quote at the top, which made it sound like the whole thing was going to be his reflections on how men could learn from baboon behaviour to get laid more often.

However there is a lot more to it than that, thank goodness.
posted by lollusc at 3:42 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]

Came for my favorite baboon story, stayed for the Cyril Burt education-IQ scandal.
posted by Doktor Zed at 5:06 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]

I love Sapolsky. Compulsively readable writer as well as being a solid scientist.
posted by Peach at 6:01 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]

I love Sapolsky. Compulsively readable writer as well as being a solid scientist.

Agreed. I wish more disciplines had someone like him.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:19 AM on May 1

I was studying bioanthropology in the fall of my freshman year when E. O. Wilson published Sociobiology and it was the required text in four out of five of my classes.

This line amused me because I was a women's studies major in the 80s, and for me this book was In a Different Voice by Carol Gilligan. I was assigned it five times in four semesters.

Continuing to read....
posted by Orlop at 6:48 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]

Great read!
Of all the general education courses I took outside of my own field, the primatology survey I lucked into was easily the most interesting, and is probably the one I still reflect back on the most all these years later. Watching and reading Chimpanzee Politics was a revelation.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:01 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]

Sapolsky has been on the periphery of my brain for a couple years - trying to remember enough details to find him online. Years ago I read tons of his stuff. Thanks for reconnecting me with a long-ago memory.
posted by notsnot at 7:02 AM on May 1

I liked this part:

>>As a parent you swoop in and say, "This is not acceptable and you cannot do that." But just as I (or my wife who is a clinical nurse-psychologist, and so, pathetically, we actually speak like this at home) am saying this, the other will say, "He can't help it; he doesn't have a frontal cortex yet," to which the first inevitably responds, "But how else is he going to get one?"
posted by JamesBay at 7:20 AM on May 1 [10 favorites]

This is just wonderful; the kind of thing I come to Metafilter for. Thank you.
posted by mojohand at 7:32 AM on May 1

I need to add Sapolsky to my list of science authors I read. I’m a zoology PhD, with training in ecology, evolution, and behavior; I’m frankly surprised I don’t already have some of his books on the shelf next to EO Wilson
posted by caution live frogs at 8:12 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]

There's a lot, almost too much, of value in that article. One insight at a time please.
posted by Baeria at 8:21 AM on May 1

This was rambling and awesome, and I don't usually enjoy rambling.
posted by AdamCSnider at 9:14 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]

that makes you work hard because you will get into an amazing nursing home one day if you just keep pushing hard enough

posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 10:32 AM on May 1 [3 favorites]

Sapolsky is a gem - I've given gifts of his A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons more than any other book. Now I'm looking for the movie he mentions of De Waal's Chimpanzee Politics but can't find anything online.
posted by jcrcarter at 10:36 AM on May 1

A Primate's Memoir is one of my favorite books; a lot of my dissertation's theoretical underpinnings came from Sapolsky's work, and his newest book, Behave, on human behavior is really great.
posted by ChuraChura at 12:34 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]

This is so great! I loved it, thanks for posting.

Are there other books or articles by Sapowsky beyond those already mentioned in the thread that are accessible to a non-specialist?
posted by medusa at 1:52 PM on May 1

This was a great article, thank you for posting it.

For people looking for more Sapolsky, his Human Behavioral Biology course is on iTunes.

He also has a couple of lectures on Youtube that I found that are really good:

Biological Underpinnings of Human Religiosity


I've been meaning to re-watch these again myself.
posted by cats are weird at 2:46 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]

Sapolsky was actually my first introduction to the brain, through his excellent Teaching Company lecture series, way back in 2000. I ended up getting my Ph.D. 14 years later in a similar intersection of primatology and neuroscience. I still like Sapolsky's work; it's a bit surprising our research doesn't intersect more.
posted by biogeo at 3:09 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]

For people looking for more Sapolsky, his Human Behavioral Biology course is on iTunes.

He published a book called Behave two years back which is basically an updated version of that course.

Unfortunately he doesn't read the audiobook version.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:55 PM on May 1

I'll admit, I didn't read the article before posting. Now that I have, I've got a bit of a bone to pick with him, though. I don't know if he's trying to simplify things for the purpose of the audience or what, but the view of prefrontal cortex he presents is so hilariously out of date as to be misleading. No one has believed that neural development is completely finished by the time you're three for... I dunno, at least 20 years? I'm pretty sure longer. The late maturation of prefrontal cortex has been well established for a LONG time, but he presents it as contradicting a "dogma" (his actual word).

I'll forgive his portrayal of PFC as being all about inhibitory control and delayed gratification, because a lot of psychologists still talk about it in those terms, but I'm surprised to hear a neurobiologist speak of it that way. I think the last 15 years of neurobiological research into prefrontal cortex has revealed that we don't understand its functions nearly as well as neuropsychologists (n.b.: neuropsychology is a specific subdiscipline that studies the function of the brain by looking at psychological deficits in patients with focal brain damage) thought we did, and that "inhibitory control" is something that is not limited to prefrontal cortex, nor is prefrontal cortex limited to doing that.

I also take issue with his portrayal of delayed gratification being quintessentially human. He should spend more time talking to the behavioral ecologists he teases for being too focused on "counting numbers of leaves". Plenty of species are great at delayed gratification, given the right ecological context. Many of them aren't even that cognitively complex otherwise. What seems to distinguish humans, as with most other cognitive traits in which humans stand out, is that we are able to apply this behavior with far greater flexibility in a much wider variety of contexts.

Anyway, his hero worship for Richard Lewontin is endearing so I'll forgive him these foibles.

Also, I love his story about the baboons chasing the gazelle and getting distracted by attacking each other. I actually have video footage of the exact same kind of thing happening in rhesus monkeys during an intergroup territorial dispute. It's pretty great; I used it to frame the narrative for my defense seminar.
posted by biogeo at 4:14 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]

Well, to be fair, I think this conversation was originally posted in June 2003, so just about 20 years ago.
posted by ChuraChura at 9:25 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]

Ha, I totally missed the dateline! In that case the view of PFC he presents is probably fair enough for the time. It's been an eventful couple of decades for our understanding of the prefrontal cortex.
posted by biogeo at 10:32 AM on May 2

He is the BEST. Just a delightful human being and a wonderful scientist. Someone asked for reading recs - "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" has retained a prized spot on my bookshelf for years. I don't know if it holds up (for example, we know a lot more about ulcers now). But in addition to it shaping my scientific career, it shaped a lot of my personal thinking about self-care during stressful times well before the idea of self-care was as well articulated in popular awareness.
posted by BlueBlueElectricBlue at 11:55 AM on May 2

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