Steven LEVITT: My guest today, Robert Sapolsky, may know more about baboons in the wild than anyone else on the planet. On top of that, he’s a leading neuroscientist who’s made breakthrough discoveries on stress and gene therapy. He also dabbles in philosophy, arguing that free will is nothing but an illusion. On top of all that, he’s found the time to write a half dozen bestselling and critically acclaimed books.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt.
LEVITT: This would be my first time talking to Robert Sapolsky, and I’m really curious to see what it’s like. I read every one of his books, so in an odd way, he feels like a friend. Even though I’ve never met him or even heard his voice. In pictures he’s got a big white beard and long curly hair that would make Santa Claus jealous, which has led me to make all sorts of assumptions about how he’ll speak and even about his personality. We shall see if looks are deceiving.
Now, the two topics I want to cover for sure today are stress in humans — and that’s a topic in which he’s an expert and I am absolutely not an expert — and violence, where we both might have legitimate claims to be experts, although we’ve approached the issue from opposite perspectives. I suspect those two parts of the conversation will be very different. But before we hit those topics, I want to hear about the baboons.
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Steven LEVITT: Robert, so good to meet you.
Robert SAPOLSKY: Same, a big fan.
LEVITT: So you grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in New York City and then you graduated summa cum laude from Harvard. And I’m not sure I can think of a worse preparation than that for spending years in the wilds of Kenya living with baboons.
SAPOLSKY: Well, I think that’s a pretty good summary of things. At the time I first went out to Africa, which was about a week after graduating college, I had been as far north as New Hampshire and as far south as Washington, D.C. and that was about it. And once while I was backpacking on the Appalachian Trail, I had to stay very still while a porcupine walked past and basically that was the extent of my preparation for going out there.
LEVITT: What, you had found a professor who thought you would be good at observing baboons?
SAPOLSKY: Yeah, this was actually this guy, Irven DeVore, who was the king of baboons for a long time. And pathetically, I had been writing fan letters to him since I was about 12-years-old and eventually to go sit at his feet at college for four years. At graduation he shipped me off to go essentially inherit a troop from one of his grad students who was finishing up at the time. So I was gifted my baboons and I stuck with them on and off for 33 years.
LEVITT: Just describe what a day was like with the baboons. Especially the beginning, it must have been quite odd.
SAPOLSKY: What I was trying to understand with the baboons was a physiological question, which was: what does your social rank, your social status, have to do with how healthy you are? My world with the baboons consisted of 95 percent of the time doing this basic Jane Goodall scene where you get up and you find your baboons and you spend 12 hours a day following them around and noting who’s not getting along, who’s snarling at someone else and who’s messing with who in the bushes.
And then the remainder of the time what I’d be doing is darting the baboons, using a blowgun anesthetic system to knock them out and then do the same sort of clinical workup that would be done on a human trying to find out: how’s his metabolism? How’s his blood glucose? How’s his stress response? All of that.
LEVITT: Now, if you’re trying to study stress in baboons, it seems like shooting them with a blowgun is probably a stressful activity for them. Do you not worry about the effects on your measurements?
SAPOLSKY: That was basically the bane of my existence because, yes, the darting process would be stressful. And over the subsequent half hour or so, their bodies would mount a classic endocrine stress response. And what that meant was I had to dart guys when they were not already stressed about something else, so I could not dart somebody if he had a fight that morning, if he had mated, if he was sick, if he was injured, among other things. I could not dart him if he knew what I was trying to do it.
These were animals I was spending all day long with, just following around with a walking stick thing, which every now and then would turn into a blow gun instead and get somebody in the rear when he wasn’t looking. You just spend a ridiculous amount of your waking hours thinking about darting strategies and how to think like a baboon and smell like a baboon and just how to look nonchalant around baboons.
LEVITT: And so when you dart them, they would fall over or it took a while?
SAPOLSKY: You aim for their voluminous rear ends that have lots of meat on it. He’d react as if a bee had stung him or sat on a thorn, get up, scratch his rear for a second or two and go back to what he was doing. And then about a minute later, he would sit down.
And somewhat oddly, the anesthetic that I used was Phencyclidine, also known as P.C.P., also known as Angel Dust, which meant I was spending a lot of time filling out forms and being interviewed by skeptical agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency.
So what you would see maybe 30 seconds before the guy would go down he’d be making facial expressions at other baboons who were not there. Suddenly plop he goes down and you quickly run in and get a first blood sample as fast as possible.
LEVITT: Had they been darting the baboons before you got there or was that your own invention?
SAPOLSKY: The approach that I used was pretty much my own, and I spent my first year out there working out the techniques for doing this, which is to say, finding out all the ways in which it didn’t work. And I assumed leading up to it is if a guy ever went down in the middle of the troop and I was trying to get him into the back of my jeep and I’d have 40 baboons trying to rip my throat open, defending him, and that turned out to be nonsense. That never happened.
What happens instead is you dart number three in the hierarchy. And number four has no idea what’s happening, but decides what a wonderful time to slash number three’s throat open. So I was not having to defend myself from the baboons. I was having to defend the guy I had darted.
What was striking was you could see developmental stages and cognitive maturation stuff. You could see exactly what stage baboons were at in that they’re pretty smart, but you cover something and it no longer exists. So they’d be all circling around the anesthetized guy and I’d slither in and throw a burlap sack over him. And he’s gone! He’s gone. And I could pick him up. And if inadvertently one foot stuck out, everybody suddenly is crazed and snarling again, and quickly cover the foot and he’s gone. He doesn’t exist anymore.
LEVITT: Were you close emotionally with the baboons?
SAPOLSKY: Yes and no. I was interested in understanding stress related disease in humans, and very few of us are getting high blood pressure because we’re being menaced by tigers or we’re physically fighting somebody for a parking spot. What we have instead in Westernized humans is we live well enough and long enough to be able to wallow in psychological stress that we have invented.
The punchline of the whole field of stress and disease is that we humans turn on the exact same stress response as does a lizard or a fish or a bird. This ancient, ancient piece of wiring for running away from your predator or running after a meal. And we turn it on for psychological reasons. And that’s not what it evolved for. And if you do that because of chronic psychological stress, you’re going to get sick.
So the issue was to try to understand a non-human model for Westernized psychosocial stress. And baboons are perfect for it. If you’re a baboon, you want to live in the Serengeti, which is where I was doing my work. You live in these big troops, 50 to 100 animals or so. None of the predators mess with you, and most importantly, it’s like such a great ecosystem that you only have to spend about three hours a day foraging to get your calories.
And what that means then is you have nine hours of free time every day to devote to being absolutely awful to some other baboon. They had hours and hours of free time each day just to devote to generating psychosocial stress for each other. They were perfect models for Westernized human stress. I think what I’m saying is they’re completely skivvy, violent, backstabbing animals who were really awful to each other. So they’re hard to like, but nonetheless, a number of them I certainly got around to loving over the years.
LEVITT: Were you afraid? Were they not violent towards you?
SAPOLSKY: You learn who’s in a bad mood each day. You don’t inadvertently stumble between a mother and her kid. They knew I was something familiar, but not quite a baboon. If you’re some poor schnook, low-ranking male baboon and somebody high ranking who’s in a bad mood is heading towards you and you’re clearly about to be pummeled.
What you do is you look around in this very unlikely hope that somebody will come and help you, someone will form a coalition with you. And there’s a very distinctive facial expression that a baboon would give in that case, sort of a solicitation gesture. “Come join my hopeless cause here.”
And this one time, there was this squirrely kid. He had recently joined the group. He didn’t really know anybody. And some high ranking guy was clearly coming over to pound him for no reason. And you could see he did this solicitive face-pull expression thing to a bunch of the other baboons who were having none of it.
And you could see at the very last second he did this desperate Hail Mary calculation and looked at me and did a face pull at me. Like saying, “O.K., it’s so bad that I’m even going deep into the bench here.” I was like the primate of last resort for the guy to back him up. Shamefully, I pretended I didn’t know what he was saying rather than rolling over the other guy with my jeep or something.
LEVITT: Is there a reason you were only studying the male baboons?
SAPOLSKY: All of my physiology I did exclusively on the males, for a very particular reason. If you’re a male baboon, around puberty, you get bored with every one of the same damn baboon troop you’ve been grooming since birth. And you pick up and you leave and you go join another troop. In other words, in any troop of baboons, all of the adult males grew up someplace else and showed up around adolescence.
In contrast, female baboons spend their whole life in the same troop and their dominant system is hereditary so in other words, you were sitting there surrounded by sisters and nieces and aunts and mothers. So you dart a male and he falls over unconscious and the main thing you have to do is keep one of his rivals from trying to slash him open.
You dart a female and her mother and her three sisters and her grandkids are trying to shred your vehicle, and it was much, much more dangerous darting the females than the males. So for that, I did most of my physiology on the males. The females were much scarier than the males, despite being about a third the size.
LEVITT: So what were the most interesting things you discovered over these decades that you studied the baboons?
SAPOLSKY: I went out there when I was twenty, and I think by any definition, a very sallow, superficial, sub-adult male primate. And I went out there with the conviction that what I was going to discover in my studies was if you’re a male baboon and you have a choice in the matter, you want to be a high ranking male.
And in retrospect, I was asking the totally wrong question. If you’re a male baboon and you have a choice in the matter, would you rather be a high ranking male baboon or would you rather have friends, social affiliation — which is going to do better things for your longevity, your blood pressure, et cetera?
And it took me about 20 years to become clear in the fact that absolutely every time, go for friends rather than high dominance rank. It turned out the amount of time you spent socially grooming was far more predictive than the amount of time you spent successfully terrorizing somebody else. If you had an upbeat personality, if you saw the watering holes as half-full instead of half-empty, your physiology, independent of your rank, was going to be so much healthier than someone who saw threat and provocation everywhere.
LEVITT: So in the end, you’re saying living a happy life had a positive spillover physiologically for a longer life at better health.
You spent so much of your life with these baboons and it came to an end and the end really wasn’t pretty. That must’ve been devastating emotionally for you?
SAPOLSKY: Yeah, it was. This was about 15 years into my work in the late 80s, early 90s or so. And to make a long story much shorter, essentially what happened was there was an outbreak of tuberculosis among my baboons. And in non-human primates TB is the most damn terrifying infectious disease you can imagine. It spreads like wildfire. People absolutely panic when there’s a TB outbreak in captive primate populations.
It turned out it was due to tubercular meat being sold to the butcher at a nearby tourist lodge. The butcher was being bribed to approve tubercular cows and he would butcher them and if there were some really unseemly looking lungs or things like that, he would toss them to the waiting baboons. So that started a TB outbreak And it spread into my troop and it killed half my males.
And it was pretty awful. I couldn’t go anywhere near this area for years afterward because it was all way too upsetting. I did another 18 years or so of research with the baboons. I started with a different population, a troop 60 miles away. I couldn’t go anywhere near this area for years afterward because it was all way too upsetting. It was a few of my favorite animals in the original troop that got done in by T.B.
First-world tragedy, though, in terms of one having the luxury to be able to expend love and a sense of bereavement on a troop of non-human primates in the world where there’s a whole lot of other things to be bereaved about. But nonetheless, that hit me pretty hard.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with primatologist Robert Sapolsky. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about Robert’s work on chronic stress and violence.
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LEVITT: I’ve never said this publicly before, and it’s not something you’re supposed to say, but I think I like animals more than I like people. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why humans elevate the welfare of humans so far above the welfare of other species. And the more I think about it, the less sense it makes to me. So in the second half of the interview, I’d like to see what Sapolsky’s thoughts are on this and then dive into his research on stress and finally get to violence.
LEVITT: At the risk of getting you into big trouble let me ask you something. Let’s say you were faced with the difficult moral choice: there was a human and a baboon and they were both going to be killed and you could only save one, anonymous baboon and anonymous human. Which would you save?
SAPOLSKY: Being a professor, an academic, I think the only answer I can give you is I would write a paper on the subject and try to get it published somewhere. I think that’s the only response I would have to a real life situation.
LEVITT: So you would save the baboon, but you just can’t say that in public.
SAPOLSKY: Possibly. It really would depend on the baboon and I suppose on the human.
LEVITT: Have you thought about why humans put so much value on other humans relative to different kinds of life?
SAPOLSKY: Well, like most primates, we have a very strong tendency to divide the world into us and them. There’s a neurobiology of it showing that a part of your brain called the amygdala, which is about fear and anxiety and aggression, your amygdala is doing us/them distinctions in under a tenth of a second before you’re even consciously aware of who you’re looking at.
So like every other social primate out there, we do us/them with a real propensity towards being a whole lot nicer to the us’s than to the them’s. And it’s clear that your average human has obviously a big us/them divide between humans and other species. Unlike a baboon, no matter what a baboon thinks, it is going to view a leopard or a hyena as a truly terrifying them. And is going to look at a male baboon from another troop as a suspicious them.
And there’s no way they can ever decide that, oh, they had all these bad preconceived notions about hyenas and they’re actually okay guys. Humans change their categorizations, we can have multiple ones in our heads, and one of the weird ones that lots of people have is, on some visceral level, considering some of our pets to be as much family as our real human families.
And you sure could not explain that to a baboon but there’s been amazing physiological studies showing human/pet interactions that are not supposed to be occurring between different species, and yet they do. There was a paper published some years ago, a survey of people with almost the exact scenario. Aha — there’s a dog and a person. They’re both about to be hit by a bus. You could save only one of them. Which would you save? And you saw a huge gender difference in that women were far more likely to vote for saving the dog over the human.
LEVITT: I spent some time in India once and part of that I was in a national park trying to see tigers and we were riding around with one of the park rangers and I asked him whether he had a gun and he said, “Oh yeah, I carry a gun.” And I said, “What would make you shoot a tiger?” And he said, “Shoot a tiger? I would never shoot a tiger. We aren’t allowed to shoot tigers.” And I said, “What if the tiger was attacking you or some other people?” And he said, “No. Even if the tiger were attacking, I could shoot the gun in the air, but I would never shoot the tiger.”
I said, “Well, what if an American tourist were there? Then, I’m sure you must shoot the tiger to save the American tourist?” And he said, “No, we wouldn’t do that.” And eventually he told me actually with the tigers, it’s not until they kill two or three villagers that they go and find the tiger and then sedate him and put him somewhere else.
So he basically, will not kill a tiger no matter what. And in a weird way — forgetting about your us versus them categorization psychologically — to India, really, these tigers are scarce and they’re valuable. But it was the first time I’ve ever heard, stated out loud, a public policy that simply said that these animals are more valuable than humans, no matter how these animals behave.
SAPOLSKY: Yep. The explicitness of that is pretty extraordinary.
LEVITT: Do you remember in the Cincinnati Zoo, there was a gorilla who picked up a boy who had fallen in. And they shot and killed the gorilla quite quickly. Did that surprise you, that decision?
SAPOLSKY: That was Harambe. I met Harambe once. I remember being devastated when that happened; it was a circumstance where one could pretty easily be quite critical of the parent who was not watching the kid enough to keep them from climbing over something they shouldn’t have climbed over. There was absolutely no suggestion that Harambe was going to harm the kid.
But if Harambe had decided to do so, it would have been disastrous, or even Harambe, with the best of intentions, could have been catastrophically damaging to the kid. So on some level, it was a necessary decision. When I met Harambe, I had met the guy who had to make the decision to pull the trigger. And I can imagine how agonizing that was for him. And that was the correct decision, but every possible outcome there was heartbreaking.
LEVITT: Anyone who isn’t familiar with your research and just listened to these amazing stories about the baboons, I think they’d be shocked to discover that along the way you have been really having an incredible career doing cutting edge science in a more standard lab setting. And your view is that chronic stress is a horrible silent killer and health destroyer, is that correct?
SAPOLSKY: Absolutely. The word stress got introduced into the medical literature about 90 years ago and there’s been a wave of what people first learned was this stress stuff is terrible for your stomach walls, and is bad for your cardiovascular system, and eventually bad for your immune system, and reproductive system.
When I started work in this area in the early ’80s as a neurobiologist, we were just beginning to explore that stress does some pretty lousy stuff to your brain as well. And one of the things that became clear in that period was looking at the fact that there’s a class of neurons in the brain that are killed by chronic sustained stress and it’s got something to do with brain aging and aspects of cognitive decline during aging.
So a lot of what I spent my eight months a year — when I wasn’t with the baboons — was trying to understand what stress does to the nervous system, how it damages it, what you can do about it. And eventually my lab was designing gene therapy techniques to try to make neurons more robust in the face of stress. And it was a very different way of thinking about science and stress than slithering around trying to sneak up on a baboon.
LEVITT: So you talk about stress as if it just exists, but it strikes me that most of the stress people feel is just self-generated. I’ll give you an example. So my son was a good fencer, a world-class fencer as a teenager. Nobody actually cared. No one cared how he did in his tournaments. But he was so consumed by stress from these events that he eventually dropped the sport. Or I think about my daughter, who was very stressed about meeting her boyfriend’s parents for the first time. And as an outsider, you think: who cares? But to them it is life and death.
SAPOLSKY: The nuts and bolts of stress physiology adrenaline has been around for a hundred million years, and, I don’t know, it’s been maybe 10 million years that primates have been smart enough to generate psychosocial stress for each other. It’s been a lot less time since humans have been able to invent societal things that could stress the hell out of you, like material goods and their unequal division. So we’re using this ancient piece of wiring for totally novel reasons, and that’s exactly where we get into trouble.
LEVITT: So, it’s clear that people respond differently to stress. And so the question is: are those inherent differences, or do you think that we could teach people to better handle stress and thereby avoid the disastrous health and utility consequences that people feel over their lives from stress?
SAPOLSKY: Absolutely. We can get better at dealing with stress and putting things in perspective and trying to figure out in a certain circumstance what parts of it can you control and which parts can’t you. Do you actually have social support or are you mistaking drinking buddies or Friday night pickups with true social connectedness? There’s ways of strengthening all of our psychosocial means of coping.
Amid that and amid the enormous variability as counts as over the top stressful for us, what’s clear is you get to that stage as an adult as a function of your genetics, as a function of how much of your mother’s stress hormones you were marinating in when you were a fetus, as a function of your parents socioeconomic status when you were a kid, as a function of how much you learned efficacy in childhood, et cetera.
That all of the biology, and all of the environment, and all of their interactions wind up explaining why at any given moment some of us are far better able to grow from adversity rather than collapsing from it.
LEVITT: I’ve seen a bunch of studies lately that claim that inner city kids have higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than returning war veterans. Does that ring true to you?
SAPOLSKY: Absolutely, and this is this whole world of trying to quantify just how awful somebody’s childhood was, what sort of adversity they experienced, and it has been formalized now into what is an A.C.E. Score, and that’s Adverse Childhood Experiences. And this is a metric of: were you witness to abuse, physical, psychological or sexual? Were you a victim of poverty? Did you witness violence? Was there a substance abuser in your home? Was there somebody incarcerated? Was your family unstable?
And essentially, what you see there is for each additional point you get on your bad news A.C.E. score, there’s an increase in your likelihood of various stress related diseases, of having a history of antisocial violence. If you were female, a likelihood of a teen pregnancy. A likelihood of substance abuse and dependency.
And when you look at the kids who are coming in with A.C.E. scores that are through the roof, P.T.S.D. is the most gentle way of describing the mess that they are, and it’s a mess of constructing a brain that has to conclude nothing is ever safe, and nothing is ever reliable, and don’t plan for the future because getting through right now is going to be big enough of a challenge.
Combat trauma is a way in which like 15, 20 percent of people come back with P.T.S.D. I think the study suggests that kids with high A.C.E. scores they’re coming in with much higher rates of P.T.S.D. And for them, that’s having survived their childhood, the coping skills they had to acquire pathologically.
LEVITT: I would say one of the biggest changes I’ve seen in criminal justice thinking over the 25 years I’ve been studying criminal justice is the appreciation of that fact that P.T.S.D. in these tough communities is so high. And that I think there’s really been a switch now in terms of thinking that addressing those stressors and teaching those kids how to handle the stress turns out to be the single most effective weapon we have in the war on crime right now.
SAPOLSKY: That makes perfect sense. Individuals who are horrifically damaging don’t get there without being pretty damaged themselves. We understand the biology of a subset of those cases, but you don’t get there by accident.
LEVITT: So you wrote a book called Behave, and I would say it’s the most thorough and thoughtful, enlightening scientific book I’ve ever read about violence. And I’ve thought about violence for a long time, and I have to say, after 20 or 25 years of studying it, I don’t feel like I have a lot of great ideas for what we should be doing to fight it. Given what you’ve learned about violence, do you have any suggestions about what we should be doing with public policy that might be helpful in affecting the violent situation we have in the U.S.?
SAPOLSKY: The perspective I take on all of this — and not surprisingly, I study the brain; I study hormones; I study genes; I think about evolution; I don’t have a whole lot of belief in free will. And to be honest, I don’t think we have any free will whatsoever. I think we are the outcomes of the sheer random, good and bad biological luck that each of us has stumbled into.
And in that regard the criminal justice system makes no sense at all. In fact, some years ago I got the MacArthur Foundation to fund this whole network and the proposal I sent to them was entitled something like, “Why the criminal justice system should be abolished.” And I actually meant it.
So we’ve got a part of the brain called the frontal cortex. I love the frontal cortex. We’ve got more of it than any other species. It’s the most recently evolved part of the brain. It’s the last part of the brain to mature in us. What does the frontal cortex do? It makes you do the right thing when that’s the harder thing to do. Gratification, postponement, long-term planning, impulse control, emotional regulation — frontal cortex is absolutely critical to this, and when you’ve got a lousy frontal cortex at every juncture, you’re going to make the wrong, impulsive decision.
And what the studies show is: approximately 25 percent of the men on death row in this country have a history of concussive head trauma to their frontal cortex. When you have someone like that, you are not looking at somebody with some sort of undesirable soul, or spirit, or value system, you are looking at a biological machine whose brakes don’t work very well.
And just as with a car whose brakes don’t work very well, you sure don’t let it out on the street to injure people, and if you could fix it, that’s great, and we can’t fix 99.9 percent of the neurobiology of abnormal behavior at this point. So if you can’t fix a car whose brakes don’t work, you’ve got to put it in a garage and it can’t be driven anymore, but you sure don’t sit there and say that car deserves not to be taken out for a drive on a nice Sunday afternoon in the park.
LEVITT: O.K., but wait, let me challenge you a little bit on this. So I don’t know enough about biology to say anything about free will, but I still don’t get the leap towards abolishing the criminal justice system because I can think of three reasons why we might — I’ll use the word punish but I’m using the word punish quite broadly — three reasons why we punish criminals.
And one of them is retribution or moral outrage. And clearly, given your arguments, you would say that is not deserved, that these are people who couldn’t have made different choices and we shouldn’t have any sort of moral outrage towards them.
But there’s also incapacitation, the fact that these are dangerous people, we want to take them off of the streets. Or deterrence, that even if they don’t deserve to be thought badly of, it is still true that many of these people respond to incentives, and so they might do less crime when facing punishment. Do you disagree with that characterization of the world?
SAPOLSKY: Not at all. Organisms can have their behavior pretty dramatically shaped by reward and punishment under certain circumstances. It’s a tool. Deterrence also for society looking at, wow that would be a drag to be locked away forever after. I was using a word for this a number of years ago that nobody paid any attention to, but which now has its own special edge to it, which is we need to be thinking of a quarantine model.
Somebody has a terminal disease which makes them dangerous to other people, and it’s not their damn fault and we can’t cure it, and what you want to do is give them the most normal life possible, the most unconstrained one, where nonetheless, they are not able to damage anybody or themselves in the process. And what those pieces put together wind up omitting is exactly the first one you said, which was retribution.
So if you’re going to go out on a limb and say if we really are going to recognize that we are nothing more or less than biological organisms, not only do you need to abolish the criminal justice system, you also need to abolish every high school graduation having a valedictorian. Because not only will blame and punishment make no sense, but praise and reward doesn’t either, it’s just damn luck.
We need a massive rethinking about both reward and punishment because none of us are anything more than our biological luck. And if that sounds totally absurd and ridiculous — like, “how in hell you’re supposed to think that way?” — what we need to do is reflect on 400 years ago.
If you were the most thoughtful, reflective, educated, civic-minded bleeding heart liberal, and you were asked to explain why every now and then somebody’s eyes would roll up and they would suddenly shake, and fall to the ground, and spasm, and have a seizure, you had a scientific explanation for it, which is the person had consorted with Satan. And there was a medical intervention at the time, which is you burned them at the stake.
And it would have been inconceivable at the time for somebody to accept that someday you would think completely differently about that. And it only took us about 300 years to do that with epilepsy. Only took us about 50 years to figure out that lousy, heartless, cold mothers were not the cause of schizophrenia, and it only has taken us about 30, 40 years to figure out that laziness and lack of motivation is not the explanation for dyslexia. We’ve totally subtracted out the notion that Satan has anything to do with an epileptic seizure and society hasn’t fallen apart.
And no one is saying it’s easy, but the more we learn about the biology of us, the more it’s clear that we have to get that mindset. And I can’t do it most of the time. I hear about some appalling mass shooting and I’m thinking, “fry the bastard.” And then I, two seconds later, have to say, “Wait a second, I’m working on a death penalty case right now with a guy with a history of frontal cortical damage. What am I doing saying ‘fry the guy?’” It’s a hard thing to do.
And we have to accept the fact that whatever our views are about blame and reward and all that stuff now, somebody’s not that far in the future is going to be looking back at us and being appalled at the confidence with which we made decisions amid our ignorance.
LEVITT: You are such an amazing storyteller and whether it’s orally or in your wonderful popular science books, what advice would you give to people who aspire to be better storytellers?
SAPOLSKY: Wow, my saying anything pontificating here would suggest that I agree with you, which feels a little embarrassing. I was never particularly taken with writing. I was a musician and very intensely involved in it up until I started going to Africa.
And it was there that I became a writer because I’d be sitting in the middle of nowhere and the only contact I had with people was like once every two weeks there would be a mail drop at the park headquarters 60 miles away and I just wrote to every person I had ever exchanged a word with. And most of the time there’s nothing interesting happening. And you’re just sitting there and you got a fungus on your foot and you’ve spent the day scratching it and that’s been like your diary entry.
So something interesting happens and in the next two days you would write 50 versions of that story to the 50 people you were writing to and hone a storytelling skill, or at least being very good at self-editing. So I suppose some good old boy scout gumption thing of, “it’s something that takes a lot of practice.” I got there by having lots and lots of practice.
LEVITT: Now, you acted embarrassed about me calling you a good storyteller, but didn’t we just talk about the fact that everything’s just biology? You don’t need to take either credit or blame for the fact that you’re a good storyteller. You shouldn’t be embarrassed about it, right?
SAPOLSKY: Oh, you caught me. You’re right. I’m just a hypocrite. It’s really hard to remember that I’m just a bunch of neurons.
LEVITT: So, it’s obvious you have a lot of joy in your life and do you consciously strive for that or is it just natural for you?
SAPOLSKY: No, it’s not natural at all. I’m actually incredibly pessimistic and reclusive and it’s not for nothing. I’ve spent my adult life spending like 80 hours a week obsessing about stress. And it’s not for nothing that I’ve spent a significant percentage of my adult life living alone in a tent for months on end. I’m capable of intermittent bursts of presentability, but that’s not the basic wiring.
LEVITT: Talking to Sapolsky for me today was a series of one “Aha!” moment after another in a way that almost never happens to me when I talk to other economists. The things other economists say to me almost never surprised me.
Mostly we agree on things, and when we disagree, it’s usually pretty easy to figure out why. It almost always comes down to a disagreement over assumptions, and sometimes one or both of us can be convinced to change our assumptions a bit. But fundamentally, economists have a shared model of how the world works. So rarely is my understanding of a problem transformed by another economist.
The conversation with Sapolsky, however, it really stopped in my tracks. I’ve been thinking about crime and criminal justice for a long time, so my views are pretty well developed. But today, my thinking changed. I always thought it was obvious that retribution was an appropriate use of the criminal justice system and that moral outrage towards criminals makes sense. But honestly, I suspect I’ve been wrong about that for the last twenty-five years. Well, better late than never.
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Sapolsky: I immediately went down to the basement of my dorm, and I started practicing blow-gunning the mats there. And that’s how I spent much of my first semester of grad school.