Please welcome Robert Sapolsky.
(applause and cheering)
-Welcome to the show, Professor.-Thank you.
What I've always enjoyedabout you--
uh, we met a while ago--
was that you looklike a professor.
I like that.
-It was a requirement.-Yeah.
You've got a professor face.I enjoy that about you.
And what a timeto have you on.
Let's talk about this book--
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and at Our Worst.
This was ten years.
This book took youten years to write.
And despite being a pessimist,you have confessed
that you've learned whatgives you optimism is basically
that there is an ideathat we can learn
about how to betterthe human condition,
how we can get human beingsto do the right thing,
as opposed to the wrong thing.
How did you getto that conclusion?
Well, I thinkthe starting point is...
You know, we're a miserablyviolent species,
but at the same time,
we're alsoan extraordinarily altruistic
and compassionate one.
And the main thingthat sort of gets at it is,
it really depends on context.
'Cause in one setting,you fire a gun,
-and it's like the mostappalling act possible. -Right.
And in another, it's heroicand self-sacrificial.
You put your handon top of someone else's,
and that could bedeeply compassionate,
or that could bea deep betrayal.
Our behavior's incrediblycontext-dependent.
In other words,if you get the context right,
we're a whole lot nicerof a species
than we are an awful lotof the time.
What does that meanfor humans as a whole, though?
Because if we go, we are niceand it depends on the context,
does that meanthat in some context,
Donald Trump is a nice person?
-No. No.-Oh, it's... -(laughter)
-(applause and cheering)-Oh, okay. Okay.
-What does that...?-On the average.
-On the average. I like that.-Yes.
I like how you're like,"Nope, nope, nope.
Nope, nope, not at all."
Um, what does that meanfor us as people, though,
if you're trying to decipher us?
Because, I mean, I've readthrough most of the book,
and what's tough to understandis what it means.
You know,some people have arguments
that I read all the timewhere they go,
"Well, you know, some peopleare genetically predisposed
-to committing crime."-Right.
And people always use thatas a dog whistle for racism.
They go, "Well, you know, blackpeople like to commit crimes,
and that's whatthey're always going to do."
As somebodywho studies neuroscience
and the biology of it all,does that make any sense?
Um, that's right around whenyou get apoplexy over, like...
"Oh, come on.
What centuryare you functioning in?"
I mean, in termsof genes and behavior,
genes don't cause behaviors,genes don't determine behaviors,
-Right. -'cause genes workincredibly differently
in different environments.
And it basicallyat the end of the day
winds up being uselessto ask what a gene does.
What does it doin the particular environments
in which it's been studied?
What does that meanfor the U.S. system?
Let's go into the book.
You talk about howthe criminal justice system,
for instance,in America is broken,
in a way thatI've never thought of before,
and that is-- the neuroscienceof it is broken.
What... what does that mean?
Well, sort of the coreof the American legal system,
in terms of thinking about,like, how the brain works,
is basically, if you'reso organically impaired
by some brain disease thatyou can't tell the difference
-between right and wrong,-Yeah.
that's a pretty good mitigatingcircumstance in a trial.
And that's something calledthe McNaughton rule.
McNaughton was a guy
who almost certainly wasa paranoid schizophrenic,
who attempted to killthe prime minister of England
because of the voiceshe was hearing, in 1840.
That's it.That's the neuroscience
that the legal system has, uh,sort of absorbed since 1840.
I mean, 1840, like,people hadn't even figured out
test tubesor Bunsen burners yet.
That's it-- the legal systemis based on neuroscience
that's about 170 years old.
But what does that meanfor today's legal system, then?
(laughs): Well,you're dealing with a system
that is... medieval in itsknowledge of human behavior.
-Right.-I mean, probably the realm
where that'smost important is...
sort of issues of volition.
Where you've got plenty ofpeople who know the difference
between right and wrong,yet in a particular moment,
a moment of particular arousal,particular stress,
nonetheless they do what theyknow to be is the wrong thing.
And that is something,for example,
you would seewhen there's damage
to a part of the braincalled the frontal cortex.
People there-- well,the frontal cortex is, like,
the coolest part of the brain.
It does self-controland emotional regulation,
And if your frontal cortexis damaged,
you know the differencebetween right and wrong,
and you say,"I'm gonna reach right here,
because this hasthe better payoff,"
and at the last secondyou go for the wrong one.
Were you grabbing the pussythere? What were you doing?
I didn't know what that-that...
That seems like it.You know what's wrong,
and then you...you grab for that.
Please, sir, I'm a professor.
Forgive me.Grabbing the vagina.
Um... America isvery politically polarized
at this point.
And in the book...
you talk about how...
uh, scientifically,you've discovered,
or, you know,the research has shown,
that America's at a point
where progressivesand conservatives
actually have brainsthat are wired differently?
Yeah, which either countsas, like, "Duh, you think?"
Or is very informative
in that it's got nothing to do,a lot of the time,
with, sort of, the issues thatone would think are going on
in people's heads when theycome up with political stances.
Instead, things like,on the average,
social conservatives are mademore anxious by novelty
than are social progressives.
They're made more anxiousby ambiguity.
They're made more anxious
by whatever is comingin the future.
On the average,social conservatives
are more worriedabout germs and hygiene.
You look in the bathroom
of social conservativesversus progressives,
and the former have morecleaning items in there.
So Democrats are like,(bleep) washing my hands,
and conservatives are like,wipe twice.
Right, at least.
Before and after, yes.
And, and sorry, sir.
That is such an extreme ideabecause it's frightening.
Because it makes me then go,are you saying that in America
there is a possibilitythat it will get to a place
where people are no longerpolitically making decisions,
but rather reacting towho they are as human beings?
Well, I kind of thinkthat's always the case.
There is just--we're biological organisms.
There is biology rumbling alongin us all the time.
And here's a findingin that realm,
it's just like one of myfavorite studies
in the whole book.
You take somebodyand sit them down,
and you give thema questionnaire
-about their political stances.-Yes.
And if they're sitting in a roomwith a smelly garbage can,
people become morepolitically conservative
about social issues.
Doesn't change your politicsabout economics,
or the, like, trade balancewith Nepal, or any such thing.
But if are you're kind of havinga part of your brain
that tells you that somethingsmells kind of unnerving
and disgusting,you are more likely to decide
that somebody else's lifestyle
is not only different,but wrong and disgusting.
So is it possible thatRepublicans in America
have a smell around themall the time?
But what they do have,what the studies show is,
on the average once again,social conservatives
have a lower thresholdfor gag reflexes.
Things make them more disgustedthan conservatives do.
You know, it-it's actuallysort of fascinating
how this worksneurobiologically.
There's this part of the braincalled the insula.
And you take your basicrun of the mill mammal,
and if it bites into, like,some disgusting toxic food,
the insula activatesand reflexes--
-you retch, you gag,you spit it out. -Right.
It's like, great, you don't getpoisoned by rotten food.
Same thing in humans.
But now, instead, take a humanand have him tell you
about something totally rottenthey did to somebody else once.
Or tell them about somebodyelse's appalling rotten act
and the insular cortexactivates.
And in us, it's also evolvedto handle moral disgust.
And thus, if it's somethinghorrifying enough,
we feel sick to our stomach.
We feel queasy.
We're left with a bad tastein our mouth.
We feel soiled by it,
we feel "washing out damn spot"sort of thing.
That we have a brainthat somehow evolved
to do the literal disgustthat's gustatory,
and disgust that's thismetaphorical, moral--
And it has troubletelling them apart,
because it's onlyabout 50,000 years or so
that humans have come up withthis bizarre thing
of having moral rulesthat could be violated.
This is-- I'm just gonnago away from this
with Republicans have a smellaround them all the time.
Thank you so much for beingon the show, Professor.
Behave is available now.
Robert Sapolsky, everybody.