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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Sapolsky

on luck, and improving environments

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Trump wasn’t born here, and neither was I

I’m in the process of reading Behave, by Robert Sapolsky, a professor of neurology and biology at Stanford University, who has tried in his book to summarise, via the research literature, the seconds, then minutes, then hours, then days, then lifetimes and more, that precede any particular piece of behaviour. It’s a dense but fascinating book, which aligns with, and provides mountains of evidence for, my view that we’re far less in control of ourselves than we think.

It seems we think this because of what might be called conscious awareness of our behaviours and our decisions. This consciousness is something we sometimes mistake for control. It’s interesting that we consider it obvious that we have no control over the size of our nose or the colour of our eyes, but we have more or less complete control of our temper, appetites, desires and ambitions. 

 Humanistically speaking, this understanding about very limited control needs to have massive implications for our understanding of others. We don’t get to choose our parents, our native country or the immediate environment that most profoundly affects our early life and much of our subsequent behaviour. The flow of hormones and neurotransmitters and their regulation via genetic and epigenetic factors proceed daily, hourly, moment by moment, and all we’re aware of, essentially, is outcomes. 

A lot of people, I note, are very uncomfortable about this kind of talk. For example, many of us want to treat each other as ‘equal before the law’. But is one person ever ‘equal’ with another? We know – it’s obvious – that we’re all different. That’s how we distinguish people, by their smiles, their voices, their fingerprints, their DNA. So how can we be different and equal at the same time? Or, to turn things around, how can a legal system operate if everyone is treated as different, unique, a special case?

Well, in a sense, we already do this, with respect to the law. No two bank robberies, or rapes, or murders are the same, and the judiciary must be highly attuned to the differences when applying punishments. Nowadays, and increasingly, the mental state of the offender – particularly at the time of the offence, if that can be ascertained – is considered when sentencing.  And this is surely a good thing. 

The question here is, considering the exponential growth of our neurophysiological knowledge in the 21st century, and its bearing on our understanding of every kind of negative or positive behaviour we engage in, how can we harness that knowledge to improve outcomes and move from a punitive approach to bad behaviours to something more constructive?

Of course, it’s one thing to identify the release or suppression of glucocorticoids, for example, and its effect on person x’s cognitive faculties, it’s entirely another thing to effect a remedy. And to what effect? To make everyone docile, ‘happy’ and law-abiding? To have another go at eugenics, this time involving far more than just genes? 

One of the points constantly hammered home in Sapolsky’s book is the effect of environment on everything that goes on inside us, so that, for example, genes aren’t quite as determinative as we once thought. Here are some key points from his chapter on genes (with apologies about unexplained terms such as epigenetic, transcription and transposons):

a. Genes are not autonomous agents commanding biological events.

b. Instead genes are regulated by the environment, with environment consisting of everything from events inside the cell to the universe.

c. Much of your DNA turns environmental influences into gene transcription, rather than coding for genes themselves; moreover, evolution is heavily about changing regulation of gene transcription, rather than genes themselves.

d. Epigenetics can allow environmental effects to be lifelong, or even multigenerational.

e. And thanks to transposons, neurons contain a mosaic of different genomes. 

And genes are only one component of the array of forces that influence or control our behaviour. We know, or course, about how Phineas Gage-type accidents and brain tumours can alter behaviour, but many other effects on the brain can alter our behaviour without us and others knowing too much about it. These include stress, malnutrition, and long-term cultural and religious influences which permanently affect our attitudes to, for example, women, other species and the food we eat. Domestic violence, drug use, political affiliations, educational outcomes and sexual affinities are all more inter-generational than we’re generally prepared to admit. 

The first thing we need to do is be aware of all this in our judgment of others, and even of ourselves. There’s just so much luck involved in being who we are. We could’ve been more or less ‘good-looking’ than we are -according to the standards of the culture around us – and this would’ve affected the way we’ve been treated throughout our whole lives. We could’ve been born richer or poorer, with more or less dysfunctional parents, taller or shorter, more or less mentally agile, more or less immune to the pathogens that surround us. On and on and on we could go, even to an extreme degree. We could’ve been born in Algeria, Argentina or Azerbaijan. We could’ve been born in 1912, 1412 or 512, or 150,000 years ago. We could’ve been born a mongoose, a mouse or a mosquito. It’s all luck, whether good or bad is up to us to decide, but probably not worth speculating about as we have no choice but to make the best of what we are.

What we do have is consciousness or awareness of what we are. And with that consciousness we can speculate, as we as a species always have, on how to make the best of ourselves, given that we’re the most socially constructed mammalian species on the planet, and for that reason the most successful, measured by population, spread across the globe, and what we’ve done for ourselves in terms of social evolution – our science, our technology, our laws and our politics.  

That’s where humanism comes in, for me. Since we know that ‘there but for the randomness of luck go I’, it surely follows that we should sympathise with those whose luck hasn’t been as lucky as our own, and strive to improve the lot of those less fortunate. Safe havens, educational opportunities, decent wages, human rights, clean environments, social networks – we know what’s required for people to thrive. Yet we focus, I think, too much on punishment. We punish people for trying to improve their family’s situation – or to avoid obliteration – by seeking refuge in safer, richer, healthier places. We punish them for seeking solace in drugs because their circumstances are too overwhelming to deal with. We punish them for momentary and one-off lapses of concentration that have had dire consequences. Of course it has always been thus, and I think we’re improving, though very unevenly across the globe. And the best way to improve is by more knowing. And more understanding of the consequences of that knowledge. 

Currently, it seems to me, we’re punishing people too much for doing what impoverished, damaged, desperate people do to survive. It’s understandable, perhaps, in our increasingly individualist world. How dare someone bother me for handouts. It’s not my fault that x has fucked up his life. Bring back capital punishment for paedophiles. People smugglers are the lowest form of human life. Etc etc – mostly from people who don’t have a clue what it’s like to be those people. Because their life is so different, through no fault, or cause, of their own. 

So to me the message is clear. Out lives would be better if others’ lives were better – if we could give others the opportunities, the health, the security and the smarts that we have, and if we could have all of those advantages that they have. I suppose that’s kind of impossible, but it’s better than blaming and punishing, and feeling superior. We’re not, we’re just lucky. Ot not. 


Written by stewart henderson

December 4, 2018 at 2:22 pm

another look at free will, with thanks to Robert Sapolsky

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Ah poor old Aynnie – from guru to laughing stock within a couple of gens

Having recently had a brief conversation about free will, I’ve decided to look at the matter again. Fact is, it’s been playing on my mind. I know this is a very old chestnut in philosophy, renewed somewhat by neurologists recently, and I know that far more informed minds than mine have devoted oodles of time and energy to it, but my conversation was with someone with no philosophical or neurological background who simply found the idea of our having no free will, no autonomy, no ‘say’ whatever in our lives, frankly ludicrous. Free will, after all, was what made our lives worth living. It gives us our dignity, our self-respect, our pride in our achievements, our sense of shame or disappointment at having made bad or unworthy decisions. To deny us our free will would deny us….  far far too much.

My previous piece on the matter might be worth a look (having just reread it, it’s not bad), but it seems to me the conundrum can be made clear by thinking in two intuitively obvious but entirely contradictory ways. First, of course we have free will, which we demonstrate with a thousand voluntary decisions made every day – what to wear, what to eat, what to watch, what to read, whether to disagree or hold our tongue, whether to turn right or left in our daily walk, etc etc. Second, of course we don’t have free will – student A can’t learn English as quickly and effectively as student B, no matter how well you teach her; this student has a natural ability to excel at every sport, that one is eternally clumsy and uncoordinated; this girl is shy and withdrawn, that one’s a noisy show-off, etc etc.

The first way of thinking comes largely from self-observation, the second comes largely from observing others (if only others were as free to be like us as we are). And it seems to me that most relationship breakdowns come from 1) not allowing the other to be ‘free’ to be themselves, or 2) not recognising the other’s lack of freedom to change. Take your pick.

So I’ve just read Robert Sapolsky’s take on free will in his book Behave, and it strengthens me in my ‘free will is a myth’ conviction. Sapolsky somewhat mocks the free will advocates with the notion of an uncaused homunculus inside the brain that does the deciding with more or less good sense. The point is that ‘compatibilism’ can’t possibly make sense. How do you sensibly define ‘free will’ within a determinist framework? Is this compatibilism just a product of the eternal complexity of the human brain? We can’t tease out the chain of causal events, therefore free will? So if at some future date we were able to tease out those connections, free will would evaporate? As Sapolsky points out, we are much further along at understanding the parts of the prefrontal cortex and the neuronal pathways into and out of it, and research increases exponentially. Far enough along to realise how extraordinarily far we have to go. 

One way of thinking of the absurdity of the self-deciding self is to wonder when this decider evolved. Is it in dogs? Is it in mosquitos? The probable response would be that dogs have a partial or diminished free will, mosquitos much less so, if at all. As if free will was an epiphenomen of complexity. But complexity is just complexity, there seems no point in adding free will to it. 

But perhaps we should take a look at the best arguments we can find for compatibilism or any other position that advocates free will. Joachim Krueger presents five arguments on the Psychology Today website, though he’s not convinced by any of them. The second argument relates to consciousness (a fuzzy concept avoided by most neurologists I’ve read) and volition, a tricky concept that Krueger defines as ‘will’ but not free will. Yes, there are decisions we make, which we may weigh up in our minds, to take an overseas holiday or spend a day at the beach, and they are entirely voluntary, not externally coerced – at least to our minds. However, that doesn’t make them free, outside the causal chain. But presumably compatibilists will agree – they are wedded to determinism after all. So they must have to define freedom in a different way. I’ve yet to find any definition that works for the compatibilist.

There’s also a whiff of desperation in trying to connect free will with quantum indeterminacy, as some have done. Having read Life at the edge, by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden, which examines the possibilities of quantum effects at the biological level, I’m certainly open to the science on this, but I can’t see how it would apply at the macro level of human decision-making. And this macro level is generally far more ‘unconscious’ than we have previously believed, which is another way of saying that, with the growth of neurology (and my previous mention of exponential growth in this field is no exaggeration), the mapping of neurological activity, the research into neurotransmission and general brain chemistry, the concept of ‘consciousness’ has largely been ignored, perhaps because it resembles too much the homunculus that Sapolsky mocks. 

As Sapolsky quite urgently points out, this question of free will and individual responsibility is far from being the fun and almost frolicsome philosophical conundrum that some have seemed to suggest. It has major implications for the law, and for crime and punishment. For example, there are legal discussions in the USA, one of the few ‘civilised’ nations that still execute people, as to the IQ level above which you’re smart enough to be executed, and how that IQ is to be measured. This legal and semi-neurological issue affects a significant percentage of those on death row. A significant percentage of the same people have been shown to have damage to the prefrontal cortex. How much damage? How did this affect the commission of the crime? Neurologists may not be able to answer this question today, but future neurologists might. 

So, for me, the central issue in the free will debate is the term ‘free’. Let’s look at how Marvin Edwards describes it in his blog post ‘Free will skepticism: an incoherent notion’. I’ve had a bit of a to-and-fro with Marvin – check out the comments section on my previous post on the topic, referenced below. His definition is very basic. For a will, or perhaps I should say a decision, to be free it has to be void of ‘undue influences’. That’s it. And yet he’s an out and out determinist, agreeing that if we could account for all the ‘influences’, or causal operants, affecting a person’s decision, we could perfectly predict that decision in advance. So it is obvious to Marvin that free will and determinism are perfectly compatible.

That’s it, I say again. That’s the entire substance of the argument. It all hangs on this idea of ‘undue influence’, an idea apparently taken from standard philosophical definitions of free will. Presumably a ‘due influence’ is one that comes from ‘the self’ and so is ‘free’. But this is an incoherent notion, to borrow Marvin’s phrase. Again it runs up against Sapolsky’s homunculus, an uncaused decider living inside the brain, aka ‘the self’. Here’s what Sapolsky has to say about the kind of compatibilism Marvin is advocating for, which he (Sapolsky) calls ‘mitigated free will’, a term taken from his colleague Joshua Greene. It’s a long quote, but well worth transcribing, as it captures my own skepticism as exactly as anything I’ve read:

Here’s how I’ve always pictured mitigated free will:

There’s the brain – neurons, synapses, neurotransmitters, receptors, brain-specific transcription factors, epigenetic effects, gene transpositions during neurogenesis. Aspects of brain function can be influenced by someone’s prenatal environment, genes, and hormones, whether their parents were authoritarian or their culture egalitarian, whether they witnessed violence in childhood, when they had breakfast. It’s the whole shebang, all of this book.

And then, separate from that, in a concrete bunker tucked away in the brain, sits a little man (or woman, or agendered individual), a homunculus at a control panel. The homunculus is made of a mixture of nanochips, old vacuum tubes, crinkly ancient parchment, stalactites of your mother’s admonishing voice, streaks of brimstone, rivets made out of gumption. In other words, not squishy biological brain yuck.

And the homunculus sits there controlling behaviour. There are some things outside its purview – seizures blow the homunculus’s fuses, requiring it to reboot the system and check for damaged files. Same with alcohol, Alzheimer’s disease, a severed spinal cord, hypoglycaemic shock. 

There are domains where the homunculus and that biology stuff have worked out a détente – for example, biology is usually automatically regulating your respiration, unless you must take a deep breath before singing an aria, in which case the homunculus briefly overrides the automatic pilot.

But other than that, the homunculus makes decisions. Sure, it takes careful note of all the inputs and information from the brain, checks your hormone levels, skims the neurobiology journals, takes it all under advisement, and then, after reflecting and deliberating, decides what you do. A homunculus in your brain, but not of it, operating independently of the material rules of the universe that constitute modern science.

This captures perfectly, to me, the dilemma of those sorts of compatibilists who insist on determinism but. They seem more than reluctant to recognise the implications of that determinist commitment. It’s an amusing description – I love the bit about the aria – But it seems to me just right. As to the implications for our cherished sense of freedom, we can at least reflect that it has ever been thus, and it hasn’t stopped us thriving in our selfish, selfless ways. But as to the implications for those of us less fortunate in the forces that have moved us since childhood and before, that’s another story.


R Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst, Bodley Head 2017. Note especially Chapter 16, ‘Biology, the criminal justice system and free will’.

Written by stewart henderson

October 27, 2018 at 1:25 pm