Third Culture
Edge 118

Printer version

A BOZO OF A BABOON: A Talk with Robert Sapolsky [6.4.03]

For the humans who would like to know what it takes to be an alpha man—if I were 25 and asked that question I would certainly say competitive prowess is important—balls, translated into the more abstractly demanding social realm of humans. What's clear to me now at 45 is, screw the alpha male stuff. Go for an alternative strategy. Go for the social affiliation, build relationships with females, don't waste your time trying to figure out how to be the most adept socially cagy male-male competitor. Amazingly enough that's not what pays off in that system. Go for the affiliative stuff and bypass the male crap. I could not have said that when I was 25.



While an undergraduate at Harvard, Robert Sapolsky asked himself: "Am I a neurobiologist? Am I a zoologist?" He has spent the past 25 years reconciling his interest in being a lab scientist using "a very reductive approach to figure out how the brain works" with his work in figuring out primate physiology and social behavior in East Africa.

These areas come together in his thesis that "moral development is very heavily built around...the frontal cortex". According to Sapolsky, this is "the part of the brain that keeps us from belching loudly during the wedding ceremony, or telling somebody exactly what we think of the meal they made, or being a serial murderer. It's the part of the brain that controls impulsivity, that accepts the postponement of gratification, that does constraint and anticipation, and that makes you work hard because you will get into an amazing nursing home one day if you just keep pushing hard enough. It's all about this very human realm of holding off for later".

His ideas run counter to what he terms "a dogma of neural development... that by the time you're a couple of years old, you have your maximal number of neurons, and all of them are wired up and functioning". He maintains that "we make new neurons throughout life, and parts of the brain don't come fully on line until later. And, amazingly, the last area to do so is the frontal cortex, not until around age 30 or so. It's the last part of the brain to develop, and thus it's the part whose development is most subject to experience, environment, reinforcement, and the social world around you. That is incredibly interesting."

So what does this have to do with "a wonderful guy I named Benjamin. A total Bozo of a baboon"? Read on....


ROBERT SAPOLSKY is a professor of biological sciences at Stanford University and of neurology at Stanford's School of Medicine. He is also a research associate at the National Museums of Kenya. While his primary research, on stress and neurological disease, is in the laboratory, for twenty-three years he has made annual trips to the Serengeti of East Africa to study a population of wild baboons and the relationship between personality and patterns of stress-related disease in these animals. His latest book, A Primate's Memoir, grew out of the years spent in Africa. He is also the author of Stress, the Aging Brain, and the Mechanisms of Neuron Death, and two books for nonscientists, The Trouble With Testosterone and Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament andWhy Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: A Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases and Coping.

Robert Sapolsky's Edge Bio Page

LINKS: Robert Sapolsky Home Page