A BOZO OF A BABOON: Robert Sapolsky (p4)

Meanwhile people on the sociobiological end figured out how to repackage themselves. They got rid of that label because it had so many bad connotations and reinvented themselves as evolutionary psychologists. They did it at a time when everybody else was more interested in hostile takeovers or cashing in on the '80s so somehow it didn't ignite as a lightning rod. They're a perfectly respectable discipline, which means they have as many people saying they make no sense as do the literary analysts. Somehow they've reinvented themselves that way, and so a lot of the furor has died down.

A critical juncture in my own career occurred in my freshman year of college. I went to study with Irwin DeVore. He was the grand old man of baboon research, and had done the first studies of baboons in the wild. During my freshman year he had a minor heart attack, and canceled his classes. So, on a whim, I took an introductory neurobiology class and was blown away by the possibility of getting at some of the issues I'd been thinking about—complex social behaviors and individual personality differences—instead of an evolutionary model of explanation.

From this angle you could begin to understand what's going on in the brain.

That generated a crisis in me for the rest of college. I asked myself, "Am I a neurobiologist? Am I a zoologist?" If I was going to spend the rest of my life in a tent in hiking shoes, what was I doing pipetting stuff in a lab at two in the morning, and oscillating between lab and primate research. Still uncertain at the end of college I delayed graduate school in neurobiology for a year and a half to go out and start this baboon field project. It looked like I was heading in the direction of neurobiology, and I wanted to get at least one shot out there in the field. But I came back realizing there was no way in hell that this was going to be my only time out in the field. Ever since I have been dealing with an intellectual tension that vacillates between the two ends.


Sometimes it's as interesting to study primate researchers as it is to study the apes, baboons, and monkeys. There's something of a caste system at work. There’s a definite envy among the people who study monkeys of the folks who study the big glamor picture apes.

You feel as if you’ve crossed this species barrier divide and all of that, and the least you can wind up doing is getting something that makes tools. The monkey researchers feel subordinated by the ape researchers, but at least there’s all these prosimian researchers we can dump on, making these snotty taxonomic arguments as to whether prosimians even count as primates.

If anything, the hierarchy usually runs within species. It’s the style that at one extreme you’ve got excessive reductive types who are quantifying the number of blades of grass per hour that their species eats, and do time budget analyses as a function of the thickness of the ozone layer and their papers are total hard-ass science: it’s math and it’s equations, and often horrndously boring, at lease to me. At the other extreme you have the people who have no idea how to do any quantitative science and they come back with the most amazing observations of stuff that strikes home. You’ve got cultural transmission and you’ve got tool use and you’ve got what appear to be psychiatric disorders and primates’ grief..., but all in this really unscientific framework. And each camp is utterly contemptuous of the other.

In terms of the two extremes, I'll just be nice enough to say that that the reductionists tend to be behavior ecologist types, people who get in the pattern of counting numbers of leaves and are kind of stuck in that pattern for much of the rest of their life—it's a data-heavy end.

Then there's the "Oh, my God, these people have no numbers in their papers except the page numbers and the volumes, but what they're doing is interesting".

Admittedly, the latter is the crowd that changes our perception of ourselves as a species. Jane Goodall of course is the goddess of this realm. When you look at the people in between, the best example is Frans De Waal, who has brought rigorous, quantitative science on which can do bigtime statistical analysis, but he's looking at amazing questions of primate politics, and political behavior and coalitional stuff.

In that regard he has wedded the two traditions better than anyone. He's definitely the 600-pound gorilla in the field, as well he should be, but it depends heavily on whether or not you're a primate ecology type, the folks that are actually out there getting shot at by poachers—they get tremendous moral currency for what they're doing—versus the folks that are more vivisection oriented, working with captive primates. In some ways it's a very scattered community, utterly divided between hard-nosed scientific research basic science folks, versus the conservation folks versus the sentimentalist story tellers. It's a very odd community. And, as it turns out, it's a very un-housebroken community.

I've always been interested in figuring out how to assimilate being a basic lab scientist—locked up with a bunch of rats or a bunch of neurons growing in a dish, and using a very reductive approach to figure out how the brain works—with my alternative life of the past 25 years which has involved looking at primate physiology and social behavior in East Africa. It's been this process of trying to figure out how to bridge the bottom-up lab approach and the top-down field approach to begin to get a sense of where our individual differences come from, how experience shapes the brain, and how adverse experiences in the form of stress shape the brain. Not surprisingly, I don't feel as if I've merged the two halves very effectively.

In the last couple of years I've realized where I want to take this in the next decade or so. This is one of those ideas that requires having kids since suddenly you find development to be fascinating. I've got a three-year-old and a six-year-old and what I'm finding most interesting right now is the realm of moral development. This interest is probably right on schedule for a parent of a kid in a certain range.

Moral development is very heavily built around a part of the brain I used to ignore because you don't find much of it in a lab rat: the frontal cortex. The frontal cortex is an incredibly interesting part of the brain, since it's the nearest thing we've got to a super-ego. It's 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.

The most amazing thing is that there is a dogma of neural development. The dogma is 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. But it turns out 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.

To put this in personal terms, my six-year-old might do something appallingly horrible and selfish and age appropriate to one of my three-year-old's toys. 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?"

The concept of there being consequences to your actions is second nature to people who think about child development, and certainly about moral development in kids, but how does that get translated down to this nuts-and-bolts level of the brain? How does "How else is he going to learn about it?" turn into a frontal cortex that allows him someday to do the right thing even though it's the harder thing, and even though everybody else is doing something else? How does someone learn when it is important to step away from the crowd at the critical moment? This question is turning into the one that really fascinates me, and it's not a terribly easy problem to go after.

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