It’s behavioral biology, you dirty ape!

November 24, 2015

If they ever reboot the Carl Sagan/Neil deGrasse Tyson series, Cosmos, Stanford Biology and Neuroscience Professor Robert Sapolsky would be the coolest possible choice to develop it.


Sapolsky could tell us who it is inhabiting this rock that orbits a small yellow star in one of billions and billions of galaxies.

Sapolsky was an Orthodox Jewish kid, born in Brooklyn in 1957. He loved the mountain gorilla diorama at the Museum of Natural History, and once scandalized his Hebrew School teachers with literature about evolution. In college, he planned to study gorillas, but his lab work increasingly revolved around the health effects of stress.

In the late 1970s, science was beginning to recognize that stress could precipitate or exacerbate illness. The body produces hormones in emergencies to accelerate heart rate and respiration, inhibit digestion, and dilate the eyes. In a crisis, this would help us survive, but when the crisis is constant, it’s dangerous.


Gorillas didn’t lend themselves to investigation, but fiercely hierarchical baboons were plentiful in Kenya’s Serengeti grasslands. Four hours a day feeds them, leaving six hours for leisurely tormenting subordinate baboons. Sapolsky used a blowgun to plant anesthetic darts in simian keisters so he could examine the animals, post-abuse, and sample their blood for stress hormones.

Examination showed that subordinate baboons are prone to high levels of stress-related disease, although personality mitigates the effect. Higher levels of affiliation, grooming and being groomed by other baboons, helped. A study of British civil servants subsequently found similar results among humans.

Besides his own research, Sapolsky became a blowgun-for-hire for less ruthless researchers. He wrote that it was “perfect to shore up your precarious sense of manhood, and, best of all, you’re not even doing something appalling like hunting, you’re doing it all in the name of science and conservation. You can wipe out innocent, beatific baboons and still be a liberal.”

Sapolsky became attached to his monkey troop. (His two children are named after his favorites, Benjamin and Rachel.) So when 2/3 of the males succumbed to tuberculosis, he was devastated. A Masai butcher and the meat inspector at a nearby tourist lodge were buying tubercular cattle and throwing diseased organs to another troop of baboons that occupied the dump. Some of Sapolsky’s troop was fierce enough to poach it, and they died. Sapolsky abandoned his research for a season to test, euthanize, and autopsy baboons, fearing he would be obliged to kill all his monkey friends to contain the tuberculosis.

But the disease didn’t spread. The females and less aggressive males survived. The troop remains calmer and less hierarchical decades later. “I have gained, as they say, some perspective with the years. I no longer rage at night with the memories of that period.”

In his Stanford Human Behavioral Biology class, which is on YouTube, Sapolsky says what he learned from the baboons is: “Don’t dump on somebody because you’re having a bad day. Don’t displace on them in any sort of manner. Social affiliation is a remarkably powerful thing, and that’s said by somebody who lives in a world where ambition and drive and Type-A-ness and all of that sort of thing dominates. Those things are real important and one of the greatest forms of sociality is giving rather than receiving. And all of these things make for a better world.”

He doesn’t subscribe to the idea that heredity determines behavior. Genes may predispose us to certain behaviors, given certain environments, but without those environments to turn them on, genes won’t shape us.

He believes that “everyone needs to learn behavioral biology because we’re all being behavioral biologists”—on juries, as voters, and with family members.

Sapolsky now considers himself a “strident atheist,” but unlike Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, he doesn’t fall for a materialistic view of the sacred. He quotes Helen Prejean, the nun who ministers to death row prisoners, that the harder it is to forgive someone, the more important it is to forgive them. And the harder it is to build a better society, the more important that is, too.

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