Monkeyluv and Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals

With wit, humor, and not a few pop culture references, Robert Sapolsky offers a very readable exploration of the science behind the behavior of humans — and other creatures, too. In the process, he debunks some myths, skewers much of “conventional wisdom,” and develops convincing explanations for why we do what we do and how our inner and outer worlds interact.

The essays in Monkeyluv were first published between 1997 and 2005 in scientific and general-interest magazines ranging from Discover, Natural History, The Sciences, and Scientific American to Men’s Health and The New Yorker. For the book, Sapolsky grouped the essays into sections on “Genes and Who We Are,” “Our Bodies and Who We Are,” and “Society and Who We Are.” In each essay, new commentary is provided if the original seemed dated, and all are wrapped up with “Notes and Further Readings,” which turns out to be a classy way to provide bibliographic references and new material related to the original. No more flipping to the fine print in the back of the book or ignoring that mass of data altogether. Nice nuggets can be found here. And an introduction to each section gets the reader on board for what follows.

No need to be a science nerd to enjoy this book, either. Sapolsky takes us back to high school biology and then gently, clearly, brings us forward into what’s happening in research on depression, DNA and cloning, the human genome project, primate studies, bad moods, gender differences, the effects of stress, brain parasites, child abuse, cultural effects of deserts and rain forests, why “maybe” is harder to handle than “yes” or “no,” dreams, death, and why we tend to reject the new and novel as we age. Life.

Especially in the section on genes — but running throughout the book — is an awareness of (and attempt to correct) misperceptions of the subject matter that arise from garbled communication (and lack of understanding) by non-scientist writers and publications.

Sapolsky starts right off tackling the issue of how our “reductionist” problem-solving approach (“…if you want to understand a complex system, break it into its component parts”) works very well in some areas (vaccines, DNA research) but not so much in others (human behavior). He shows “how little genes often have to do with the biology of who we are.” While poking fun at his own profession, Sapolsky reminds that “you can’t begin to understand the functions of genes without appreciating how the environment regulates those genes.”

No, human behavior is not “innate, instinctual,” unpreventable, doomed to happen no matter what. The environments we live in, starting before birth and lasting until we die, interact with and affect genetic influences on behavior. Nature-versus-nurture is the wrong question. Instead, genes “produce tendencies to respond to the environment in certain ways.” We have more than semantic distinctions at work here. “…What knowledge about those genes keeps teaching us is that we have that much more of a responsibility to create environments that interact benignly with those genes.”

Sapolsky has long been at work on the issue of stress and how it affects the life of the planet. His book from the mid 1990s, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: A Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping, was one of the first to let laypeople in on the workings of stress in everyday life and how it contributes to many modern diseases. That book’s focus is “the dichotomy between the stress-response being adaptive when it is mobilized transiently for an acute physical stressor [commonly known as the fight-or-flight response], and increasing the risk of disease when it is mobilized chronically for reasons of psychological stress.” Although science now knows that adult brains do make new neurons all the time to replace those lost, certain chemicals, such as hydrocortisone, that wash over our brains during stress, can actually kill whole sections of cells that will not be replenished. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), no matter what its source, is real and deadly to brain health.

One of the last essays in the book deals with game theory — “issues of altruism, reciprocity, and competition.” That sounds pretty highfalutin until you realize it describes such topics as crime and punishment or our sense of cooperation and cheating. After setting up games where people could either 1) collaborate and succeed or 2) take a chance to “pay to punish” cheating (although that choice would soon lead to greater collaboration), researchers were surprised to learn that virtually everyone opted to pay to punish.

“Think about how weird this is. If a bunch of people were willing to incur costs to themselves by being spontaneously cooperative, that catapults you into an atmosphere of stable cooperation where everyone profits. Peace, harmony, Joan Baez singing as the credits roll. But people aren’t willing to do it. [Emphasis added.] In contrast, establish a setting where people can incur costs to themselves by punishing cheaters, where punishing doesn’t bring them any direct benefit or lead to any direct civic good…and they jump at the chance. And then, indirectly, an atmosphere of stable cooperation emerges from this frothy, emotional desire for revenge. …If I were a Vulcan researching social behavior on Earth, this would seem like an irrational mess. But as a social primate, this makes perfect, ironic sense. Some social good occurs as the emergent, mathematical outcome of a not particularly attractive social trait.”

Humans. Go figure.

Author: Robert M. Sapolsky
Published: New York: Scribner ©2005

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos