Robert Sapolsky’s Edutaining “Human Behavioral Biology”

datePosted on 10 April 2019 by cjf

Is human behavior “a magnificent, fascinating, nuanced interaction between nature and nurture”? To what extent is our behavior controlled by our biology and to what extent does our behavior control our biology? What is the nature of a biolgically-based human being? What is unique about the behavior of humans in the animal kingdom?

These questions are the broad concerns of the 25 videos totalling 36 hours and 40 minutes constituting the free on-line edition of Stanford University’s Bio 150 course “Human Behavioral Biology” recorded in the spring of 2010 with Robert Sapolsky. The course is an accessible yet scientifically detailed introduction to modern biology’s understanding of human behavior. It is a broad biology-centered approach where animal comparisons and a broad systems perspective engage a way of understanding our psychology without too much solipsism. Sapolsky’s gift for story-telling and his style of boldly confronting the moral implications of his poignant topics make the lectures engaging edutainment. Topics include sexuality, violence, language, mental illness, religiosity, and individuality which are explained using the main biological subjects of evolutionary theory, genetics, ethology, endocrinology, and neuroscience.

Although I finished studying “Human Behavioral Biology” in July 2016, its continued influence on my thinking and the diffuse locations of my notes has led me to want to document its highlights, my notes on the videos, and the events I organized to explore aspects of the course in small groups. Hence this summary.

Perhaps, Sapolsky’s most profound contribution to my thinking came in the first lecture in his course where he composes a list of the dangers of categorial thinking:

  1. We can miss the big picture by focusing on boundaries.
  2. We tend to underestimate differences when two cases happen to fall in the same category.
  3. We tend to overestimate differences when cases happen to fall on opposite sides of a boundary.

Of course, as Sapolsky himself acknowledges, categories are essential scaffolding for our thinking. In fact, I cannot imagine how we could think at all without some distinctions, some categories. But these profound dangers affect every distinction, every assumption, and every taxonomy that we might entertain. For me, this realization was stunning, profound, and transformative. Do you see the significance? Can you imagine the comport of its implications?

Another important aspect of the course was to better understand the profound interrelationship between genetics and environment. For me this really hit home when Sapolsky explained how the cure for one of the most devastating single-gene mutation diseases known, PKU (phenylketonuria), is treated with a simple modification to one’s diet; a genetic disease “cured” by a simple change to the environment! Nature and nurture are both categories that belie the far more subtle and interfused gene-environment interaction. That and the treatment of epigenetics, transcription factors, life history including perinatal development, and the limitations imposed by the requirement of controlled experiments in science gave me a much clearer understanding of how the gene-environment interaction belies many widespread but erroneous assumptions and studies in genetics.

Another significant feature of the course is the way it engages complex systems thinking by looking at the determinants of human behavior from most proximate to most distal: the behavior itself and its releasing stimuli (ethology), neurobiology, acute and chronic hormonal environment, perinatal biology & environment, culture, genetics of the individual, ecological and environmental context, and evolutionary history. Should we think of all causality as this kind of multi-layered, intricate confluences of many overlapping and interconnected systems? I think so! And Sapolsky gives a feeling for this way of thinking that is remarkably effective, if you put in the effort to think it through carefully.

Saplosky’s lectures boldly face many of the challenges posed by our modern understanding of biology as applied to human behavior. His engaging lecture style never shys away from controversy so he can address, with accessible but scientifically nuanced detail, broad questions about biological determinism and the biology of morality.

Below I present my curated edition of the course. It will, I hope, help you get even more out of the videos. It might even help you organize your own events to explore on ideas in the course with others. At the end I invite your feedback on this curation, and the materials it includes, and on the prospect that this kind of curatorial approach to organizing group explorations might prototype a new educational service to help our civilization better address its crisis of ignorance.

Before I watched the course, I enjoyed Sapolsky’s 37 minute, 13 June 2009 lecture “The Uniqueness of Humans” and organized a 15 April 2012 Thinking Society group exploration “The Uniqueness and Evolution of Humans”. Between 14 July 2013 and 2 July 2016, I organized 10 topics and 19 small group conversations to explore the ideas in Sapolsky’s course. By finding Jon Dakins’s Robert Sapolsky Rocks site, additional web searching, and my own cultivated naïveté, I enhanced these topics with facts, ideas, and questions that go beyond a first-cut listening to the course videos.

In the listing of resources below, roman numbers (e.g., 4) indicate the index of the video in the Stanford YouTube playlist. I affix a letter for supplementary videos. The digbat circled numbers (e.g., ➂) refer to the order of topics in the series of events I organized on the course. I generally place my topic before the videos that inspired it. One exception is the first video in the course which I covered in the ➉th topic organized. My G+ and Facebook notes are essentially identical (for G+, I link to my local archive of my posts, but some links may fail now that G+ has expired), but they are formatted slightly differently and different people commented on one platform or the other.

I wrote digital notes on each video and posted them to social media (G+ and FaceBook). They are very rough. Sometimes I quote Sapolsky without attribution and sometimes I interject my own thoughts. So they are a scholar’s nightmare, but I didn’t want to spend time rewatching all the videos many additional times to clean up the notes. Their purpose was to highlight many of the key ideas so that others could find them, to spur thinking about the videos, to supplement the group exploration events I organized, and to chase down some of the cross-references. Be very skeptical of the notes as I have already found and fixed numerous embarrassments in them. However, overall, they are, I hope, helpful. And their errors may spur further correspondence and learning. If you notice any errors, please let me know.

If you follow the links to the Meetup events, which are indicated with digbat circled numbers, you will find a summary of the topic, a list of resources, and, in some cases, comments that highlight some of the key ideas. They are a condenced re-presentation of my notes which are a condenced re-presentation of each Sapolsky video.

1. Introduction to Human Behavioral Biology (March 29, 2010) 57m (YouTube)

➀ The Evolutionary and Genetic Bases of Human Behavior

2. Behavioral Evolution (March 31, 2010) 96m (YouTube)

3. Behavioral Evolution II (April 2, 2010) 96m (YouTube)

4. Molecular Genetics I (April 5, 2010) 93m (YouTube)

  • DNA, RNA, proteins, mutations, the central dogma of molecular biology and its refutation, epigenetics, transcription factors, DNA “promoter” or “repressor” sequences, splicing enzymes; important examples: phenylketonuria (PKU), testicular-feminizing syndrome, FOXP2 (a language gene), RNA retroviruses, “junk” DNA.
  • My notes (G+)
  • My notes (Facebook)
  • Jon Dakins’ notes

5. Molecular Genetics II (April 7, 2010) 74m (YouTube)

6. Behavioral Genetics I (April 12, 2010) 98m (YouTube)

  • Flaws in the methods used to find a genetic basis for behavior; non-mendelian inheritance of traits; twin studies, adoption studies (cross fostering in animal studies), identical twins separated at birth, pre-natal environmental effects, Dutch hunger winter, indirect genetic effects.
  • My notes (G+)
  • My notes (Facebook)
  • Jon Dakins’ notes

7. Behavioral Genetics II (April 14, 2010) 92m (YouTube)

  • Chance, heritability, and the gene-environment interaction; genetic markers; genetic diseases: phenylketonuria (PKU), Huntington’s disease, and cystic fibrosis; how controlled studies necessarily overestimate the genetic component of heritability.
  • My notes (G+)
  • My notes (Facebook)
  • Jon Dakins’ notes

➁ The Biology of Learning

8. Recognizing Relatives (April 16, 2010) 79m (YouTube)

  • How to question a scientific study to put its results in perspective. How do organisms recognize kin (relatives)? The major histocompatibility complex, pheromones, autism, Martha McClintock, imprinting, pseudo-kinship.
  • My notes (G+)
  • My notes (Facebook)
  • Jon Dakins’ notes

9. Ethology (April 19, 2010) 101m (YouTube)

  • How ethology (luminaries: Nikolaas Tinbergen, Karl von Frisch, and Konrad Lorenz) refuted the extremist views of behaviorism (John B. Watson, B. F. Skinner, etc); fixed action patterns, releasing stimulus (“releasers”), innate releasing mechanisms, learning behavior, prepared learning, self-awareness, theory of mind, numerosity.
  • My notes (G+)
  • My notes (Facebook)
  • Jon Dakins’ notes

➂ Brain Science and Human Behavior

  • If a human brain consists of about 100 billion neurons each with about 10,000 connections (known as synapses) which communicate to each other by pumping neurotransmitters stored in vesicles into the gap between neurons, why are our brains not completely awash in noise and misfirings and confusion? How can individual differences and diverse responses to experience manifest in the working of the brain? Where and how are concepts & categories & memories stored in the brain? What are the difficulties and challenges in studying the brain? Is there a rational part of the brain or are we emotional creatures?
  • Inspired by course videos 10, 11, 12, 13, and 14.
  • 12 January 2014 (Meetup) (G+ announcement) (Facebook announcment) (Twitter announcement)
  • 18 January 2014 (Meetup)
  • 2 February 2014 (facilitated by Joe N. and Joyti Marwah) (Meetup)

10. Introduction to Neuroscience I (April 21, 2010) 60m Nathan Woodling and Anthony Chung-Ming Ng (YouTube)

11. Introduction to Neuroscience II (April 23, 2010) 73m Patrick House and Dana Turker (YouTube)

  • Memory (hippocampus), neurogensis and plasticity, inhibition; autonomic nervous system (ANS): parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and sympathetic nervous system (SNS).
  • My notes (G+)
  • My notes (Facebook)

12. Endocrinology (April 26, 2010) 49m William Peterson and Tom McFadden (YouTube)

  • There are four ways for cells to communicate: direct contact, paracrine, neuronal, and endocrine; The endocrine system: chemical messages by hormones in the blood; peptide and steroid hormones; primary brain endocrine glands: the hypothalamus, pituitary, and pineal gland; peripheral endocrine glands include the thyroid gland, adrenal glands, pancreas, ovary, testis; regulation.
  • My notes (G+)
  • My notes (Facebook)

13. Advanced Neurology and Endocrinology (April 28, 2010) 73m (YouTube)

  • Neuroendocrinology, the limbic system, complexities in the neurological and endocrine systems, neuroendocrine axes, hypothalamus, hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, possible regulation mechanisms, negative feedback, autoregulation, steroid hormones, glucocorticoids, GABA, neuromodulation.
  • My notes (G+)
  • My notes (Facebook)
  • Jon Dakins’ notes

14. Limbic System (April 30, 2010) 88m (YouTube)

  • The emotional decision-making system of the brain, unifying theory of the limbic system (central role of hypothalamus), olfaction is just one synapse from the hypothalamus, the model of the triune brain, anatomy of the limbic system, the nature and limitations of brain research, the James-Lang theory of emotion.
  • My notes (G+)
  • My notes (Facebook)
  • Jon Dakins’ notes

➃ The Biology of Human Sexual Behavior

15. Human Sexual Behavior I (May 5, 2010) 101m (YouTube)

  • New strategy for the second part of the course: Sapolsky will attempt to understand human behavior by integrating the complex of biological determinants from most proximate to most distal: the behavior itself and its releasing stimuli (ethology), neurobiology, acute and chronic hormonal environment, perinatal biology & environment, culture, genetics of the individual, ecological and environmental context, and evolutionary history.
  • Topics: neurobiology of sex, releasing stimuli, libido, attractivity, proceptivity, receptivity, female orgasm, non-reproductive sex, foreplay, homosexuality, masturbation, fantasy, marriage, romance, serial monogamy, hermaphrodite, parthenogenesis, transsexuality.
  • My notes (G+)
  • My notes (Facebook)

16. Human Sexual Behavior II (May 7, 2010) 100m (YouTube)

  • Pheromones, releasing stimuli, hormones, perinatal factors, homosexuality, sexual identity, intersexuality, genetic effects, evolutionary history, cuckoldry, female choice, intersexual friendships, rape.
  • My notes (G+)
  • My notes (Facebook)

17. Human Sexual Behavior III & Aggression I (May 10, 2010) 96m (YouTube)

  • Attractiveness, female-female competition, homosexuality.
  • Beginning a broad biological survey of morality, empathy and aggression. What is violence? Violence and aggression, aggressive play and dominance hierarchies, uniqueness of human aggression, the uniqueness of human empathy, the amygdala and aggression, reconciliation, sense of justice, empathy, Patas monkey male-male aggression.
  • My notes (G+)
  • My notes (Facebook)
  • Jon Dakins’ notes

➄ The Biology of Morality: the roots of human aggression & empathy

18. Aggression II (May 12, 2010) 105m (YouTube)

  • Amygdala and fear, Williams syndrome, the frontal cortex and the modulation of violence, aggression, competition, & cooperation, McNaughton Rule, the functions of the septum, lateral hypothalamus, & anterior cingulate, the connection between thought and emotion, metaphor and affective decision-making in the brain, psychopathological confusion of love and hate, testosterone and aggression.
  • My notes (G+)
  • My notes (Facebook)
  • Jon Dakins’ notes

19. Aggression III (May 14, 2010) 101m (YouTube)

  • Moral reasoning and emotion, serotonin & alcohol effects on morality, releasing stimuli for aggression, testosterone and other androgens, perimenstral hormones, environmental triggers of aggression, developmental influences on aggression, theory of mind and empathy, Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, effects of parents, peer groups and community on aggression, role of unwanted children in violence, lack of evidence for an effect of moral reasoning.
  • My notes (G+)
  • My notes (Facebook)
  • Jon Dakins’ notes

20. Aggression IV (May 17, 2010) 102m (YouTube)

  • Effects of perinatal development on aggression and empathy, the hypermale hypothesis of autism, genetic effects on aggression, ecological and cultural effects on aggression, cultural factors for terrorism, evolutionary influences of aggressive behavior, pseudokinship, pseudospeciation, the importance of symbols in peacemaking, evolution of cooperation.
  • My notes (G+)
  • My notes (Facebook)
  • Jon Dakins’ notes

➅ Beyond Reductionism: The Biology of Complexity, Chaos & Emergence

  • Reductionism is the idea that we can understand systems by decomposing them into more elementary parts which combine under definite rules to produce the whole. Although it is one of the most successful ideas in science, it appears to be inadequate for biology and many other complex and chaotic systems. How does reductionism fail in biological systems? How and why is reductionsim still useful in biology? What is the nature of the successes and failures of reductionism in science? How can we understand the strengths and limitations of reductionism? What is the nature of the new ideas of chaoticism and complex systems which attempt to describe how complex properties emerge from components whose combinations are too unpredictable to encompass precisely?
  • Inspired by course videos 21 and 22.
  • Sapolsky recommends students read James Glick’s Pulitzer Prize winning book “Chaos: Making a New Science” for this part of the course.
  • 10 May 2015 (Meetup) (G+ announcement) (Facebook announcement) (Twitter announcement)

21. Chaos and Reductionism (May 19, 2010) 97m (YouTube)

  • The weaknesses and strengths of reductionism in science, the butterfly effect, the Lorenzian waterwheel and other models of scale-free and fractal or otherwise complex systems in nature, how reductionism breaks down in biological science, chaoticism, one weakness of science: when you control for variables in your experiments, you may miss the real complexity in the system by designing experiments that only look at the predictable parts of the system, strange attractors, the philosophical possibility is that variability, noise, and unpredictability may be fundamental and inherent.
  • My notes (G+)
  • My notes (Facebook)
  • Jon Dakins’ notes

22. Emergence and Complexity (May 21, 2010) 102m (YouTube)

  • Complex adaptive systems, cellular automata, emergent complexity, neural networks, fractals, power law distributions, “the optima is just an emergent imaginary thing”, multimodal neurons in the associational cortex, the cantor set, the Koch snowflake, the Menger sponge, and the packing problem, the “wisdom of the crowds” phenomenon, agent based systems, emergent swarm intelligence, attraction and repulsion rules in agent-based systems.
  • My notes (G+)
  • My notes (Facebook)
  • Jon Dakins’ notes

➆ The Biology of Language

  • Biology can offer unique clues to understand one of humanity’s most profound and mysterious faculties, the ability to communicate through language. What properties are common to all human languages? How does the brain process language? What cognitive role is there in language? How do we learn language? Is sign language different in any fundamental way from spoken language? Is our view of the world influenced by our language? Is a language lost to the mists of history a loss to humanity’s ability to understand the world? What are the implications that roughly half of the approximately 7,000 languages on the planet are not being taught to children?
  • Inspired by course video 23 and the first 23 minutes of video 24
  • 12 July 2015 (Meetup) (G+ announcement) (Facebook announcement) (Twitter announcement)
  • 25 October 2015 (facilitated by Sandy Catz) (Meetup)

23. Language (May 21, 2010) 102m (YouTube)

  • The behavior and biology of language, meta-communication, neurobiology of language, the acquisition and development of language, animal communication, sign language, prosody, Williams syndrome, Broca’s area, Wernicke’s area, the arcuate fasciculus, neurology of language acquisition, Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the relationship between thought and language.
  • My notes (G+)
  • My notes (Facebook)
  • Jon Dakins’ notes

➇ The Biology of Mental Illness: Schizophrenia and Depression

24. Schizophrenia (May 26, 2010) 100m (YouTube)

24-B. Elyn Saks: Seeing Mental Illness (June 2012)

24-C. On Depression in U.S. (uploaded 10 November 2009) 52m (YouTube)

➈ The Biology of Religiosity

  • What are the biological roots of our religious sense? What does it mean to have religious qualities deeply embedded in our human nature and imposed by our biology? Do we need them? What can we make of the fact that each of our decision’s to be religious or irreligious is one of the most defining decisions of our lives yet may be due to a neurotransmitter hiccup or a genetic influence? What does it mean that some people’s biology causes them to lose faith yet for others their biology builds their faith? Is our religiosity an adaptive trait from an evolutionary perspective?
  • Inspired by course video 24 and supplementary videos 24-D, 24-E, and 24-F
  • 9 January 2016 (Meetup) (G+ announcement) (Facebook announcement) (Twitter announcement)

24-D. Biological Underpinnings of Religiosity (from 2002, uploaded 30 December 2011) 82m (YouTube)

24-E. Karen Song interviews Robert Sapolsky about his views on religiosity (2008) 4m (YouTube)

24-F. Karen Song interview of Robert Sapolsky (2008) 8m (YouTube)

➉ The Biology of Human Behavior & Individuality: Is there Free Will?

  • What are we to make of our predicament as biological creatures? Biologically, our behavior is directly caused by our neurology responding to environmental stimuli in the context of our acute and chronic hormonal situation which was significantly shaped by our perinatal environment and its biology, not to mention the random factors inherent in our individual genetics which are also governed by the population genetics of our direct lineage which was shaped by the ecological factors that govern the complex of gene-environment interactions in that population plus the effects of millions of years of evolutionary history. Given this biological causality, what does it mean to be an individual human being? What does it mean that our individuality is the result of both random and deterministic biological processes? Is our individuality not “us”, but the imposition of our biology upon us? If our biology is responsible for who we are and how we behave, is free will illusory?
  • Inspired by course videos 1 & 25, 25-A & 25-B
  • 12 March 2016 (Meetup) (G+ announcement) (Facebook announcement)
  • 2 July 2016 (Meetup) (G+ announcement) (Facebook announcement)

25. Individual Differences (June 2, 2010) 53m (YouTube)

  • The biology of individuality, free will and determinism in biology, the biological basis of being human, the biology of our individual differences, quirks, and idiosyncrasies; what is the cause of abnormal human behavior? Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984, What are the neuropsychiatric “conditions” which lie in the netherland between normal and abnormal human behavior? Temporal lobe personality, Jerusalem syndrome, Stendhal’s disease, Trichophagia or Rapunzel syndrome, apotemnophilia, acrotemophilia (or body integrity identity disorder, BIID). What is the predicament of being human and biological?
  • My notes (G+)
  • My notes (Facebook)
  • Jon Dakins’ notes

25-A Edge TV Interview of Robert Sapolsky on Taxoplasmosis (TOXO: Edge Conversation with Robert Sapolsky)

Here is the full Stanford playlist for “Human Behavioral Biology”: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=EC848F2368C90DDC3D.

Please let me know if you find any issues or errors in my notes on any of the videos.

Please post comments or thoughts on any of the videos or events. What did you think of them? What seems important that should be highlighted? What, if anything, seems mistaken?

What do you think of Sapolsky’s course or my curation (re-presentation) of it?

What do you think of re-packaging this free on-line video course to inform explorations of the subject for others as a focus for group dialogue (and as an edutainment guide)? What worked for you and what didn’t? How would you re-package these materials to share them with your friends and associates?

How should ordinary citizens learn about how our worlds work? Is it important to have peers when learning or is watching a video course on your own adequate?

Should sharable free on-line video courses be a part of everyone’s on-going lifelong learning?

Does our civilization need a new institution, outside formal education (with no grades, no degrees, and no credentials), that engages ordinary citizens of diverse backgrounds in explorations of important subjects guided by free on-line courses? Could this help civilization overcome the on-going crisis of ignorance that our world faces?

How would you improve upon my effort with Human Behavioral Biology to prototype this kind of educational service to help ordinary citizens grapple with better understanding how our world works?

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