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Robert Sapolsky

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Robert Sapolsky


Robert Sapolsky Breaks Down the Biology of Tribalism

His New Book, ‘Behave,’ Examines Why We’re Hardwired for Us/Them Dichotomies


Let’s face it: Most of us are species-centric. When a disturbing incident compels us to contemplate the mysteries of human behavior, we tend to compare one individual, family, or culture to another. Monkeys generally do not enter into the conversation.

This is understandable but limiting. If you doubt it, check out the surprisingly amusing, remarkably revealing writings of Robert Sapolsky, the MacArthur “genius” UCSB Arts & Lectures is bringing to Campbell Hall for a talk Tuesday night.

Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and author of the wide-ranging 2017 book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, spent much of his career in Kenya, researching primates — especially baboons.

So he looks at human behavior through an unusually wide lens, taking note of how our actions match, or differ from, those of our close relations in the animal kingdom. These comparisons aren’t always complimentary to humans.

Take inequality. While many of us fret about the growing gap between rich and poor, few have thought to notice that our level of unfairness hugely outpaces that of any other species.

“When humans invented material inequality,” he writes in Behave, “they came up with a way of subjugating the low-ranking like nothing ever seen before in the primate world.” So we are special!

But, Sapolsky adds, we resemble our simian counterparts in other ways. For one thing, we are all prone to tribalism — that is, instantaneously sizing up strangers to determine if they’re one of us and therefore to be trusted. For humans, this is the process that underlies racism, political polarization, and any number of prejudices.

“Primates are hardwired for us/them dichotomies,” he said in a telephone interview. “Our brains detect them in less than 100 milliseconds.” While he concedes that this is “depressing as hell,” he notes that we do have one major advantage over monkeys, should we choose to utilize it.

“The key thing about us is that we all belong to multiple tribes,” he said. “Even if we are predisposed into dividing the world into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ it’s incredibly easy to manipulate us as to who is an ‘us’ and who is a ‘them’ at any given moment.”

In other words, you may look at someone with suspicion because his politics differ from yours — but then feel intense camaraderie when you find yourself sitting next to him in a sports stadium and realize you’re rooting for the same team. That sort of mixing makes demonization difficult, and Sapolsky worries we’re doing less of it in this era of social-media echo chambers.

“We do our worst,” he said, “when we’re surrounded by a lot of people who agree with us.”

Robert Sapolsky will speak at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Tuesday, March 13, at 7:30 p.m. See artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.

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