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Robert Sapolsky: “The Brain, Determinism, and Cultural Implications”

September 13, 2023

(Conversation recorded on August 22nd, 2023)

Show Summary

On this episode, neuroscientist and author Robert Sapolsky joins Nate to discuss the structure of the human brain and its implication on behavior and our ability to change. Dr. Sapolsky also unpacks how the innate quality of a biological organism shaped by evolution and the surrounding environment – meaning all animals, including humans – leads him to believe that there is no such thing as free will, at least how we think about it today. How do our past and present hormone levels, hunger, stress, and more affect the way we make decisions? What implications does this have in a future headed towards lower energy and resource availability? How can our species manage the mismatch of our evolutionary biology with our modern day challenges – and navigate through a ‘determined’ future?

About Robert Sapolsky

Robert Sapolsky is professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and a research associate with the Institute of Primate Research at the National Museum of Kenya. Over the past thirty years, he has divided his time between the lab, where he studies how stress hormones can damage the brain, and in East Africa, where he studies the impact of chronic stress on the health of baboons. Sapolsky is author of several books, including Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, A Primate’s Memoir, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, and his newest book coming out in October, Determined: Life Without Free Will. He lives with his family in San Francisco.

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Show Notes & Links to Learn More

PDF Transcript

00:20 – Robert Sapolsky Info + Works, Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will

06:30 – Evolutionary mismatch

07:53 – History of the separation of mind and body (Dualism)

08:01 – Descartes

12:52 – Biological roots of religiosity

18:12 – Testosterone amplifies learned behaviors

20:45 – We give social status to aggression

22:02 – Dopamine is about the anticipation of reward

24:55 – Dopamine habituation

27:10 – Dopamin resetting

29:33 – Oxytocin causes familial attachment and eventually pair bonding and cooperation

30:45 – Dogs and humans secrete oxytocin when looking at each other

31:30 – Oxytocin makes us prosocial to our in-group and anti-social to our out-group

34:48 – Past stress levels affect current decisions that we make

35:58 – By the 3rd trimester the mother’s socioeconomic status is affecting a fetus’ hormones

36:50 – Daily temps in a city are a significant predictor of violence levels

37:13 – The structure of the brain is different between urban and rural residents

38:58 – Returns on investing in early life 

39:45 – Non-mendelian inheritance of traits

40:40 – Societal adversity can have multi-generational effects

41:09 – Neuroplasticity

42:17 – What is free will?

42:26 – Behave: Biology of Humans at their Best and Worst

49:38 – Compatibilists

50:04 – Cognitive Dissonance

53:13 – Victor Frankl quote

56:10 – People treat ‘attractive’ people better

57:02 – African American men with more eurocentric traits are less likely to get convicted

1:12:15 – The prefrontal cortex

1:13:16 – Emergence

1:13:27 – The neuron of a fruit fly and the neuron of a human are the same, but humans have 100 million for every one that a fly has

1:18:20 – Quantum Indeterminacy

1:19:25 – Charles Goodnight, multilevel selection

1:21:15 – David Sloan Wilson

1:21:30 – E.O. Wilson

1:24:28 – Meritocracy

1:28:17 – History of epilepsy

1:29:23 – Determinism, Fatalism, Nihilism

1:36:55 – Richard DawkinsThe Selfish Gene

Nate Hagens

Nate Hagens

Nate Hagens is the Director of The Institute for the Study of Energy & Our Future (ISEOF) an organization focused on educating and preparing society for the coming cultural transition. Allied with leading ecologists, energy experts, politicians and systems thinkers ISEOF assembles road-maps and off-ramps for how human societies can adapt to lower throughput lifestyles. Nate holds a Masters Degree in Finance with Honors from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont. He teaches an Honors course, Reality 101, at the University of Minnesota.

Tags: determinism, free will, the brain