The Biology of Individuality

May 11, 2006

The Biology of Individuality

A lecture by Robert Sapolsky

Renowned Neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky gave a riveting lecture at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco a few weeks ago about what could only be described as the biology of individuality. However, the lecture was more of an excellent summary and introduction to his book and audiobook, Biology and Human Behavior – The Neurological Origins of Individuality, than it was a concise summary of the biology of individuality. It is further unfortunate when his succinct arguments are mired in the incredibly interesting examples he gives. The astonishment of them washes over your mind and you forget his basic premises of what counts as individuality or how our individuality is different from the individualistic biologies of other organisms. He begins his lecture by introducing three ways humans are looked at in relation to other animals.

The first being, humans are just like every other animal on the planet, followed by, we are made of the same building blocks as all other animals but utilize those building blocks to novel proportions, and lastly that there is no animal precedent of humanity; essentially he's referencing creationists. He disregards the first and last world views and continues his argument that humans are made from the same things as every other animal but the magnitude at which we use those building blocks, our brains, is vastly more complex.

One of the great examples I admired was his chess example. Two animals are sitting facing one another pushing little pieces of wood around on a table, sporadically removing pieces, with intense expressions of contemplation on their faces. These two Grandmaster Chess players using their powerful intellect have the same metabolism as tri-athletes. These chess players are burning seven thousand calories a day just by thinking. Later on in the lecture he references one of the few genes which make up the 1.6 percent difference in genetic information between a human and a chimpanzee, specifically the gene which involves neuronal cell division. Basically suggesting that the magnitude in intellect between a chimpanzee and a human can be boiled down to the factor at which our brain cells divide and multiply versus the chimpanzee's brain cells. If we have 30 brain cells for one of the chimpanzee's, it allows us to create everything from fire to the nuclear bomb.

After the chess example he reverts back to his original argument and begins to break down several anthropocentric views about humans beginning with Aggression. The opposing argument made here is that humans are the only animal who are aggressive enough in nature to be killing members of their own species. Sapolsky hits back at this claim by introducing evidence of chimpanzee organized violence so advanced that it borders on, what he called, “proto-genocide.”

The next argument Sapolsky begins to break down is the idea that humans are unique because we recognize our own existence, a la the Cartesian argument of “I think, therefore I am.” With another delicious example Sapolsky shows that this level of consciousness is not unique to humans. The occluder test was used in chimps. It involved a very simple setup; two rooms with a window so the animals could see one another, with two small walls on each side of the room to place food behind. If you put a dominant baboon in one room and a submissive baboon in the other, and place a piece of food behind one of the walls so dominant baboon cannot see the food but submissive can; the submissive baboon will get up and pick up the piece of food because, as Sapolsky explains, the baboon understands that the dominant baboon cannot see the food. The submissive baboon is conscious enough about his/her own existence to know that s/he won't be attacked for taking food because s/he is aware of the theory of mind present in the dominant baboon. Sounds sort of selfish but Sapolsky continues down the list by introducing one of the strongest religious arguments there is, that of the golden rule.

The Golden Rule, a concept present in the religious texts of dozens of religions around the world is essentially: “Do unto others, as you wish to have them do unto you.” That of tit-for-tat reciprocity. Sapolsky finally uses a non-primate example to suggest that this idea is not unique to humans but is present in the animal kingdom, particularly vampire bats. When vampire bats catch their prey and suck blood they don't drink it right there; they store the blood in large pouches in their cheeks to feed to their communal nest. An experiment was done in which after the vampire bats had attacked and stored blood in their pouches, scientists caught them and removed the blood but kept the pouches puffed up with air. When the vampire bat returned to feed the younger vampire bats noticed a big puffed up pouch and probably thought, “Oh boy! I'm in for some fine dining tonight!” only to find out that there was nothing but air in there. The bat is excluded, untrusted, and neglected because the younger bats felt unfairly treated or lied to.

Continuing, the next argument which he disproves is that of empathy. Humans are incredibly empathic, so much so that we feel and understand pain of animals other than our own species. When we see a mutilated dog we feel the pain and suffering of that dog. However, chimps also illicit empathic behavior evident in the “innocent bystander” example. In dominant-submissive primate social structures, those primates who go against the established hierarchy are thoroughly trounced by those primates that desire to maintain the status quo. Afterwards, the trounced primate is comforted by the more submissive primates in an effort to relieve the abused primate's pain through empathic grooming.

Lastly, Sapolsky discusses the human phenomenon of pleasure in anticipation and that of delay of gratification. While the rise of technology which makes life easier and more pleasure might give more weight to the argument that humans actually do not understand the purpose of delay of gratification but rather wish and encourage the emptiness of instant gratification, the concept is not unique to human societies. In an experiment involving a task, a chimp, and dopamine levels, researchers were able to figure out whether a chimp feels after solving a task. It was originally believed that the chimp would feel gratification for doing a task if it was rewarded with a treat upon successful completion, however, Sapolsky suggests that the chimp feels most rewarded by simply successfully accomplishing the task, not by eating the treat. Studying dopamine levels in chimps during a task, Sapolsky shows that dopamine levels are at their lowest in the beginning of the session. As the chimp tries to accomplish the task, such as trying to put a cube in a square slot in a common children's toy, the dopamine levels slowly rise but take a jump higher the moment at which the task is completed and then, most interestingly, plummet when the chimp is given a reward. For the chimp, the anticipation of completing the task is more gratifying than being rewarded for completion.

Sapolsky continues with his lecture but digresses from the argument-by-argument destruction of human uniqueness. His examples never cease to amaze. He references the controversial phenomenon called the Jerusalem Syndrome, the recent studies of schizo-typal personality disorder, and every neurologists favorite man; Phineas Gage. He ends his lecture with a reference to the sci-fi story, The 9 Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke. It's about a Buddhist monastery that wishes to name all 9 billion names of God. They hire two Westerners to bring a computer and begin programming in each name of God. But as they program name, one star disappears from the sky. The monks fear that once all names are entered, existence will lose all meaning and that God will “wind up” the universe. This is meant to confront the idea that science is continually explaining the mysteries of the universe which presents a fear that eventually life will lose it's mystery, it's glow and beauty, and life will become a dull and faded when everything is explained. However, Sapolsky explains the phenomenon that whenever we answer a question a dozen more pop up more interesting and more mystifying than the questions which preceded it. The universe is not becoming less mysteries as science explains it, science is becoming more and more interesting and mystifying and with it, we are coming to know our existence in this world more and more beautifully.


One Response to “The Biology of Individuality”

  1. Dr. Rudi said

    Re “The 9 Billion Names of God” — that’s not it at all! The monks of the story are perfectly aware that the recording of the names will complete man’s ultimate destiny and bring about the end of the world. They don’t fear it; they’re working for it.

    And one star does not go out for each name pronounced. In the story, the end of the world only begins when the computer completes its last cycle of computations. “Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.”

    Interpret it however you wish, but don’t “paint over da Vinci”.

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