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I’ve written a few blogs on what I’ve learned from Robert Sapolsky. He’s a behavioural biologist at Stanford University who has spent decades living around and studying primate species like baboons. This has improved his knowledge of human behaviour, along with what he calls “different buckets” of information. They include fields like neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, genetics, anthropology, sociology, and endocrinology. In his lectures, and in his new amazing book called Behave, he explains the pros and cons of different reasoning methods in each bucket. Sapolsky does a great job of elaborating in detail on the incompatibility of some assumptions in different fields. He also talks and writes about how you can combine the accurate bits of knowledge to explain behaviour in understandable terms. Here are the links for my previous blogs about his work, called Are Men Actually Better at Math Than Women?, and There Are People Born as Both Male and Female Who Are Not Hermaphrodites:
This is part 2 of a 2 part blog series called Nature, Nurture, and Randomness. Here’s the link for part 1:
Human behaviour is even more complex than the two way combination of culture and genes that sociobiologists study. Learning and thinking about it is like entering The Matrix. Every time you discover something new, it brings up dozens more questions. They can each inexorably change your life forever as you find the answers. You often can’t definitively explain why someone behaves in a particular way. There are many reasonable possibilities, but figuring out which ones are objectively correct is borderline impossible. That’s why science relies on generalities. Don’t get me wrong. It’s amazing that scientists can explain as much as they do. Their knowledge will almost certainly continue increasing. But the incredible amount of individual variation means that analyses that sound 100% correct could easily be completely wrong.
Like I said, the environmental experiences that shape our personalities and life choices tend to be random. They’re so complex that sometimes, no one can determine which factors lead to a particular choice or behaviour. On one day, what we eat for breakfast might have much more effect on our psychology than the books we read, the new friends we make or the old ones we lose, spilling coffee on the way to work, that new promotion, or getting fired. Any of these factors might impact us far more than any others on different days depending on innumerable circumstances. Human emotions are highly variable and can’t always be explained. Random reasons might lead to what we eat for breakfast having no effect on us the day after it had more effect than anything else.
However, there’s rarely just one thing that has a much higher impact on our interactions with people than other factors. There are actually countless circumstances every day day that affect us in very different and fluctuating ways. Eighteen events in any minute might influence our behaviour both consciously and subconsciously. And the degree to which each of them impacts us will likely increase and decrease mildly or significantly as time passes. This is determined by our evolved genes. Our genetic expressions change depending on our cultural experiences. They make our brains predict the future, and act accordingly.
Life is so phenomenally complicated that it helps cause a lot of fluctuation in our psychology. But there’s at least one more layer of complexity than that, and probably many more. Forces of nature like physics influence a large amount of the extremely variable every-day circumstances that we all experience. Some of them can be studied with scientific analysis. I’m not a scientist, but it seems like things like shifting gravity could have minor affects on metabolism levels and similar biological processes. Women’s menstrual cycles are also supposedly affected by moon phases. Many of these factors are probably fairly random as well, and as far as I know, are not often applied to human behaviour. Science can figure out a hell of a lot, and will continue to do so if the world isn’t destroyed by nuclear war, climate change, or asteroid impacts.
If you add the semi-randomness of genetic expression to the randomness of life experiences and the randomness of how nature impacts our lives, that’s a lot of fucking randomness! The universe is so unimaginably enormous. It has such an incredible amount of events happening simultaneously at every moment in different layers of reality. Everything from atoms moving and interacting with each other to stars exploding and becoming black holes is constantly happening. So even if I went through every way that I can think of that can possibly affect behaviour, there would be many factors that I haven’t considered. It’s virtually a guarantee that scientists will keep discovering different and more complicated ways that various factors influence human behaviour. It’s also as close to objectively true as I think is possible that there are many things that impact behaviour that I’m not considering.
Human behaviour is almost impossibly complex, and scientists are endlessly finding more pieces of this puzzle. We can understand a lot of likely explanations for why we do what we do, in immense detail. But there’s a hell of a lot of individual variation in people, and there are ample conscious and subconscious reasons that we behave in certain ways.
Our emotions were constructed by evolved genes, and they impact our behaviour. They fluctuate wildly throughout our random cultural experiences every day. We have little control of our emotions, and almost no power over our experiences. We can change our emotional responses of course, even though it’s sometimes exceedingly challenging. Also, factors outside of our control often have a greater affect on us than we think.
The way that we interact with our environments is insidiously random. The factors that lead to behaviour are often borderline impossible to trace. Even though scientists can offer a lot of reasonable explanations, they are frequently generalizations and approximations. There’s so much randomness that probably, no one really objectively knows why we behave the way that we do. There are such enormous quantities of different and constantly changing factors that often, we are likely affected by more of them than we can imagine. Nature and nurture both play crucial roles in our psychology. But one frequently over-looked factor is randomness. In some ways, it’s much more important, and borderline impossible to explain. So the next time you think about whether nature or nurture plays a bigger role in our crazy and inconsistent behaviour, think again. Consider how much of what we think we understand might be completely random. Since it’s happened throughout history, it’s very likely that scientists will discover in the future that our current model of psychology is fundamentally flawed. But that’s cause for excitement rather than despair. Scientific discoveries open new doors of wonder and understanding. The more we learn, the better we get at investigating questions and finding answers.