Robert Sapolsky is a Stanford biologist who’s just published an 800-page book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Sean Illing interviews him in Vox.
Sean Illing: You write that “our species has problems with violence.” Can you explain this complicated relationship?
Robert Sapolsky: The easiest answer is that we're really violent. The much more important one, the much more challenging one, is that we don't hate violence as such — we hate the wrong kind of violence, and when it's the right kind of violence, we absolutely do cartwheels to reinforce it and reward it and hand out medals and mate with such people because of it. And that’s part of the reason why the worst kinds of violence are so viscerally awful to experience, to bear witness to. But the right kinds of violence are just as visceral, only in the opposite direction.
The truth is that this is the hardest realm of human behavior to understand, but it’s also the most important one to try to.
Sean Illing: What is the wrong kind of violence? What is the right kind of violence?Robert Sapolsky: Of course that tends to be in the eye of the beholder. Far too often, the right kind is one that fosters the fortunes of people just like us in group favoritism, and the worst kinds are the ones that do the opposite.Sean Illing: Violence is a fact of nature — all species engage in it one way or other. Are humans the only species that ritualizes it, that makes a sport of it?Robert Sapolsky: That does seem pretty much the case. Certainly you see the hints of it in chimps, for example, where you see order patrols by male chimps in one group, where if they encounter a male from another group, they will kill him. They have now been shown in a number of circumstances to have systematically killed all the males in the neighboring group, which certainly fits a rough definition of genocide, which is to say killing an individual not because of what they did but simply because of what group they belong to.What's striking with the chimps is that you can tell beforehand that this is where they are heading. They do something vaguely ritualistic, which is they do a whole bunch of emotional contagion stuff. One male gets very agitated, very aroused, manages to get others like that, and then off they go to look for somebody to attack. So in that regard, there is a ritualistic feel to it, but that's easily framed along the conventional lines of nonhuman animal violence. By that, I mean when male chimps do this, when they eradicate all of the other males in a neighboring territory, they expand their own; it increases their reproductive success.I believe it is really only humans that do violence for purely ritualistic purposes.
And the future?
Sean Illing: Has civilization made us better?Robert Sapolsky: Absolutely. The big question is which of the following two scenarios are more correct: a) Civilization has made us the most peaceful, cooperative, emphatic we've ever been as a species, versus b) civilization is finally inching us back to the level of all those good things that characterized most of hominin hunter-gatherer history, preceding the invention of agriculture. Amid mostly being an academic outsider to the huge debates over this one, I find the latter view much more convincing.Sean Illing: You say you incline to pessimism but that this book gave you reasons to be optimistic. Why?Robert Sapolsky: Because there's very little about our behaviors that are inevitable, including our worst behaviors. And we’re learning more and more about the biological underpinnings of our behavior, and that can help us produce better outcomes. As long as you have a ridiculously long view of things, things are getting better.It’s much nicer to be alive today than it was 100 or 200 years ago, and that’s because we’ve progressed. But nothing is certain, and we have to continue moving forward if we want to preserve what progress we’ve made.