Friday, June 11, 2010

Robert Sapolsky: The uniqueness of humans

By Darby A.

Every species is unique in one way or another, but how are we defined as unique? What makes our species more unique than any other? Through a variety of examples, Robert Sapolsky gives us a better understanding of the qualities that make us unique, and also the ways in which those same qualities don't.

To get us acquainted with his experience, Robert talks about his 30 years of experience of being around baboons and the like, and how it starts to change the way you look at other human beings. By working with these monkeys he has come up with the basic building blocks that define all species as unique. These building blocks are; aggression, theory of mind, the Golden Rule, empathy, pleasure in anticipation and gratification postponement, and culture. For each block, he goes into an in depth explanation of what makes us no longer unique and the part in which humans are unique. He emphasized the point that to see our uniqueness we must come to the understanding that there is nothing different about us, and that we are like every other species out there. Our uniqueness does not come from our genes, which some believe, and he shows us with the example through fruit flies. Fruit flies have almost exactly the same genes, meaning that is we based our uniqueness on genes, there would be no such thing as unique.

Aggression: The ways in which we are no longer unique is that we are not the only species who can kill a member of the same species, organize violence, or conduct genocides. He gives us an example using chimps, where there is this one male chimp who is harassing all the high ranking chimps in a group. Robert shows us a picture of what is left of him, which is mostly his face and a few scraps of skin. The other example he gave was of chimps making border patrols, so they can not only protect their clan, but attack anything that came near. How humans are unique is that we can be passive aggressive, or we can look the other way. We are capable of many subtle things. He gives us an example to show us how humans can damage each other unlike anything ever seen before. A man goes to work everyday outside of Las Vegas. He's reminded to pick up the dry cleaning, to take out the trash, and then leaves for work. His job is to drop bombs on the other side of the world all day long. Once he's finished this, he just makes it to his daughter's ballet performance, and tells her how much he loves her, and then repeats the whole process the next day.

Theory of Mind: is when you realize that somebody else has different thoughts and information than you do. What makes it no longer unique is its very existence. He goes into an example that includes a high ranking monkey and a low ranking monkey, each on the opposite sides of a room. There is a banana in the room, but there is also a mirror. In one case it is opaque and in the other it is transparent. He shows us how the two monkeys use theory of mind of whether to go for the banana or not. Where humans come in is that we use secondary theory of mind. This is when we realize that person A has information that person B does not, and that person B thinks that person A is doing this, when they are really doing something else. A better representation of this is that humans are the only species that are able to sit through a play like a Midsummer's Night Dream, and are able to understand it.

Golden Rule: What is no longer unique is the tit for tat rule. This is the rule that follows the 'do unto others what they would do to you' line. Robert gives two examples of this, one using vampire bats and one using fish. In each case, if the others think that the one is cheating they in turn will cheat the next time. Humans are unique in this case because they have the capacity to understand that the circumstances in which someone else's reward may not be the reward that they would have.

Empathy: An example is how we are no longer unique is in the observations of de Waal's (primatologist) chimps and the innocent bystander. In one scenario, you have a chimp that harasses a high ranking chimp, and gets pummeled because of it. The rest of the clan feels that he deserved the beating, and do nothing about it. In a second scenario, you have an innocent bystander, who gets beaten up by the high ranking chimp for no reason. Within an hour, the rest of the chimps will comfort the innocent bystander by grooming him. By doing this, they are acknowledging the fact that they understand motivations and what victims are. What makes humans unique is the extraordinary measures we go to when we show empathy. Robert shows pictures and explains with each one how we empathize with the creatures in the picture. He shows us that we go to the extent where we feel empathy for a painting of a horse.

Pleasure in Anticipation and Gratification Postponement: What is no longer unique is when dopamine is released into the brain as we are problem solving. He shows us that dopamine levels rise in the anticipation of the reward, and not during the work or the time of the reward, using monkeys. When maybe is added into the equation, dopamine levels sky-rocketed through the roof. How humans are unique is the amount of time in which we can hold onto the dopamine between work and the reward. We have quite the capacity that enables us to hold onto it even beyond our deaths.

Culture: Chimps are just one species that show us how we are no longer unique in one way. They pass down their own cultural transmission of tool-making and the like, vocalizations, and group temperament. There is this one chimp group where half of the males were killed. The males that were killed happened to be the most aggressive ones in the group. Due to the fact that there were more females, and the males that were left we the more gentler ones, you would see that the adult males in the group groomed each other, which is not seen anywhere else. The young ones of the group would take up this tradition and pass it down themselves to the younger ones that came after them. Humans are unique here because of the complexities of human culture.

After the basic building blocks came the ways in which we, as humans, are different from any other known species in the world. One of the things that we do is we are able to go through the same routine everyday for 30 days without changing it. His example of this is of a couple who comes home from work, talk, eat dinner, talk, go to bed, talk, have sex, talk, and then go to sleep. Apparently, a giraffe would be repulsed by this kind of behaviour. The one quality, above all others, that makes us the most unique species out there, is the contradiction that we live by. The contradiction being that the more something is impossible to be, the more it must be. The most irrational and magnificent example of this that he has ever come across is that of a Catholic nun, who works at a maximum security prison. She minsters the most horrible and dangerous men that are on death row. When people ask her why she works there she simply says that the less forgivable the act, the more forgiveness must be given, the less love there is, the more love is needed. What it all comes down to is that the "harder it is to take the impossibility of something to be the very proof that it must be possible, and must become a moral imperative, the more important it is." Robert Sapolsky ends his talk with a strong finish as he connects all that he has said to his audience. They would be officially educated soon and wise enough to know that one person cannot make a difference, but because of this impossibility it must be possible, and is the importance that they, and everyone alike, recognize it in that way.

Robert Sapolsky is an outstanding speaker. He uses humour throughout his talk and delivers it in a way that flows with the rest of what he's saying. He uses connection from his topic to himself, mentioning his children in a specific building block, and connects his overall conclusion to the circumstance of his audience. He maintains a steady pace while sharing his knowledge, talking with non-stop enthusiasm and experience. By the end of his talk, you can come to the conclusion the Robert Sapolsky is a very dedicated and intelligent man.

We have all been told one time or another that we are unique. Robert Sapolsky takes us into a different realm of unique, giving us the basic understandings of where our uniqueness comes from. I would recommend this video to everyone with high commendation. He gives us the details and proof into our uniqueness that would surely enrich everyone's minds.

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