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Transcript of interview with Robert M. Sapolsky


Santa Clara Magazine managing editor Steven Boyd Saum sat down with Stanford professor of biology and neurology Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky in October 2007 to discuss the unkillable debate over nature versus nurture, genes and healthcare, and how neuroscience can inform our judicial system.


Saum: You’ve been looking at the intersection of biology and individuality for some years now. How much do you find yourself having to say, still, “First of all, it’s not about nature versus nurture, because that dichotomy is really a few years out of date?”

Sapolsky: Well, by any laws, I think it should be like 100 years out of date. I still have to spend a surprising amount of time with it, and it depends who I’m hanging out with. You deal with reductive biologists, when they’re forced to think about behavior, which isn’t the top of the thing on their list, and you spend a lot of time saying, “It’s the interaction, but don’t forget about nurture.” Then you sit down with a bunch of sociologists and you’ve got to say the exact same thing about nature.

 

Saum: Why is that? What is it about the disciplines?

Sapolsky: Well, I think traditionally the social scientists have not liked the fact that biology has something to do with individual behavior, collective behavior. One great example is the tremendous resistance among historians to Jared Diamond’s thinking in Guns, Germs, and Steel. Meanwhile, over at my end, I think this is a business that’s been so entranced, seduced by molecular genetics and reductionism on that level, that it’s very easily oversold in the biology realm.




Saum: And for you it’s primarily about the interaction between genes and brains and hormones and the natural environment, as well as the man-made systems that we create around them?

Sapolsky: Yep, definitely.

 

Saum: With the sense of that relationship between genes and the environment and how that influences our behavior, what’s the social imperative that comes out of an increasing understanding of what genes do and how they interact with the environment?

Sapolsky: Ironically, at least my take on it: The more we learn about what genes have to do with environment—especially with behavior, especially with human behavior, especially abnormal human behavior—it usually winds up being, once you understand that interaction, fixing it at the environment end seems an awful lot easier.

 

Saum: Than going forward with genetic transformations?

Sapolsky: Yes. And we’ll understand the genetics of aggression. What you mostly learn from those things is, you want to fix those things up, concentrate on the environment.

 

Saum: And yet, at the same time, people look at, particularly, genes when it comes, say, to healthcare issues. One of the things you discuss, even as you’re talking about the limited role that the genes might play, that there are those that are imprinted, for example, with Huntington’s Disease. You have this gene, you’re going to develop this disease.

Sapolsky: Oh, absolutely, and it’s incredible—the advances in science into that. It’s really exciting. There are very few diseases out there, in the types that really plague us, that are genetic in anywhere near that deterministic sense. Even Alzheimer’s disease—10 percent of the cases are genetic.  

You know, my lab mucks around with genes. We manipulate genes and neurons and animals’ brains and change their behavior. Nonetheless, it’s very limited. We want to change behavior after some pretty nonsubtle circumstances.

To be, I suspect, perfectly accurate: If you want to do the greatest thing for healthcare in this country, rather than human genomes or new medications or anything like that, figure out why people stop taking their medicine; and figure out why, when people are feeling unloved, they eat more, especially starch.

Yes, genes are amazing. Figure out those two things and that’s much better than understanding this cell biology of insulin resistance and how it gives rise to adult onset diabetes. I’m a reductive biologist, and that’s absolutely clear to me.

 

Saum: So these sound like these might be a couple projects for the MacArthur Foundation also?

Sapolsky: Oh yes, indeed. Yes, indeed. And that’s health-related behavior. It’s pretty powerful.

 

Saum: That said, where I want to go with this is: The fact that you’re a MacArthur Fellow, recipient of a “genius grant,” was back in the news recently, not just because it’s a matter of your resume, but because, when the Foundation was looking for new ideas for programs, you wrote a letter suggesting that they might look at how neuroscience can transform the judicial system. Tell me about that.

Sapolsky: I wrote a very disinhibited letter, since they assured me the whole idea was, “Give us your craziest ideas”—a very disinhibited letter that I think I’m pretty close to being serious about. But, in all the meetings since then, it is treated as “Oh, this was a great, sort of provocative…”  I think I called it something like, “Should We Abolish the Criminal Justice System?”—which I kind of think we should. Nevertheless, what’s come out of all of that is something much more sobrietous. You know, the level at which I was taking it to it is: ultimately, a system of culpability and such is completely incompatible with what we understand about neurobiology—and what we know by now we don’t understand but are likely to at some point in the future.

That’s not to advocate we get rid of prison; we need to do something about dangerous people. The sound bite I always have is: Like a car whose brakes have failed is incredibly dangerous and we have to protect people from it. “Oh, my God, that’s horrible. Turning people into just mechanisms in that way.” It’s a lot better to mechanize somebody into having a broken brake than to moralize them into having an evil soul, or something like that, when it’s neurobiology.

The far more reasonable things that MacArthur put a focus on instead are things like how to make judges more informed about neuroscience. Which turns out to be, “Oh, God, how disappointing and pedestrian that is, just like give judges advice on what sort of outside experts they pull in.” Apparently that’s an enormously important thing. Or, how to give them their little, you know, Cliff Note things about how the brain is relevant to that.

So in the planning meetings we sat there with, among other things, this major Ninth Circuit federal judge. And you say, “Well, it’s great to go after the whole philosophy of the criminal interest,”—but what would really help is like letting judges figure out: Who do you listen to? Who do you go to for this stuff?

And the other one, which was a little more satisfying, was: There are two standards in terms of criminal insanity. One is the very simple, classic: Is the person so troubled that they can’t tell the difference between right and wrong? And that’s been in place since the 1840s, very nonrandomly applied. But the other one is where the person can tell the difference between right and wrong, but they are organically impaired at being able to act upon it appropriately. And this is the realm of someone who simply cannot control their behavior. Just cannot tell this is not appropriate.

And there’s a whole realm of brain damage in the frontal cortex that’s super-relevant to that. Up until the time that [John] Hinckley attempted to assassinate [Ronald] Reagan, the vast majority of states in the country had on their books the can’t-tell-the-difference-between-right-and-wrong defense. I don’t remember the numbers, but a fair number of them had the more modern, knee-jerk additional one of can-tell-the-difference-but-involutional issues there. In the aftermath of Hinckley they got rolled back all over the country. In no time, Congress voted that for any federal crime you could not have either in an insanity defense.

So the other, more plausible, goal coming out of all the thinking is: Try to figure out how to get more states to bring back criminal organic impairment defenses that are built under a biology more recent than the 1840s. So that’s kind of what came out of that. And it’s incredibly exciting.

 

Saum: Sticking with the public policy realm of things, one of my favorite moments in your essay “Nature or Nuture,” which offers a meditation on People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People, and where you mention in the same breath Sandra Bullock, the actress, and Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union, the agriculturally disastrous notion that acquired traits could be inherited. Now, Lysenko’s ideas might have been banal but harmless if he hadn’t had the ear of Stalin and Khrushchev. You’ve been doing science for a few decades. Are there areas where you’ve seen it politicized, where you’ve seen scientific research politicized—particularly, where you are today?

Sapolsky: One is, lots of realms of education. As we try to navigate, when are we blaming kids for things that are biologically constraining them? But equally importantly, the flip side: When are we assuming there’s a limit there because of our personal biases as to what sort of things, gender-based, etc., come with biological constraints when the constraints aren’t actually there? So that’s a whole world of enormous potential damage.

Another one is, of course, the criminal justice system. One component of that is the belief that sheer raving gibberish, like the brain imaging techniques these days, can be used in courts of law and tell anything accurate. And that’s really distressing, that that’s running in that direction.

Another is the huge potential for abuse of genetic information. It’s bad enough to think that you now know whose liver is going to poop out at some point and adjust their capacity to get health insurance accordingly. But as we believe we’re getting more and more information about behavioral aspects of genetics, the simple ability, or the simple inability of most people, to figure out something that may be reasonably statistically and probabistically factual on the level of the whole population, tells you squat about this individual—and for people to barrel in and they believe they can predict now and hire and give housing and give health insurance accordingly.

 

Saum: So what would you say, as we’re starting to see more with genes, at least in terms of the big statistical pictures—you’ve touched on some of the big ethical questions—but what would you say are the most pressing questions?

Sapolsky: Educating people scientifically in this country—but that should really fall under the rubric of educating people in this country, period. You know, if you want to get just the easiest piece of that: Train people so that when they get the evening news sound bite—“Scientists have discovered the…” whatever, where it’s reduced to 15 seconds—have a requirement that those things only get said if it’s a big effect. Because people come out of it without the remotest understanding that something could be scientifically factual but of trivial, trivial significance.

A classic one with that is gender differences in performance on different parts of the SAT’s—the best studied one being, “Oooh, the gender difference in math performance.” It’s a super-statistically reliable difference that with men, the mean is higher and the number of men in the upper performing range is greater. The number of men in the lowest performing range is greater as well—but that the mean is different and it’s absolutely clear, because these studies have been done with 50,000 people at a time. And you can bet your entire life that that was not by chance from a statistics standpoint. But the power it gives you to know only one fact about two people and the fact is their genders, and to thus be able to guess that the male is going to do better at math, is ludicrous. People need to learn the difference between something that’s a fact and something that’s nonetheless important.

You know, that’s probably a really optimistic one, but the first thing we should learn to do is to insist that something’s a fact. And only after that, once they’re done looking at horoscopes and Deepak Chopra, can they then, like now, not only insist that something be factual but significant. So, yeah, maybe I’m granting too much to the system.

 

Saum: Well, one of the things that the system, that the media, gave a lot of air play to in the past week or so were James Watson’s comments. You’re rolling your eyes. I’m just curious—you know, he’s quoted in the Times of London, suggesting that people of African descent are not of the same intelligence as people of European descent.

Sapolsky: Come on, already. Give us a break. The only mitigating thing with him—and it’s mitigating only in an explanatory sense, not an ethical one—is: He’s been like this in every possible domain, with anything, with race, ethnicities, sex differences, all of that, since seemingly he was five years old, and he has such a history of disinhibited, childish inappropriateness that anybody who’s aware of him, this is no surprise. But nonetheless, Christ, the impact “Oh, Watson-Crick, Watson, Watson-Crick” carries… Hopefully no one will waste a word trying to refute it.

On the other hand, probably people need to do vast amounts of refuting, since that’s exactly the realm where, “Oh, you know, you’ve just learned a nonfactual fact.”

 

Saum: To play devil’s advocate, it seems like a moment where someone could say, “See, it’s been politically incorrect to say this for X number of years, but finally a scientist we can trust has come out and said it.”

Sapolsky: Well, the usual thing, nonetheless…this is a scientist at the highest realm. Nonetheless, he doesn’t know anything about this field. He’s a molecular biologist. He knows nothing about this.

Come back and cure malaria, cure chronic protein malnutrition throughout Africa, cure us of selling all the pesticides that we’re not allowed to sell in this country anymore because of their danger, and cure them of having to buy it from us. Cure them of being dumping grounds for all the sort of industrial stuff that we outsource now, and come back at that point and see, you know, if the differences are still there and maybe it’s worth talking at that point.

 

Saum: Speaking of Africa, you left Brooklyn and headed for the savannah in 1978. One of my favorite moments in your essay “Bugs in the Brain” is where you write, “Despite the zillions of us slaving away at the subject, we still know squat about how the brain works.” But in the three decades since you first headed out and began field research in Africa, what are some of the interesting things that we have learned about the brain?

Sapolsky: Obviously, that’s a bit facetious. We’ve learned staggering amounts. You know, back when I started, I don’t know, there were maybe 10 plausible neurotransmitters. There are hundreds now. Back when I started, entire types of neural communication were not recognized, but are in place now. Nobody knew just how much plasticity there was in the adult brain. The adult brain can grow neurons. New neurons can grow, new synapses can change. Synapses, within 20 minutes, can grow a new one during that time.

We might remotely be stumbling in the area of understanding enough chaos-emergent math to begin to guess how the really fancy parts of the brain are working. And they’re sure not going to be working in any way where one gene is going to be directing anything, except for cases like Huntington’s. You know, one sledgehammer can make quite a mess of things…

 

Saum: The flip side of that: What would you say are some of the most persistent scientific equivalents of urban myths that we’re still dealing with?

Sapolsky: Let’s see. We lose massive numbers of neurons, starting in early adulthood, which isn’t true. That the brain is set in stone by age three, or some number roughly around then, which is another myth. That we use ten percent of our brain potential—what on earth that means, is probably the most resilient, unkillable urban myth in neurobiology. Everybody still assumes that genes, in a very straightforward way, direct behavior. And that separate environmental influences from genetic ones, blah, blah.

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