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20170826 – Behave 



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The main idea here is to combine in one book all contemporary knowledge about everything that moves human beings and defines their behavior from DNA and other molecular factors thru biology of brain, endocrine system, and all the way to the societal hierarchies and culture. This encyclopedia of human behavior and its causes is necessarily brief, but it provides a lot of support to the idea that humans are animals developed via evolutionary process that includes not only biological, but also cultural and behavioral systems that proved themselves fit enough to exist now.



Author presents here his credentials as neurobiologist and primatologist and expresses intention to explore in the book important types of human behaviors such as violence, aggression, and competition by individuals and groups. The design of this book is a bit unusual because author is moving his analysis backward in time from the moment a behavior occurred through everything that preceded it from muscular action all the way to initial formation of embryo and then beyond individual existence to the formation of groups and evolution of humanity. After completing this review of an action and its causes in the first 9 chapters, author dedicates another 8 to human society and behavior of individuals that eventually defines various facets of these societies from their structures as hierarchies or less structured groups to key factors defining individual behavior within a group such as morality, criminality, cooperation, competition, and what not.


This brief chapter defines meaning of behavior that author intend to explore such as: aggression, violence, compassion, empathy, sympathy, competition, cooperation, altruism, envy, schadenfreude, spite, forgiveness, reconciliation, revenge, reciprocity, and love. After that he discusses the complexity of behavior and its justification using as example aggression. One very charming example of justification he provides is a Buddhist monk who stopped meditation because of compassion to his own knees. Finally author looks at the meaning of good and evil behavior from point of view its appropriateness for a given condition, stressing that brain images demonstrate activation of the same circuits when the behavior is proper regardless of its nature either it is shooting aliens or helping wounded allies.


This is a pretty technical / biological chapter reviewing different parts of organism that activated to produce a given behavior. He divides it into 3 interconnected layers: basic automatic Limbic system – Amygdala, the Autonomic Nervous system, and Frontal Cortex – the newest part of the brain highly developed in humans. After reviewing the structure author moves to discussion of its work first stating that usual dichotomy between emotions and cognition is actually false and that both systems work pretty much in concert due to complex interactions between Frontal Cortex and Limbic system. He also discusses works of dopamine system that supports various feedback loops in the body. Especially interesting is the timing of rewarding process, which definitely gives preference to anticipation of reward before action to actual reward after it. Here is a nice graph to demonstrate this:

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Obviously in more complicated cases it is not that simple and author provides information about research detailing complex relationship between production of dopamine and various external conditions such as probability of reward, which could materially change the this picture. There is also discussion here about serotonin, which contrary to commonly accepted ideas relevant not that much to aggression as to impulsiveness. Overall the point here is that controlling systems of a human are highly complex and could not be easily identified and cataloged. The chapter ends with somewhat unexpected and very important statement that brain is not where behavior begins.


This is about subconscious collection and processing of information from internally and externally oriented sensors that precipitate action of any animal and, as research shown in humans, it sometimes precedes consciously made decision to act.


This discussion is concentrated on chemical condition of the organism and its hormones, which to significant extend define what actions this organism could produce. It includes detailed review of Testosterone, Oxytocin, Vasopressin, Estrogen, and Progesterone. Author looks in details at how these Neuropeptides play out in human behavior either aggression, or cooperation, or anything else. The second part of the chapter is about the stress and its impact on behavior. Generally impact looks like this:

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The bottom line: sustained stress is hugely detrimental and aggression reduces stress, which creates direct connection between pressure and explosion. On the other hand acute stress is a normal condition animal selected for by evolution and therefore capable to handle it quite well. The problem is that humans are too smart for their own health because they precipitate future action and stress, consequently producing condition of sustained stress. Neither Zebra nor Lion are familiar with this condition since they do not think too much about the future.


By extending time frame for actions to days and months author moves to the discussion of plasticity of human brain, formation of memories, and nonlinear learning processes that create AHA moments. Author allocates significant attention to technical side of memory formation and whether it is linked to formation of new neurons or strengthening their connections, or both. The key point here is that brain continuing develop even in purely biological context during adulthood and actually as long as it is alive.


This chapter moves from neuroplasticity that works over relatively short periods of time to formation of individuals during childhood and adolescence when both biology and personality are in process of continuing massive change. The big point of discussion here is that Frontal Cortex formation is not completed until mid 20s of age, so adolescents are literally not completely formed human beings and their reactions to environment is not fully calibrated. Here is a nice graph showing this:

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Author also discusses here societal consequences of adolescent disconnect between maturity of a brain and other systems of the body.


This chapter moves review of human individual formation further backward to childhood and typical stages of mental development. It necessarily includes role of environment that requires warmth and love for normal development not only for humans, but also for chimps and other complex animals. It touches usual themes of needs for family, especially mothers, moral and cultural development, and even differences between sexes. The final conclusion is that genes and environment so intertwined and influence human development so much that it is not possible to separate their roles into separate buckets.


This chapter has two parts. The first one is obviously about the staff that we get from our predecessors at the moment of inception: genome. It mainly designed to demonstrate that unlike mechanical systems biological systems, including humans, do not have blueprints, they rather have biological set of suggestions in form of DNA that organism uses or not during its formation depending on input from environment. Author discusses here epigenetics, which actually somewhat confirms previously rejected ideas of Lamarck. The second part is about behavioral genetics or how much genetics define behavior. There is an extensive body of research on twins and adaption with very hot debates about their validity and meaning of results. Author provide his take on this research, stressing key points:

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The final conclusion is that genes have a lot to do with behavior, but they are not defining factor. They rather support context dependent tendencies, propensities, potentials, and vulnerabilities.


This chapter is about cultural evolution and it starts with look at sex differences in STEM achievement when author refer to different cultural environment. From this author moves to various definitions of culture and the most important lines of polarization between cultures: Individualist vs. Collectivist, Pastoralists and Southerners, Stratified vs. Egalitarian. There is even very interesting graph of correlation between genetic makeup and collectivist/individualist cultural variance:

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Obviously correlation does not mean causation, but still interesting. However right here author provides a good example that practically excludes genetic explanation: variance in culture and attitude between Orthodox and Secular Ashkenazi Jews with former heavily community oriented with corresponding holistic views and perception, while latter highly individualistic with strong orientation to capturing key features and often neglecting the whole. Needless to say that Ashkenazi Jews are extremely highly genetically homogeneous group that went through multiple bottlenecks of annihilation from Middle Ages to XX century. Another key point of attention in this chapter is violence, war and how various cultures promote and/or suppress violence. Obviously it includes internally directed violence intended to suppress individual’s attempts to deviate from dominant cultural norms. The final discussion in chapter is about nature of our hunter-gatherer ancestors whether their world was close to believes of Rousseau or Hobbes with lots of evidence supporting the latter despite strong resistance of academics who really want it to be close to the ideas of former.


The chapter on evolution of behavior starts with the basics of evolution as algorithm for analysis and then proceeds to discussion of group vs. individual selection. Author generally rejects ideas of group selection with somewhat strange logic that it requires self-sacrifices from members of a group for others and discounting obvious groups or insects selected as whole by defining them as one organism. Somehow author believes that this logic is completely deleterious for ideas of sociobiology. After that he moves to reviewing various mechanism of individual and kin selection, reciprocal altruism, and optimal strategies of cooperation based on games theory. At the end of the chapter author returns to the ideas of multilevel selection, discussing the interplay between genotype and phenotype. Moreover he actually brings back group selection as an integral part of multilevel selection especially well developed in humans with their huge variety of simultaneous participation in many groups from family to huge religious groups with billions of members. This follows by discussion about nature of evolutionary change whether it is continuous and gradual or instant and drastic where author referring to famous Siberian experiment with silver foxes. The final part is about Gould and Lewontin’s ideas about adaptive quality of changes, which add notion of spandrel – random change with neutral adaptive value for organism that neither improves nor diminishes survival chances. This chapter completes the first part of the book, which author summarized in such way:

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The main point here is that humans always belong to a group and the key is to define correctly what group to belong and avoid mindlessly dehumanize others.


This is about another important feature generally typical for complex animal, but especially highly developed in humans. The hierarchy, obedience, and resistance are absolutely necessary for the group effective functioning. Author starts with quick look at this in animal groups and then moves to humans, pointing to well-established feature of optimal group size 100-150 and ranking methods within group. Here author brings a very interesting analysis of brain chemistry dependency on the rank in hierarchy with higher rang correlating with more dopamine. Here are some findings:

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It follows by an interesting discussion on biology and psychology of political orientation. At the end this chapter has somewhat more extended and detailed summary that well worth to be paid attention to.


This chapter starts with look at the primacy of reasoning in moral decision making, but then switch to analysis of the finding that humans often do not really know why they behave in some specific moral/immoral way. The search for reasons of this goes into childhood and changing with age behavior of babies. The result is the need to look at socialization and institutions that person is socialized into, which define levels of cooperation, competition, and punishment for deviation. Here is example of such differences:

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An important point here from morality meaning that author looks at in details is “Me Versus Us” and “Us Versus Them”. The final part of chapter is about Veracity and Mendacity and link of the lying to the processes in the brain.


This is obviously about compassion and its role for emotionally contagious animals. It also contains discussion about mirror neurons, the idea, which author pretty much rejects. After this author explores the difficulty and results of actually doing something, which brings us to negative actions caused by compassion and other complexities of the world.


This is about symbols and their value, which could be so powerful that people would kill or die for them like nation’s flag or gang insignia, or any other symbol of the group. Author also discusses notion of purity and disgust that have root in evolutionary developed biological mechanism to prevent poisoning, but eventually was extended culturally to patterns of behavior that could be harmful for survival of the group. Then author moves to metaphorical sensations and their relation to the reality of live. Author extends his discussion of use of metaphors to process of dehumanization of other when metaphorical assignment of non-human features to the other was an important part of genocides of XX century. At the end of chapter author discusses value of sacred symbols and necessity of mutual recognition of such symbols by participants in conflict as condition of recognizing opponents’ humanity and finding peaceful solution. He looks at Arab-Israeli and Irish-British conflicts. The latter was practically resolved, but the former is as far from resolution as ever.


This is discussion of relation of biology and free will. Author emphasizes unsustainability of polar argument either for absolute free will or determination and moves to the discussion of where we can find reality based point between them. This brings us to the discussion of intellectual maturity of individual and cultural maturity of groups. This maturity defines level of responsibility for behavior and author links it to the age for individuals and cultural environment of society. As example he presents variance of impact on children’s behavior of two different way of praise: “you are so smart” results in fear of failure because “smart” is unchangeable feature, while “you worked so hard” results in search for challenge because level of effort is under control of individual. This follows by quick review of research and publications about human behavior that “explain a lot, but predict little”. At the end author reaffirms his believe in free will and moreover necessity of such believe for normal functioning of individual and society.


This chapter starts with reference to Pinker, his book about decrease of violence and reasons for that. Actually author somewhat rejects the idea of decrease in violence by adjusting levels to population and duration of violent periods. However he accepts that contemporary western societies are much more peaceful than others, even if being a liberal he pains at this. One idea is that people are getting smarter (Flynn effect) and another is that they are less religious. The remaining ¾ of the chapter is about continuing tension between human propensity to fight, aversion to fighting and killing, and hope for the future that comes from recognition of common humanity between members of different groups.


Here author nicely provides list of key points of this book:

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This is a wonderful and quite detailed review of contemporary knowledge of human behavior and its genetic and environmental mechanisms. It is slightly muddled by author’s political views, but it should be expected from deeply religious orthodox Jew converted to ideological leftism. I am pretty much accepting framing, but not defining nature of genotype and strong dependency of individual development on environment. The chapter on chemical processes in a body and their behavioral implications are interesting by their nice description of complexity of these connections. The long discussion of evolution, especially multilevel approach is fully consistent with my opinion about these: individual genotype and phenotype are selected for survival by environment based on combination of two somewhat conflicting sets of features one supporting individual procreation and another one supporting group continuation or at least propensity for successful transfer from a failing group to another more successful one. I probably somewhat more optimistic about overall future of humanity, which is, I believe, in process of unification into one worldwide group with paramount value of individual freedom based on easy availability of resources for all and stable levels of population, so Malthusian pressure would become obsolete as well as, driven by its implications, fight for resources. It is true that resources are always limited, but with human ability to create more resources consistently outperforming needs for the last 2 centuries and clearly visible stabilization of these needs at the level when not only survival, but comfortable live is available for everybody, I think that war, violence, and such would become obsolete. It does not mean that struggle for resources will disappear, but it would be very much separated from struggle for survival and therefore will make human behavior much more benign.

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