Robert Sapolsky

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Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and reinvigorate it.

Robert Sapolsky (born 1957) is a biologist and author. He is a professor at Stanford University.

Quotes[edit]

Get it wrong, and we call it a cult. Get it right, in the right time and the right place, and maybe, for the next few millennia, people won't have to go to work on your birthday.
  • I love science, and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject or feel that choosing science means you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts, or be awed by nature. Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and reinvigorate it.

Stress, Neurodegeneration and Individual Differences (2001)[edit]

We are not getting our ulcers being chased by Saber-tooth tigers, we're inventing our social stressors — and if some baboons are good at dealing with this, we should be able to as well. Insofar as we're smart enough to have invented this stuff and stupid enough to fall of it, we have the potential to be wise enough to keep the stuff in perspective.
"Stress, Neurodegeneration and Individual Differences", a lecture at Washington State University (10 October 2001)
  • Most of us don't collapse into puddles of stress-related disease.
  • Finish this lecture, go outside, and unexpectedly get gored by an elephant, and you are going to secrete glucocorticoids. There's no way out of it. You cannot psychologically reframe your experience and decide you did not like the shirt, here's an excuse to throw it out — that sort of thing.
  • What's the punch line here? Physiologically, it doesn't come cheap being a bastard 24 hours a day.
  • We are not getting our ulcers being chased by Saber-tooth tigers, we're inventing our social stressors — and if some baboons are good at dealing with this, we should be able to as well. Insofar as we're smart enough to have invented this stuff and stupid enough to fall for it, we have the potential to be wise enough to keep the stuff in perspective.

Emperor Has No Clothes Award acceptance speech (2003)[edit]

This is not somebody hearing voices all the time, this is somebody hearing voices only at the right point.
"Emperor Has No Clothes Award" acceptance speech at the Freedom From Religion Foundation convention, San Diego (23 November 2003), Excerpt published as "Belief and Biology" in Freethought Today Vol. 20 No. 3 (April 2003)
There is no reason to be less moved by nature around us simply because it's revealed to have more layers of complexity than we first observed.
  • Why do we have schizophrenia in every culture on this planet? From an evolutionary perspective, schizophrenia is not a cool thing to have. ... Schizophrenia is not an adaptive trait. You can show this formally: schizophrenics have a lower rate of leaving copies of their genes in the next generation than unaffected siblings. By the rules, by the economics of evolution, this is a maladaptive trait. Yet, it chugs along at a one to two percent rate in every culture on this planet.
    So what's the adaptive advantage of schizophrenia? It has to do with a classic truism — this business that sometimes you have a genetic trait which in the full-blown version is a disaster, but the partial version is good news.
  • Schizophrenics have a whole lot of trouble telling the level of abstraction of a story. They're always biased in the direction of interpreting things more concretely than is actually the case. You would take a schizopohrenic and say, "Okay, what do apples, bananas and oranges have in common?" and they would say, "They all are multi-syllabic words."
    You say "Well, that's true. Do they have anything else in common?" and they say, "Yes, they actually all contain letters that form closed loops."
    This is not seeing the trees instead of the forest, this is seeing the bark on the trees, this very concreteness.
  • In the 1930s an anthropologist named Paul Radin first described it as "shamans being half mad," shamans being "healed madmen." This fits exactly. It's the shamans who are moving separate from everyone else, living alone, who talk with the dead, who speak in tongues, who go out with the full moon and turn into a hyena overnight, and that sort of stuff. It's the shamans who have all this metamagical thinking. When you look at traditional human society, they all have shamans. What's very clear, though, is they all have a limit on the number of shamans. That is this classic sort of balanced selection of evolution. There is a need for this subtype — but not too many.
    The critical thing with schizotypal shamanism is, it is not uncontrolled the way it is in the schizophrenic.
    This is not somebody babbling in tongues all the time in the middle of the hunt. This is someone babbling during the right ceremony. This is not somebody hearing voices all the time, this is somebody hearing voices only at the right point. It's a milder, more controlled version.
    Shamans are not evolutionarily unfit. Shamans are not leaving fewer copies of their genes. These are some of the most powerful, honored members of society. This is where the selection is coming from. … In order to have a couple of shamans on hand in your group, you're willing to put up with the occasional third cousin who's schizophrenic.
  • Western religions, all the leading religions, have this schizotypalism shot through them from top to bottom. It's that same exact principle: it's great having one of these guys, but we sure wouldn't want to have three of them in our tribe. Overdo it, and our schizotypalism in the Western religious setting is what we call a "cult," and there you are in the realm of a Charles Manson or a David Koresh or a Jim Jones. You can only do post-hoc forensic psychiatry on Koresh and Jones, but Charles Manson is a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. But get it just right, and people are gonna get the day off from work on your birthday for millennia to come. [laughter] This is great! I think this is the first time I've ever said that line without somebody getting up and leaving in a huff from the audience. It's very nice being here.
  • Orthodox Judaism has this amazing set of rules: everyday there's a bunch of strictures of things you're supposed to do, a bunch you're not supposed to do, and the number you're supposed to do is the same number as the number of bones in the body. The number that you're not supposed to do is the same number as the number of days in the year. The amazing thing is, nobody knows what the rules are! Talmudic rabbis have been scratching each others' eyes out for centuries arguing over which rules go into the 613. The numbers are more important than the content. It is sheer numerology.
  • I am a reasonably emotional person, and I see no reason why that's incompatible with being a scientist. Even if we learn about how everything works, that doesn't mean anything at all. You can reduce how an impala leaps to a bunch of biomechanical equations. You can turn Bach into contrapuntal equations, and that doesn't reduce in the slightest our capacity to be moved by a gazelle leaping or Bach thundering. There is no reason to be less moved by nature around us simply because it's revealed to have more layers of complexity than we first observed.
    The more important reason why people shouldn't be afraid is, we're never going to inadvertently go and explain everything. We may learn everything about something, and we may learn something about everything, but we're never going to learn everything about everything. When you study science, and especially these realms of the biology of what makes us human, what's clear is that every time you find out something, that brings up ten new questions, and half of those are better questions than you started with.
  • The purpose of science in understanding who we are as humans is not to rob us of our sense of mystery, not to cure us of our sense of mystery. The purpose of science is to constantly reinvent and reinvigorate that mystery. To always use it in a context where we are helping people in trying to resist the forces of ideology that we are all familiar with.

External links[edit]

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