Free Will, An Idea We Normally Do Not Question

Sapolsky.jpgThanks to WNYC, a radio station that has innovated the proliferation of the podcast with shows like Radiolab, for all that it brings to our attention on a regular basis. Seems strange to say it, but one reason we listen, related to the reasons why share on this platform and more broadly explaining (we think) why we do what we do: we choose to do all this because we care and our free will allows us the choice to do this rather than other things.

I cannot remember the last time I thought about free will, it is so obvious and taken for granted. So thanks also to WNYC for old school interviewers like Leonard Lopate, who also shine in the podcast ecosystem. His show is how I came to know of this new book, which led to my (surprised) thinking now about free will. Click the image above to go to the half-hour conversation. It motivated me to find out more. In addition to this 2009 TED Talk this brief interview in the newsfeed of his university is a compelling soundbite on a very  after listening to the broad-ranging topics of the WNYC conversation:

Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky ponders the best and worst of us, plus free will

With the publication of his latest book, Robert Sapolsky tackles the best and worst of human behavior and the nature of justice in the absence of free will.


Robert Sapolsky is a lot of things: a MacArthur Fellow who spent years studying a troop of baboons in Kenya, a neuroendocrinologist who changed the way we think about stress and the brain, an accomplished columnist and writer of popular science books. He is also a professor of biology at Stanford who has long been interested in what animals can tell us about our own behavior.

Most recently, Sapolsky has been reflecting on the origins of human behavior, starting deep in the brain moments before we act and working his way millions of years back to the evolutionary pressures on our prehistoric ancestors’ decisions, with stops along the way to consider how hormones, brain development and social structures shape our behavior. He also has been thinking about free will and comes to the conclusion, based on the biological and psychological evidence, that we do not have it.

On the occasion of his latest book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Stanford News Service interviewed Sapolsky about science, the need to be “behavioral biologists” and what to do about justice if, as Sapolsky argues, we do not have free will.

You’ve advanced the idea that we can’t understand human behavior by studying it at just one level – that, for example, we can’t understand politics without studying neurons, brain chemistry without studying psychology, or perhaps even humans without studying apes. Does that mean that we’ve been studying behavior the wrong way? Are university departments too compartmentalized to see the forest for the trees?

Well, there’s nothing particularly special about the idea – scientists thinking about the bases of behavior know that you have to be multidisciplinary. There are entire journals that enshrine that concept, for example, Psychoneuroimmunology or Brain, Behavior and Evolution, and every university of note is overflowing with interdisciplinary programs.

Where the contrast comes in is with individual scientists’ research. Of necessity, a scientist typically studies one incredibly tiny sliver of some biological system, totally ensconced within one discipline, because even figuring out how one sliver works is really hard. There are not many scientists who would argue that their sliver is the only thing that should be studied – just that it’s the most important, which sure makes sense, if they just spent their last seven decades obsessing over that sliver.

Is that a problem?

It’s not a problem if all they do is talk and think about sliver X. But potentially a definite problem if they think larger and their sliver X-centric view of the universe is distorted…

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