- Victor C. Bolles
Science is just science. Or is it?
I have just finished reading Robert Sapolsky’s new book, Behave, The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst (2017). The book is a whopper (over 700 pages) and was a tremendous intellectual challenge for me because it requires knowledge of organic chemistry and neurobiology to be fully understood; subjects into which that I had not previously delved. But ever since I had read Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, about the development of behavioral economics for which he won the Nobel Prize, I had been wondering if science can help us understand how humans interact together both politically and economically (being that they are inextricably interrelated see, The Kahneman Kurse, July 14, 2016). And if we understand what drives humans, then we might have a better chance of developing workable solutions to the problems that confront us. Problems that were likely created because we did not understand what drives humans when those policies were created.
Luckily, Professor Sapolsky included a mini-course on organic chemistry and neurobiology (at least in so far as they pertain to his specialty) in appendices to his book. Those appendices helped me understand the forces that Dr. Sapolsky was talking about that shape human behavior. In the coming essays about human behavior and the insights provided Dr. Sapolsky’s book, I will endeavor to explain what I have found out without being overly technical (because I lack the proper training to do so) but which, I believe, is very relevant to the problems we face in twenty-first century America. Hopefully I can provide my readers with some insight, however, if you want to more fully understand the science behind what I am discussing, then you should get his book. Just be prepared for a long slog unless you have a graduate degree in biology or organic chemistry.
The scope of Dr. Sapolsky’s book is very broad so it applies to many of the problems that we currently face and because it applies so broadly I believe it will take several essays for me to discuss how neurobiology relates to these problems. First I need to provide a little background. As the title says, this book discusses human behavior at its best and worst. But best and worst are value judgments and Dr. Sapolsky’s views on people’s best and worst attributes may not be the same as your views or my views on what is best and worst. Dr. Sapolsky is definitely in the progressive camp and, although he mostly sticks to the facts, there are occasions when his opinions of politics and economics come into play (as pointed out by Dr. Jonathan Haidt (a favorite foil of Dr. Sapolsky) progressives and conservatives have different ethical structures that may be based on the neurobiology that Dr. Sapolsky is talking about – see Righteous Thinking and Foolish Nature, June 17, 2017). Further, Dr. Sapolsky’s research is focused on baboons and other primates and his book tries to explain how their behaviors relate to human behaviors. Further caution must be taken because his lab research features simulations and thought experiments that use American undergraduate students as the subjects even though their behaviors may not be typical of other people around the world, even assuming that the fabricated lab experiments actually reflect real life situations. And although I am sure that Dr. Sapolsky tries to guard against confirmation bias, it can unconsciously creep in when you structure a lab experiment that gets a result that pleases you. But having said all that, science is just science. Or is it?
If you do not believe in evolution you can stop reading now because most of what Dr. Sapolsky writes about is based on evolution and how our brain has evolved from mammals to primates and ultimately to humans. Many of the parts of the brain and the chemicals in the brain are similar to those in other animals and many of the behaviors that result from the interaction of these brain parts and chemicals are also similar. Dr. Sapolsky describes (with what he calls a good organizing metaphor) the triune brain, consisting of three layers. The deepest layer is also the most ancient and is shared with most organisms that have a brain. It controls body functions and regulates the body’s response to the environment. The second layer was developed in mammals and relates to emotions. This layer causes stress related chemicals to be produced in response to the environment. The third layer is the most recently evolved and highly developed layer of the brain and is more developed in primates than in other species; controlling (as Dr. Sapolsky writes) “cognition, memory storage, sensory processing, abstractions, philosophy, navel contemplation”(he is a bit of a jokester).
Not only do these layers in the brain relate to different evolutionary periods but they also develop in the brain of a human fetus and child along evolutionary lines with the most primitive developing first and the most recent and advanced developing last. Some of our basest instincts are related to brain structures in the earlier levels. In the case of the frontal cortex, this brain structure is most recent and most advanced and is not fully developed until a human is in his mid-twenties (perhaps a bit earlier for girls). And the prefrontal cortex, the evolutionarily most recent, is the last of the structures in the brain to develop.
The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is responsible for purposeful mental action that we call reasoning and imagination. Most of our brain just make us an animal or more precisely a mammal, but it is the frontal cortex, and especially the prefrontal cortex, that makes us human. The PFC serves an important function in social interaction and studies have shown that when primates are placed in social groups of varying sizes, the PFC of the primates in the larger social groups grew more than those in smaller groups in order to handle the greater social complexity of the larger group. It is the outsized human PFC that allows humans to develop the larger social groups we call cities, towns, tribes and countries (or is it the larger social groups that make our PFC grow larger to handle all the complexity – causality is always a bitch).
We have known for a long time that adolescents lack the maturity to handle adult tasks. That's why adolescents have to wait until they are sixteen to get a driver’s license (after they have had a learner’s permit first). Many other adult freedoms and responsibilities (such as buying alcohol and voting) were deferred until the person was 21 when, presumably, they would be sufficiently mature to handle these freedoms and responsibilities in a mature fashion. That was the case when I was a young person (although I may have sneaked a beer or two before I turned 21, I never sneaked into a voting booth).
The 26th Amendment that was ratified July 1, 1971 (too late to be significant for me) lowered the voting nationally age to 18. Currently many Democrats across the country (including some presidential candidates) are pushing to lower the voting age to 16 claiming that if adolescents are old enough to work and pay taxes they should also be able vote (even though only about twenty-five percent of 16 and 17 year-olds have jobs and most of those jobs are part-time or in the summer – sort of like a job learners permit).
But this is clearly a bogus argument. Many of these same politicians are proposing to raise the age to buy cigarettes (as well as vape pen refills) to 21 and there is no talk of lowering the drinking age to 18 let alone 16. This is because it is clear that 16 to 21 year-olds are not considered mature enough to drink or smoke but are thought to be mature enough to vote for who will be the next president? Oh, please.
The chemicals that the body produces that induce puberty and prepare youths for the transition to adulthood makes them hyper-emotional and prone to making poor decisions. As Dr. Sapolsky says, “the frontal cortex is being pickled in that ebb and flow of gonadal hormones. No wonder they act adolescent.” Further, he states, “As shown experimentally, during risky decision making, adolescents activate the prefrontal cortex less than do adults; the less activity, the poorer the risk assessment.”
Later on, he states that adolescent thinking is developing and changing from a child’s egalitarian tendency toward meritocratic thinking and notes that “meritocratic thinking is more sophisticated than egalitarian, since the latter is solely about outcomes, while the former incorporates thinking about causes.” If you have read any of my previous essays, you will know that my solutions to the problems facing America focuses on the causes of the problems and not the outcomes.
This is the reason that the Democrats want to lower the voting age. It is not about civil rights. Given a choice, most teenagers would prefer the ability to buy drinks or smokes over voting. Democrats realize that adolescent smoking and drinking is bad for them and society and so they push the legal age for these rights to twenty-one. But immature voting is beneficial to Democrats so they want to lower the voting age. But what about society? Don’t we have enough problems without adding immature voters to the policy making apparatus?
One could say it doesn’t matter that adolescents are immature, they have the right to exert their influence on the decisions that affect them (although if you are a parent it doesn’t mean you let your teenagers vote on staying out all night). But the same could be said about children, and infants (and fetuses) and people with dementia. These people must be cared for and the same applies to adolescents.
Dr. Sapolsky closes his chapter on adolescents noting that “Because it is the last to mature, by definition the frontal cortex is the brain region least constrained by genes and most sculpted by experience.” But it is the political experience that they lack that is the reason why the voting age should not be lowered to sixteen.