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  • Victor C. Bolles

The Politics of Glucocorticoids

In his 2017 book, Behave, Stanford Neurobiology Professor Robert Sapolsky asserts that low socio-economic status (SES) affects the brain development of children. He documents that lower SES-kids have higher glucocorticoid levels (which indicate high levels of stress), resulting in a thinner frontal cortex and poorer frontal functions affecting memory, the regulation of emotion, impulse control and executive decision making.

I am sure he is correct. There are numerous studies that show this to be true and he cites a number of them in his book. He goes even further, stating “in addition, childhood poverty impairs maturation of the corpus callosum, a bundle of axonal fibers connecting the two hemispheres (of the brain) and integrating their function. This is so wrong.” But he has moved his position a bit, dropping the socio element and focusing on the economic.

If the economic factor (poverty) was the only cause of developmental problems in the brains of poor kids (previously low SES-kids), the solution to their problem would be simple. Just give them (or actually their parents) money. That would reduce their poverty and stimulate the development of their brains. What a wonderful progressive solution – just take all the undeserved wealth of greedy rich people and redistribute it to the poor people. Et voila! Problem solved. But decades of transfers of billions of dollars since the beginning of the War on Poverty (which the libertarian Cato Institute estimates the total to be $15 trillion) have done little to improve the level of poverty and presumably the brain development of the poor.

If only life were so simple. But it is not. And the simple solution of redistribution of income blithely evades the socio element of SES. Let us go back to Dr. Sapolsky’s main research area, baboons in Kenya. Baboons are hierarchical animals starting from the alpha male at the head of the hierarchy down to the lowest female and their offspring in the group. He notes that “when both a high-ranking and low-ranking female gave birth to daughters the same week, the former’s kid (the high-ranking one) hit every developmental landmark earlier than the other, the playing field was already unlevel.” Dr. Sapolsky also noted that low status baboons had elevated levels of glucocorticoids (just like the low SES-kids featured above) resulting in “unhealthy changes in the gonadal, cardiovascular and immune systems.”

Dr. Sapolsky found that numerous stressors early in life (such as maternal neglect, exposure to violence, physical or sexual abuse, etc.) resulted in elevated levels of glucocorticoids and other hormones and resulted in atrophy in the hippocampus and an enlarged and hyperactive amygdala. These childhood adversities develop into adult problems such as impulse control, a damaged dopamine system (which impairs goal-directed behavior) and vulnerability to alcoholism, drug addiction and depression.

It seems that it is the stress of being poor, from being vulnerable, that leads to the increase of glucocorticoids. But many countries have poor people, not just the capitalist west. And desperately more impoverished than the poor in America or other western countries. If poverty causes all the problems outlined by Dr. Sapolsky, then a progressive redistributionist policy should solve that problem. We can find the ultimate redistributionist society in the Soviet Union where redistribution is based on the Marxist concept of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” I have not been able to find any references to brain development of children in the Soviet Union, so it is impossible to discern whether their brains developed normally or if they had any abnormalities such as those evidenced of the impact of poverty. But we do know the people (primarily men) in the Soviet Union had very high levels of alcoholism and suicide.

While it would be interesting to see if the MRIs of children in totalitarian societies showed delayed or stunted pre-frontal cortex development similar to those suffering from poverty, that would, of course, be impossible because the totalitarian societies would not allow it. The Soviet Union used psychiatry as a weapon against dissidents, packing them off to insane asylums (run by the KGB) because who in their right mind could be opposed to living in a Marxist utopia. Moving on to the twenty-first century, the People’s Republic of China, has at least 20 “Peace and Health” hospitals (known as Ankang) that are run by the Ministry of State Security.

So we know little of the neurobiological development of children in socialist societies. We only know that the adults living in the former socialist countries of the Soviet bloc were very happy when those regimes fell.

It is the belief of the People’s Republic of China, as it was of the Soviet Union, that it is the role of the state to supply all the material needs of the people but that to accomplish this the people must cede all their desires and rights to the state. The state demands, not only the obedience of each individual, and also his or her physical body, because the state demands the labor of individuals to be able to meet the material needs of the people, but also the mind and will of each individual. In this effort, the emotional needs of the individual are subordinated to the state. The people are all subject to a social index score as determined by the state and enforced by state-controlled internet, state-controlled social media and omnipresent video monitoring backed by facial recognition software. To the extent that the development of the pre-frontal cortex of an individual impedes the ability of the state to achieve its goals, even the neurobiological development may become subject to the control of the state, just as the ability to utilize the pre-frontal cortex is constrained through thought-control, propaganda and re-education.

No, the way to improve the neural development of poor kids in America is not to turn the country into a socialist utopia that will inevitably degenerate into totalitarian nightmare. It is to make the concept of equal opportunity real. Millions of immigrants came to America in the nineteenth century with little more than the clothes on their backs (and with substantial resistance from the residents at that time) because they knew that with hard work, scrimping on expenses and studying for a good education, the American Dream was achievable, maybe not by them but by their children and grandchildren. And while we do not know if the stress of that poverty when they first arrived affected the neural development of their children, we do know that the hope for a brighter future sustained them and helped them achieve that dream. Poverty, abuse, maternal neglect, the only cure is hope. True hope.

The people in the Soviet Union had no hope. The people in the Peoples Republic of China have no hope. The people in Hong Kong still have hope. And the people of America need hope.


And while we’re at it:

I get the impression that Dr. Sapolsky’s ideal social structure for positive brain development is that of our ancient ancestors, the hunter-gatherers, and the few isolated tribes that have survived to this day. Egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies were the dominant form of existence for our prehistoric ancestors. Before the invention of “stuff”. “Stuff” being the land, tools and other possessions of the early agricultural societies that began after the end of the last ice age. Dr. Sapolsky comments that, “the more stuff, reflecting surplus, job specialization and technological sophistication, the greater the potential for inequality,” and therefore greater stress and poorer prefrontal cortex development.

Alas for Dr. Sapolsky. Barring a horrific catastrophe such as nuclear war or getting smacked by a comet of dinosaur-killing size that would wipe out most of the human population, there is no way the planet could support the billions of people on earth with only hunter-gatherer level technology and food production capabilities.

Given that there is no way of going back to a hunter-gatherer society (barring the murder of six or seven billion people), Dr. Sapolsky appears to favor Asian-style collectivist societies where the people think of society being more important than the individual. He states that “collectivist cultures emphasize interdependence, harmony, fitting in, the needs and responsibilities of the group; in contrast, individualist cultures value independence, competition, the needs and rights of the individual.”

And why is America the most individualistic of all nations. Because everyone in America (except for a small number of native Americans – who were themselves also immigrants) is descended from immigrants collectively described by Dr. Sapolsky as “cranks, malcontents, restless, heretics, black sheep, hyperactive, hypomanic, misanthropic, itchy, unconventional, yearning to be free, yearning to be rich, yearning to be out of their boring repressive little hamlet.”

But there is a problem with the good doctor’s concept of a benign collectivist society, at least in the twenty-first century. These collectivist societies are not benign harmonious villages. The examples of collectivist societies he proffers are the Peoples Republic of China and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Not mentioned but who could also be included, communist Viet Nam, militaristic Burma (excuse me, Myanmar), Laos under Pol Pot and North Korea. Collectivist societies tend toward authoritarianism because either collectivist people are comfortable with dynastic authority or that powerful individuals find it relatively easy to force their will on people more interested in getting along than in their freedom. Fractious individuals in collectivist societies are arrested, sent to reeducation camps, committed to psychiatric hospitals or shot.

There is another problem with collectivist societies. Because competition is discouraged (because it disrupts the unity of the group) these societies experience very slow economic growth and are often very poor. Because their people don’t compete, these countries can’t compete economically against individualistic western nations. This makes conflict more likely, if not inevitable.

The modern world is the gift of the individualistic western culture. Without it, material wealth and technological progress would be absent. Death from disease and starvation would be rampant. Lifespans would be shortened. Poverty would be endemic.

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