Aggression and Theory of Mind – Robert Sapolsky on the Uniqueness of Humans

Robert Sapolsky’s Stanford University lecture touches upon ways in which humans are similar to other living beings, like primates such as the chimpanzee, or small domesticated pets. Your childhood hamster, Tex. Though we may not at all be unique in terms of genes and basic neurology (I learned this on a summer trip to the Smithsonian, reading a chart which pointed out that humans share a great proportion of genetic similarity with the banana), Sapolsky emphasizes that humans possess uniqueness in regards to empathy.

Sapolsky makes a notable comparison concerning aggression. He remarks that like us, male baboons can kill their own kind in a cold, calculated fashion (as we have seen in historical examples of the Holocaust and actions of Pol Pot’s regime). Fraternizing in a group called a “border patrol,” these animals will relentlessly kill other baboons from a nearby group. I have never committed murder, but I can attest that when highly aggravated, I can act in ways that many would deem “uncivilized,” or even “animalistic.” The same can be said for many other humans. In middle school, I got into a share of fights with students I shared disagreements with. My home life was rather turbulent, and I can recall several physical altercations between myself and my mother. Though I myself did not initiate the altercations, I felt so threatened by her actions that I retaliated to a certain extreme. At the time, I didn’t care, nor think about the consequences of what I was doing, but I felt I had to protect myself. Now, when my guidance counselor learned of several of these incidences, I was told that even though my mother treated me horribly, I had no right to do what I did, as “She is your mother, and the way you acted was like a junkyard dog. Is this how young women act? Are you a young woman, or an animal? You’re fifteen. Not seven.” Even in the face of ongoing abuse, I noticed that I was expected to act complacently, turn the other cheek, and be the “better person.” I often wonder if the woman who reprimanded me would have practiced the inaction she proselytized in disdain for my behavior.

Sapolsky moves on to the theory of mind chimpanzees possess, versus secondary theory of mind only we humans employ in daily interactions. Chimpanzees’ theory of mind is rather rudimentary: an understanding that one chimpanzee has information that the observing chimpanzees do not possess. The observing chimpanzee must do everything in his power to get that information, regardless of the harm or disadvantage inflicted upon his peer. On the other hand, the secondary theory of mind that governs human interaction encompasses empathy, the “Golden Rule,” and social norms which constitute a common culture. Using these tools, we, unlike animals even as similar as the chimpanzee, are able to appreciate issues of morality discussed in books such as Crime and Punishment. We participate in time consuming projects after which rewards may not immediately come to fruition (Personally, I am currently working on an article to submit for publication that requires a great degree of data collection and a frustrating amount of statistical analysis).

Although we, like the chimpanzee, are very much driven by physiological wants, we are also able to delay gratification to further work on tasks at hand. It’s a rather unique ability, and while humans can be pretty terrible to each other, the capacities Sapolsky speaks of not only contribute to the structured society we live in, but enable us to move onward. Think, act, innovate. Maybe it’s a blessing, a curse that only complicates, or possibly a tool to use of your own volition, in light or dark. I can say for certain that I’ve never heard of a chimpanzee who blogs.

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3 thoughts on “Aggression and Theory of Mind – Robert Sapolsky on the Uniqueness of Humans

  1. haa.. true. I too wonder if people who ask us to “behave” can actually remain calm when they are put in such a situation. With no doubt, am sure, they will forget all that they preach them they are attacked. self protection will always take over values.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I have always had a short fuse, but as I got older the fuse got longer. For some reason I don’t let things bother me as much as I did when I was in my teen’s and twenties. I’d be interested if these Baboons and chimpanzees experience the same thing…well, or even the banana for that matter.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m not sure. Animals seem to have some degree of empathy. I consider how mothers care for their offspring, and how dogs have saved the lives of humans. But maybe humans need empathy more, because we are very interdependent, compared with most animals.

    Liked by 1 person

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