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    The Dude Sapolsky On Behavioral Biology
    By Sascha Vongehr | August 25th 2011 12:23 AM | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Sascha

    Dr. Sascha Vongehr [风洒沙] studied phil/math/chem/phys in Germany, obtained a BSc in theoretical physics (electro-mag) & MSc (stringtheory)...

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    You ever wondered why it is that we share only 50% of our genes with a sibling but 98% with chimpanzees?

    Humans are a freak of nature. We are in between a so called ‘tournament species’ and a ‘pair-bonding species’. In other words: naturally very aggressive primates constantly stressed in the pressure grip of macro evolution. These and many other important issues are touched on in Robert Sapolsky's lecture on Behavioral Biology, Biology 150.

    If one of these evenings you are tempted to order pizza and watch some Hollywood crap, stop right there and watch Robert’s lecture instead: It is entertaining and it is possibly the most down to earth and up to date available on the whole nature-or-nurture debate, on how much genes determine whether you like briefs or boxer shorts.

    I wholeheartedly recommend you watch this! Robert’s lectures are entertaining and the first few, especially lecture one to five, are on a level that most anybody can understand. He just tells stories. Makes you wonder – it is Stanford university after all, yet the level of their Biology lectures is this (s)low? Compared to high school physics, it is baby talk.

    Although he gets some stuff about group selection backwards, he is surprisingly objective on the gene-centric versus group-selection issue; all terms he explains on a lay level – so no fear. He also stands above the lines drawn in the sand between gradualist evolution versus punctuated equilibrium. He argues not too convincingly for punctuation via his terribly misleading invocation of “fast evolution”, which at some point he confuses with what happens when feral dogs in the Moscow subway revert back to wolf traits over thirty generations, or vice versa when domesticated foxes become cute like puppies, but all these problems are almost negligible given the overall surprisingly objective and up to date account on evolution. So go watch it.

    Most problems seem due to his lack of physics education. He presents punctuated equilibrium as if it is inherent to the modular structure of molecular genetics and epigenetic. Punctuated equilibrium needs catastrophic co-evolution of the environment, which he indirectly gets at in two sentences, but that gets totally lost. Gradualism/punctuation is a non-issue for a physicist adept in looking at very different time scales all the way from the Planck limit to eons.

    Robert does also not know what Brownian motion is (all is “oscillating” – ouch!), which is pretty damn bad for a lecturer at any university in any field. Looking up Brownian motion on wikipedia takes about ten minutes, and it is so basic and at the same time important, there is no excuse to be so ignorant. It is another example for how over-specialized professors at so called top universities are. They actually know so little about anything else, you cannot even trust them on their own field, since nothing makes sense in isolation

    Nevertheless, especially lecture number six for example is full of interesting little stories. Strange thing: The lecture after that, Robert remarks that number six blew many of the babies in the audience “out of the water”, apparently because it was so difficult. There goes my last respect for Stanford students.

    Sadly, Robert completely tanks in lecture seven. He cannot hide his political agenda. Not that he gets too much factually wrong, but he is so desperate to ensure that you interpret everything in his preferred way; all becomes muddled. And the way he wants you to understand it is obvious before you even listen to him talk. My wife refers to him as the Dude Lebowsky! She is a Chinese who never left China – not sure whether that negates or proves the point.


    Anyway, lecture seven should explain the difference between “heritable” or better "inherited" and “heritability” – a simple distinction, sober terminology, not politics. Instead, Robert effectively tells the audience that nothing is inherited at all and only environment counts because if you take an embryo and shoot it into outer space, it may burn up in the sun instead of forming any of the inherited traits, and thus environment, here the sun being 6000 degrees, is much more important than genes. Of course he does not give this example, but it is not far off.


    Siblings with the number of toes clearly not being five per foot, while according to Robert, the heritability of the number of toes on a human’s foot is zero!?!

    You might like to just skip lecture seven. Number ten to twelve are given by his grad students and mostly just get one point across: Never try to be artificially funny or cool. The last thing you will be is funny or cool. From number 13 on it isn't all that entertaining anymore, but if you are interested into depression for example, it is worth getting through all the rest, too. Let me know if you gotten beyond lecture number two. ;-)