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The Biology of Morality: the roots of human aggression & empathy (Repeat)

What can biology tell us about human aggression, empathy, and our moral behavior? Robert Sapolsky discusses these issues and more in a broad biological survey of human aggression that starts with an ethologists attention to understanding the context of the behavior itself and then examines the full timeline of biological factors that lead to the behavior from the most proximal (closest) to the most distal (furthest) factors: neurology, releasing stimuli, acute and chronic hormonal situation, cultural factors, perinatal biology and developmental environment, genetics, and the evolutionary and environmental influences.

This discussion is based on 3½ Robert Sapolsky videos in almost 6 hours of lectures. Watching the videos and reading my notes are optional, but the material is so fascinating that I invite you to delve into it and explore it more deeply noting any questions that occur to you.

Aggression I (last 45 minutes of a 1h 35m video). In the second half of this video Sapolsky begins the discussion on aggression with some stories. Humans value aggression when it is in the right context. He then explores how human aggression and empathy are (and are not) unique in the animal kingdom. At the end of the video he starts an in depth discussion of the neurology of aggression with a focus on the amygdala. Read my extensive notes summarizing Sapolsky's discussion. Read the notes of a Sapolsky fan.

Aggression II (1h 45m video). In this video the discussion on the neurology of aggression continues with a detailed look at the role of the frontal cortex in the limbic system (our emotional brain). Then he discusses the fascinating topic of metaphor in the brain. He ends by starting a discussion on hormones and aggression. Read my extensive notes summarizing Sapolsky's discussion. Read the notes of a Sapolsky fan.

Aggression III (1 h 41m video). In this video he starts with a review of the topic of metaphor in the brain. Then he continues the topic of hormones and aggression with discussions on serotonin, testosterone, perimenstral effects, and alcohol. Then he looks at ways to trigger aggression (pain is the biggest one). Then he examines various theories and results on environmental (including peers and community) & developmental effects on morality. Read my extensive notes summarizing Sapolsky's discussion. Read the notes of a Sapolsky fan.

Aggression IV (1h 42m video). This video looks briefly at hormonal and genetic effects on aggression. The majority of the video explores the cultural, ecological, environmental, and evolutionary effects of aggression and cooperation. The ending is oh so poignant! Read my extensive notes summarizing Sapolsky's discussion. Read the notes of a Sapolsky fan.

This topic is a repeat of the one on Sunday May 4th.

I have led several previous discussions on Robert Sapolsky videos. Here is a collection of links to those events for your reference. The Uniqueness and Evolution of Humans (15 Apr 2012) is based on a commencement speech Sapolsky delivered. The other discussions have been based on Sapolsky's course BIO 250, HUMBIO 160: Human Behavioral Biology. There were two discussions on "The Evolutionary and Genetic Bases of Human Behavior" which covered videos 2-7 of the course on 14 Jul 2013 and 27 Jul 2013, two discussions on "The Biology of Learning" which covered videos 8 & 9 of the course on 10 Nov 2013 and 30 Nov 2013. There were three discussions on "Brain Science and Human Behavior" which covered videos 10-14 of the course on 12 Jan 201418 Jan 2014, and 2 Feb 2014. There were two discussions on "The Biology of Human Sexual Behavior" which covered videos 15-17 of the course on 9 March 2014 and 15 March 2014.

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  • Nadine

    Thanks CJ for your work and preparation. I echo what others said. A thought provoking, lively discussion with excellent contributions from everyone. I enjoyed meeting everyone.

    2 · May 11, 2014

  • A former member
    A former member

    Excellent topic, wll moderated. Thanks, CJ and all for time well spent!

    1 · May 10, 2014

  • Will B.

    Great discussion. Very lively, informed and stimulating. Everyone contributed and had something interesting to offer. C.J. did a fine job of keeping the discussion balanced and shared by all as well as bringing up questions raised by Sapolsky in the videos.

    2 · May 10, 2014

  • Charles N.

    A very stimulating discussion - a lot of different views, which always makes it interesting

    1 · May 10, 2014

  • CJ F.

    Tomorrow we will discuss the biological roots of morality. The 4th & final optional video by Robert Sapolsky is "Aggression IV":

    Pseudospeciation: psychological mechanisms to make others seem so different from us that you don't even view them as human: "us v. them". Do Hitler & bin Laden deserve the same moral considerations as other human beings?

    The theme of metaphor and symbol from the 2nd & 3rd videos continue as Sapolsky explores peacemaking.

    Profound treatment of cooperation: there are many tools to increase cooperative behavior, but cooperation is also a prerequisite to genocide! The scariest thing on the planet is when a group of males starts to cooperate and look at others around them.

    The conclusion is poignant & profound: the exact same behaviors are cheered & are "the most frightening possible thing that can happen to us". Aggressive behavior is complex!

    Read my notes:­

    Watch "Aggression IV":

    May 9, 2014

  • CJ F.

    For tomorrow's discussion on the biological roots of morality, the optional Sapolsky video "Aggression IV" ( ) explores the genetic & evolutionary effects shaping human aggression. In the vast majority of social species and in all human cultures, the major cause of aggression is "male-male violence over reproductive access to females". Is that true? The second most common cause of human aggression is males attacking females over denial of sexual access. Whoa, is human aggression largely about sexual violence? Is that what Sapolsky means when he says that human males often pathologically confuse sexual behavior with violence?

    Sapolsky goes in depth exploring pseudokinship (unrelated individuals cooperating as if they were brothers) and pseudospeciation (humans behaving as if other people are not even human). Is "us vs. them" thinking a major factor in aggression, warfare & morality?

    Watch "Aggression IV":

    May 9, 2014

  • Jennifer A.

    This could perhaps be more difficult or challenging without the psychological and philosophical benefits of practicing a faith or being part of a religious community. Also, to be more specific, every religion has its instructions and guidelines on how to lead the good life, avoid temptation and the desire for revenge. This is not just for an individual moral decision or choice, but also for instructing how we live in society and cooperate with others and provide for the common good in a way. For example, the Ten Commandments, Islamic law, the Bible, Torah, Koran, etc.

    May 9, 2014

    • CJ F.

      Jennifer, according the research of Jonathan Haight (which I alluded to in my earlier comments) and The Carnegie Foundation research on heroism, there is strong evidence that moral reasoning is largely after the fact rationalization and that heroism is thoughtless. So it might be argued that the role of faith and religion may be significantly overblown by historical accident.

      But Sapolsky does suggest at the end of "Aggression III" (­ ) that our moral behavior may be founded more in implicit procedural learning (your body knows it better than your head, which is stored in the cerebellum). So it may be more important to provide very strong, consistent, & repeated imperatives to act morally and bravely, and to not care what other people think than to provide faith or faith communities.

      May 9, 2014

  • Jennifer A.

    Hello, I am on the waitlist for this fascinating discussio. In fact, I have a future book idea with exactly these themes, specifically about altruism. I was wondering if there were notes that could be archived to our group afterwards for later reflection and study?

    May 9, 2014

  • Jennifer A.

    The overarching question is: can we still be psychologically positive and 'fit' with the ability to cope and be resilient in society, making moral choices without religion? We hear about meditation all the time, how MRI scans can reveal the changes of the biology of the brain and how this is oftentimes identified with a religion of a certain kind.
    ( Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism--yoga)

    May 9, 2014

  • Jennifer A.

    One question to consider: what is the role of religion in helping to shape an individual towards making more moral choices and towards morality? Consequently, one can still be moral without 'getting religion'but it seems that if an atheist or agnostic individual tried to live a moral life, it would appear to be similar to living a Nietzche lifestyle focused on solely the individual 'to overcome the world with a Superman mentality' and his or her response to events and conditions and his or her ability to cope with such circumstances and sometimes life-altering conditions/events and also its connections to making moral choices as a result.

    May 9, 2014

  • CJ F.

    Saturday's discussion on The Biology of Morality will include a key segment on the environmental shaping of morality which is based on Sapolsky's video "Aggression III" ( ; read my extensive notes here:­).

    Yesterday I commented on the proximal environmental context of aggression & morality. A more distal mechanism is childhood development. Sapolsky explores the role of Theory of Mind (ToM: the recognition that others may have different information, thoughts, and feelings than I have) and empathy. Is ToM necessary for empathy?

    He critiques Kohlberg's famed stages of moral development in kids. If not Kohlberg, then how does our moral development mature as kids?

    He looks at the fascinating role of the peer group. Is it more important to moral development than one's parents?

    The conclusion blew me away: Is moral reasoning cognitive thought or implicit rules overlearned in childhood?

    Watch "Aggression III"

    May 8, 2014

  • CJ F.

    On Saturday we will discuss Biology and Morality. The 3rd video in the Sapolsky series more directly addresses morality.

    Video "Aggression III":

    Jonathan Haight's work suggests that moral reasoning is mostly after the fact rationalization for moral affect (the affective or emotional decision-making of the limbic system). Sapolsky observed in "Aggression II" ( that metaphor and reality get mixed in the brain. Moral disgust and nausea are centered in the insular cortex of the limbic system.

    Sapolsky argues that aggression is largely about frustration, pain, stress, fear and anxiety. Pain is the most reliable releasing stimulus for aggressive behavior. But he observes that lions fight more when resources are plentiful: behavioral fat. Is it the environmental context and not morality that most regulates our aggressiveness? Is morality just rationalization of our limbic behavior?

    Watch "Aggression III":

    May 7, 2014

  • CJ F.

    Saturday's discussion will explore the biological roots of morality. Watching the videos and reading the notes are optional.

    Video "Aggression I":
    Read my notes on the video at­

    Video "Aggression II":
    Read my notes on the video at­

    This video also discusses how the dichotomy between thought & emotion has crumbled in modern brain science. Josh Greene's studies show that subjects who activate the anterior cingulate are less likely to think it OK to smother a crying child when hiding from the Nazis. His runaway trolley experiment showed that people with frontal cortical damage are more likely to choose utilitarian options. Some studies show our moral choices are more utilitarian and selfish when the frontal cortex is turned off (by transmagnetic stimulation).

    What is the role of morality given that we are fundamentally emotional animals? Is moral reasoning rationalized affect?

    May 6, 2014

  • CJ F.

    Saturday's discussion on the biological roots of morality is based on 6 hours of video lectures which are recommended but optional.

    Yesterday I summarized "Aggression I":

    In "Aggression II" (105 m video: break it into 2 or 3 viewing sessions), Sapolsky explores in depth the roles of the amygdala and frontal cortex in governing human aggression. The frontal cortex regulates appropriate behavior in the context of violence, aggression, competition & cooperation. The frontal cortex is what makes us human: to choose the better behavior in the face of temptation. Is that the essence of morality?

    The legal implications of brain damage and criminal behavior have focused on the difference between right & wrong. We now know that with some frontal cortex damage you can compulsively do the wrong thing despite knowing it's wrong! Is such a person culpable? Should the insanity defense rules recognize this brain science?

    Watch "Aggression II":

    May 5, 2014

  • CJ F.

    For Saturday's discussion on the biological roots of morality, I recommend 4 optional videos by Robert Sapolsky. The 1st video is "Aggression I": (skip the first 52 minutes).

    Sapolsky emphasizes that aggression is an integral part of human behavior: we often love & value aggression. He tells two powerful stories about aggressive behavior that we would all cheer (one about himself & another about his wife). Do we value, cheer, vote for, reward, & sometimes even join in aggressive behavior? Will you pay good money to see aggressive behavior? Is it the context of aggression that makes it praise- or blame-worthy?

    Sapolsky explores what is unique in the animal world about human aggression and empathy. Justice, empathy, and killing one's own are not unique. But we employ them in subtle ways that most animals could never understand. What is unique about human empathy & aggression?

    Watch "Aggression I": (skip 52m)

    May 4, 2014

  • A former member
    A former member

    Your notes are excellent, CJ, especially for those who prefer reading to video. Thanks!

    1 · May 2, 2014

  • CJ F.

    A week from tomorrow we will discuss "The Biology of Morality". This discussion is based on 4 Robert Sapolsky videos (a total of 6 h). Watching videos is optional, but Sapolsky is a treat so I hope you can watch some of them. I recommend watching the videos in segments to break them up. Here's a guide:

    Aggression I (last 45 minutes of a 1h 35m video):
    Discusses what is unique about human aggression & empathy; starts talking about the neurology of aggression

    Aggression II (1h 45m video):
    Discusses neuroendocrinology (with a focus on the frontal cortex which makes us human): fascinating discussion on brain damage, crime, & the law

    Aggression III (1 h 41m video):
    Discusses hormonal influences, then extensive coverage on how moral behavior is shaped & formed

    Aggression IV (1h 42m video):
    Discusses genetic & evolutionary shaping of aggression, empathy, cooperation & morality

    May 2, 2014

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