Sapolsky: The Trouble With Testosterone Summary

A series of brief essays on various behavior-biology topics.  Easily digestible material with some useful recommended readings appended in the conclusion.  List of essays:

How Big Is Yours?

Concerns the relationship between biological determinism and personal autonomy.  Speculates about the effects of growing scientific literacy and issues of how society will change when everyone carries a dozen or so biological labels/diseases.  Title originates from disputed study claiming that a particular brain region’s size can predict sexual orientation.

Primate Peekaboo

A brief essay on the similarities between primate (baboon and human) voyeurism.

The Night You Ruined Your Pajamas

Discusses the timing of puberty.  Draws the distinction between stable species that invest in quality offspring (e.g., humans), versus opportunistic species that invest in quantity of offspring (e.g., flies).  Attempts to make sense of the conflicting data relating familial instability with earlier periods and less guarded reproductive behavior.  Ends by summarizing the cloudiness of the subject matter, and the need to acknowledge the (probably relatively-insignificant) nature of perceived effects.

Measures of Life

Explores the interrelationship between built-in human biases and the death penalty.  Explores how humans are prone to de-personalize percentages, but personalize frequencies and whole-number analyses (“the human face”).

The Young and the Reckless

Discusses the effects and mystery of the drive found within adolescent primates to forage into the unknown, and explores how this maps to the cosmopolitan-specie flavor of, and intellectual  fertility period of, humanity.

The Solace of Patterns

People progress through life through remarkably predictable patterns; for example, grief follows a Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance (DABDA) pattern.  Perhaps these patterns can be modeled by investigations of biologic cellular-automata concepts.  Perhaps these patterns can mystically resolve our dislike of the chaos of existence.

Beelzebub’s SAT Scores

Musings on the troubled relationship between the Unabomber and geek culture.

Poverty’s Remains

People irrationally are repulsed by autopsies.  Historically, the poor dominate the autopsy-supply.  Since poverty is associated with chronic stress, the nonrandom sample made medical students declare unhealthy thyroid levels as “normal”.  When Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) was being investigated, this norm translated to healthy thyroids being implicated in respiratory failure.  The key moral is that obvious problems such as sample distribution can lead to tens of thousands of deaths via thyroid irradiation.  Caution is always an appropriate prerequisite of medical intervention.

Junk Food Monkeys

Insight sought into the effects of junk-food consumption via explorations of garbage-dump-diet baboon troops.  Unsurprisingly, junk food trades increased caloric density for poor vascular effects and risks to health.

The Burden of Being Burden-Free

Psychological profiles affect disease response via psycho-immune stress responses.  Typically test cases found in hostile people, people with too much personal autonomy (“John Henry-ism”) and repressed personalities.  Repressive profiles, in particular, are interesting insofar as it is difficult to self-diagnose.  One of the few good methods is looking for unambiguous emotive responses.

The Trouble with Testosterone

Testosterone correlates to aggression.  It turns out, unexpectedly, that in the typical correlation-causation investigation, often aggression causes hormonal secretion.  This is sociologically difficult to accept – scientists tend to label more reductive elements as causally basal (“physics envy”).  This hormone does have a permissive effect – aggression is diminished by castration.  However, behavior is non-modulated by a wide range of non-pharmacological hormone levels.    In other words, hormones tend to modulate pre-existent behavioral tendencies.  Nature-nurture interactions are more potent than either cause separately.  Reductionism to physics curtails real explanatory power.

The Graying of The Troop

Physiological responses to aging are modulated by personality.  Baboons who age are often subject to strong social abuses; half of all baboons risk death by old-age emigration.  The half that do not find solace in non-sexual friendship.  This maps fairly well to the human need for sustained intimate contacts.

Curious George’s Pharmacy

Animals may prefer pharmaceutical diets when inflicted with various diseases.  Research progress is difficult, however, and the mechanisms underlying this purported learning are all unknown.  This essay heavily emphasized the need for lay-skepticism, and was subject to a critical review by four leaders in zoopharacognosy; however, the disagreement seemed to me facile.

The Dangers of Fallen Souffles in the Developing World

“You don’t want to receive the gift of a Western diet until you develop a Western pancreas, kidneys, and stomach lining” (p. 203).  In general, the effects of stress are worsened by the African lack of an outlet of frustration and a sense of control.  Perhaps the developing world’s appetite for consumption is outpacing the corresponding drive of production.

The Dissolution of Ego Boundaries and the Fit of My Father’s Shirt

Begins by telling of a Hawking lecture, in which an arrogant youth translates his murmuring.  Hawking apparently picked the youth as his student, and the two in some sense felt as one.  Moves towards the hard problem of consciousness, including a discussion of bicameralism and multiple personality disorder.  The author concludes by arguing that pathologizing ego dissolution is not necessarily a good thing; that sharp individuation and ritual-less living may come with disadvantages.

Why You Feel Crummy When You’re Sick

This essay explores why feeling sick is associated with common, non-specific symptoms.

Circling the Blanket for God

Schizotypal disorder – the milder twin of schizophrenia – is associated with meta-magical thinking, and contributes to theological development.  Obsessive-compulsive disorder, associated with numerology and the repetitive doctrines of ritual, contributes to many expressions of organized religion.  In the epilogue, Sapolsky also mentions Skinner’s superstitious pigeons (that associated with eccentric, non-causal behavior to be linked with a randomly-distributed reward) and temporal lobe seizures (which is also researched by Sapolsky and the makers of the “god helmet”.)


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