It’s Complicated

When dealing with complex ideas, it helps to break them down into separate categories. Biologists explain things using biology, psychologists use psychology and so on. Specialising within a category has its advantages – less chance of cognitive overload, easier to remember facts and more but it can limit your ability to see the bigger picture.

Instead of trying to explain a complex idea with a single discipline, you need to think about many different disciplines. However you need to do more. You need to understand how these different disciplines fit together to make up the bigger picture. For instance, human behaviour is complex and we often hear that a behaviour is caused by a gene, a hormone or a childhood trauma but this is not the whole story.

A behaviour has just occured. Why did it happen? Your first category of explanation is going to be a neurobiological one. What went on in that person’s brain a second before the behaviour happened? Now pull out to a slightly larger field of vision, your next category of explanation, a little earlier in time. What sight, sound, or smell in the previous seconds to minutes triggered the nervous system to produce that behaviour? On to the next explanatory category. What hormones acted hours to days earlier to change how responsive that individual was to the sensory stimuli that trigger the nervous system to produce the behaviour? And by now you have increased your field of vision to thinking about neurobiology, the sensory world of our environment and short-term endocrinology in trying to explain what happened.

And you just keep expanding. What features of the environment in the prior weeks to years changed the structure and function of that person’s brain and thus changed how it responded to those hormones and environmental stimuli? Then you go back further to the childhood of the individual, their fetal environment, then their genetic makeup. And then you increase the view to encompass factors larger than that one individual; how has culture shaped the behaviour of people living in that individual’s group? What ecological factors helped shape that culture? Expanding and expanding until considering events thousands of years ago and the evolution of that behaviour.

Scientists keep saying, “We used to think X, but now we realise that…” Fixing one thing often messes up ten more. On any big important issue it seems like 51 percent of the scientific studies conclude one thing, and 49 percent conclude the opposite. And so on. Eventually it can seem hopeless that you can fix something, or at least make things better. But we have no choice but to try.


Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert Sapolsky

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