Robert Sapolsky

“I would also dart and anesthetize my baboons using blow gun systems, and there's a bunch of people in DC where I would love to put a big hefty dart in their rears, and maybe put in some ear tags and find out what's going on with their hormone levels.” | Professor Robert Sapolsky, biologist and neuroscientist, on the natural processes behind today’s decision-makers.

Sapolsky sat down with Shiv and Wes to discuss his path to neuroscience, human compassion, and effective strategies for talking about science in political and social terms.


One of the preeminent neurobiologists in the world, Robert Sapolsky is a professor at Stanford University where he holds joint appointments in the Biological Sciences, Neurology & Neurological Sciences, and Neurosurgery departments. After being raised in Brooklyn, he graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University with a Bachelors in Biological Anthropology and later went on to get his PhD from Rockefeller University in Neuroendocrinology. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship genius grant in 1987 and the National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator Award. For decades he has been traveling to Africa every year to observe a group of baboons as part of his work on stress and gene degeneration.

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“A large percentage of social mammals can be divided into what’s called pair-bonded species: they mate for life, males do a lot of child-care, females choose males who are good partners, there’s not a whole lot of aggression. Or tournament species: males are much bigger than females, and big sharp canines, ornamentation, they fight tons…. So what about humans? By every measure you could come up with from cultural anthropology to literally what sort of genetic diseases we have, we are halfway in between… and this explains like 90% of poetry and divorces... We are incredibly confused species in that regard.” (9:30)

“People have a lot of trouble imagining that whatever it is right now is going to change as much in the next ten years as whatever it was ten years ago.” (12:59)

“We have to not only not despair, but do everything possible to hasten the end of the political regime that was about to come in.” (13:50)

“If Donald Trump does not destroy the planet with some of his plans, he certainly is going to destroy research and science and a lot of medical work. I think that the cuts that he is proposing, the hostility he has to things like global warming, the hostility that he has to fact, to cause and effect, basically I think puts us all in great danger. But if you happen to be somebody that happens to traffic in truth and facts for a living, particularly so.” (14:02)

“We do weird things like invent sheepishness about status, or being embarrassed about the wealth we come from, or things like that.” (16:00)

“At a place like this, with really smart and really privileged people, who are gonna have all sort of options down the line, I guess the clearest thing I wish I had had hammered into me more is: get a really good sense if you can of what you’re gonna have to give up for your ambition, and is it worth it?” (18:39)