The Biology of Good and Evil

Sharon Chiang ’17, Robert Sapolsky, and Rachel Lee ’17

What makes someone good or evil? Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology, neurosurgery, and neurology at Stanford University, dives into human biology to find the answer. By looking at the history of our species and its genetic inheritance, his Ath talk explores what we are restrained by, what we are capable of, and what we can do to change the world for the better.

As a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, Sapolsky has proven to be exceptionally creative. Sapolsky delves into the neurobiology of human beings, such as how the fear-inducing amygdala activates differently within different people, how dopamine drives motivation and anticipation for reward, and more. Sapolsky argues that the term “good” and “evil” can be linked to people’s cultural influences, their biological programming, and differences in upbringing.

However, though the introduction to neurology helped clarify exactly why humans behave the way they do, his conclusion on what we could do about it received a standing ovation from the entire audience.

Sapolsky’s conclusion? That humans are complicated. We scorn violence that occurs to innocent bystanders, yet we desire violence on those who inflict horrendous crimes against humanity. We perform acts of war, yet during war, we also perform acts of kindness. To Sapolsky, humans have the capacity to simultaneously believe in two contradictory things. Despite living in continuous contradictions, which Sapolsky says is just life, he challenges us to always do better and strive to bring empathy, altruism, and kindness to the world. Though it is irrational to believe that those who are our enemies deserve our empathy or those who have wronged us should be forgiven, he says that this is the uniqueness of humans. He leaves us with a quote, telling us that though learning about history teaches us not to repeat mistakes from the past, learning about our biology teaches us that we can replicate acts of goodness in times when we need it the most. The more impossible it seems to do the right thing, the more important it is that we do so. . That is, to Sapolsky, what makes us human.

Didn’t make it to the talk? Catch Sapolsky’s TED talk on the uniqueness of humans here

By: Sharon Chiang