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


Gary Evans on the Environment of Childhood Poverty

This week, environmental and developmental psychologist at Cornell University, Gary Evans, paid us a visit at the Athenaeum. Prof. Evans’ talk highlighted that poverty is bad for children mainly because of the confluence of environmental and psychosocial risks it creates.

When it comes to psychosocial risks, it has been proven that low income is associated with aggression, low math scores, deferred graduation, poor language and memory development, higher divorce rates, and frequent corporal punishment. When it comes to increased environmental risks, studies have shown that poverty is bad for childhood development because it leads to smaller access to park spaces and supermarkets (which contributes to higher obesity rates), incomplete bathrooms, lack of central heat and overall low quality housing, higher exposure to allergens, crowded housing spaces, and exposure to sulfur oxides, which have been associated with serious consequences for IQ levels.

On top of these, Prof. Evans’ own studies have indicated that poverty and stress may harm parts of the brain sensitive to cognitive stress, leading to diminished reactivity in the face of life challenges and slower recovery to baseline blood pressure levels. Additionally, it appears that children who have grown up in poverty may develop a smaller hippocampus, which might retard the neurological mechanisms associated with coping strategies.

Hence, poverty is not dangerous for children just because of poverty itself. It is dangerous because of the cumulative risk exposure and confluence of risk factors that it creates. Childhood poverty cultivates a system in which, “when it rains, it pours.”

Women’s Leadership Workshop at CMC

Last week, The Berger Institute along with The Kravis Leadership Institute and the Robert Day School of Economics hosted the 8th annual Women’s Leadership Workshop at the Athenaeum. Designed to connect 5C students with successful female leaders, the workshop featured alumnae from fields such as law, non-profit, consulting, and education.

The event started with an inspiring talk by Victoria Halsey, author and VP of Applied Learning at The Ken Blanchard Companies. Mrs. Halsey stressed the importance of communication in leadership. She pointed out that what sets a leader apart from others is their ability to overcome the assumed constraint of asking questions without fear. As women, we often believe that we need to do everything on our own when, in truth, leadership emerges from collaboration and extending a helping hand.

Following Mrs. Halsey’s talk, students were given the opportunity to briefly chat with alumnae about their experiences in the workforce. The alumnae I spoke with highlighted the value of combining one’s professional and social goals in order to excel. For instance, after hitting a plateau in her career, one of the alumna quit her job and sought a volunteer position as president of a non-profit organization. Non-profits pursue professionals with extensive leadership experience, but often cannot afford their desired wages. Temporarily moving to a volunteer-based position can enrich your experience and allow you to go back to the corporate world prepared to move up the ladder – all while giving back.

Abundance without Attachment

This week, I attended Arthur Brooks’ Ath talk on “Abundance without Attachment.” The talk was initially titled, “How to Live Life like a Start-up,” but was later changed. Prior to the talk, I wondered why Brooks would change the talk from something attention-grabbing to the entrepreneurial spirits of CMC to one that was vague; however, by the end of the talk, it was clear why he had done so. The main crux of Brooks’ talk was on the formula to happiness. While there are many economists and businessmen explaining their steps to living a entrepreneurial lifestyle, there are few that elaborate on the importance of happiness.

As a business and government professor with a Ph.D. and an M.Phil. in policy analysis from the Pardee RAND Graduate School, Brooks engaged the audience through his charismatic take on finding happiness in a capitalist society, making tradeoffs between relationships and career, and other relevant insight. Currently, he is the president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and a bestselling author.

Before his present accomplishments, Brooks spent 12 years as a classical musician. His transition to economics came after his desire to find a solution to poverty. During his trips to India, capitalism became hard evidence of a powerful tool that lifted poor nations from deep poverty. Brooks then decided that he wanted to be a part of the solution and started his career switch.

The question remains: what does the title even mean? The best way to describe “Abundance without Attachment” in western words is “If you love something, set it free.” Brooks argues that capitalism is not evil. Capitalism is a machine run by people, who can be good or not. The abundance of money that rises through capitalism is not bad; however, the distinction is that the attachment to the abundance of money is what causes dissatisfaction.

What should we value instead? Brooks talks about the four aspects to the formula for happiness, which includes pouring ourselves into:

  1. Faith
  2. Family
  3. Community
  4. Meaningful Work

Brooks’ formula for happiness was not groundbreaking to me since it wasn’t the first time I’ve learned about it. I’ve heard about it from my parents, read about it from psychology experiments, and witnessed it firsthand through the fulfillment of my decade-long friendships and sharing life stories with strangers while traveling abroad. However, coming from Brooks, whose background is intertwined in both music and economics (such as mine), the advice hit close to home. Brooks’ talk was a great reminder to continue prioritizing what is most important in life.

Didn’t make it to the talk? Check out the link featuring Arthur Brooks’ commentary on TED.

By: Sharon Chiang

Theatre is Truth, Journalism is Not

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This week, I had the pleasure of attending the discussion on politics, art, and the role of the theater in shaping public policy with internationally recognized playwright J.T. Rogers and CMC professor Eric Helland. A 2012 Guggenheim fellow in playwriting and under commission from Lincoln Center Theater and the Royal National Theatre, Rogers hails from an impressive background.

CMC is known as a prestigious liberal arts college with strengths in pre-professional preparation. Though theatre is not a major offered at the college, there were many practical lessons taken away from the talk that deal with developing meaningful connections and experiences that we can apply to our daily lives.

When asked about the role of both journalism and theater, Rogers responded that “While journalism sharpens our minds, the theater can expand our sense of what it means to be human. It is where we can come together in a communal space to hear ideas that grip us, surprise us — even infuriate us — as we learn of things we didn’t know. For me, that is a deeply, thrillingly, political act.” Non-fiction can tell you facts but exclude the emotions that accompany these events.

So how does one write a play? The short answer is by understanding the human experience. Like any great career advice, J.T. Rogers simply says to use what you know. The characters need to be believable, coming from real backgrounds and having authentic human emotions and behaviors. When talking to people about their experiences, Rogers states that what is important is a personal level of understanding, such as how they wake up in the morning, and not just listening to their list of achievements. He seeks to create a conversation, not an interview.

To conclude the talk, Helland asked about how living in a rent-controlled apartment in New York affected the trajectory of Rogers’ career. To Rogers, his experience in New York was pivotal to the beginning of his career. Genius is not alone; genius comes from being in an environment with a lot of creative and ambitious people. This brought me to think about how lucky I am to be attending CMC, a college that not only promotes discussion and exploration of new ideas, but also adds value by being around the impressive people that go here. Rogers’ discussion at the Ath raises more awareness about the role of theatre in politics and even the privilege to attend CMC.

Didn’t make it to the talk? Check out the link featuring J.T. Rogers’ commentary on his latest play Oslo.

By: Sharon Chiang ’17