Biological Basis for Behaviour


Using time travel as an organizing principle, Robert M. Sapolsky, in his book Behave, addresses human reaction to stimuli and concludes that nature reigns over nurture. “Seconds before our action, it is neuroscience that investigates what is going on in the brain; minutes to days before is the domain of endocrinology (hormonal fluctuations). Days to months before, we focus on the brain’s ability to learn and rewire itself.”

However if every human action is inescapably caused by preceding events in the world, including events from centuries to millennia before (chapter 9) and events in the brain, how do we account for free will? Can humans be moral beings? Should our justice system recognize the biological drivers of behavior? How should we think about religion? These issues too will be discussed.

In summary this SDG will help you understand the eternal response "the devil made me do it" -- and, perhaps conclude, he did. 

Sapolsky’s book is fairly non-technical although some neurological terms and ideas are used. In addition Sapolsky has at least two full lectures entitled "Human Behavior Biology" on endocrinology and neurosciences for the non professional on YouTube.

Weekly Topics

  1. Our behavior, One Second before, Seconds to minutes before. Chapters 1,2 and 3

  2. Hours to days before.  Chapter 4.

  3. Days to Months Before. Chapter 5

  4. Adolescence. Chapter 6

  5. Back to the Crib, Back to the Womb. Chapter 7.

  6. Back to when you were just a fertilized egg.  Chapter 8.

  7. Centuries to Millenia before.  Chapter 9

  8. Evolution of Behavior.  Chapter 10.

  9. Us versus them.  Chapter 11

  10. Hierarchy, obedience, and resistance.  Chapter 12

  11. Morality and doing the right thing. Chapter 13

  12. Feeling someone's pain, understanding someone's pain, alleviating someone's pain. Chapter 14

  13. Metaphors we kill by. Chapter 15

  14. Biology, the Criminal Justice system, and free will. 


Sapolsky, Robert M., “Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst” , Penguin Press, 2017. 

Cashmore, Anthony, “The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, PNAS March 9, 2010. 107 (10) 4499-4504,,091561107

Introduction to Neuroscience I,