REVIEW: Robert Sapolsky’s “Behave” Suffers From “Flotationism”

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I thoroughly enjoyed neurologist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky’s 2017 book entitled Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. I’m not new to Sapolsky’s work. A number of years ago (when VHS tapes ruled the world) I watched a class of his through Great Courses entitled Biology and Human Behavior. To say that I had a love fest with Behave would be an understatement. Sapolsky covers many of the same topics I have covered in my books and in my blog posts. Here’s a partial list of those topics (in no particular order):

  • Walter Mischel and his Marshmallow Test
  • Assessing for false beliefs
  • Antonio Damasio and his theory of somatic markers
  • Theory of Mind (ToM), Empathy, and Mentalization (i.e., executive function skills or EF)
  • The role Oxycontin plays in the bonding process
  • The Prisoner’s Dilemma
  • Jonathan Haidt and the moral differences between liberals and conservatives
  • George Lakoff on metaphor and embodied cognition
  • Lt. Col. David Grossman and his book The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society
  • Paul MacLean’s triune brain
  • Harry Harlow’s studies of Rhesus monkeys and wire mesh mothers
  • Gregory Hickok and The Myth of Mirror Neurons (which is the title to his book)
  • Kohlberg’s stages of moral development (based on Piaget’s work)

There are others but I’ll stop there. I wish I could cover each of these topics in this post. I have other plans. If you’d like to read about these topics, pick up a copy of Sapolsky’s book, or feel free to search my blog posts or thumb through the pages of my books Bowlby’s Battle and A Question of Attachment.

Even though I had a love fest with the vast majority of Sapolsky’s 800 (yes, 800) pages, I was disappointed in three critical areas. Let’s take a look at that them in no particular order.

Flotationism vs. Organic Systems Theory—It’s no secret that US science, since the early days of the last century, has had a love fest with reductionist science (which Sapolsky briefly mentions in Behave). Simply put, reductionist science is about reducing wholes to parts and then investigating how those parts operate in relative isolation, often looking for simple cause and effect chains (like one billiard ball hitting another). Reductionist scientists will go a step further and make a part the whole. This is the essence of objectification. Don’t get me wrong: reductionist science has given us many of our modern technological wonders (nuclear energy being but one). Yes, there is a love fest between reductionist science and industry.

Reductionist science works well in the inorganic world. But in the organic world? not so much. Unfortunately, scientists have tried to apply reductionist methods to the organic world. As an example, behaviorism (which Sapolsky talks about in Behave) is about reducing behavior—both human and animal—to simple cause and effect chains. Sapolsky is not a big fan of behaviorism, nor am I. However, behaviorism still rules. Just look at how popular cognitive-behavioral therapy is. It’s the darling of health insurance companies. It would appear that insurance companies like reductionism too.

Again, starting in the early years of the last century, a different approach to the study of the organic or biological world hit the stage. It’s known as organic systems theory. Arguably the father of organic systems theory is Ludwig von Bertalanffy. [1] Bertalanffy started work on his theory in the late 1920s. The crowning achievement of his efforts has to be his 1969 book entitled General System Theory: Foundations, Development, and Application. As Bertalanffy writes, reductionist methods are great for “analyzing elements, but then forgets to look at the relationships between elements, their interactions, and, as a result, is ill-equipped to put all the elements together in a whole that works.” The essence of organic systems theory can be captured by the saying, “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” Something unpredictable often emerges when organic systems come together. Consciousness is an emergent property of the myriad systems that comprise the human mind. Survival as evolution’s main motivator may have been the primal emergent property as inorganic material was transformed into organic material eons ago. In 1952 when chemist Stanley Miller conducted his now famous Miller–Urey experiment, “which showed that complex organic molecules could be synthesized from inorganic precursors” (thank you Wikipedia), I’m not sure survival was a part of the systems mix.

OK, I fibbed a bit. The real father of organic systems theory has to be Darwin. Yes, Darwin. We tend to think that Darwin’s crowning achievement is the theory of evolution. Yes and no. His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, produced a fairly fleshed out version of evolution. And Darwin was in a well known race with Alfred Wallace to get to the evolution finish line. In short, many of the biological components that ultimately went into making up evolution theory were floating around at the time Darwin started his work. It was Darwin’s genius that recognized that all of the parts had to fit together somehow. And it was his genius that put all of the parts he investigated into organic systems theory. Prior to this, to explain how the biological pieces went together, biologists and other naturalists would simply tell us, “Not sure … it’s God’s plan.” This is known as a vitalistic explanation: some vital force is at play, a force we cannot understand. Today, persons who believe in Intelligent Design will say something along the lines of, “Just look at the complexity of the human eye. Tell me that evolution can come up with that type of design. There has to be a divine plan.” Back to Sapolsky.

So, Sapolsky talks about a number of different parts (as the above topics list indicates), however, he leaves them floating around. He mentions organic systems theory concepts (emergence would be an example; gene-environment interactions another) but never uses organic systems theory as an organizing principle. I find this to be a stunning omission. I’m not sure why this is. Sapolsky is candid enough to mention that neurology has its own form of reductionism, a type of neuroreductionism: reducing everything to the firing of neurons. And the widespread use of MRI machines has played a large role in neuroreductionism. Researchers, and research institutions, have to justify the cost of expensive MRI machines, so they throw subjects into them with abandon. This MRI-ism is turning evolution into its own version of vitalism: it happens because it’s evolution’s plan.

Writing in the 2003 book Primate Psychology, primatologist Dario Maestripieri states (in his chapter entitled Attachment): “In the early 1970s … there were already significant cuts to [primate] research funding.” Why did research funds stop flowing to an interdisciplinary area such as primatology (which played such a huge role in the development of Bowlbian attachment theory, which we will look at below)? Maestripieri reveals that one very important factor “was the rapid progress of biological disciplines such as genetics, molecular biology, and neuroscience and the growing popularity of scientific reductionism.” Maestripieri gives us this bottom line: “[T]he success of neuroscience led to the optimistic view that many important questions about behavior would eventually be answered by studies of brain anatomy and function, thus rendering [naturalistic] behavioral research less necessary.” President Bush declared 1990–1999 The Decade of the Brain. In the 2010s, President Obama pledged billions for brain mapping. You cannot fault researchers for following the money. Researchers have to go where the government tells them to, otherwise their labs will go dark.

Floatationism is definitely not reductionistic, but it’s not coherent. And floatationism does not go as far as postmodernism does with its disdain of science and its “everything goes” attitude (an attitude that Sapolsky finds unintelligible, as do I). So, to put a good face on it, floatationism seems to be about keeping a number of things floating around while waiting for an organizing principle to present itself. But here’s the thing: that organizing principle already exists. It worked very well for Darwin. Bertalanffy gave it a modern spin (much in the same way Julian Huxley put a modern spin on evolution). And it worked very well for the father of attachment theory, John Bowlby. As I read Sapolsky’s book, I found myself shouting, “That’s straight ahead organic systems theory: why don’t you use it?!” For reference, here are the various systems levels that Bertalanffy uses in his 1969 book:

  • static structure — atoms, molecules, etc.
  • clock works — clocks, conventional machines, etc.
  • control mechanisms — thermostats, servomechanisms, etc.
  • open systems — cells and organisms in general
  • lower organisms — “plant-like” organisms
  • animals — increasing importance of traffic in information, beginnings of consciousness
  • man — symbolism; past & future, self & world, self-awareness, etc.
  • socio-cultural systems — populations of organisms (humans included); symbol-determined communities (cultures) in man only
  • symbolic systems — language, logic, mathematics, sciences, arts, morals, etc.

Organic systems theory ties all of these levels together. Sapolsky jumps from one level to another willy nilly. This is not unlike Richard Dawkins talking about “selfish genes.” Look at how many systems levels Dawkins has crossed (six). When Sapolsky talks about how the mid brain—home to the brain’s fear center, the amygdala—can take on a life of its own and, in the process, not talk to the upper brain areas, home to executive functioning, this is part and parcel of organic systems theory. When Sapolsky talks about how various brain centers can be at odds with one another, that’s one of the core tenets of organic systems theory. Bertalanffy writes:

If we are speaking of “systems,” we mean “wholes” or “unities.” Then it seems paradoxical that, with respect to a whole, the concept of competition between its parts is introduced. In fact, however, these apparently contradictory statements both belong to the essentials of systems. Every whole is based upon the competition of its elements, and presupposes the “struggle between parts” [a phrase Bertalanffy attributes to Roux]. The latter is a general principle of organization in simple physico-chemical systems as well as in organisms and social units, and it is, in the last resort, an expression of the coincidentia oppositorum that reality presents.

But Sapolsky is not alone in not making use of organic systems theory as an organizing principle.

One of my favorite neurobiologists of all time makes the same mistake. Antonio Damasio in his 2018 book The Strange Order of Things, goes on and on about homeostasis. Homeostasis is the central topic of Strange Order. Homeostasis is the biological process that regulates systems so they, for example, do not overheat. Bertalanffy observes that homeostasis is great for certain things—maintenance of systems—but not good for others, such as change, differentiation, evolution, development, production of improbable states, creativity, building up of tensions, self-realization, emergence, etc. The latter items are a part of what Bertalanffy calls heterostasis.

Again, I am stunned that any book on homeostasis does not include a detailed description (and application) of organic systems theory. I am powerless to explain these types of omissions. Back in 1969, Bertalanffy was equally stunned. He writes,

I have looked in vain into leading American Texts even to find terms, ‘open system,’ ‘steady state’ and ‘irreversible thermodynamics.’ That is to say, precisely that criterion which fundamentally distinguishes living systems from conventional inorganic ones is generally ignored or bypassed.

Again, I find it distressing when Bertalanffy reports that many aspects of open systems (which are key to the understanding of organic or biological systems) have been “strangely neglected in American biology which, under the influence of cybernetic concepts, rather has returned to the machine concept of the cell and organism, thereby neglecting the important principles offered by the theory of open systems.”

I’ll leave it here and move on to my second area of disappointment.

Bowlbian Attachment Theory—Sapolsky devotes considerable space to the topics of empathy, Theory of Mind (ToM) and even what Peter Fonagy and his colleagues call mentalization (MZ), effectively minds knowing minds. In many ways, John Bowlby’s theory of attachment could be looked at as a theory of empathy development. As Bowlby argues (as do present day attachment researchers such as Peter Fonagy and Daniel Siegel), secure attachment is the foundation upon which rests robust executive function skills such as empathy, ToM, and MZ. And, yes, Bowlby does use organic systems theory to organize into a coherent manner the information he presents in his trilogy on attachment. Like Darwin (who was a big influence on Bowlby), Bowlby knew that all of the information he was looking at had to fit together. Sure, Bowlby started out in a state of flotationism, but he used organic systems theory to brilliantly pull it all together. And Bowlby pulled from such diverse areas as primatology, ethology, control theory, psychodynamics, developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, and even cybernetics. Sapolsky also pulls from a number of diverse areas; he just never brings things together into a coherent whole.

Yes, Bowlby does get an honorable mention in Sapolsky’s book, but if you blink, you’ll miss it. Sapolsky states: “In the 1950s the British psychiatrist John Bowlby challenged the view of infants as simple organisms with few emotional needs….” I think that if Sapolsky had brought in Bowlby’s theory of attachment as a theory that also helps us understand the development of empathy, he would have been impressed by the power of organic systems theory to organize biological information. Sapolsky (as do others) reduces Bowlby’s work to infant research. This is nothing less than a form of reductionistic objectification. Bowlby spent a lifetime raising attachment to the level of a behavioral system on the same level as sex, hunger, and caregiving. Attachment is not just about infants; it’s about all of us throughout the course of our lives.

One of Sapolsky’s chapters is entitled Metaphors We Kill By (chapter fifteen). Sapolsky seems powerless to explain why people kill over abstractions like God, country, honor, and religion. Like a game of Go, the answer is both simple and complex: attachment. As Bowlby wrote back in 1956:

Probably in all normal people [attachment] continues in one form or another throughout life and, although in many ways transformed, underlies many of our attachments to country, sovereign, or church.

When it comes to behavior, there can be no greater motivator than attachment. We use the attachment behavioral system to form our closest bonds: with parents, with family, with spouses, with children, with animals, with community, with religion, with our jobs, and with our nation. Suggesting that bonding is all about the “feel good” neurotransmitter Oxytocin is the kind of reductionism that Maestripieri warns about. It is attachment that motivates us to feel loss and to grieve that loss. It’s what allows elephants to remember their comrades even after 20 years of separation. It’s what motivates young male elephants to go rogue (a la Gay Bradshaw and Allan Schore’s work) [2] when the herd matriarch is killed by poachers. And, in a statement designed to provoke thought, it is highly likely that attachment is a central motivator in school shootings (the last of which was only a few days ago in Santa Fe, Texas).

So, I loved all the topics Sapolsky covered mainly because these are some of the same topics I cover. But I was disappointed that Sapolsky did not use any type of organizing principle like organic systems theory. I’m also disappointed that, although he mentioned Bowlby, he did not bring in attachment theory as a theory of empathy development in specific, or as a motivator of behavior in general. It’s too bad but, unfortunately, both Bowlbian attachment theory and organic systems theory are hard sells here in the US. I guess this is some type of cultural bias that is very difficult to change. Too bad because to properly frame solutions to the problems that Sapolsky points to, like aggression and violence, organic systems theory and attachment theory would help immensely. Maybe Sapolsky is waiting for a better organizing principle to come along. I hope it arrives soon.

Behavior In a Digital Age—Yes, I said that Behave failed to deliver in three critical areas. The third: how is the digital age changing behavior. Sapolsky never really mentions the digital age. To say the least, the digital age has the potential to dramatically disrupt behavior. Writing in his 2010 book entitled The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, social critic Nicholas Carr persuasively argues that Internet technologies (such as hypertext) are eroding our Executive Function skills such as empathy and perspective taking. In her 2016 book entitled Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, MIT researcher Sherry Turkle mentions research that suggests we are witnessing declining levels of empathy in kids. World historian Yuval Harari devotes his entire 2017 book entitled Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow to looking at how well humans will fare in the digital world. He raises the possibility that humans may not make it (i.e., they will go extinct). So does James Barrat in his 2013 book entitled Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era. Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker wholeheartedly disagrees with Harari and Barrat in his 2018 book entitled Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Pinker believes that enlightened scientists will conquer all. But how enlightened are scientists if they continue to ignore such things as organic systems theory and Bowlbian attachment theory? How enlightened are scientists if all they do is follow after the federal government funding teat? How well humans fare the onslaught of the digital age will be a conversation that will occupy our attention for decades to come. But yet hardly a mention from Sapolsky. Let’s hope that flotationism does not result in flotsam: human wreckage washing up on the deserted islands of digital destruction.


[1] For a good review of the development of organic systems theory, see the article by Drack, Apfalter, and Pouvreau entitled On the Making of a System Theory of Life: Paul A Weiss and Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s Conceptual Connection (The Quarterly Review of Biology, December 2007, vol. 82, no. 4, p. 349–373).

[2] See Bradshaw and Schore’s article entitled How Elephants Are Opening Doors: Developmental Neuroethology, Attachment and Social Context (Ethology 113 (2007) p. 426–436). Our Foundation has supported Dr. Schore’s research in the past.