March 2, 2019

Robert Sapolsky

You may not remember me.  I came up after your talk at the AAAS and gave you a DVD that indicated that failure to marry reasonably close cousins reduced and after some generations destroyed fertility.  I thought you might be interested, since it provides selective pressure for treating others of “us” well and “them” badly. 

I have made it through chapter 2 of Behave.  (And made pause; it’s too much fun to skim, and I have a lot of other reading to master.)  Much of it is familiar from medical school and much from decades as a diagnostic radiologist, but most was new and interesting.  This story might interest you.  If not, skip down to the word “done.”

First, let me suggest that there is a distance where one’s personal space ends at about 3 or 4 feet; this is a social distance, like between ends of a sofa, distance across a restaurant table and distance your dog lies from you as you both watch the fire.  So … years ago, I was sitting by the pool having lunch and watching the little lizards.  I wondered if I could tame one, and I gave a tidbit to a little female.  This went on a few days until at last she inspected the bit of meat, turned her back on me and lifted her head until one little hemisphere of eye could check me out.  I thought, “I know what you’re saying, baby, but I can’t.”  Soon a male came by, read the same message as I read and moved in on her; she ran to the other side of my table.  I thought, “Whoa, I may not be able to satisfy her, but I’m male enough to know when to fight.”  I shooed him away, but he circled around to her side and renewed his advances.  The battle now being joined, I stood and pushed away a few deck chairs and chased him to the far side of the pool.  When I returned to my chair, I noticed one of the deck chairs had pinched her head off.  That took a while to sink in.  She had been well behind me, but alas she had moved up to watch the fight.  I wrapped her in a paper towel and put her in the fridge.  The rational choices were between the toilet and leaving her for the ants, but this was the only female in my long life other than my mother who had made it very clear she was in love with me.  I had to make a gesture.

A Christian funeral seemed inappropriate so I had to wing it.  I covered some paper with wax crayon and made a little boat.  I put in some food and some other things for her voyage to the afterlife.  What they were I cannot now imagine, but I seemed to be on autopilot.  Then I built up charcoal and wood chips on the grill, doused it good with lighter fluid, torched it off and sat back to watch.  Now things started getting strange.  The male climbed the rail to the steps into the pool and watched the flames as well.  In the forty or so years I’ve lived here I have never seen a lizard watch a fire in the grill.  After some time, the fire died down.  I put her ashes in a used giant sized candle and covered them with hot wax.  As the wax cooled a small opening appeared and a puff of gray came out before the hole closed.  I had to take firm attitude, “That was ash escaping with hot air.  It was NOT her soul.”

For a long time after that, any time I went out to sit by the pool and look out over the water – which was the same direction as the grill – the male would come over and lie beside me, three or four feet away, gazing at the grill, sharing my grief.  I would think, “You can’t be doing that; you don’t have the wiring.”  And still when somebody says reptiles care only for feeding, fighting and sex I make a mental note that this is ignorant slander.  They just don’t know reptiles. 


At the end of the day I hardly believe anything; but I do believe what I gave you on the DVD so far as it provides selective pressure for observable shabby human behavior.

I have presented the material to hundreds of individual experts; rarely they run away shouting at me over one shoulder.  Usually, as became clear at the meeting, they react with blind fear.  It seems to me that the amygdala gets involved in a dysfunctional way.  Don’t they even know how to control their fear by getting drunk?  Oh, does that work?


Linton Herbert MD

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