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4 highlights from Stanford's Human Behavioral Biology course, available online for free
From understanding human aggression to epigenetics, Stanford University offers all 25 lessons of this fascinating course for free on YouTube.
- Stanford's Human Behavioral Biology course explores the interconnections between physiology and behavior.
- Most of the course is taught by Robert M. Sapolsky, a professor of biology, neurology, and neurosciences at Stanford, and also an author and contributor to Big Think.
- Check out some highlights from the course below.
Imagine a 40-year-old man in the U.S. who is leading a quiet, suburban life. He's been married 15 years and has two kids and two pets. One day at the office, a coworker says something about a baseball team, and our man takes exception. He punches his coworker in the face. This, according to everyone in the man's life, was unusual behavior. Then, three months later, his wife discovers he's been having an affair with a much younger woman. Finally, he absconds with thousands of dollars that he embezzled from his company, and his family never sees him again.
How could you explain what happened? A few possible options:
- He's a bonafide creep.
- He's going through a very immature mid-life crisis.
- He has a rare mutation in one gene in his brain.
This scenario is posed at the start of Stanford University's Human Behavioral Biology course, available for free on YouTube. The course is led by Robert M. Sapolsky, a professor of biology, neurology, and neurosciences at Stanford, and also an author and contributor to Big Think. Sapolsky notes that the behavior described above is exactly what you'd expect in somebody with a rare neurological disease caused by one genetic mutation.
Over 25 lessons, most of which clock in at around 90 minutes, the college course explores how physiology and behavior interact — or, how our thoughts, emotions, and memories can influence seemingly unrelated bodily processes, and vice versa. The entire course is available on this playlist, but listed below are a few highlights to get you started.
The limits of categorical thinking
In the first lesson of the course, Sapolsky quickly reads a bunch of phone numbers, and instructs the students to write down as many as possible. For the first few examples, Sapolsky breaks up the phone numbers into the familiar "123-4567" pattern of which we're accustomed. He then starts reading them in unusual patterns — "1-23-456-7" — in an attempt to confuse and disrupt categorical thinking patterns.
Sapolsky says that categorical thinking helps us make sense of the world and store information more easily. But he uses this example to get the class thinking about how paying too much attention to the boundaries in categorical thinking can cause you to lose sight of the big picture. (Sapolsky elaborates at 16:45 in the video.)
The "worst urban myth of evolution"
In the first lesson on behavioral evolution, Sapolsky introduces the class to applying Darwinian principles of evolution to behavior.
"The first thing we need to do is unlearn something we all learned back when, on all those National Geographic specials that would consistently teach us something about this aspect of evolution, and would always teach it to us wrong."
Another scenario: A herd of 2 million wildebeest is migrating toward greener pastures. The herd eventually comes to a river. It's teeming with crocodiles. The wildebeest stop. Then, one elderly wildebeest steps up to the riverbank, jumps into the water, and gets eaten by the crocodiles, creating an opportunity for the rest of the herd to safely cross.
Was this a heroic sacrifice? Sapolsky says that popular science programs like National Geographic have long claimed that animals tend to "behave for the good of the species," an idea described by group selection. But this is the "worst urban myth of evolution," he says.
If you look closely at the wildebeest scenario, you'd see something decidedly less heroic, the professor says: the herd is actually pushing the elderly wildebeest up to the front of the line. "All of the other ones are saying, 'Yeah, get the old guy on the river!' Sacrificing himself, my ass."
"Animals behave in order to maximize the number of copies of genes they leave in the next generation," Sapolsky continues. "Remember: not survival of the fittest, reproduction of the fittest."
What to ask about any scientific study
In 2007, scientists published a major study showing that first-borns tend to have higher IQs than their siblings. The researchers controlled for nearly everything you might think of: differences in parental investment, parents who only have one child, age of the children when tested, etc. Media outlets ran with study, but lost in much of the coverage was a simple question: How big of a difference did the study find? The answer: 2.3 points.
"You sneeze while you're taking an IQ test and have to wipe your nose for eight seconds afterward, and that's going to cost you 2.3 IQ points," Sapolsky says.
The study was a great example of how the results of a study can be impeccable and statistically reliable, and also unimportant. At the 9:30 mark in the 8th lesson, Sapolsky uses a "Chutes and Ladders" experiment to illustrate how to better interpret the results and methodology of scientific experiments.
Near the end of the course's first lesson on behavioral genetics, Sapolsky discusses how early experiences can shape long-lasting behavioral dispositions. These dispositions might appear to be genetically inherited. But Sapolsky notes that epigenetic research on rats shows that environmental factors — like mothering style — can influence how likely a pup is to express certain genes. Such genes might be responsible, say, for making receptors for stress hormones.
"Your early experience is going to cause life-long changes in your brain, which will make you more likely to reproduce the same experience for your offspring," Sapolsky says around 135:15 in the video below.
What's especially interesting is that this kind of epigenetic programming is reversible. Noting research conducted by Michael Meaney at McGill University's Douglas Research Centre, Sapolsky says:
"You have a baby rat who spends the first of its infancy with some totally terrible, negligent, distracted mom," but if you put that pup with a nurturing mom, "you can change the epigenetic pattern."
Sapolsky notes how this kind of epigenetic programming looks and operates similar to genetics.
"All of this has two themes has two themes going on: Early experience causing really persistent differences in how this stuff works long after, and experience later on having the potential to reverse some of this. All of this stuff, once again, [could be] mistaken for genetic. What we have here is what appears to be a genetic style of what sort of mother rat you are, and it's not genes, it's the mothering style setting up the offspring for being a similar type of mother."
To be sure, epigenetics is a complex field, and this is just a simple example of how the environment can influence gene expression. Throughout the entire course, Sapolsky routinely emphasizes that studying human behavior, or any scientific field, can be incredibly complex — so much so that it may seem like it's impossible to solve anything. But "even though it's complicated, you gotta do something," Sapolsky says.
Part of studying a complicated field requires accepting the limitations of your era, as Sapolsky describes with an analogy about archaeology:
"A wonderful cool thing I heard about in archaeology...[is that] when you excavate a site, what you're supposed to do is excavate about half of it," he says. "You leave the other half for people in the future, with better techniques and better understanding, and leave something in tact there to keep from your, sort of, blundering hands."
The course ends on a message about the assumed dichotomy between being compassionate and being scientific: "Go and do both," Sapolsky says.
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In more than a dozen countries as far apart as Portugal and Russia, 'Smith' is the most popular occupational surname
- 'Smith' is not just the most common surname in many English-speaking countries
- In local translations, it's also the most common occupational surname in a large part of Europe
- Ironically, Smiths are so ubiquitous today because smiths were so special a few centuries ago
Meet the Smiths, Millers, Priests and Imams - the most popular occupational surnames across Europe.
Image: Marcin Ciura<p>Although very few people are smiths by profession these days, there are millions of Smiths by surname the world over. It's the most popular surname in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, as well as the second most popular surname in Canada and the fifth most popular one in Ireland. And they're a thriving bunch, at least in the U.S.: the 2010 Census (1) counted 2,442,977 Americans called Smith, 2.8% more than in 2000.</p><p>Curiously, 'Smith' also is one of the most popular surnames across most of Europe –translated in the various local vernaculars, of course. This map shows the most common occupational surnames in each country. By colour-coding the professions, this map shows a remarkable pro-smith consistency across Europe – as well as some curious regional exceptions.</p>
‘Smith’ popular throughout Europe<p>'Smith', in all its variations, is the most popular occupational surname throughout Europe. Not just in the UK, but also in:</p> <ul><li>Belgium (<em>Desmet</em>) and Luxembourg, (<em>Schmitt</em>);</li> <li>France (<em>Lefebvre</em>), Italy (<em>Ferrari</em>) and Portugal (<em>Ferreira</em>);</li> <li>Slovenia (<em>Kovačič</em>), Croatia (<em>Kovačevič</em>), Hungary (<em>Kovács</em>), Slovakia (<em>Kováč</em>), Poland (<em>Kowalski</em>), Lithuania (<em>Kavaliauskas</em>), Latvia (<em>Kalējs</em>) and Belarus (<em>Kavalyov</em>);</li> <li>Estonia (<em>Sepp</em>); and</li> <li>Russia (<em>Kuznetsov</em>).</li></ul>
‘Miller’ on top in many Germanic-language countries<p>'Miller' is the most popular occupational surname in many Germanic-language countries, but also in Spain and Ukraine (perhaps because the grain in both countries is mainly in the plain):</p> <ul><li>There's <em>Müller</em> (in Germany and Switzerland), <em>M</em><em>ø</em><em>ller</em> (in Denmark and Norway) and <em>Möller</em> (Sweden);</li> <li><em>Molina</em> (in Spain – the map also shows the most popular surname in Catalonia/Catalan: <em>Ferrer</em>, i.e. 'Smith'); and</li> <li><em>Melnik</em> (in Ukraine).</li></ul>
Clergy surnames rule in the Balkans<p>Catholic clergy must remain celibate, so 'Priest' as a surname is rare to non-existent throughout Europe. Except in the Balkans, where Catholicism is largely absent. Here, the Orthodox and Islamic clergies have passed on the title from father to son, eventually as a surname, to popular effect. Orthodox clergy are addressed as <em>papa</em> or <em>pope</em> (which means 'father' – so the surname rather redundantly translates to 'father's son'). Islamic teachers or imams are known by the Turkish/Persian term <em>hodzha</em>. An overview:</p> <ul><li><em>Popov</em> (in Bulgaria), <em>Popovic</em> (in both Serbia and Montenegro), <em>Popovski</em> (in Macedonia);</li> <li><em>Popa</em> (in Romania); </li> <li><em>Papadopoulos</em> (in Greece); and</li> <li><em>Hodžić</em> (in Bosnia-Herzegovina), <em>Hoxha</em> (in both Kosovo and Albania).</li></ul>
Landowners and other professions<p>Austria and the Czech Republic have different national languages but are neighbours and share a lot of history. Could that explain why they have a similar most popular occupational surname, for 'landowner'?</p> <ul><li><em>Huber</em> (in Austria) and</li> <li><em>Dvořák</em> (in the Czech Republic).</li></ul> <p>Just four professions, that wraps up all but five countries on this map. Those five each have their very own most popular occupational surname:</p> <ul><li><em>Bakker</em> (in the Netherlands): 'Baker'</li> <li><em>Kinnunen</em> (in Finland): 'Skinner'</li> <li><em>Ceban</em> (in Moldova): 'Shepherd'</li> <li><em>Avci</em> (in Turkey): 'Hunter'</li> <li><em>Murphy</em> (in Ireland): 'Sea Warrior' </li></ul>
Even more Smiths<p>Judging from the popularity of these surnames, your generic European village of a few centuries ago really couldn't do without a smithy. It was a much more essential craft even than that of the miller (or the baker, who put the miller's flour to good use) – except in the Balkans, where spiritual sustenance apparently sated a greater need. On the outskirts of <em>Anytown, Europe</em> live the shepherd and the hunter, the skinner and the pirate.<br></p><p>A bit too simplistic? Perhaps not simplistic enough. This map could have been dominated by even more Smiths. As the original poster explains, he always picked the most frequent version of an occupational surname, even if multiple variants point to a more popular alternative. </p><p>In the Netherlands, for instance, people with the surnames <em>Smit, Smits, Smid, de Smit, Smet </em>and <em>Smith</em> collectively outnumber those with the surnames <em>Bakker, Bekker, de Bakker</em> and <em>Backer</em>. So, the Netherlands could be considered another win for 'Smith' – except that the variant <em>Bakker</em> is more frequent than any other single variant.</p><p>Same story in Germany: added up, there are more people named <em>Schmidt, Schmitt, Schmitz </em>and <em>Schmid</em> than <em>Müller</em>. Ditto for Spain: <em>Herrero, Herrera </em>and <em>Ferrer</em> together outnumber <em>Molina</em>. Also in Finland, where <em>Seppä</em>, <em>Seppälä</em> and <em>Seppänen</em> together have a higher count than <em>Kinnunen</em>. </p>
Smiths in other cultures<p>'Smith' was a crucial occupation in other cultures too, judging from the familiar ring it has in these languages:<br></p><ul><li><em></em><em>Demirci</em> (Turkish)</li><li><em>Hadad</em> (Syriac, Aramaic, Arabic)</li><li><em>Nalbani</em> (Albanian)</li><li><em>McGowan</em> (Gaelic)</li><li><em>Faber</em> (Latin)<span></span></li></ul>
Other most popular surnames<p>Take note, though: 'Smith' may be the most popular surname in in the Anglosphere, this map does not mean to show that its variants in French, Russian and other languages also are the most popular surnames in the countries marked grey. They are merely the most popular <em>occupational</em> surnames.<br></p><p>As this sample of most common ones for each country shows, surnames can refer to a host of other things. Personal qualities or physical attributes, for example:</p> <ul><li>Russia: <em>Smirnov</em> ('the quiet one')</li> <li>Turkey: <em>Yilmaz</em> ('unflinching')</li> <li>Hungary: <em>Nagy</em> ('big')</li> <li>Italy: <em>Rossi/Russo</em> ('red', in northern and southern Italy, respectively)</li></ul> <p>Another option: the origin of the name-bearer (be it a place or a person):</p> <ul><li>Sweden: <em>Andersson</em> ('son of Anders')</li> <li>Slovakia: <em>Horvath</em> ('Croat')</li> <li>Kosovo: <em>Krasniqi</em> (refers to the Krasniq tribe and their mountainous home region)</li> <li>Portugal: <em>Silva</em> ('woodland')</li> <li>Latvia: <em>Bērziņš</em> ('little birch tree')</li> <li>Estonia: <em>Tamm</em> ('oak')</li></ul> <p>But sometimes, even for the most popular ones, the exact origin of the surname is lost in time:</p> <ul><li>Spain: <em>Garcia</em> (originally Basque, possibly meaning 'young', 'bear' or 'young bear')</li> <li>Finland: <em>Korhonen</em> ('hard of hearing' or 'dim-witted'; 'village elder'; 'proud'; 'upright'). </li></ul>
Smith popularity theory<p>So why exactly is Smith – and not Miller, for example – the most popular surname in many English-speaking countries? The theory propounded by historian C.M. Matthews in <em>History Today</em> (July 1967) probably also holds for the other-language variants so popular throughout Europe:<br></p><blockquote>"The reason for (the) multiplicity (of the surname 'Smith') is not so much that metal-workers were numerous as that they were important and widespread. On the skill of the smith, both rich and poor depended for the most essential things of life, the tools of husbandry and the weapons of hunting and war. Every community in the land must have one, every castle, every manor; and so distinctive was his trade that he would seldom need another name".<em></em></blockquote><p>That does not mean all people with the surname have a forefather who forged iron into weapons and farm tools. Especially in North America, 'Smith' was adopted by many people precisely because it was already common – as a secret identity or to blend in, for example by natives, slaves and immigrants.</p>
A recent analysis of a 76-million-year-old Centrosaurus apertus fibula confirmed that dinosaurs suffered from cancer, too.
- The fibula was originally discovered in 1989, though at the time scientists believed the damaged bone had been fractured.
- After reanalyzing the bone, and comparing it with fibulas from a human and another dinosaur, a team of scientists confirmed that the dinosaur suffered from the bone cancer osteosarcoma.
- The study shows how modern techniques can help scientists learn about the ancient origins of diseases.
Centrosaurus apertus fibula
Royal Ontario Museum<p>In the recent study, the team used a combination of techniques to analyze the fibula, including taking CT scans, casting the bone and studying thin slices of it under a microscope. The analysis suggested that the dinosaur likely suffered from osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that affects modern humans, typically young adults.</p><p>For further evidence, the team compared the damaged fibula to a healthy fibula from a dinosaur of the same species, and also to a fibula that belonged to a 19-year-old human who suffered from osteosarcoma. Both comparisons supported the osteosarcoma diagnosis.</p>
Evans et al.<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The shin bone shows aggressive cancer at an advanced stage," Evans said in a <a href="https://www.rom.on.ca/en/about-us/newsroom/press-releases/rare-malignant-cancer-diagnosed-in-a-dinosaur" target="_blank">press release</a>. "The cancer would have had crippling effects on the individual and made it very vulnerable to the formidable tyrannosaur predators of the time."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The fact that this plant-eating dinosaur lived in a large, protective herd may have allowed it to survive longer than it normally would have with such a devastating disease."</p><p>The fossilized fibula was originally unearthed in a bonebed alongside the remains of dozens of other <em>Centrosaurus </em><em>apertus</em>, suggesting the dinosaur didn't die from cancer, but from a flood that swept it away with its herd.</p>
Dinosaur fibula; the tumor mass is depicted in yellow.
Royal Ontario Museum/McMaster University<p>The new study highlights how modern techniques can help scientists learn more about the evolutionary origins of modern diseases, like cancer. It also shows that dinosaurs suffered through some of the same terrestrial afflictions humans face today.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Dinosaurs can seem like mythical creatures, but they were living, breathing animals that suffered through horrible injuries and diseases," Evans said, "and this discovery certainly makes them more real and helps bring them to life in that respect."</p>
Join the lauded author of Range in conversation with best-selling author and poker pro Maria Konnikova!
UPDATE: Unfortunately, Malcolm Gladwell was not able to make the live stream due to scheduling issues. Fortunately, David Epstein was able to jump in at a moment's notice. We hope you enjoy this great yet unexpected episode of Big Think Live. Our thanks to David and Maria for helping us deliver a show, it is much appreciated.