Three possible responses to the finding that human behavior is complicated

A review of a new book includes a paragraph (the second one excerpted below) that serves as a good reminder for those interested in human behavior:

What happens in brains and bodies at the moment humans engage in violence with other humans? That is the subject of Stanford University neurobiologist and primatologist Robert M. Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. The book is Sapolsky’s magnum opus, not just in length, scope (nearly every aspect of the human condition is considered), and depth (thousands of references document decades of research by Sapolsky and many others) but also in importance as the acclaimed scientist integrates numerous disciplines to explain both our inner demons and our better angels. It is a magnificent culmination of integrative thinking, on par with similar authoritative works, such as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. Its length and detail are daunting, but Sapolsky’s engaging style—honed through decades of writing editorials, review essays, and columns for The Wall Street Journal, as well as popular science books (Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, A Primate’s Memoir)—carries the reader effortlessly from one subject to the next. The work is a monumental contribution to the scientific understanding of human behavior that belongs on every bookshelf and many a course syllabus.

Sapolsky begins with a particular behavioral act, and then works backward to explain it chapter by chapter: one second before, seconds to minutes before, hours to days before, days to months before, and so on back through adolescence, the crib, the womb, and ultimately centuries and millennia in the past, all the way to our evolutionary ancestors and the origin of our moral emotions. He gets deep into the weeds of all the mitigating factors at work at every level of analysis, which is multilayered, not just chronologically but categorically. Or more to the point, uncategorically, for one of Sapolsky’s key insights to understanding human action is that the moment you proffer X as a cause—neurons, neurotransmitters, hormones, brain-specific transcription factors, epigenetic effects, gene transposition during neurogenesis, dopamine D4 receptor gene variants, the prenatal environment, the postnatal environment, teachers, mentors, peers, socioeconomic status, society, culture—it triggers a cascade of links to all such intervening variables. None acts in isolation. Nearly every trait or behavior he considers results in a definitive conclusion, “It’s complicated.”

To adapt sociologist Joel Best’s approach to statistics in Damned Lies and Statistics, I suggest there are three broad approaches to understanding human behavior:

1. The naive. This approach believes human behavior is simple and explainable. We just need the right key to unlock behavior (whether this is a religious text or a single scientific cause or a strongly held personal preferance).

2. The cynical. Human behavior is so complicated that we can never understand it. Why bother trying?

3. The critical. As Best suggests, this is an informed approach that knows how to ask the right questions. To the reductionist, it might ask whether there are other factors to consider. To the cynical, it might say that just because it is really complicated doesn’t mean that we can’t find patterns. Causation is often difficult to determine in the natural and social sciences but this does not mean that we cannot find bundles of factors or processes that occur. The key here is recognizing when people are making reasonable arguments about explaining human behavior: when do their claims go too far or when are they missing something?

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