On Plath and Sapolsky

At the beginning of this year I started reading Robert M. Sapolsky‘s book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (Penguin Books, 2017).  Roughly a month ago I picked up The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (Anchor Books, 2000). 


Both authors put the proverbial pen to paper in such different times — neurobiologist and primatologist Sapolsky’s book would necessarily have incorporated, referenced or been inspired by years’ worth of his own work as well as studies done by other scientists; poet and writer Plath‘s journal entries covered the 1950s and very early 60s. 

The Vietnam War may have been fresh on the scene for Plath’s America, but neither she nor Sapolsky had to contend with Covid-19.  Their own realities are 50+ years apart, and though her words were not meant for public consumption at the moment she wrote them and their expertise falls into different categories, their respective findings are equally applicable to the ins and outs of being a human being today.

Plath’s observations are her opinions and not results of science experiments, so my purpose in highlighting some of them is not to suggest they’re the key to unlocking any great mystery.  I am proposing that, like the published philosophers before, during, and after her lifetime, she has excavated some truths that can undermine the efforts of life-affirming thinkers and leaders who would rather not dwell on the pessimistic, morbid, or logically clinical.  Specifically, “…I don’t believe in God as a kind father in the sky. I don’t believe that the meek will inherit the earth: The meek get ignored and trampled. They decompose in the bloody soil of war, of business, of art, and they rot into the warm ground under the spring rains. It is the bold, the loud-mouthed, the cruel, the revolutionaries, the mighty in arms and will, who march over the soft patient flesh that lies beneath their cleated boots.” (44).

Sylvia Plath recounts all the dates she’s had with the men she met at parties or through friends.  Ever the introspective young woman in the 50s, she calls out inappropriate behavior from males while simultaneously apologizing (to herself or out loud) for disappointing.  I imagine there are people who would applaud then sigh at her actions. 

“Stand up for yourself, never apologize!”  

There are other people who would wonder in response, “Why can’t the man simply refrain from doing that which would cause Plath to reject his attention only to be sorry?”

(But ultimately she pushes him away).

Robert M. Sapolsky has dedicated his professional career studying and analyzing the neurobiology and evolutionary anthropology of the human species, and thus possesses a comprehension of the human animal that is less subjective than that of Sylvia Plath.  I took a break from Behave because, well, mid-March happened and I needed more fiction and less educational bits on the lows of real human behavior.  I resumed reading it a few days ago and found this passage that serves well as an elucidation for Plath’s grievances with her fellow human:

“Testosterone makes us more willing to do what it takes to attain and maintain status.  And the key point is what it takes.  Engineer social circumstances right, and boosting testosterone levels during a challenge would make people compete like crazy to do the most acts of random kindness.  In our world riddled with male violence, the problem isn’t that testosterone can increase levels of aggression.  The problem is the frequency with which we reward aggression.” (107).

Would it matter how genuine is the act of kindness?  In an effort to keep up with the trending Joneses, how many content creators document themselves giving away food, money, or other items to the homeless in their area?  Do they feel compelled to competitively increase the amount of items donated/given in quantity or dollar amount?  How many content creators stage these events (or worse, the ones where animals may or may not really be rescued)?  Is it a moot point to debate the importance of authentic altruism if the outcome is the same: some hungry people are no longer hungry and lots of fast(casual) food chains sold lots of food.

When I was taking AP Psych in high school and then a few sociology classes in college, there were discussions on why it is that some people are capable of following the rules (some blindly, others with subtle rebellion as needed) and other people struggle to adhere to rules (even when doing so is in their best interest)?  The concept of reward and punishment from a psychological perspective and its role in behavior modification didn’t provide satisfactory answers because what is effective on this sample size in this study or those two groups in that other study won’t necessarily apply to the general public outside of a lab.  Furthermore, the presence of a punishment and absence of a reward isn’t the same as the absence of punishment and the presence of a reward. 

What is a misanthrope’s incentive to follow any rule for the greater good or common courtesy or his own self-interest?  If he were playing well-trained/ill-trained cop roulette in a routine traffic stop, how disrespectful and domineering would he present himself to provoke the police officer to inflict any kind of force?  I’d ask the same of the cop.  If she were playing cool-citizen/freaking-out-citizien in a routine traffic stop, how disrespectful and domineering would she present herself to provoke the driver to do anything that would be construed as threatening (as opposed to just loud and obnoxious)?

Does the misanthrope’s agitated behavior get rewarded if he’s let go with a ticket?  Does the cop’s aggressive behavior get rewarded if she’s not even given desk duty after her superiors watch her body cam video? Or, does she get punished with desk duty because she let the misanthrope go with a ticket when another officer would’ve done whatever it took to facilitate the transpiring of events that would lead to an arrest?

I do wonder what Sylvia Plath would say about the current relationship status between law enforcement and ordinary citizens.  It needs improvement, that’s for sure, but what would she say?  She’d write a poem.

You may recall that Gwyneth Paltrow played her in the movie Sylvia (Christine Jeffs, 2003). 

Listen to Sylvia’s actual voice in this interview:

And, here is Robert M. Sapolsky’s Ted Talk about people’s capacity to do some pretty amazing and pretty atrocious things.


Pic creds: Penguin Books, Penguin Random House

1 thought on “On Plath and Sapolsky

  1. Pingback: It Hurts So Good | Sitting Pugs: Sports Movies

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