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Revising the Fault Line

Tuesday, June 27, 2017 - 06:00 PM

A new tussle over an old story, and some long-held beliefs, with neurologist and author Robert Sapolsky.

Four years ago, we did a story about a man with a starling obsession that made us question our ideas of responsibility and justice. We thought we’d found some solid ground, but today Dr. Sapolsky shows up and takes us down a rather disturbing rabbit hole. 

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Dr. Robert Sapolsky


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Comments [86]


FYI, to anybody who reads down this far and wonders why "Kevin" didn't seek help: The laws in the US currently penalize people for seeking treatment for sexual attraction to children, even if they not only have never but do not want to ever act on their desires in any way.

Punishing people for seeking treatment, it turns out, has a definite tendency to result in people not seeking treatment.

Mar. 03 2018 04:01 PM
Sally from UK

Super appreciate the note to say ‘disturbing content’ but please please a bit more detail? Just the note ‘child porn’ would be great so it’s possible to make an informed judgement about whether to listen

Mar. 02 2018 03:04 AM
Diana Black Kennedy from marin, california

So, I agree with Dr. Sapolsky: I think the whole paradigm of punish or reward is based on a false premise--that behavior reflects the moral fiber of individuals who can be either Good or Bad. One of the reasons humans find this paradigm so appealing is that it distances them from the Bad People. It is the Biblical equivalent of putting all our sins of the scapegoat and running it off the edge of the cliff to clear the sins of the community (I thought I'd throw in some Torah in honor of Robert ;-)

The alternative is not to excuse bad behavior; the assumption that excusing bad behavior and letting the person off is in fact part of the assumption of the punish/reward paradigm--to excuse just means you have adjusted the line of who you consider Good or Bad.

The real alternative is throw the whole paradigm out. How? 1) focus on the behavior, not the person. Society can still judge a behavior wrong, inappropriate, hurtful, unjust *without seeing it as a reflection on the actor's moral fiber.* 2) realize that people try to do the best they can, and that if they fail, there is a reason--biological/psychological or even situational. 3) focus on changing the behavior, not punishing the person. We know that punishment is a terrible motivator and deterrent. Just look at the recidivism rates in the US justice system compared to those in countries that actually focus on correcting behavior, like in Scandanavian countries ( This changes the question from "Does this person deserve punishment" to "What do we do to make sure this person does not repeat this behavior?" This is an empathy-based paradigm rather than a fear-based one.

As a teacher, I have thought about and studied this question extensively. Our schools are filled with what I call the Puritan paradigm of assuming kids are either Good or Bad--or worse, that people are born bad and need it exorcised out of them. Movements to change this paradigm--Restorative Justice, Trauma-sensitive schools, Ross Greene, Alfie Kohn, and even the movement to teach SEL in schools (see CASEL's work) are often seen by adherents of the Puritan paradigm (a divide that often aligns with political leaning) as wimpy, liberal and responsible for ruining children, raising narcissists and destroying the fabric of society. I would say that this debate is, in many ways, the key debate in politics and society today.

I have written an article on this topic:

Feb. 18 2018 04:21 PM
ali sydney from USA

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Jan. 29 2018 02:48 PM

This discussion was premised almost entirely on a straw man of the judges ruling. She didn’t say that Kevin was responsible for his impulsive activities around the viewing of child pornography, yet that is all the Doctor addresses. He very clearly lays out WHY Kevin isn’t responsible for his actions there, and clearly explained why Kevin could behave one way at home at night and another way at the office during the day. The judge did NOT dispute this!!! She said that Kevin had a duty when he wasn’t under the control of those impulses to take some volitional action to address his problematic behavior. Kevin should have gone to a doctor, his wife, a therapist, etc., when he was in control in an effort to change his actions. Even if that hadn’t worked, it would have shown that he was trying to stop. The fact he didn’t was the reason why he was sentenced to jail time, NOT because the judge thought he was responsible for viewing the pornography in the firstborn place. This episode was an infuriatingly off topic diatribe against a judicial order that doesn’t exist, and it was disheartening that nobody pointed out to the doctor that his pronouncements of the causes of Kevin’s behavior were in no way inconsistent with the judge’s decision.

The example presented by the doctor about an epileptic and driving is a perfect encapsulation of just what was so strikingly off-topic about this whole discussion. No, we do not blame someone who is driving and has a seizure. Of course that would be ludicrous and unjust. But YES, if someone KNOWINGLY gets behind when they are at a heightened risk of having a seizure (say after they've already had their license suspended for having a seizure while driving) then society would certainly be justified in punishing a person who gets into an accident during a seizure EVEN THOUGH the accident was caused by an involuntary act that they could not control. Here, Kevin was not being punished for VIEWING the pornography. He was being punished for not taking actions later, when he was in control of his faculties and was aware that what he had done was wrong (as evidenced by the fact that he told Homeland Security that he had been expecting them to arrive and arrest him). The entire discussion that formed the basis of revisiting this episode was disappointingly irrelevant to the legal and ethical implications raised by his particular case. It was a real shame too, because those implications ARE fascinating, and are worthy of a much deeper and more nuanced discussion than what the listeners were given.

Jan. 16 2018 02:43 PM
Catherine Shortt from Canada

Antipsychotics do not help schizophrenia. They cause ireparable brain damage and shorten the lifespan. They are a crime against humanity. The chemical imbalance theory is garbage out. Trauma damages the brain. The chemical imbalance theory is as inaccurate as the cold mother theory. I love the stuff about the judge's hunger state. There's a actual reason for a chemical imbalance that make sense. Simple carbs make us bitchy!

Oct. 27 2017 08:32 AM
Laura from Massachusetts

When they were discussing who was hurt, I couldn't help but shout out to my computer-What about the CHILDREN!!!! His uncontrolled behavior encourages and finances a deeply depraved industry. Maybe my example is not quite fitting but a driver who hits a car as he is backing up damages the car behind him. He might not have known but ignorance is not a defense. There is still damage and the backup driver is still responsible. The lives of the children are never the same. There needs to be responsibility to maintain order in society.

Sep. 27 2017 09:17 PM
Requesting a genuine trigger warning

The warning at the start of the show was insufficient and the intro leading up to the "reveal" was misleading. Homeland security showing up at the door--what, is he a terrorist? On my phone I did not get the full description of the episode, so the title and the first few minutes led one to believe that the episode could be about anything. I stopped as soon as the words child and pornography were out of the hosts' mouths. Outrageously upsetting. Put a stronger warning up or take down this episode.

Sep. 27 2017 11:44 AM
Dude from Cleveland from Cleveland

A few people here have been talked about the "fear" factor. If there is one thing that we have learned from this highly capitalized highly commercialized, highly marketed to society is that "Fear circuits trump the PFC." Pleasure, circuits go through the bureaucratic red tape of the mediation between id and ego. But fear, doesn't bother with such nonsense, it doesn't have.

Besides every marketing tactic ("buy now or loose out!", "Don't be socially rejected, buy this product", "If you don't have this product, it could be the reason you fell and couldn't get up, then you died")being prepetuator of fear, and every popular TV program driven by fear of some zombie, dinosaur, or apocalyptic event, we have our elections. Where people who claim to funnel every want and desire through their scriptures, vote for people who completely act in opposition to their written beliefs. Driven by fear of losing a "right" or being invaded by some dehumanized enemy, or some catastrophic effect of some policy being enacted.

Look we are born into this world selfish, greedy, needy, self centered people who care nothing about the feelings of other. We want what we want. We are conditioned by life teaching us we could lose access to what we want, and what we need, but experiencing how consequences manifest from our actions. Punishment, is nothing more than artificial consequences for actions that we have deemed egregious and in need of immediate consequences.

Two last points here. 1) Antidepressants essentially numb the PFC. Thus some people enter a state of "mania" and "hypomanina". Should we consider that before we give people temporary brain damage, at least warn them. (This would have saved my marriage.) 2) is this piece demonstrating that deviant sexuality is the mark of brain dysfunction? It would seem that is one of the inferences about the human and the monkeys?

Sep. 12 2017 05:32 PM
martin gover from canada

Couple of things - all 'experts' are heavily invested in their disciplines - and tend to only see the world through that narrow fixed perspective. ( ask the military for a solution - and they say war to everything)

If the 'arc of science' is to be truly followed - lets see where it is in 400 years - certainly nothing like today. Although of course all of todays' scientists seem to think the arc will follow their belief system somehow - even though historically it never has. Why start now - cos we're the bestest?

To say all is biology is to confuse symptoms with first cause. Epilepsy may be recognized in the body as wrong firing neurons or whatever - but is that the cause or merely a reflection of another first cause? If you are ONLY going to focus on the physical body and what can be seen - how can you ever be sure - you have narrowed your field of exploration to almost nothing.

If all is biology why are we killing terrorists IN THE NAME OF JUSTICE. There is no Justice is there - just biology?

And lastly in terms of what is known - what is the larger - what we know - or what we dont know? (including what was once known and now has been lost or forgotten)

Sep. 02 2017 05:47 PM
Julian from Berlin

I don't know if anybody read that or has posted it already, but I would like to draw attention to this post that comments on the episode. I think it is worth consideration:

Aug. 20 2017 07:40 AM
Nate from California

Sapolsky isn't arguing that we never have a choice in what we do or think, but that there are other things influencing our choices to varying degrees depending on the situation. He never said that he expects others to evaluate the evidence and choose to agree.
Although Kevin wanted help, he might have been choosing not to reach out for help because of shame and fear of losing everything after being revealed since anyone that could help him would have a legal obligation to call the authorities. And maybe he could've told the doc that he needed help without mentioning the child pronography, but maybe he didn't think of that, or didn't think he could keep it under wraps. So does he "deserve" punishment for that? He might have also feared that there was nothing that could help his damaged brain at this point, and that a judge wouldn't have understanding. Although I was pleasantly surprised at the judge's lite sentencing, it validated Kevin's likely suspicion of being blamed. The punishment he received only kept him from doing harm for the time he was in prison, but receiving treatment/medication was a more effective means of preventing harm. Punishment is not the only deterrent to undesirable actions. Sapolsky's argument on free will would be a fallacy if we all always acted on a base desire for achieving revenge or justice, which we don't. In our pondering how a more mechanistic society would look, some either can't imagine it or refuse to accept it will work because the shame and blame of our paradigm is so ingrained in them, but paradigms change slowly over the generations. Choices are affected or determined by cultural environment, which is variable, so assuming that lack of free will enforcement will always lead to murderers and rapists having free reign is silly. People have gathered and are gathering information on how other cultures were or are able to achieve lower rates of crime or other aspects that our society is lacking, and we are slowly learning how to deal with problems like Kevin's without solely relying on punishment. Often, the root causes of problems like that of Kevin's and the victims' case can be addressed and lead to prevention, rather than exclusively treating symptoms by putting a band-aid on a gushing wound (punishment, confinement). This is not to say that our current setup with punishment doesn't work or hasn't been working (meaning we still exist and are numerous as a species), especially if you are satisfied with or indifferent to the current state of humanity.

Aug. 18 2017 03:58 AM
Mark from California

As pointed out in other letters, Dr. Sapolsky has more than a few problems with his philosophical interpretations. It is strange to listen someone argue that we have no choice in what we do or think, but expect others to evaluate the evidence and choose to agree.

Aug. 16 2017 08:43 PM

Remember the monkey who did not act upon his id/sexual impulses/desire to rape others, even infants but was deterred by FEAR. Let's try to save the children, the victims, before we get into complex scientific rationalizations and excuses, however valid, for the perps. Victims come first!!!

Aug. 06 2017 10:56 PM
Lindsey Rae Vaillancourt from Michigan

I survived a very bad car accident and was left with a TBI. The brain is so delicate and complex. it's horrible to lose control of emotions or actions. It is possible to knowingly lose your mind, to become a person you don't want to be

Aug. 02 2017 11:52 PM
A from Canada

Thank you SO much for this episode, and to Dr Sapolsky for explaining the neuroscience behind it all. It was actually life-changing for me.
You see, I'm married to an incredible woman... but one who goes through some pretty severe mental health struggles, including but not limited to OCD. Within that OCD (and other issues not mentioned for privacy reasons), she is far more symptomatic in private and around people she trusts dearly than in public - something that has baffled us for years. With the explanation of the neuroscience and the primal emotions taking over the others, it really shone a light on it.
I have explained the episode to her and the neuroscience that describes her situation EXACTLY, and will definitely share it with family and friends who know about her struggles so they have a better understanding.
Thank you SO much to the team and Dr Sapolsky! You really have given us a lot of peace in our lives.

Jul. 26 2017 04:52 PM
Bertrand from Santa Clara, CA

While there are cogent arguments as to why it may or may not be fair to have held Kevin accountable for his failure to address his behavior, I have to express some amount of disappointment with this follow-up episode.

The judge's argument, as stated in the repeat part of the show hinged not on Kevin's responsibility in perusing child pornography, but in his responsibility in having taken no explicit action to address it.

Yet Jad, Robert and Robert spent the whole second half of the show debating Kevin's responsibility in his child porn consumption. I can't help but feel they missed the point entirely. It wasn't particularly in question whether Kevin should be held accountable for the child porn. The judge herself agreed. But it would have been fascinating to hear debated how much responsibility should have been ascribed to Kevin for his inaction in addressing his behavior.

Jad, Robert: come on! We've seen you do better!

Jul. 23 2017 10:37 AM
David A from San Diego, CA

The judge argues "Kevin" COULD control himself because he did at work. If a drug addict can SOMETIMES not use, can that be extrapolated to mean they can not use ALL the time? In addition to the fear of losing his job and lack of fatigue, there is one other factor that helped him at work: busyness. I believe work distracted him from his darker impulses. I believe even for a drug addict, certain situations can greatly affect resistance to cravings, such as social pressure, depression, stress, boredom, etc.

A few have judged "Kevin" harshly for not seeking help. They have the luxury of assuming THEY would respond in the perfect manner - never having had Klüver-Busy syndrome - of correctly self-diagnosing their surgical complication and seeking help immediately. "Kevin" does not have that luxury, as he WAS thrust in that situation WITHOUT the other luxury of 20/20 hindsight. In the real world, men won't even stop to ask for directions despite much less inconvenience and shame compared to admitting to a child porn problem. Many people refuse to go to the doctor even if they suspect a grave diagnosis, in what can only be assumed to be a Schroedinger's cat-esque denial, and many murders go unsolved for decades because witnesses don't report what they know. To give "Kevin" prison time for failing to do what many of us would not do is not justice.

Some view "Kevin"'s acceptance of the sentence as vindication of the judge's fairness. I don't. I see it as the shame and guilt felt by the victim of a surgical complication despite it not being his fault. (He had no history of viewing child pornography until the surgery, and none since his treatment.) I'm not condoning child pornography, but imprisoning the victim of a medical misadventure is not the solution.

Jul. 22 2017 10:52 PM
Sylvie Beauvais from Philadelphia, PA

I may be treading on ground that's already been brought up in different guises somewhere else in this comment chain. I am a writer and a psychotherapist. Here's my version of human experiencing and "free will", and why Dr. Sapolsky's argument is attractive, but not totally convincing.
1. Yes, everything can be explained from a biochemical perspective if you have enough information about all the variables and all the interdependent biochemical processes and how they influence each other--that is to say how well is the brain functioning, which part of the brain is in "the driver's seat" at any given point in the day, and what does our biological organism need to nourish itself and return to (as close as it can get to) equilibrium in the moment. I would portray the end sum result of this type of explanation as -- every time we make what we perceive as a choice, we function within a range of tolerable and intolerable options to having our needs met. So I think we have choices--as in better and worse options that will give us lesser or greater satisfaction as an organism and as a personality, in the moment.
2. Every time someone explains to you your human experience, they will employ the symbolic language that they are most comfortable with, and which also reflects their value set and existential belief system.
3. Every type of explanation is linked to some symbolic language to describe observable phenomena. So if a therapy client of mine is trying to understand a given interaction--a physical, intellectual, or emotional experience they are wrestling with, I can help them tackle the understanding of that experience from multiple lenses--different languages that get to different aspects of lived experience: we can go the psychoanalytic path and talk about unconscious drives and fantasies and taboo, we can go the physical route and talk about what their body needed, we can go the emotional route and talk about their heart's needs and what aspects needed to be validated, we could use spiritual language to frame the experience, or we could stay intellectual and discuss what ideas they are toying with to comprehend the moment, and perhaps analyze their thoughts and whether those thoughts served them well.
4. I don't think biochemical knowledge, no matter how sophisticated, will ever adequately encompass the full range of human experiencing and our full set of needs across all our dimensions of being. Or maybe that's the romantic in me.

Jul. 21 2017 01:36 PM
Tina F

Was surprised to listen to such a long philosophical discussion about this situation and never have the question posed: why is there an ethical or legal difference between brain surgery giving Kevin a sexual attraction to children, aka pedophilia, and genetics/nurture causing a pedophile's brain to have pedophilia? Particularly during the later discussion where Dr. Sapolsky theorized the absence of free will and stated that all our behaviors are the result of brain chemistry. It was like waiting for a punchline that never happened!

Jul. 19 2017 06:04 PM
Jonny from Boston

Lots of really great comments here. I feel like so many people have shared thoughtful and thought provoking insights and questions. I'm not going to do that, I just wanted to take a cheap jab at the doc- wow he comes off as an arrogant ass! So annoying.

Jul. 19 2017 02:55 PM
Lani in NC from NC

So, I haven't had a lot of time to digest all of this and I haven't read all the comments. Forgive me if I repeat someone. Taken to it's farthest extreme, Dr Sopolsky's argument ultimately releases anyone of any wrongdoing because its all biologically driven and only fear stops us. Then why didn't it stop Kevin? He knew to expect the authorities so fear didn't deture him but instead the desire to continue as long as he can before being stopped. Why he deleted files thinking it would destroy the trail or perhaps was it a conscience? Why in this age of DNA are we still comparing ourselves to the activity of monkeys and apes? We are clearly not related and proven by multiple studies. On the other hand, I don't accept either that all animals all the time control their behavior due to fear and there are instances where we see animals show compassion and caring behavior that isn't necessary for survival for them or offspring. Obedience for animals is often because they want to please, not because they fear retribution. But I dont think that indicates a conscience either. Human's know something is the wrong thing to do, because we understand we do not want it done to us and will mostly abstain from it even if we dearly want to do it. True in civilized and "uncivilized" societies. Simply put, that is the human conscience in action. Animals generally will do what they need to to survive even if they cannibalize like wolves. Very interesting show. I enjoyed the thought provoking content.

Jul. 19 2017 10:43 AM
Sandy from California

The judge conclusion has been debunked by several studies, at least way overestimated. It was such a compelling argument, but I am a bit disappointed the Radiolab didn't research this before this was put on the air.

Overlooked factors in the analysis of parole decisions

The irrational hungry judge effect revisited: Simulations reveal that the magnitude of the effect is overestimated

Jul. 16 2017 03:12 PM
John Galloway from California

The flaw in Dr. Sapolsky's argument is that it isn't that the statement "we have no free will" is false, but that "we" do not exist. As Sean Carol articulates very well in his book The Big Picture, all that really exists are particles in the quantum field. That's it. But we have found it extremely useful to assign groups of such particles names like stars, molecules, gases, zebras, genes, and humans. The fact that none of those things fundamentally exist does not remove the usefulness of such naming in our human scale existence. Sapolsky is drawing an arbitrary line saying humans exist, but their actions are all just biology over which they have no control. IF that was a useful line, then fine. But I fail to see that usefulness generally. In some specific cases (like the epilepsy example he likes to bring up), that distinction has proven useful. If there comes a time when we can modify our controlling biology to stop people from doing bad things but still allow them the pleasure of (the perception that they are) selecting their own T-shirt, then perhaps that line will be redrawn. But I think that day is very far away and may never come (i.e. that we will go extinct before we get there).

Jul. 15 2017 08:35 PM
Larry from NC

You guys would love Rene Girard!

Jul. 14 2017 11:53 AM
Sheila from Maryland

I keep thinking about this show. It frustrates me that some people in our country get 2 year sentences for crimes that hurt children and others have mandatory sentences for petty drug crimes. Ta-nehisi Coates describes growing up in Baltimore, spending 30% of his brain power on any given day just on surviving in the streets. Aren't people living in those conditions under the influence of fear? Why are jails full of poor Black people and guys like the one on this show are victims of science? This system is too broken.

Jul. 13 2017 11:00 PM
Ann from Las Vegas

It's a bit of a nitpick, but the conclusions of the study on judges and breaks didn't actually support that it was hunger that was causing parole to be denied more frequently. If it was, the rate of decline should have correlated more to time in between when the judge ate last, thus a decline in blood sugar and such. Instead, the study concludes that the rate of decline was more consistent with the number of cases heard by the judge since the last meal. Which supports one of the theories by the researchers that the act of making a decision on granting or denying parole is mentally taxing, so the more cases a judge has to decide, the more weary their brain is. So it appears to have less to do with eating than just being able to take a break and give the brain a rest. I suppose to test whether it was the break or the food, you could create three groups: one that is required to analyze a situation and make decisions through meal breaks, so essentially no break but still getting the benefit of no longer being hungry, ones that were given breaks but no food, and ones that ate on a break where no decisions needed to be made. For the purposes of the episode it doesn't necessarily matter, because the overall point that brain function breaks down as a person goes about their day still stands. The solution to that, though, may not be to allow judges more snacks, but to schedule more frequent breaks. Also, the study was done by following 8 judges over a period of ten months. Repeat testing should be done with larger sample sizes before any broad conclusions can be reached (although I acknowledge that it is possible more studies have been done to support the findings of this particularly study, but discussion of them was cut due to time restraints).

Jul. 12 2017 07:09 PM
Kimberley from London

Hi Radio Lab, I have a question about Kevin's story, and forgive my ignorance if it's a dumb question, but here's what I've been thinking.
I get the argument that what Kevin did was purely biological, and on that basis, he shouldn't be punished for what he did. I also get that Kevin maybe didn't have any free will over what he was doing, and that he couldn't help looking at the porn. But I think the judge made an interesting point that wasn't really explained by the science, and that was, that he didn't ask for help. He obviously knew what he was doing was wrong (even if he couldn't stop it), because he deleted the files and downloaded them over and over again. He also said he was expecting homeland security when they came knocking, so again- he knew that it was wrong. So surely the accountability lies there? He shouldn't have been punished for what he was doing, or because he lacked control over what he was doing, but because he could have said to someone, 'this is what I'm doing, please help me'.
I don't know, and maybe I misunderstood, but that bit wasn't really touched on I don't think. I get the free will stuff, and the lack of control, and that certain days and environments affected it, but he could have asked for help no? He realised what he was doing, so he could have taken steps to stop it couldn't he?
Thoughts on this would be greatly appreciated, I'm totally open- this was just the question that was burning for me at the end of listening. Absolutely loved the episode, I love it when you do stuff on neurology and psychology! It was so fascinating and has stimulated many a staff room debate at my work!

Jul. 11 2017 02:11 PM
DB from NY

Like many aspects of our culture and human existence, there are multiple factors that influence our development, our abilities, our intelligence and decision making. And, just as it is ludicrous to say that a talented musician owes her musical abilities to only nature and none to nurture, or to only nurture and none to nature, it is equally unreasonable to say "free will is just the biology that we haven't learned yet." There are, undoubtedly, many factors (both obvious and subtle) that may strongly influence the decisions we make, such as socioeconomic status, capability of feeling empathy, etc. But you will never get me to believe that a human's actions can ever be predicted with scientific certainty with some yet-to-be-discovered understanding of biology (in specific, the brain).

In the case of 'Kevin', the diagnosis of Klüver-Bucy syndrome may have explained some of the difficulty with impulse control. But, I found validity with the prosecution's argument that there was enough impulse control for him to avoid the 'temptation' of child pornography while at work or, actually, in any other circumstance beside the privacy of his home. In stark contrast to Sapolsky's view of predetermination with the human brain, I have read many other published works that highlight the astonishing plasticity of the brain in dealing with insults and injuries.

In my opinion, the blame for damaging acts (especially, violent ones) involving impulse control are too quickly to be attributed to a biological deficiency which supposedly prevents the individual from being in control, and therefore, absolving the person from full blame. But, right after listening to this episode, I thought it was very fortuitous that NPR had a segment on the classic Stanford "Marshmallow test" being done with Cameroonian kids. They were able to delay gratification and wait the 10 minutes to obtain a 2nd marshmallow at a much higher rate than German kids in the study (70% vs 30%). Is the biology of a Cameroonian child so much different from a German child that it provides an unfair advantage? Or, is the more likely explanation that the Nso (Cameroonian) culture teaches its children to control their emotions early on?

Jul. 10 2017 08:51 PM
Jeremy Himle

I keep thinking about how the judge told "Kevin" that he could have received help when he was thinking clearly. As an R.N., I care for mentally ill patients on a regular basis, and I realized that I have never had any of them apologize for the way that they acted... until they were cured. Has anyone ever had an Alzheimer's patient say "I don't know why I couldn't remember my name last night." when they woke in the morning? What makes "Kevin's" situation worse, is the topics are generally taboo and unspeakable in society. Who would he tell? Would you tell your doctor if it was happening to you? If anything, why isn't the Dr. partially responsible for not following up with his patient to find out if he is having X side effects?

Jul. 08 2017 05:50 PM
Fernando Campos from Dunmore, PA

What I would have liked to ask the Neurologist is what he thought of the part of the judge's opinion where she pointed out in the times when Kevin had control he did not speak to anyone or seek help. Did he not have the biological ability to seek help or did he choose not to seek help? It was pointed out that fear can override the lack of impulse control. When the police came to his house Kevin told them "I've been expecting you". Wouldn't his fear of this eventual confrontation give him the biological ability to control his impulses or to seek help? If so, then he chose not to seek help and this idea of biological inevitability is too simplistic to explain human behavior.

Jul. 08 2017 08:59 AM
John from Los Angeles

This argument reminds me of the one about the ancient Greek philosopher who believed that everything is predetermined. He caught his servant stealing from him, and took out a whip to beat him for it.

The servant shouted, "But master, you can't beat me! This is not my fault! It was my destiny to steal from you!"

The philosopher responded, "You are correct. And it is my destiny to whip you."

Jul. 06 2017 11:53 PM
John from San Francisco

I was surprised that Robert did not make the obvious argument.

So let's assume that the neurologist is right; there is no free will, all our actions are a result of biological processes that operate independently of our "will", no one can control their actions, and therefore there should be no punishment, but treatment and confinement, if treatment is not effective.

But the neurologists argument fails under its own weight, because it leads to a logical absurdity. Here is how it goes:

Premise: There is no free will; all our actions are due to biological processes that we cannot control.
Conclusion: We should change our attitudes about punishment and justice. Instead, we should understand that criminals cannot control their behavior, and therefore they should be cured or confined, but never punished. If we can cure them, then, no matter the crime, they should go free.

But here is the fallacy: Using the same premise, we can also conclude the following:

We have no free will. Our actions, impulses and thoughts are due to uncontrollable biological processes. Therefore, we cannot change our impulse and desire to punish those that hurt us, or hurt society in general, by committing crimes. Therefore, we will just continue punishing criminals because our biological processes tell us we should.

The neurologist's premise that there is no free will, and therefore we should change our attitudes towards criminals implies that we do have free will! I.e., the free will to change our attitudes based on his arguments. Reductio ad Absurdum.

Also, using his logic would result in societal chaos: My daughter is dead. I think you killed her. I kill you for revenge. There is no punishment in this society. I am not a danger to other people, since I only killed the man who I thought killed my daughter. Nothing to cure. No reason to be confined. I walk away, vigilante style.

Jul. 06 2017 11:45 PM

Even in a world without free will, consequence has utility. It is one of the inputs that go into the mechanistic system that outputs what we think of as choices. Kevin's sentence may have been a positive thing from that perspective.

Although consequences are helpful from a utilitarian perspective, persecution and shame are probably not. None of us have chosen our strengths and weaknesses. If anything, we should feel compassion for those who behave in harmful ways, and try to rehabilitate them, even as we enforce the necessary consequences.

Jul. 06 2017 05:17 PM

After listening to this episode, I found myself getting angry at Dr. Sapolsky for viewing the good and bad of the human condition in a "bubble", a "box". The "no free will" concept is convenient when humans enact positive behaviors. He started to speak of the treatment of persons who commit horrendous acts i.e. child pornography, but stopped short of really delving into what that is and how that looks. I think if more time would have been spent on that part, viewers would not have had such visceral reaction. I do think that evolving the prison system and treatment system to account for the biological aspects of these actions are extremely important. I'm all for progressing from past and current punishments to something that actually treats the individual to become someone who "adds" to society versus perverting it. I also would have liked Dr. Sapolsky to discuss his thoughts on the effects on the victims of people who take advantage of innocence (i.e. child pornography). His concept of "no free will" seems a bit too convenient when it comes to the real life victims of people who act in ways that go against a functional society.

Jul. 06 2017 01:26 PM
Elise from Canada

I really feel like this was irresponsible journalism.
-They did not present Kevin's position, in his own words, of the judge's final sentence and rationale
-They did not go far enough to explore the pain and suffering of children that was the result of what they present as someone that could not exhibit free will.
Perhaps this hits a chord with me because it was a real-life example; I believe they had a duty to speak to the real life consequences of what occurred instead of using it as a jumping off point to focus on one philosophical argument. It doesn't do the story justice.

Jul. 06 2017 10:32 AM
Sara H. from Tulsa

I find it deeply troubling that this episode glossed causally over the fact that purchasing child pornography contributes directly to serious harm to children. I felt sickened by this episode. To discuss the philosophical concept of free will, while brushing aside child abuse seems to imply that child pornography is a minor transgression with little harm done to anyone.

Jul. 05 2017 10:17 AM
J from California

Some commenters blame Kevin for not seeking external help to control his impulses. I'm not a lawyer but I think this is equivalent to saying that Kevin exhibited criminal recklessness, I.e. he knew he was going to download child porn, but he did nothing to stop himself. But to show recklessness, you have to compare Kevin to the "reasonably prudent person" standard. In other words, you have to ask, would a reasonably prudent person seek external help under similar circumstances? Kevin didn't know that his increased libido was due to the operation, so he couldn't blame his behavior on that. So to seek external help, he would basically have to say, "I'm a monster and I did all these terrible things." Would an average reasonable person have the guts to do that? I think not.

Jul. 05 2017 04:15 AM

Great job. Thanks so much for another thought provoking program. On that note... i was wondering if Kevin and his significant other were warned by the doctors of the possible side effects, such as impulse control, and invited to contact them should out-of-character behaviors emerge. If not then the doctors have some of the responsibility here. If they did and it wasn't taken advantage of, than Kevin is responsible. Even if there is no free will, we are all responsible for preparing ourselves for unconscious negative responses to our reality. Is that not one of the fundamental reasons for education and salubrious practices such as mindfulness and meditation? Was Kevin given that warning and offer for help up front?

Jul. 04 2017 01:25 PM
Mike Sherman from St. Louis, MO

The "no free will" argument seems to be the natural and logical outcome of a purely mechanistic universe. If all we are and all there is are particles and fields and nothing else - if we simply evolved by chance and nothing else (and I am fine with the above except for the "nothing else" part), then there is no morality. At least, there is no morality in any sense of the word that has anything to say about a right or a wrong that applies to all of us. At one point, Dr. Sapolsky says that he finds the worldview that has blame for Kevin "morally reprehensible" (I think that is his wording). Ironically, in his worldview, nothing can actually be "morally reprehensible".

Forget the details of Kevin's condition, the people who make child porn, who exploit children heartlessly (I believe in free will, so I can say things like heartless and evil and good and the like), are not "morally reprehensible." For me, this is part of the argument against a purely mechanistic universe.

C.S. Lewis' "The Abolition of Man" (written in 1943) reminds us of the consequences of our understanding all things, including us, as simply objects of nature that are objects of study. We are no longer 'conquering' nature ...

"Man's conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be
Nature's conquest of Man. Every victory we seemed to win has led us, step by step, to this conclusion. All Nature's apparent reverses have been but tactical withdrawals. We thought we were beating her back when she was luring us on.
What looked to us like hands held up in surrender was really the opening of arms to enfold us for ever. If the fully planned and conditioned world (with its Tao a
mere product of the planning) comes into existence. Nature will be troubled no more by the restive species that rose in revolt against her so many millions of years ago, will be vexed no longer by its chatter of truth and mercy and beauty and happiness."

This is not to say that Dr. Sapolsky and those who agree with him are bad people. Just that, in their view, the words good and bad don't have real meaning. In fact, the word meaning has no real meaning. Stuff is just here. Stuff is just happening. That is all we can say.

But almost nobody (thankfully) lives this way. Because I believe things aren't this way. I happen to believe there is more than nature, that some things - love, meaning, hope - are real and transcendent and not just evolved glandular responses to help us preserve the species. So I think Dr. Sapolsky is a bit inconsistent, but I think he is more consistent than those who believe there is only nature and nothing else and then speak of morality, meaning and the transcendence of love.

Jul. 04 2017 12:14 PM
Dan Moon from LA

Pure determinism is sort of... dangerous. It really makes morality and moral decisions non-relevant, because there are no choices to make, but the language people use even when they believe in pure fatalism or determinism still includes a lot of 'this is good', 'this is bad', which is exclusive from a lack of choice. The results of this thinking, carried to their logical conclusions, have already been seen. Nothing new. Definitely don't need to wait 50 years for another neuroscientific discovery...

"For several decades we psychologists looked upon the whole matter of sin and moral accountability as a great incubus and acclaimed our liberation from it as epoch making. But at length we have discovered that to be free in this sense, that is, to have the excuse of being sick rather than sinful, is to court the danger of also becoming lost… In becoming amoral, ethically neutral and free, we have cut the very roots of our being, lost our deepest sense of selfhood and identity, and with neurotics, themselves, we find ourselves asking: Who am I, what is my deepest destiny, what does living mean?" -Hobart Mowrer

"If we present a man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present man as an automaton of reflexes, as a mind-machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drives and reactions, as a mere product of instinct, heredity and environment, we feed the nihilism to which modern man is, in any case, prone.

I became acquainted with the last stage of that corruption in my second concentration camp, Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment; or as the Nazi liked to say, ‘of Blood and Soil.’ I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some Ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers." Viktor Frankl

Jul. 03 2017 09:04 PM
Armando L from Texas

Very charismatic fellow, but he never answers the question “why did he didn’t take action when he was under control”. He goes with a memory example. Does that mean that he totally didn’t remember the crimes he did at night?

Jul. 03 2017 04:14 PM
Alex from San Francisco

Is anyone else frustrated with Robert [Krulwich]'s increasingly childish contributions to these conversations? It's as if he's deliberately trying to grind the debate to a halt with hand waving and emotional non-arguments, and it's one of the reasons why I listen to this show about 1/10th as often as I used to.

Time and time again, [more or less] qualified guests will lay out reasoned arguments for some thought-provoking, counter-intuitive idea, and Robert's entire response will consist of his now trademark "aww shucks" bewilderment and empty platitudes, as if he's sticking up for some imagined demographic in the audience that can't handle being challenged and needs immediate reassurances about everything.

Dr. Sapolsky must have spent 10 minutes explaining why he believes our intuitions on individual responsibility and punishment are wrong, in extreme detail--a fascinating and important debate regardless of which position you take--and Robert's entire response is a few meandering sentences along the lines of "well the justice system is like a moral conversation that goes 'you were bad', 'maybe I was', 'that's okay, here's your freedom back', which you apparently don't want to have, and I wonder if that's healthy." Good lord. It even sounded like the guest himself was having trouble coming back from that, as if to say "I'm sorry, was there an actual counter-argument somewhere in there?"

So many episodes of Radiolab feel like a physicist explaining that matter consists of unimaginably small atoms separated by overwhelmingly empty space, followed by Robert banging on the desk and saying "I dunno, feels pretty solid to me!"

As a long-time fan of this show, I take no pleasure in criticizing one of its founders, but this isn't the first time I've practically turned it off because I found his contributions so insultingly empty.

Maybe it's just me, but I had to finally post a comment and find out.

Jul. 02 2017 05:55 PM
moz from texas

I would like Radiolab to ask Dr. Sapolsky to address the concept of "no free will" concerning neurological illnesses like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, where the best treatment involves ERP (Exposure and Response Prevention), essentially forcing yourself to rewire your brain by refusing to follow biological commands. If we are able to change our brains by rejecting biological impulses, then the idea of "Free Will" stands, although its slightly redefined.

Jul. 02 2017 02:44 PM
Eliya from San Francisco

Dr Sapolsky's argument about free will is trivial to reduce to the point of meaninglessness. By Dr Sapolsky's own logic, the judge had no choice but to render the judgment she rendered, so why is Dr Sapolsky upset about it? Clearly, because Dr Sapolsky himself has no choice but to be upset about it. Even if behavior is deterministic, the forces that cause it are assuredly too complex to calculate, even if there are trends we can identify, like the weather, predictions can only be general and often inaccurate. So what do we gain from claiming determinism? At best, we come to calling free will "the appearance of free will", but what is the utility of that? Whether or not we have "free will", we are wired to behave as if we do. Recognizing that we might be mistaken doesn't alter the conclusion that the best way to live is to take responsibility the consequences for one's choices.

This leads into Dr. Sapolsky's moral argument... behavior is deterministic so punishment should be seen as repair, not blame... but that ignores the fact that humans do assign blame, in fact by Dr Sapolsky's own argument we have no choice in the matter. Dr Sapolsky has no choice but to feel good about choosing to wear a nice shirt, and not choice but to be self-righteous about saying thank you...

Kevin financially supported child abuse. That was an action with horrific consequences for the affected children and future victims of the abusers. Kevin had at least enough self-awareness to know that he was doing something wrong, but he chose to hide that fact so he could continue. That behavior had consequences, consequences which carry penalties, penalties which Kevin himself accepts.

Jul. 02 2017 04:52 AM
ShawnRB from Oakland, CA

I was gobsmacked by this episode. Really enjoyed hearing the original story and Sapolsky's point of view. I think he's on to something. Not sure how it plays out in the future, but I believe the guy. Wish I could get all my friends to listen to this one. (which I think after practically every episode) Keep up the great work!

Jul. 01 2017 03:51 PM
Sofia from NYC

This is for your guest – – it's not about blame or punishment-/ it's about the idea that Kevin stayed in his troubled realm and never left it enough to think it was bad. You cannot blame that ever so important part on biology .Not at all sure that your guests argument holds for Kevin and others like him as he never ever asked for help! This is the crucial piece to my mind --The human who is impaired by something particular in his life should ask for help – this is what one of the wonderful things makes us human--
Think of all the lives that would've been affected had he asked for help in the very beginning of his new up session -- perhaps even the lives of certain children would have been saved .
Free will is also about knowing who you actually are-- and about your own boundaries, flaws, foibles, and then, when needed, asking for help!! And in return this is what we give each other: humanity.

Jul. 01 2017 03:33 PM

To be honest, I don't think that "Kevin" caused any harm by downloading child pornography. I don't think there were any counts of distribution, molestion, etc. Since I believe that sentences should be imposed to mitigate harm - and not as a punishment - the end result here seems a little unreasonable. If I think what Kevin does alone in his bedroom is sick or repugnant, that ought to be immaterial.

Those things aside, Kevin did break the law, knowing what the reaction would be. I accept that he had no control over his impulses; let's say that the disease was responsible every time he did it. I think there had to be points where he might have asked for help, or cancelled his internet subscription, sold the computer, etc. I think he had enough control at some point during the day to make that happen. That's what the judge was getting at.

Given the taboo, I understand the intense embarrassment and the repercussions that would follow asking for help. Probably, he thought something like "it won't happen anymore. I'll get rid of it today and I won't do it again - why make this *** public?" -- over and over.

I don't think that what happened to Kevin was justice, or that it solved any problems. No matter how much I empathize with his reluctance to seek help, though, I think he probably did have the means to stop himself from breaking the law at some level, and chose not to. I can't get inside his head; I guess I could be wrong.

The system is not calibrated to deal with this sort of thing, and again, it's not justice - the program has that right - but despite every incentive to the contrary, I think he bears responsibility at some level for something our country calls a crime. There had to be an opportunity for him to limit his access to the internet. I know it's not that simple, but no matter how you look at it, the judge still has that point.

Jul. 01 2017 06:29 AM
Kate from London

New York Times has just published an article that speaks DIRECTLY to this:

"You will literally have a different brain depending on your ZIP code, social circumstances and stress level."
"The good news is that while we can’t change our genetics, we can change our environment."
"it’s worth remembering that we can’t control our genes or the misfortunes that befall us, much less their impact on our brains. Even the most self-disciplined can fall prey to a food or drug addiction under the right mix of adversity and stress."

Jul. 01 2017 06:25 AM
Dan from Ny

Isn't there a value in (the fear of) punishment? The damaged ape wanted to have sex with everybody except the alpha male, because of fear, as sapolsky pointed out. Thus, fear ( of punishment by the law or some god) can modulate our brains, even when damaged, and even if u don't believe in free will. The question is then, in the society at large, is there a better way to modulate to minimize harmful behaviors?

Jul. 01 2017 02:14 AM
Erik Knutzen from los angeles

As others have said in this thread, Radiolab could really benefit from having a few philosophers in the Rolodex to give this topic of free and other subjects you cover some history and nuance. The debate between free will vs. determinism is not new and has existed since the beginning of philosophy. The implications of determinism are also not a new topic. It's not that you always have to give "the other side," but speaking to someone other than a neuroscientist would be refreshing.

I general, and at the risk of using jargon, I think you have an ongoing lack of epistemological diversity in your choice of guests. Along those lines I'd love to hear you respond to David Bank's criticism of this show and other NPR shows in an article he wrote, "Podcast Out"

Jun. 30 2017 07:54 PM
Jennifer from Redmond, WA

Goodness, this is the second part of my comment below~ please bear with me!

When the damage is very severe the survivor does not perceive any autonomy or sense of volition when the maladaptive behaviors first present. I have lived through that hell. Fortunately my maladaptive behaviors were not illegal. I have lived through the very hard work to stop, or even slow down, the rate of maladaptive behaviors over the course of seven years. I can't hold a job. At times I still cannot stop what I want to stop not matter how much I want to. As I have gradually become aware I know I need to find a manner of minimizing situations where I can expect myself to short circuit.
Nikki said, "He always knew child pornography was illegal, but he never sought help. I would posit that Kevin's executive functioning (ability to see a problem, break down steps needed to solve the problem) was severely damaged to the point he had no idea how to fix the problem, at all. He wanted to fix it but he just didn't know how. Is that actually possible? Yes it is. Do I blame him? No I do not. Did he have free will? He did not. I will leave the discussion about incarceration as a deterrent to others.
What if he spent six months where someone monitored his mood each week and asked how his sleep was each week, and asked what interpersonal problems he was facing each week? That very likely would have made a difference. But the need for that was not known science when he was injured, and it's still too expensive to be widespread practice today.
I do not know of a person who finds find moral fault with veterans who cannot control the demons that plague them after post-concussive disorder. Veterans with minor legal infractions are offered mental health treatment as an alternative to incarceration.
Research published in 1995. Doctors looked at 4 to 6 adult head-injured participants and 121 general-trauma control participants. A comprehensive battery of neuropsychological measures was administered. The head-injured group performed significantly worse than the trauma controls.
"The findings raise important questions about clinically held beliefs of differential sensitivity of neuropsychological measures. Furthermore, the substantial variability in outcome observed underscores the importance of examining factors that seem to exacerbate or mitigate the effects of brain damage. (Neuropsychological outcome at 1-year post head injury. Dikmen, Sureyya S.; Machamer, Joan E.; Winn, H. Richard; Temkin, Nancy R. Neuropsychology, Vol 9(1), Jan 1995, 80-90.)
I may have rambled, but I hope what I say sheds some light.

Jun. 30 2017 05:33 PM
Jennifer from Redmond, WA

A huge thank you to Dr. Robert Sapolsky for pointing out the extremely obvious. The prefrontal cortex works way worse later in the day and with lack of food. I had not yet (after seven years) noticed the correlation between skipping dinner and my embarrassing behavior at 9 PM within a church social setting.
It is almost impossible to understand not wanting to do something and actually doing it without free will. Actually, it not impossible because I have lived this.
During 1996 brain injury research was not in its infancy, it was in utero. (Citation at end of comments.)
Kate you said, "If in his lucidity he had realized that he was doing something wrong, the moral obligation would be to talk to his physician about these behaviors and his wife would be able to add from the outside perspective." I think you also said, "If his surgeon knew about this disorder, that also explained the hunger, aggressive sexual appetite, and obsessive piano playing, surely he could have put him on the proper medication earlier."
Kasey you said, "Kevin had easy access to neurologists who he could have told about his new impulses and as we found out, could've gotten medication to curb those impulses."
His wife said, "It was just not him . . I just dealt with it. I didn't really mind it; it was him turned up to 11."
His injury was in 1996. I question the presumption that Keven had any outpatient therapy in the decade between his surgery around 1996 and 2006 when Homeland Security arrived on his doorstep; I firmly believe he was on his own.

Jun. 30 2017 05:31 PM
Paula from santa clara, ca

If this is such a well known outcome to removing this part of the brain, why didn't the surgeon warn him. It seems to me that the surgeon was negligent.

Jun. 30 2017 04:28 PM
Robert from Stowe PA

I find Dr. Sapolsky's logic rather irritating. He makes numerous grandiose assumptions on information that is not known. "In 50 years we will know this isn't true" or "in 50 years we will look back on today in horror". I suggest that unless Dr. Sapolsky has a time machine he make less assumptions on information he cannot know.

Furthermore, Radiolab has made a similar episode on this subject of bio ethics and free will and reached a different conclusion. The short short version was a young man was an alcoholic. A drug that rarely gets used was prescribed to him that managed his chemical dependency on alcohol. It worked until it didn't. Why? He also had a psychological dependency. So no matter what pill he took he still required therapy. Thats not to say the medication wasn't helpful, just not part of the whole picture.

Furthermore, we have already made legal distinctions about biological urges and behavior. If an alcoholic kills someone in a car wreck do we sit back and say "they couldn't control themselves so it wasn't their fault"? No, of course not. There are means of managing alcoholism that someone can take advantage of. Our epileptic friend in this episode suffered from the negative consequences of his surgery that each him to having significantly decreased control of his libido. Fine. I understand that. Here's the thing, at no point did this guy forget that viewing child porn is wrong and illegal. In the heat of his viewing sessions he admitted to downloading and deleting the images dozens of times. So clearly, he knew but couldn't control himself. He did however have a loving wife and family that could help him to say nothing of a neurologist that could have helped him before he was arrested.

I wouldn't throw this guy in jail like a normal pedophile. There are extenuating circumstances. However, did he committ a crime, yes. Did he know it was a crime, yes. Did he have access to a support system, his family, yes. Did he have access to professional help, neurologist, yes. I'm sorry but this guy does own some blame in this.

Jun. 30 2017 12:33 PM
Kimberly from California

Although I have never commented on any episode prior, I must share the connections I made with this one because I was surprised to find them within this topic. My 12-year-old daughter has ADD and her lack of impulse control manifests itself in an inability to control her emotions. Picture noodle-on-the-floor tantrums starting from around 2 years old and continuing until today (although they are a bit different and slightly more controlled, i.e. immediately raising her voice, falling to the ground, jumping up and down in anger). As parents, we have had MANY embarrassing public moments and have had to learn to keep our cool- both in public and in private, or else the situation would escalate to something of neighborhood rattling proportions.

Thankfully, after many years of counseling and dealing with these issues, we have come to the conclusion that many of these tantrums can be avoided with three biological “ingredients”- ADD medicine, food, and good sleep habits. When these are given, she turns into a sweet, funny, verbally competent, and extremely empathetic child. It’s a total 180. We’ve always wondered why (thankfully) she never got in trouble at school? It reminded me of “Kevin”- able to control his habits during the workday and not at night. Similar to what was stated in the episode, we send my daughter off to school with a good breakfast, a good night’s sleep (hopefully) and her meds. In school, that carries her through, along with a good dosage of fear because she does not like to get in trouble. Upon returning home with her meds out of her system, in need of snacks, all bets are off at home, unless we give one more dose along with some health food before dinner.

I understand that what “Kevin” did was atrocious and absolutely condemnable. He broke the law and hurt many children along the way. But, I do wish our society was more willing to talk about mental differences. Maybe if he felt he could have freely expressed these differences to his wife, trusted friend, or his doctors, then he could have gotten help sooner and the damage would not have been so great for everyone? I’ve had to listen to my daughter apologize many, many times for her behavior, as she reflects on her actions once she is stabilized. It makes her sad, but she will also readily share how absolutely difficult it is for her to control her mind/anger during those moments. As she matures, and continues with therapy and support from her family, I hope that she will gain the skills/tools required so that she can function as an emotionally healthy adult. I also hope that our society continues to research and understand mental differences so that we can better learn to talk about, accept and support those who need it.

Jun. 30 2017 12:01 PM
Nikki from Michigan

For me, it all comes down to the fact that he always knew child pornography was illegal, but he never sought help. I cannot over look that, no matter what other circumstances there were. He bought images and videos that showed children being sexually abused. He creat d a demand for more child sexual abuse to be committed, captured, and shared. Nothing, nothing makes that okay. He never forgot that it was illegal or that it caused irreparable harm to children. Never.

Jun. 30 2017 08:27 AM
Sloppy from Sweden

I Love this program! It has a Zen feel about it in that there are particular elements that trigger people; perhaps biologically. ;) It is like being before a guru who is pushing you to think or fall back on your knowledge base of which the guru wants you to see past. Not because your knowledge base is wrong but because you cling to it too hard as a certainty or certainties.
Thanks for this

Jun. 30 2017 08:21 AM
Rachel C. from Scottsdale, Arizona

A poem about how much I absolutely loved this podcast...

This is a haiku.
Favorite episode ever,
Ever, and ever.

Another haiku.
Listener for many years.
This episode - wow.

Oh, Radiolab...
Always many connections,
First time commenting.

Even my dogs love
Radiolab, and my pig,
And Noodles, too.

Noodles is a horse,
A donkey actually.
Time to end the poems.

Jun. 30 2017 12:13 AM
Meg from Los Angeles

Theorectical physicist Brian Greene is definitive on the subject of free will by way of math (that I do not even begin to understand). None the less, I find it compelling that scientists in different disciplines are finding their way to the same conclusion. Is this the Copernicus moment where we are like, whoa there is no way the solar system could not revolve around us?? Dunno. However I'm puzzled and curious about Kevin's statement "I knew you were coming" to the department of Homeland Security. Also what he has done, if anything, to help his victims? Not to be callous regarding his condition, just simply, how does his remorse manifest in action, if any?

Jun. 30 2017 12:04 AM
Bill from NYC

Disturbing, thought provoking and quirky - another Radio Lab gem. I remember the original broadcast and I think the Shapolsky coda an inspired addition.

I am as reductionist as the next fellow, but I think Dr. Shapolsky position - at least insofar as the show represents it - fails to address some issues that go beyond what a 'free will' argument can support.

When a non-human animal is unable to control his appetites because of a brain disorder it does not have a concept of having transgressed a moral boundary. It will never say, "I have been a bad, bad monkey." Fear might forestall the behavior, but not guilt.

Kevin, on the other hand, was clearly aware he had transgressed. He told the police he was expecting them. If there were periods where he was able to resist the impulse to behave badly or the impulse was otherwise suppressed, then there was no reason he could not seek help to control the behavior. He clearly had a moral obligation to do so. The disease can not be active and not active at the same time.

I therefore think the judge was justified in finding he also had a legal obligation to seek help - though I'm less sanguine about criminal liability than I would be about a civil penalty. But that may not have been available to her.

And while I certainly can not state it as fact, I have a suspicion that Kevin knew what form the 'help' would take and did not want his libido regulated by the State. I can't blame him for that. I think of Alan Turing and the ham fisted intervention imposed on him by a homophobic society and shudder. But Turing never hurt or endangered anyone that I am aware.

I further suspect Kevin is aware of his moral culpability for not seeking 'help', blames himself, and accepts the judge's sentence as fair. in part at least, because of it.

Similarly, if a treatment resistant epilepsy patient is prohibited from driving and drives anyway surely he is aware that his action puts other people at risk. Free will or no, his epilepsy is not making him drive.

Dr. Shapolsky's model of free will seems too deterministic to me. Behavior is multiply determined; there is a lot of random input in the system - complexity, in the mathematical sense; prediction is not possible. So, while we may not have free will, it might be enough that we have the illusion of free will.

Jun. 29 2017 10:14 PM
Henry L from University of Washington

I nearly never comment on pop-media articles, but as an academic who deals with rhetorical issues in neuroscience (at a rudimentary level - I'm no expert) there are two things that really bother me about your latest podcast on pedophilia, neuroscience, and free will.

A) It's seems just crazy to me that you go to a neuroscientist for an expert argument on freewill. Sapolsky is a an expert on the brain and how it relates to behavior fair enough. But once we get past the basic dictum that states of mind are analogous to brain state, you ought to be handing off the mic to a philosopher.

Make it a philosopher of medical ethics if you'd like to stay close to science, or a philosopher of mind. Or just ask an ethicist. But Sapolsky, though brilliant in regards to the brain and behavior, approaches questions of free will in relation to ethical responsibility at a level of sophistication that is superseded in the first five minutes of the ethics unit of every Philosophy 101 course in the country. The notion Sapolsky ascribe to (basically, with a bit of adornment here and there), that our brains tell us to do stuff so we have neither free will nor moral responsibility, is laughably facile.

You don't need an ethics expert to take you way down the rabbit hole, but as it makes no sense to ask Bill Belichick to explain cricket, it is ridiculous to depend on a neuroscientist to explain the relationship between free will and moral responsibility. It's silly, and in this case I think irresponsible because children are being hurt.

Which brings me to B). When you asked Sapolsky who was hurt in this case he said, after searching around a little, the person who committed the crime of buying the pictures, and his wife. Unless you believe that child pornography is 100% a spill over product from media that would otherwise be produced without a market, then the primary people being hurt are children.

It is reasonable that some significant portion of child pornography being produced is being produced for profit in response to market demand. In the same way that if I buy cocaine in the United States I carry some moral responsibility for cops being beheaded in Ciudad Juarez, the nice man in this story who bought all that child pornography, is, please excuse my directness, bears some responsibility for little children being f___ed. And I'd argue he has far more responsibility than the coke snorting stock broker because he's directly buying the harm, not some ancillary effect of it.

It completely baffles me that you two didn't have the wherewithal to point out this obvious connection to Sapolsky when he was struggling to imagine who might have been hurt in this situation, really surprises me that it didn't occur to either of you! Two years in jail and some pithy greeting cards seems like a pretty easy punishment for underwriting this sort of badness.

Jun. 29 2017 07:23 PM
C. Yoder from Pennyslyvania

The writers of this article clearly have never been addicted to porn or struggled with temptations. I want to be clear I never went down super dark paths (like they discuss) but it is absolutely clear to me and I think a lot of former porn users that pornography escalates. It's probably the number one trait that it has that once you begin down the path its trait is to grow more and more extreme. The guy wants to blame it on a brain injury...sorry dude you might have had a brain injury but what happened to you happens to completely ordinary people who don't check out of the hell hole they call pornography. I encourage all of you listening to this to consider this viewpoint.

Jun. 29 2017 04:45 PM
Cory from Southern California

What an interesting episode! "The Soul of the Marionette" is a book I read recently that introduced me more in-depth to the notion that maybe free will is an illusion.

I think a lot about criminal justice reform and have reached some similar conclusions as those reached by Dr. Sapolsky. I think that future generations will consider us crazy and medieval in our treatment of those convicted of crimes. I thought Dr. Sapolsky's allegory of a car without working brakes was a good one: certainly society will still need to be protected from those who might cause harm, but if we could wrap our brains around ideas like "poverty is a trauma-engendering life dynamic; traumatized people make "bad choices" because the organism believes the environment is desperate, dangerous, and unpredictable" maybe we could make decisions about justice that would both protect society at large while inching toward understanding that free will is, if not a complete illusion, at least less available to many people in many life situations.

(As I write this, of course, I think about how only some overlap between my genetics/epigenetics/life experiences/environment allows me to be open to ideas of free will being illusory. It's turtles all the way down!)

Jun. 29 2017 03:55 PM

Had to leave a comment as this story tapped into something I've been fascinated with for years. As Dr Sapolsky indicates, it is clear to me that there is no such thing as free will in the way that we think of it. I've had this discussion many times with friends and few ever seem to agree with me.

Our brains are chemical engines. The chemicals contained in our skulls are doing nothing more than what all matter in the universe does: obeying the laws of physics. Just as earthworms, mice, and amoebae do not have free will and are simply responding to stimuli, we do not have free will. Unless you believe in some kind of agent, soul, or spirit to act as a "ghost in the machine" and that exists outside known scientific laws, I am unclear how you can believe that something else is happening.

I'm especially puzzled at agnostics and atheists who, while apparently agreeing with me that the laws of physics govern the universe and that we should only believe in things that we can observe and scientifically support, seem to outright reject (sometimes angrily) the idea that we don't have free will.

As it pertains to the justice system, I did think Sapolsky missed the mark a bit and I was disappointed because people constantly respond to the idea that free will doesn't exist with some form of "so we shouldn't blame anyone or punish anyone? that's crazy!" I felt like he played into that fallacy a bit.

Punishment is a powerful form of external stimulus that shapes our behavior. We punish to influence that behavior and to demonstrate to people that if they misbehave they will suffer for it. When Sapolsky says "punishing feels good" he is really tapping into *revenge*, human society's earliest "justice system" and I would guess an instinctive behavior.

Our culture's justice system serves multiple purposes: 1) to prevent or discourage the perpetrator from offending again, 2) to demonstrate to the population at large what happens to you if you commit a similar offense, 3) to provide emotional comfort to the aggrieved parties through a form of revenge. I'm not sure I agree that the third purpose is productive, but it is a reality in our system.

To me, the most important part of Kevin's sentencing would be not whether he is responsible (whatever that really means) but whether the medication is effective in ensuring that he is very unlikely to ever again commit this or similar offenses. Sapolsky is irate at the judge's sentence and while I might have decided differently, I can justify her sentence this way:

**by punishing Kevin, we can be sure that he now knows what will happen if he ever commits these crimes again
**he and his wife know he must take his medication reliably and behave or possibly suffer major consequences;
** by punishing a heinous crime the sentence contributes to our society's knowledge about the gravity of consuming child pornography and the severe punishments connected to it.

Jun. 29 2017 03:29 PM
Eric Pearson from Traverse City, MI

Typo in description: a starling obsession

Jun. 29 2017 01:38 PM
Richard from Minnesota

I was going to comment on the same item as @Cory from Minnesota. The episode focused on whether Kevin should be punished for looking, downloading, purchasing loathsome material. The judge's reason for punishing was not for downloading, but for not bringing it to someone's attention.

Does someone have a moral obligation to bring it to someone's attention? Should that person be punished or lauded, or both? Does the neurological disorder disrupt the normal ability to "tell on" oneself? Does someone have free will in telling someone that he or she is out of control?

Personally, I believe that one can train oneself to control asking for help, as long as there are positive benefits to doing so. But as @Andrew from Ft Collins said, he might be punished just as much for telling on himself as for getting caught. Overestimating free will might be the problem for that, too.

Jun. 29 2017 12:01 PM
Chris King from Ojai, CA

What is fascinating to me is that we believe that humans -should- have free will. We separate ourselves from millions of other creatures in the same biome. We do not require free will of them. (Though some, our pet dogs, for instance are considered 'bad' and deserving of punishment when they break the training we have given them.) But religions and systems of morality recognize that we are constant "sinners". We give in to instinct and impulse. That's "human nature", and yet we insist that we are creatures "above" those impulses. It seems that morality is like the old joke about the cop who beats the driver who pauses at the stop sign, asking, "Do you want me to 'pause' or do you want me to 'stop'. We think we can stop because we can imagine it. We can only pause.

Jun. 29 2017 03:32 AM
Cory from Minnesota

It seems to me that the point that the judge made and Kevin acknowledged as "fair" was that he at times had the capacity to recognize his bad behavior, and in those moments was responsible to have alerted others to his struggle so that they could help him and prevent the further bad behavior when it was beyond his control. The fact that he did not in the moments he was capable of doing so would seem to be what the criminal penalties would be trying to address: by setting an example, presumably as a social impetus for people to be accountable according to their capacity. Trying to imply that Kevin never has any such capacity or awareness--and trying to extrapolate that in order to deny any such capacity in all humanity.-- seems to me to be intellectually dishonest. Your guest insisting on the non-existence of free will by viewing humans as merely mechanistic, along with his eagerness to dispose of notions of "God", personal responsibility, etc. seem to indicate he has a widespread philosophical bias that often tries to masquerade as "objective" science. Emergent properties, consciousness, and even the simple fact that we are having these ethical conversations at all suggest a greater-than-mechanistic essence to reality that shouldn't be lightly brushed aside, regardless of how convenient doing so may be for excusing ourselves from responsibility for our actions.

Jun. 28 2017 11:42 PM
Richard Hunt from Dallas, Texas

There are three reasons why we will never reach a point of treating all conduct as an inevitable consequence of past events and current mental states. First, we all act as if and believe we have free will and are therefore blame or praiseworthy as the case may be. Responses to harmful acts that do not assign moral fault don't feel satisfactory. and one of the most important purposes of criminal law is to satisfy us that some moral balance has been restored. That's why Kevin was satisfied with his sentence. He believes he has free will and that while it might have been impaired by his condition it was never absent. Free will also means we have the possibility of redemption and the restoration of our personal moral balance. It feels better to be free and subject to punishment than be treated as an automaton who can neither be blamed nor redeemed.

A related problem concerns identical behaviors with different outcomes. The drunk driver who hits a tree and hurts only himself did the same bad thing (driving drunk) as the one who kills a family in a head on collision. I don't think we will as a society ever be able to say they should be treated the same just because their behavior was the same and therefore a rational fix or isolate sentence will be the same for each.

Finally, no matter how well we understand the inner workings of the brain its plasticity in reaction to the environment means that any present behavior has a causal chain extending back to birth, or maybe conception. We won't ever be able to identify all the causes that contributed to a particular behavior, so even the most scientific "fix or isolate" response is going to be off in many cases.

It isn't necessary to resolve the question of whether we have free will to see that a criminal justice system based on a denial of free will cannot succeed in satisfying society, the victim, and even the criminal him or herself. It may be irrational, but we lust for the blood of the wrongdoer, and the job of the criminal justice system is to convince us that instead of acting ourselves as vigilantes we should trust the state to act for us. A system that does not punish based on moral blame will not satisfy our desire for justice and will therefore fail to fulfill its basic purpose.

Jun. 28 2017 11:35 PM
Jaime Palmer from Klamath Falls, OR

I too appreciate all the comments here and the work that went into this episode. I also found Dr. Sapolsky unchallenged on a few points. Often times another way to look at a moral decision is instead of not initiating medication or help would be the withdrawl of medication or help. So for example, what if Kevin decided tomorrow to stop taking his medication and as a result relapsed with either child pornography or something else. Would he be to blame then? If so, then I feel that there is culpability for not pursuing it in the first place. I agree with the previous commenter that there is evidence that he remembered what he had done at night when he was tired and hungry ( unlike the Alzheimer's patient) and had not convinced himself that it was the right thing to do (like the probation judges). What if instead of child pornography he had raped his wife? I think Dr. Sapolsky raised some interesting points about biological free will, But I think the judge did seem to make a reasonable, justified, and compassionate decision based on the society that we are living in now (not a biological ideal).

Jun. 28 2017 11:24 PM

I think that the episode was operating on the assumption that child porn is heinous, has horrible consequences and is despicable. The focus of the discussion was not trying to decide how horrible a crime purchasing child porn is, rather what the implications are of determinism on the use of punishment in a society. And I don't actually believe that the participants in the conversation have anything but the most contempt for the crime. It just wasn't the topic of discussion-they were exploring a deeper philosophical issue. Another show could certainly exist investigating the horrible consequences of child pornography because they are certainly horrible, but for this show I think they stated that fact and then moved on to the topic.

Jun. 28 2017 08:07 PM

This episode is appalling. How is it possible that not once were the consequences of Kevin's actions discussed? Not only did he download child pornography, but he paid for it! He supported an industry that creates child sexual abuse images. There is no doubt that sexual predators were profiting fiscally from his actions and, as is the nature of business, continuing to manufacture a revenue stream that irrevocably traumatizes children. He supported child sexual assault. How is it possible that this wasn't covered? Radiolab had an obligation to request Dr. Sapolsky's comment on this. To say that Kevin shouldn't have been punished for his actions is to say that he shouldn't be held responsible for contributing to an industry that is nothing short of torturous. Radiolab did not once discuss the fact that these were real, live children-- children who are now adults, mind you, and Dr. Sapolsky had the audacity to say that Kevin shouldn't be punished for supporting their molestation and rape. The children in the pornography were not once referred to as human, and Radiolab did a disservice to its listeners by not emphasizing why child porn is uniquely despicable. Listening to this episode, you'd have thought that Kevin had committed a crime that didn't affect a single other human on this earth. Unbelievable.

Jun. 28 2017 07:25 PM
Stephen Seaberg

I understand that Dr. Sapolsky's approach to human choices is perhaps thought of as new, scientific, and therefore worth hearing in an extended interview, but I was disappointed that there was no competing expert to dialogue in this case. It felt to me pretty much like Science vs. common sense, whereas I believe this debate should be between established world views of say "scientific materialism" and "classical and/or theistic humanism." I tend to believe that trying to answer the "big" questions with Biology is laughed off by most philosophers, and a discussion including such a scholar with Dr. Sapolsky would have been more edifying in my opinion.

Jun. 28 2017 07:11 PM
Willy from Philly

Kate S,

He probably never saw a problem with his compulsive non-pornographic activities, so it never would have made any sense for him to blame "this one icky thing" on "just my usual stuff i've always liked to do but i find more time to enjoy them now."

Jun. 28 2017 07:07 PM
Kate S

Andrew- he didn't have to say child porn at first. Just that he is compulsively doing all of these things, including looking at questionable internet content. It was more than child porn that he was compulsive about. If his surgeon knew about this disorder, that also explained the hunger, aggressive sexual appetite, and obsessive piano playing, surely he could have put him on the proper medication earlier.

Jun. 28 2017 04:40 PM
Andrew from Fort Collins, CO

If Kevin told his doctor/therapist/psychiatrist that he was having a problem with viewing child pornography, they would have had a LEGAL OBLIGATION to call the authorities, who would most certainly have arrested him immediately. Doctor-patient confidentiality does not include criminal behavior. If he told his wife, he had an expectation she would have divorced him. How can people be expected to "ask for help" if they know they'll be punished for doing so?

Jun. 28 2017 04:18 PM
Kate S

I agree with Kasey. Dr. Sapolsky seemed to argue for the blamelessness of Kevin's condition, and how it affected his life, but where does that sympathy lie to all of the children harmed by the use of child pornography? Maybe I am having difficulty understanding his argument, because what about people who do not have an organic brain disease that are involved in and view child pornography? Is he arguing that there is something wrong that we haven't discovered yet?
The discussion about how this affected Kevin was very interesting. The idea of it leading to a sense of biological determinism, is very interesting. But like the judge; if in his lucidity he had realized that he was doing something wrong, the moral obligation would be to talk to his physician about these behaviors and his wife would be able to add from the outside perspective.
Because if non of us can help it, and "punishment" is meaningless, then how to we protect the vulnerable from our society at all?

Jun. 28 2017 03:20 PM

This episode reminded me of Sam Harris work on Free Will. He essentially argues the same thing, your personality and resulting actions are due to things outside of your control. The fact that you could have chosen something else is not free will.

Jun. 28 2017 03:19 PM

I too wonder about the "why didn't he ask for help" part of it. I would love to hear Robert Sapolsky's response that. And "Kevin's" response, too.

Jun. 28 2017 12:11 PM

It seems to me that much of the Dr. Sapolsky discussion is motivated by his unhappiness with the judge's decision and therefore misses the point. He's upset/frustrated with the judge's decision because of his position that Kevin could not control his behavior. However, the judge's point, it seemed to me, was not that he could or couldn't control his behavior--it seems that she was willing to concede that he could not--but that he knew that what he was doing was wrong. By saying his behavior was wrong, all we have to agree on is that Kevin felt like pursuing child pornography was something that he believed was wrong. It's clear that he didn't want to do it...he repeatedly deleted the files he had downloaded, for example. So, since he knew that what he was doing was wrong, again, even conceding that he couldn't control viewing/purchasing child pornography, what he should have done was seek help. I understood the judge saying that he should have talked to his wife or his doctor or someone to explain that he was out of control and needed some kind of intervention. It seemed to me that the prison time was punishment for not getting the help that he needed. That seems like an entirely different issue than whether Kevin could control his impulse to view pornography.

Jun. 28 2017 12:09 PM
Wesley Jun from South Bay

I'm pretty sure that Radiolab has the most constructive comment section. It's always a pleasure to read the comments

Jun. 28 2017 12:07 PM
Casey Rockwood

I think that part of what was missing from the debate was the impact that punishment has as a deterrent. If there is no moral need to meet out punishment because their is no free will, maybe punishment still is the moral thing to do in that it deters the commission of more and heinous crimes. Take the example of the monkey with the brain injury-he doesn't go after the alpha male because the fear caused in the brain by that prospect is able to overcome the impulse. Likewise, the fear of getting punished for murder definitely keeps many people alive who might otherwise be murdered. So even if you take free will completely out of the equation, which I agree with Dr. Sapolsky that it should be, that people can act in no other way, that there is no real choice (like the hungry judge)-even without free will, punishment still may be a moral imperative as a deterrent. If people are simply physics set in motion operating in the circumstances of the universe as they are at any given moment-changing those circumstances by removing the element of punishment has an impact on how people behave.

Jun. 28 2017 11:43 AM
Wouter Bjerg from Amsterdam

I want to thank the guys from Radiolab for making this episode, especially for including Robert Sapolsky, even if the process that led them to making it was actually out of their control. I am a neuroscientist myself, and have long thought about the consequences of biological determinism, absence of free will and how this should influence the justice system. Lo and behold; I came to the exact same conclusions as Dr. Sapolsky. It made me incredibly happy to discover this.

I would love to meet the man himself someday to discuss these topics, and see if we could come to some application of these ideas in the judicial system.

Jun. 28 2017 10:41 AM
Kasey from Milledgeville, GA

Very interesting episode! I remember hearing this story the first time and thinking that the judge in the case made an excellent point that "Kevin" could have gotten help, but didn't, and that that was why she was punishing him. Even if you agree that he is blameless for viewing child pornography, as Dr. Sapolsky argued and the judge agreed, it would set a bad precedent to allow someone to knowingly commit a crime (that had the serious consequences in this case of supporting an industry that molests children) to continue to do so in secret and then not be punished for it. Kevin had easy access to neurologists who he could have told about his new impulses and as we found out, could've gotten medication to curb those impulses. I found Dr. Sapolsky's argument for blamelessness on the act of viewing child pornography in this case very convincing, but I cannot agree that Kevin shouldn't have been punished for not taking actions to chemically control his impulses when he knew what he was doing was very wrong. I would've liked to have heard Dr. Sapolsky address that aspect, but I don't believe he did.

Jun. 28 2017 08:08 AM

While I love Radiolab, and I understand the rhetorical advantages of presenting the two extreme poles of the free-will debate (a sort of stringent incompatibilist libertarian position vs. an almost fatalistic-sounding, hard determinist standpoint), it's kind of a bummer that the various philosophical approaches aren't consulted more carefully here (and elsewhere). There are some really fascinating discussions about whether free will really needs to involve *actually having* alternate possibilities. Harry Frankfurt and other so-called "compatibilists" have tried to show that FW and determinism might actually be...well, compatible! And they've made some pretty interesting arguments along the way.

There are certainly still tons of questions about moral responsibility and blameworthiness and how to implement these notions socially and legally, but philosophers are grappling with these in really interesting and exciting ways! It would thus be nice to hear from them in addition to merely hearing from the "science guys" (whom I deeply respect and whose work is - or ought to be - invaluable to philosophical investigation of these issues). Heck, it might turn out that Dr. Sapolsky doesn't have to feel like a "terrible hypocrite" for feeling vague pleasure at being complimented on his fashion sense, even if he holds on to his biological determinism! :) (Though if he does want to take the super fatalistic line, then there's really no point in him feeling guilty about being a hypocrite, since he "can't help" that either, and so on and so forth. Whew, the Dude was right: nihilism IS exhausting!)

Jun. 28 2017 06:22 AM

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