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Update: New Normal?

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(Photo Credit: Koshy Koshy/Flickr)

An update: we revisit our episode about normalcy. Evolution results from the ability of organisms to change. But how do you tell the difference between a sea change and a ripple in the water? Is a peacenik baboon, a man in a dress, or a cuddly fox a sign of things to come? Or just a flukey outlier from the norm? And is there ever really a norm? This episode we return to two stories where choice has challenged destiny to see what's changed and what has become deeply normal. 

Produced by Soren Wheeler


Dmitri Belyaev, Tecumseh Fitch, John Horgan, Stu Rasmussen, Dr. Robert Sapolsky and Richard Wrangham

Update: New Baboon

When a population of baboons defies expectations of violent behavior, is it an anomaly or cause for hope of a gentler future?

Comments [20]

Update: New Stu

In 2008, Stu Rasmussen became our country's first transgender mayor. News swept the country, but what was it like at home?

Comments [16]

New Nice

What does the domestication of the silver fox tell us about choice and evolution?

Comments [1]

Comments [33]

Dude from Rusty Belt from Rust Belt

One more thing I forgot to add. You also fumbled on identifying the tool we humans have that all a single member to beat up many members. A "tool of devolution". The gun. (the bomb, the nuclear bomb.) This tool allows not only strong an intelligent chimps to threaten many chimps, but weak and ignorant ones can operate this tool of strength and circumvent the process of evolution. This sets the gun out as the main reason we can never achieve that peace that was proposed in the first question and hypothesized about in the last minutes.

Dec. 28 2017 09:56 AM
Dude from Rusty Belt.

I listen to Radio Lab with the same veracity that some people listen to a football game. And being from Cleveland, not shocked nor relieved when you guys constantly fumble at the 1 yard line. This show was exemplary of that fact.

You started out with the question, "Can We ever achieve peace?" with the baboon story. I was delighted when you realized a life of plenty caused an artificial and unsustainable culture to evolve. When it was discovered that they had turned into a "non-culture" it was even uttered, "reminds me of America" You were on the 1 yard line!! Shove it in!! The garbage dump represents free things that the troop used to have to work for, and depend upon everybody working for.A society that can get food, shelter, and clothing 24/7. What is our garbage dump. What if a few members of the baboon troop learned they could gain more by organizing and starting wars with other troops?

The story of Stu??!! It is not a story of "acceptance". Again. Here you made it to about the yard line.. then turned it over on downs!! The Stu story represents a psychosis that drives sociologist and political posters nuts in a society that doesn't understand "collectivism". The best way to explain it is like this. Imagine you have a brother who is an a-hole. He doesn't hurt anybody, but says the most obnoxious things in public. There is an inherent need to protect and justify his behaviors, and by extension "family honor". Stu was part of "the family". Everybody in town was allowed to attack him. But, just as you would leap to protect your ahole brother if somebody started to attack him while you were out, even though they were attacking him for the exact same things you had chastised him for before, (Might have even warned he will get his ass kicked.) it is different. YOU, have the right to do that, but you are inherently wired to protect your family. So people can't understand why Republicans are defending tRump and Pedophiles? Because they "feel" as if their family is being attacked.

Push a little father guys. The goal line is often right there!!

Dec. 27 2017 10:21 PM
Mark from Spokane WA

I always wondered if part of Americas success is based on the fact America is a land populated entirely by self-starters, risk takers, that would leave their homeland for new opportunities. Basically, we have a land of A-type personalities that have been breeding together for centuries. It would be interesting to see if there is an “American gene” we all have in common, or if we generally have more adrenaline in our bodies than other nationalities like the French.

Oct. 20 2016 12:54 PM

How are you going to censor the word Tits but not faggit?
This blows my mind away that these two words are used in two minutes of each other, but you censor the word that isn't hurtful and used out of fear and anger. Very mature of you. Words are words and should not be censored.

Feb. 01 2016 04:25 PM
CLJ from Los Angeles

Very interesting. I've read a good deal of Sapolsky's work and have read about the 'fox taming' in Russia, but I never suspected the 'taming' to equate physiological immaturity. The fox's drooping ears made me think of the lame / drooping dorsal fin of Tilicum, the Killer Whale held in captivity by SeaWorld featured in the disturbingly important documentary Blackfish. Tilicum's virility completely gone, so his fin drooped, unlike his wild counter part orca's dorsal's that stand majestically erect.

Strangely this whole episode reminds me of the utopian rat experiment from the 1970's that ended with an unexpected darkness of complete abandonment of virility of being: "The Beautiful Ones"

How Mice Turned Their Private Paradise Into A Terrifying Dystopia

Dec. 13 2015 08:41 PM
Michelle from CA

How can anyone think that violence is human nature when the vast majority of humans are non-violent and have never hurt anyone? Looked it up... 735 Americans out of every million will commit murder at some time during their lifetime. That is one American in 1360, or approximately 0.00735 percent. Human nature is something that most humans experience, like sexual attraction or the need to be social. Violence is not among these. Our governments wage wars, a small number of sociopathic elite... civilians currently have no control over that. Also, most people who commit violent crimes grew up in fatherless homes. The solution is pretty simple. Get rid of the welfare state so we're not paying irresponsible people to breed.

Nov. 16 2015 05:15 PM
cinemann from Brooklyn

Great episode. Love the choice of music too.
That disco song esp. at the end was an appropriate cue:

Rita Lee - Chega Mais

Nov. 10 2015 12:10 AM
B from Canardia

anyone know that disco like song at the very end?

Nov. 08 2015 09:17 PM
John Holecek from South Carolina

Enjoyed this podcast. Exploring the potential of human change, hopefully escaping our violent tendencies and defining a new normal fits well with a good book I’ve been reading. The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker is, I think, a good read.

Nov. 08 2015 08:16 PM
Colin O from the United States

Haunted Houses and Horror Shows!!

So i was just listening to an NPR thing, and it was talking about haunted houses and fear.... It made me think about this Radiolab again. I said previously that its like we need to separate/de-associate fear from aggression.

It seems maybe with horror shows, haunted houses, and the like, we are specifically trying to do that. There was an interesting review of the history of haunted houses and horror films, and how people actually reacted in very strong ways in their environments after old horror shows -- ?traumatization?. It seems like the greatest value in some sense of horror and haunted houses is to associate deep fear with physical shaking (shake it off, (cause its emotional...)), and vocalizations. Vocalizations can be good as a means to make others aware, but also as a less violent means of dissipating fear. The thought arises that if we actually need to defend ourselves, perhaps this dis-association isn't actually good. It also begs the question of corollaries in our modern cities and society, like the problem for our warriors in the military and PTSD -- what is an appropriate response to a car backfiring, and what are the subtle situational (animate and inanimate) changes that signify to the non-linguistic brain-processes that "shit-is-about-to-happen!"? There is some interesting stuff about psychological de-conditioning by Peter Levine about trauma and shaking, like animals after a fight or an inter-tribal attack. There is some suggestion that it can preserve health by dissipating the neural and endocrine based energies, too.

I personally don't like haunted houses cause I can't easily disassociate my physical reactions from my fear, which amounts to a strong drive toward basic protective violence -- i become rigid and I want to fight. In potentially a related way, and in a excessive personal reveal, i've been sitting in bars and other social arenas recently, and i'll start shaking in my whole body, like i'm scared of... nothing?... of letting go of some social based situational fear?... or maybe it is the-letting-go. I don't know for sure, but I've had it happen many times, and I wonder if its the same as what people may experience in haunted houses.

Thanks for posting the link to the foxes Christi from Memphis.

Oct. 29 2015 02:27 PM
Colin O from the United States

@Karl -- are you saying that 1) morality and religion are separate, or 2) that we should try to separate them? There are some insightful books about tribalism and morality and how religion is inherently related to morality, as a group construct, i.e books by Jonathan Haidt (or an on being interview with him), or Moral Tribes by Joshua Green, among others. In the Onbeing interview with Haidt, there is a question at the end that shows how our modern groups are trying to separate morality from religion by basically saying morality of the group that results in violence toward other groups is not moral, and so only complete altruism is moral, or something like that. There are a set of concepts that are associated with group coherence and morality that are described too. Its really interesting. Has anyone else heard this?

Oct. 29 2015 02:04 PM

Regarding Stu you said the minister found it "morally" wrong. Can we please separate religion from morality, thanks.

Oct. 28 2015 11:06 AM
Maria from Chicago

Holy biological determinism! Any other anthropologists out there? While I have enjoyed the stories in this episode (and am an avid Radiolab listener and supporter), I find the conclusions here very problematic. How about the notion that conflict is not entirely biological, but simply has to do with cultural diversity? It will be extremely difficult for us to get pass conflict because of the myriad ideological perspectives that make us human. People will disagree because they grew up in distinct cultural milieus that raised them to think and act differently than people not in that specific milieu. This does not mean we shouldn't strive for peace and resolution, but it does mean that we have our work cut out for us. Each of us embody our own perspective of the world, which may or may not align with others because of how we were raised and where we grew up. This is basic cultural theory 101! I also don't mean to say that people can't change their perspectives.... but it will take a lot of work for some individuals to transcend their own cultural perspective, probably because they never took anthropology (or empathy) 101 and had a discussion about human difference. This is suffice to say that I don't think human conflict is a biological is cultural!

Oct. 27 2015 07:48 PM

Don't worry Robert(Sapolsky), your work was not a waste of time. Your work is like that of Tesla's... it's just not meant for the dominant generation... but they are on the way out & WE are listening.

Now to be honest, I don't think war will end, per se. However, I do feel it will become more sophisticated, inline with our intelligence. A kind of gamification, if you will. One that would evolve the species, while creating an outlet for... aggressive displays, if you will. Or as my dad would say, "there is a time and a place for all things"

Oct. 26 2015 10:40 AM
Jason Axford from Australia

With regards to the last story about domestication, if anyone wants to know the technical term for the retention of juvenile characteristics in the adult it's "neoteny". Type that into Google and you'll see the famous comparison between a juvenile and adult Pan troglodytes (please forgive the lack of italics) and how the young chimp resembles adult members of the genus Homo. We're domesticated, juvenile chimps.

Oct. 25 2015 08:27 PM
Lucas from Denmark

The talk about going to africa and shoot all the alpha males to give a chance to the females, reminded me a lot of the description that Michael Lewis wrote about Iceland and the financial crisis.
When the banks went bankrupt, and every male was out of the game, it was the women the ones that took over and started the recovery of the country!

It works with baboons that feasted on thrash. And it worked with greedy bankers that feasted on trashy mortgages! or loans... I think Iceland's problems was because of trashy loans!

Oct. 25 2015 07:00 PM
Cynikoe from Taiwan

Does anyone know the name of the song that comes on in the last minute of the episode, right after Jad says, "Floppy ears."

Oct. 25 2015 12:23 PM

The -ed suffix on the end of Transgender is unnecessary. Gender isn't a thing that happens to people. People are transgender or trans*.

Oct. 24 2015 01:04 PM

Interesting speculation at the end of the episode (1:08:10) about capital punishment impacting human evolution. That would be an interesting (maybe politically dangerous) topic to explore. However, it seems that there is a major miss in this speculation in that to really have much effect on human evolution, capital punishment would have to happen in a way that prevents the subject from procreating.

It seems this program hinted and speculated about human evolution without much evidence. You should dedicate a show more directly to this topic (if you dare). Perhaps you would find exactly the opposite of what was hinted at in this show - that humans are evolving toward a more peaceful race. Is there any evidence to support that hypothesis? Perhaps careful study (rather than speculation) would show that our race is evolving to be more violent and more destructive. Perhaps humans are moving in that direction more rapidly than we'd like to admit. Perhaps because we don't control procreation (this is certainly socially/politically unacceptable), our race is evolving in an unpleasant direction.

Oct. 24 2015 12:41 PM
Brad from Minneapolis

Anyone familiar with the piano music in minute 51? I would like to track it down. Thanks

Oct. 23 2015 02:10 AM
Christi from Memphis, TN Pics of foxes!

Oct. 22 2015 01:38 PM
Dan from PA

Seems like very slow change would be required, and thus, always a possibility of regressing. I don't know, but it seems like the mayor was only partly transgender, he sounded masculine and it wasn't clear, but seemed like maybe he was a cross-dressor with breast implants and not on hormone replacements? I don't know. I wonder if the town would have been as accepting and supportive of him had he completely changed sex and had a male partner. It is just my impression, from the show, that he was not living completely as a woman, and so not quite as "different" for his community to accept.

This brings up a show idea to me. Recently, it was brought to my attention, about a story of a woman who had a doctor help her blind herself by dripping drain cleaner into her eyes. She suffers from BIID, and believed, since the age of six years, that she was supposed to be blind. People seemed quite upset that she did this, and that a doctor helped her, yet the same people, when I asked, didn't seem to have an issue with doctors helping people change gender. This isn't meant as a troll, just exploring the realm of what is, or should be, considered acceptable. I, personally, have no issue with transgender, so I cannot say that this woman, who blinded herself, is sick or deranged. She believed that she was meant to be blind, and so chose to make that a reality. I expect the Radio Lab crew could take that basic concept and run with it in quite interesting ways.

Oct. 22 2015 12:06 PM
Jessica from San Diego, CA

I need a picture of these foxes!

Oct. 22 2015 11:44 AM
Courtney from Hoboken, NJ

Hi! I work with John Horgan. You have his name tagged under 'Guests' as Joe Horgan so I think that is a typo!

Oct. 22 2015 11:11 AM
Colin O from The United States

love the program. just fun thoughts...We need to de-associate fear from aggression -- the problem of violence/war is like a weed-seed in the ground of reality.

Perhaps with time and care we can change, but we can never remove the potential of regression.

In Ferguson for instance, who is more afraid, the black people, the police, or “the public”? In a generally liberal society ruled by law, who is allowed to use violence out of fear and not be punished by society—the police or the marginalized?

I’m typing all of this thinking about associations, specifically between neuro-plasticity and behavioral learning, which I see as the level that links the stories.

1) As long as neuro-plastic changes can be made to be associated with a more efficient path to a desired end, then the problem of violence/war is like a weed-seed in the ground of reality. Perhaps we need really good cultivators....
If we allow for fewer degrees of neural associations (less intelligence, in a sense) and more instinctual/mechanical behaviors, then perhaps war would never occur in the first place… but only with really low intelligence.
2) It really goes toward an idea of the rate of change in the environment and the rate of neuro-plastic change in the individual, which is to say the rate of accepting new associations as a part of learning.
It also begs the question about the associations/learning of emotions-feelings and femininity/masculinity versus “humanity”.
3) In the earliest litters, do the most docile foxes have to re-route their fear because of being dominated by the other foxes, or are those foxes inherently more docile –which direction is the causation?
Dominance can be defined as maintenance of the position of greatest fear – learning to associate physical size and strength (or perhaps only greatest degree of fear, i.e. the “fight in the dog”) with aggression/violence as the most efficient means of acquiring what one wants—if fear of inadequacy is included, the public shootings might fit too (and not be sustainable and so preclude evolution).
Nation-States can be understood to be the result of fear.
Will some people always choose the intimidation-aggression-violence-war-chain out of spontaneity and efficiency?

Oct. 22 2015 12:06 AM
Gabriel from Toronto Canada

The cello piece at the end is minuet number two from Bach's first cello suite.
Great episode, wish Radiolab made more full length shows these days, not that I don't love their programs anyways!

Oct. 21 2015 10:56 PM
Robin Rutan from San Acacio, CO

In talking about evolution and changing ideas, I believe that women should be given a lot of credit in making better domestic partner choices. Women are much better at getting along and in partnering with men who share those qualities, create other humans who are better at getting along. I believe the supposition that we are all puppies, (thus immature) is wrong.

Oct. 21 2015 03:30 PM
Chris from SD

I definitely enjoyed this podcast as recently I have been reading articles about the feminist, equality, and men's advocate movements specifically in regards to classic gender roles and why do some of things we do as human beings. Most of the articles are politically driven so scientific explanation is absent compared to this show. It made think about the transition of how guys act with girls especially in the millennial generation. I have noticed that younger men are adapting to a more submissive demeanor and vernacular that matches the girls they are dating. Saying "like" after every other word and projecting more effeminately which when I was growing up in the 90's was associated with ditsy valley girls and not a respectable trait to either gender from my perspective. So it seems the pacification is already happening. It will be interesting to see how we evolve as a society. Also I definitely agree with the poster below regarding "hoping" of certain outcomes in regards to science. To quote of my favorite movies....

"F**k off with your sofa units and strine green stripe patterns, I say never be complete, I say stop being perfect, I say let... lets evolve, let the chips fall where they may."

Oct. 21 2015 02:54 PM

I enjoyed this podcast about the possibility of changing human nature. But one thing really bothered me. Jad very overtly, and very unscientifically, portrayed a reduction in violence among baboons as something to be hoped for. This strikes me as a combination of sentimentality and anthropomorphism which science is supposed to put aside. It is one thing to look to other primates to discover how things might work with their human cousins. But if it turns out that baboon behavior tends naturally to be very violent, that is just fine. It is in fact dangerous to hope for baboon culture to evolve toward a less violent state. Such misplaced application of human cultural standards onto animal behavior can lead to humans trying to "help" wild animals from natural predation, disease, and in-species conflict. This can have very bad unintended consequences.

Perhaps they could devote a show to discussing the powerful tendency for us to see wildlife in human terms, attributing good and evil motives, and trying to influence outcomes in ways that make us feel better.

Oct. 21 2015 12:56 PM
Matt from Bratislava

Does anyone know the name of the cello piece at the end of this episode? Thanks.

Oct. 21 2015 12:38 PM
Hi world from NY

I wonder if Trolls use a special type of keyboard to assist them when they're online. I imagine the keys would be larger than normal to accommodate four plump fingers (and two thumbs) yet, still be arranged in a functional, ergonomic positions zzzzzzzzzzz


Oct. 20 2015 10:48 PM
Racer X from Seattle

Sapolski is an example of what happens when the political invades the scientific. He's so hungry for social justice, he projects it on to chimps in his observations.

When leftists are involved you lose objectivity and succumb to wishful thinking. See: Journalism, Politics, Science.....

Oct. 20 2015 06:55 PM
Bob from O-H

Thanks for introducing me to Christen Lien (first song 'Unconditional' at ~1:45)

Oct. 20 2015 03:30 PM

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