I was watching Robert Sapolsky’s “Intro to Human Behavioral Biology” due to the YouTube recommendation algorithm and found an early claim¹ in lecture two pretty surprising.

I kept watching the lecture because Sapolsky is charismatic and knowledgeable, but the claim was never supported and it stuck in my craw.

The lecture is from before the replication crisis (lecture circa April 2010, landmark replication study circa 2015, and I thought it’d be worth looking for widely read critiques or reviews of his work.

Luckily, Sapolsky wrote a book ("Behave", 2017) that surveys the field of human behavior comprehensively and serves as a schelling point for discussion of his work. Matt Clancy on Goodreads registered a similarly suspect claim and read the rest of the book wary of works cited that were later unable to be replicated:

After Sapolsky mentioned a study that I know researchers have failed to replicate, I waited for him to discuss the subsequent controversy. He never did. At that point, I started keeping a tally of "red flags:" studies that have subsequently come under fire, but where Sapolsky fails to acknowledge any controversy about their findings.

(From Matt Clancy's Goodreads review.)

He found eight avenues of research that have not been replicated successfully (e.g. ego depletion, implicit bias testing, priming), all cited without acknowledgement of their failure to replicate.

(His review is worth reading in full---he still credits the book for being “brilliantly organized and comprehensive.”)

It’s a bummer that we have to try and contextualize Sapolsky’s writing relative to the replication crisis ourselves. His work is of unprecedented breadth, depth, and accessibility, and no one else is more qualified to integrate replication failures into his work.

Given that this is left as an exercise to the reader and that Behave has failed some epistemic spot checks, we must read cautiously and examine the basis for the claims that change our beliefs. Matt’s list from the review above is a start.

I’m writing this post so that hopefully “critique of human behavioral biology” and “critique of Behave by Robert Sapolsky” will have a reasonably ranked Google Search result pointing to Matt’s review. Both the New York Times review of Behave and the Guardian review of Behave fail to mention the replication crisis. The Spectator review of Behave does address it, to their credit.

In the best-case scenario perhaps we’ll have some other expert anthropologists or Sapolsky himself weigh in - maybe we'll learn there’s a second edition coming or find a more comprehensive critique than those I’ve found.

¹ “You are a field biologist, and you’ve discovered this brand new species. And you [know] that this one [is a female] and this one [is a male], [otherwise having access to] only the skull. And if you’ve got the right tools there, you can figure out [based on only the fossil record, i.e. the skull] who’s more likely to cheat on the other. Is the female more likely to mess around, or is the male?” (4:48-5:17 in "Intro to Human Behavioral Biology" lecture 2)