Stanford's Sapolsky on primate sexuality: funny, fascinating, educational

"This is a hilarious yet edifying talk on Sex given by Prof. Sapolsky to his Bio l50/250 Human Behavioral Biology class at Stanford in Spring 2002" -- regular readers of this blog will remember Sapolsky as the incredibly fascinating, funny and engaging scientist whose Stanford lectures on stress are some of the most interesting biology presentations I've ever heard.

He's absolutely scintillating on the subject of primate sexuality: funny, informative, and filled with aha moments that'll have you rethinking your relationship to your naughty parts.

Prof. Robert Sapolsky on the Neurobiology of Primate Sexuality (Thanks, Avi!)


  1. Sounds interesting but I’m pretty satisfied with my relationship with my naughty parts, pretty sure none of that needs to be rethought.

  2. I really want to thank you for this post.
    Better watching than anything else on TV tonight.
    My biggest Ah-Ha moment came at 1’30 through the thing. All of it was interesting enough, but that one had me jaw-dropping.
    I learned something today – don’t even pretend to be able to pick a nice perfume for my S.O. ;-)


  3. Yeah, that was great, watched the whole thing. Now I’m off to blame my gf for my constant beard scruff :)

  4. Unfrozen Caveman Scientist provokes me to ask: why did cavemen drag cave women by the hair? [There’s a sick joke in this, but I don’t want to be the one to say it.]

  5. His statistics on nonpaternity seem to be dated. When I heard his comment on it, I was intrigued and looked for the studies he mentioned, and instead of I found this:

    Granted, Cecil Adams does not qualify as a proper literature review, but he’s close enough to convince me that the current scientific consensus is way way lower than Sapolsky stated it was in 2002.

    Interesting how science moves on, but old “facts” get recycled unless you’re careful.


  6. Can anyone provide any information on the method of data gathering he talks about (I think he says it’s devised by Joel Cohen, but I can’t seem to easily find any information)?

  7. Tease. When he brought up that in humans, women’s orgasm might be a spandrel, he mentioned that there was a male might-be-a-spandrel, too– but I didn’t hear anything that followed that was apparently it…

  8. Any anyone better explain the 45/55 “spinner” he discusses around 36:00? I want it to make sense but I must have missed that lecture.

    His point at 51:00 re: fetishes is fascinating.

  9. The 45/55 is a red herring.

    Here’s the deal – there’s a behavior which is illegal/immoral/whatever such that people are uncomfortable admitting to it.

    All of the people are instructed:

    – If you HAVE done the horrible X, say YES.

    – If you have NOT done the horrible X, lie and say YES if the spinner tells you to.

    So, the folks who have done the horrible X can say so without fear, since half of the people who have not done the horrible X will be forced by the spinner to say that they have. Saying “I have done the horrible X,” is very plausibly deniable for those who have actually done the horrible X, since half of the people who have not done it have been compelled by the spinner to say that they have.

    Then you take the value for the folks who say they have not done the horrible X and it is equal to exactly have of the people who have actually not done the horrible X.

    I too feel ripped off about the male might-be-a-spandrel thing.

  10. It’s sad to me that people find Sapolsky funny.

    I got several of his books and on starting the second came across an admission of his that his research involved deliberately making animals suffer. I put the book down and never read another of his. I was sorry to see him on boingboing.

  11. #12 (MDH), #13 (Calyxa Omphalos):

    Calyxa, thanks for the explanation. That was super helpful.

    For what it’s worth, he goes over it again at 53:38.

    #14 (Alllie): I’m sorry to hear that. Sapolsky is one of my heroes, someone who has a deep passion for and an incredible understanding of neuroscience, and who looks for rigor and truth all over the place and shares it. The animal testing issue is complicated and I think that if you read Sapolsky’s position on it (he discusses in in “A Primate’s Memoir”, I believe) you might find that you understand where he’s coming from.

    Many scientists involved with animal testing have deeply thought out positions about it and care about their animal’s well-being. I would hope that you would consider what’s being gained in Sapolsky’s work and weigh it against the cost before simply condemning him. I imagine that you gladly reap the benefits of such work without so much as a second thought, which is certainly owed to the scientists who are actively contributing the both the sum total of human knowledge and directly improving your life.

  12. Is there anyplace one can just get the audio? He’s not exactly doing much that’s visually interesting (at least as far as I’ve run it so far), and I’m currently at the end of a rather slow link; I’d rather save the bandwidth and just listen.

  13. You feel ripped off? Then ask for your money back.

    Good stuff. He’s very responsive to his students. On the basis of this one lecture I’ll venture that he’s a great teacher. It would be a treat to take the course.

  14. #14: Whether I approve of someone’s activities doesn’t affect whether I find them funny, or informative, on other topics. I’d rather hear what he has to say and make up my own mind. I’m sorry, but he IS a good lecturer; you may or may not agree with his material but he puts it across very clearly and he holds his audience’s attention.

    In any case, I’d have to look at exactly what “making animals suffer” consisted of, and what research benefits were expected from it, before I had any opinion on that front.

    Meanwhile: as far as I can tell, no animals were harmed in the making of this lecture. Not even the students. (Maybe some folks are suffering because they don’t think this topic should be discussed at all, but I classify anyone who holds that position as a vegetable.)

    So: If you want to boycot, feel free. Otherwise… well, I understand where you’re coming from, but I think the majority of BB’s audience would prefer to have heard that this video was available and then make their own decisions about whether to view it.

  15. The spinner method doesn’t make sense to me. It seems to rely on a person’s willingness to admit to something squicky, even if it is just to the researcher. The morality police could be standing right outside the lab door saying, “Non-spinner users, up against the wall.” The subject can lie, but then he has to have absolute faith that the researcher won’t out him. Maybe I’m just totally unclear on the concept.

  16. The people who are writing down YES are also spinning the spinners; they’re just ignoring them.

    Having said that, I don’t know how much confidence I’d have in the technique. Certainly were I someone who’d done the $SQUICKY and did not want to admit it, I’d spin the spinner (or flip the coin, or whatever) and write down whatever it said– per “To appear innocent, do what an innocent person does.” After all, there may be a hidden camera in the room somewhere.

  17. Willy, and whoever else is confused by the spinner thing: The idea is that, since half of the spinner users say yes when they really mean no, the pool of people who have said yes is much larger, and therefore those who say yes because it is true will not be able to be singled out by their answer of yes. I don’t think the actual results of the questionnaire will *include* whether or not they used the spinner, so the false vs. true yeses are indistinguishable. Statistically, since the spin has an equal chance of yes and no, you can identify the percent of true yeses without identifying the individuals.

Comments are closed.