Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst: Just buy it already

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. SapolskyBehave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. SapolskyBehave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (2018), by Robert M. Sapolsky, is, simply put, one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in years and, had I finished it last year, would absolutely have gone onto my Best of the Year list. Sadly, because I listened to it on audio over several months of commuting, this review will not do it justice in terms of specific references and examples. But to cut an already-brief review even shorter: if you have any interest in other people, yourself, culture, society, or science, buy this book.

Sapolsky wants to explain just why (and also how) we do the things we do, and he structures the book so as to zoom out from what happens in our brains/bodies milliseconds before an action to minutes before to weeks and months, to years, to centuries and millennia beforehand. What are some of the factors he examines? Synapses, brain components like the amygdala and insula, hormones, genes, natural selection, adaptation, culture and society. Along the way he tackles big ideas such as religion, free will vs. determinism, empathy vs. sympathy vs. compassion, whether or not violence is an inherent part of humanity, the use of metaphor to demonize the other, the criminal justice system, and so forth. And throughout he is careful to not overstate or overpromise, always saying we know only so much, and more than happy to admit that studies of some topics are just in conflict and thus are “messy.” And he takes to task many who do go too far, say by ascribing too much agency to “our genes” as causes of behavior, concretely and specifically noting just how little predictive value genes have. He ranges widely in time, age (childhood, adolescence, the aged brain), culture, and subject (humans, primates, mammals, and other life forms).

Behave never stops fascinating. Seriously. Never. Not ever. It’s 700+ pages of magisterial, comprehensive, in-depth, humorous, enthusiastic, fascinating coverage of what it means to act as a human. The humor never feels forced, never feels like he’s trying too hard to be hip or coolly irreverent or trying to save us from too much “dull” analysis. The explanations are always lucid, easy to follow (even in audio), clear to a layperson without feeling overly dumbed down despite the often-breezy style. And did I mention it never fails to fascinate? Ever? If this had been a textbook in my first year of college, I might have signed up immediately to major in behavioral science/neurobiology. If this isn’t being used as a textbook now, professors are crazy (I’m not a neurobiologist nor do I play one on TV, but if there are errors in here, professors can point them out in class).

For months I’ve been regaling my family with stories from this book: “Hey, did you know …” “So, there’s this really cool … “ “Turns out those famous experiments about … “ “There are these twin studies … “ “These brain studies …” “These … “

How much did I love this book? Upon finishing it on audio I bought the Kindle version so I can start rereading it and taking notes. And I’m thinking of buying the print version, too. That’s how much. So, I’m saying you should buy Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Though am I saying that because my pre-frontal cortex … Or maybe my genes … Possibly my social conditioning … My childhood …

Published in May 2018. Why do we do the things we do? Over a decade in the making, this game-changing book is Robert Sapolsky’s genre-shattering attempt to answer that question as fully as perhaps only he could, looking at it from every angle. Sapolsky’s storytelling concept is delightful but it also has a powerful intrinsic logic: he starts by looking at the factors that bear on a person’s reaction in the precise moment a behavior occurs, and then hops back in time from there, in stages, ultimately ending up at the deep history of our species and its genetic inheritance. And so the first category of explanation is the neurobiological one. What goes on in a person’s brain a second before the behavior happens? Then he pulls out to a slightly larger field of vision, a little earlier in time: What sight, sound, or smell triggers the nervous system to produce that behavior? And then, what hormones act hours to days earlier to change how responsive that individual is to the stimuli which trigger the nervous system? By now, he has increased our field of vision so that we are thinking about neurobiology and the sensory world of our environment and endocrinology in trying to explain what happened. Sapolsky keeps going–next to what features of the environment affected that person’s brain, and then back to the childhood of the individual, and then to their genetic makeup. Finally, he expands the view to encompass factors larger than that one individual. How culture has shaped that individual’s group, what ecological factors helped shape that culture, and on and on, back to evolutionary factors thousands and even millions of years old. The result is one of the most dazzling tours de horizon of the science of human behavior ever attempted, a majestic synthesis that harvests cutting-edge research across a range of disciplines to provide a subtle and nuanced perspective on why we ultimately do the things we do…for good and for ill. Sapolsky builds on this understanding to wrestle with some of our deepest and thorniest questions relating to tribalism and xenophobia, hierarchy and competition, morality and free will, and war and peace. Wise, humane, often very funny, Behave is a towering achievement, powerfully humanizing, and downright heroic in its own right.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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  1. I have read a few books by Robert M. Sapolsky in the last few months. All were excellent.

    • Which ones would you recommend Kat?

      • I’d recommend these which are from the GREAT COURSES series, so they are shortish lectures that are geared for the layperson. I know the word “lecture” sounds dry and boring, but they are absolutely not. He is an excellent teacher. I listened to these in audio format (which may be the only format they have, actually).

        Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality

        Being Human: Life Lessons from the Frontiers of Science

  2. I definitely need to check this one out after such a positive recommendation! Thanks, Bill!

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