BOOK REVIEW: Behave by Robert Sapolsky

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and WorstBehave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book examines the role of biology in the best and worst of human behaviors – as well as presenting factors that compete with or complement biological explanations, as the author finds relevant. Sapolsky is neuroscientist (specifically, a neuroendocrinologist) with a unique perspective as his research cuts across species – involving not only human beings but also baboons. Sapolsky investigates why humans fight, cooperate, rape and forgive by comparing and contrasting human behavior with what is seen in the animal kingdom.

The first thing a potential reader must realize is that Sapolsky dives into the weeds more so than most scientists writing for a popular audience. This will be a plus if one’s grasp of science (biology, in particular) is strong. However, if the reader hasn’t read anything on biology since high school or freshman year of college, one is likely to find the names and descriptions of hormones and neurochemicals, brain sectors, and protein processes a bit daunting. The book has three appendices that offer primers on neuroscience, endocrinology, and proteins, respectively, to get readers up to speed on the basic science. Furthermore, Sapolsky is quick to point out what can be skipped by readers who don’t want so much detail. I don’t want to give the impression the book is boring. Sapolsky uses humor and story to good effect. It’s just that he gets into Latin names and physiological minutiae at a level that most of his counterparts don’t, and that some readers will find challenging.

While not formally divided so, the seventeen chapters of the book can readily be split in two parts. The first ten chapters discuss the types of behavior that Sapolsky is taking on, and then work back from what happens immediately before a behavior (i.e. one second before) through neuronal, hormonal, and other proximal causes to the far distant causes rooted in human evolution. The first half of these chapters take one to a point in the individual’s life at most months out from the behavior under consideration. Chapters six through eight go back to the individual’s youth, exploring the role of adolescence, infancy, and fetal development. Chapters nine and ten peer back before the birth of the individual to those who contributed indirectly to the individual’s vice or virtue, including the role of the broad run of human evolution. It should be pointed out that this first part is where the aforementioned technical depth is mostly observed.

The second part of the book changes the approach by taking a more topical approach. Said topics include: us/them discrimination, hierarchy (and the acceptance / rejection thereof), morality, empathy, metaphors and symbols that become integral to good and bad behavior, the biology of free will (or the lack thereof,) and consideration of the question of whether humanity is getting more peaceful (as Steven Pinker argues in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” [which is arguably one of the main competitors to Sapolsky’s book, though the focus is a little different.]) This second part gets much more into the social science perspective, and isn’t as scientifically dense as the first portion of the book.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the good, the bad, and the ugly of human behavior. With the exception of getting a little technical in spots, it’s quite readable and interestingly organized and presented. As one can’t help get into political and cultural norms in a book on human behavior, Sapolsky betrays his personal biases here and there, but is quick to admit when there is evidence against them (or no evidence at all, either way.) I felt he maintained a reasonable scientific objectiveness, but others may feel differently.

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