#BookReview – BEHAVE: The Biology of Humans At Our Best and Worst by Robert Sapolsky

From the celebrated neurobiologist and primatologist, a landmark, genre-defining examination of human behavior, both good and bad, and an answer to the question: Why do we do the things we do?

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 evolutionary legacy.

And so the first category of explanation is the neurobiological one. A behavior occurs–whether an example of humans at our best, worst, or somewhere in between. What went on in a person’s brain a second before the behavior happened? Then Sapolsky pulls out to a slightly larger field of vision, a little earlier in time: What sight, sound, or smell caused the nervous system to produce that behavior? And then, what hormones acted hours to days earlier to change how responsive that individual is to the stimuli that triggered 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: How was that behavior influenced by structural changes in the nervous system over the preceding months, by that person’s adolescence, childhood, fetal life, and then back to his or her genetic makeup? Finally, he expands the view to encompass factors larger than one individual. How did culture shape that individual’s group, what ecological factors millennia old formed that culture? And on and on, back to evolutionary factors millions of years old.

The result is one of the most dazzling tours d’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.

Date Published: May 2, 2017

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My Review

So… wow. Where to begin? I was fascinated from beginning to end. Behave is one of the few books I’ll probably read over at least once. Maybe twice.

This book is absolutely not pop-science. It’s not a book you’ll breeze through, which is probably evident by the page count. This is an in-depth exploration of neurobiology, our brains, how we think, why we behave the way we do, and what makes us who we are. It’s a massive undertaking, yet somehow Robert Sapolsky managed to wrap it up nice and neat in a complex but fully comprehensible book.

We’re more likely to vote for attractive people or hire them, less likely to convict them of crimes, and, if they are convicted, more likely to dole out shorter sentences. Remarkably, the medial orbitofrontal cortex assesses both beauty of the face and the goodness of behavior, and its level of activity during one of those tasks predicts the level during the other.

Sapolsky’s writing style is what makes this book work for nonacademic readers. In someone else’s hands, the content could easily be a complicated tangle of dull, scientific jargon. But Sapolsky lays it out all for us in a manner that is both interesting and easy to understand. His personality shines through with dashes of humor and insight.

Testosterone boosts impulsivity and risk taking, making people do the easier thing when it’s the dumb-ass thing to do.

I read a lot of nonfiction on similar topics pertaining to the science and psychology of behavior, and this is, without question, one of the best I’ve ever come across.

I want to mention one issue I had with the ebook format. This book contains a whole lot of footnotes. Because of the structure of ebooks, with pages expanding depending on your font size choice, footnotes don’t sit at the bottom of a specified page the way they do in print. Instead they float further along, sometimes several pages beyond the point with the marked content. This can cause a bit of confusion, as you’ve already moved past the issue referenced. My copy is a Kindle ARC, though I’m not sure the final proof will be any different as footnotes can be problematic in ebook format. Because of that, I’d recommend the print version over the ebook.

*I received an advance ebook copy from the publisher, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.*


Thanks for reading. 🙂