Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: Behave by Robert Sapolsky


Why do we do the things we do?

An important and truly outstanding book

Behave: The Biology of Humans At Our Best and Worst by Robert Sapolsky, explains — within the limits of current scientific knowledge — why we do the things we do, good and (especially) bad. It’s a long, thoughtful and fascinating journey that weaves together the latest thinking in neurobiology, endocrinology, genetics and epigenetics, culture, ecology and more.

The book, at 800 pages, is far too immense to encapsulate in a review, but suffice it to say, we humans are far more complex and far less in control of our own actions and behaviors than we care to admit. And our biology — with all its messy shortcomings and quirks — is perfectly reflected in (and a driving force behind) our personal ideologies and idiosyncrasies, as well as our culture. And that is both alarming (because of how it allows us to treat others) and comforting (because it is ultimately understandable and able to be changed).

Sapolsky has a rare combination of deep knowledge and a conversational, at times humorous, writing style that brings the topic to life in a truly memorable way.

A few nuggets that resonated for me in this this impressive goldmine:

  • “…genes aren’t about inevitability. Instead, they are about context-dependent tendencies, propensities, potentials, and vulnerabilities.”

  • “…the most interesting part of the brain evolved to be shaped minimally by genes and maximally by experience; that’s how we learn—context, context, context.”

  • “Trust requires reciprocity, and reciprocity requires equality, whereas hierarchy is about domination and asymmetry.”

  • “Poverty is not a predictor of crime as much as poverty amid plenty is.”

  • “In terms of caustic, scarring impact on minds and bodies, nothing in the history of animals being crappy to one another about status differences comes within light-years of our invention of poverty.”

  • “…we judge ourselves by our internal motives and everyone else by their external actions.”

Sapolsky’s insights into culture, racism, xenophobia and our legal system based on the science of behavior are especially timely and relevant, ending the book on a somewhat optimistic note that we can, should and MUST look beyond the limits of our biology to create a culture that functions for the good of all.

His closing thoughts: 

“Eventually it can seem hopeless that you can actually fix something, can make things better. But we have no choice but to try. And if you are reading this, you are probably ideally suited to do so. You’ve amply proven you have intellectual tenacity. You probably also have running water, a home, adequate calories, and low odds of festering with a bad parasitic disease. You probably don’t have to worry about Ebola virus, warlords, or being invisible in your world. And you’ve been educated. In other words, you’re one of the lucky humans. So try.”