Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

by Robert M. Sapolsky

Paperback, 2018


Checked out
Due May 13, 2019



Penguin Books (2018), Edition: Reprint, 800 pages


"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 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"--… (more)

Media reviews

What happens in brains and bodies at the moment humans engage in violence with other humans? That is the subject of Stanford University neurobiologist and primatologist Robert M. Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. The book is Sapolsky’s magnum opus, not just in length, scope (nearly every aspect of the human condition is considered), and depth (thousands of references document decades of research by Sapolsky and many others) but also in importance as the acclaimed scientist integrates numerous disciplines to explain both our inner demons and our better angels.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Darcia
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.

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.

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.*
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LibraryThing member jen.e.moore
This book is long, hard going, but it's well worth it - it's one of the only books on neuroscience I've ever read where the author doesn't treat the discovery of which gene secretes which neurochemical to create which response as though that's a meaningful answer to any question. Rather, Sapolsky goes into detail about the interaction between genes, hormones, biochemistry, environment, and long-lasting biological change, making it clear that while there's a biological explanation for everything, there are so many variables involved that saying we can identify a single source of any given human behavior is...laughable at best. The book really gets good in the second half, when he starts to apply all this to the things we're really concerned about - compassion and generosity, violence and aggression. Sapolsky is optimistic overall, but he makes it clear that improving society is going to mean fighting our biology in some ways (or, more effectively, learning how to trick it).… (more)


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