"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"--
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.*
An exhaustive study of human behavior by a polymathic neuroscientist who studies baboons and teaches at Stanford, this massive undertaking talks about everything from brain structure and hormones to culture and philosophy, and could easily have been broken up into two or three separate books. Sapolsky is a very good writer (I loved A Primate's Memoir) and is also obviously a good teacher (I recommend the YouTube videos of his class), plus he is anything but arrogant.
He is meticulous about reminding us when he reintroduces a topic he talked about earlier, as well as about foreshadowing that a particular topic is going to reappear. He obligingly attaches appendices that provide basic information about things such as neurology for those who might be tackling a book of this type without knowing much. Of course, that's essential, since this book could be the curriculum for a multi-year college curriculum.
I have a few criticisms of the book. It may seem handy to use acronyms for the various brain structures, and I get it, but it's easier for me to remember "anterior cingulate cortex" than "ACC." Not that I can remember what the anterior cingulate cortex does even after having read the whole thing. I have to look it up every time (It's involved in empathy, impulse control, emotion, and decision-making) (I do, however, remember the amygdala and the insular cortex functions, because damn).
Another criticism is that while I love footnotes ordinarily, he would have done well to resist the urge to include so many of them in this book. I enjoyed reading them, and couldn't keep from looking at them, but it made reading the book a little bewildering and incredibly slow from time to time. He really couldn't resist shoving all the cool facts in, and yeah, they're cool, but I borrowed this book on Kindle from the library and had to renew it twice.
I also wish he had resisted the urge to tackle the philosophical problem of whether or not free will exists, though I guess he had to because if you are examining all the ways in which behavior is determined from synapses to cultures, you have to accept that the idea of free will is implicated. But his "homunculus" discussion either needed to be dealt with in more detail (oh, golly, another hundred pages) or in less, because he was wading into waters that are not only deep but turbulent, and the resulting chapter seemed dismissive, as well as being less grounded in research than even the chapter on religion.
That said, the book is worth wading through. If you buy the physical book, I recommend cutting it into chunks so that you don't get a backache from carrying it around. If you find that heretical, buy two copies.
The first half of the book deals with one of the author’s own area of expertise, neurobiology, and how the interaction between the various parts of the brain influences behavior. It is a detailed and comprehensive review of how neurons work, the role of hormones and other chemicals, and genetic factors may influence behavior. He dispels some myths; testosterone doesn’t always equate with aggressive behavior; it just increases the intensity of any type of behavioral reaction. Increased dopamine doesn’t always produce more pleasure, etc. Throughout, he emphasizes “context” as the key factor which mitigates the influence of all these biological factors on behavior, and confounds the ability to make accurate predictions.
In dealing with moral cognition, and the differences between social/political conservatives and liberals, he quotes from the work of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt of NYU, who identifies five foundations of morality - care versus harm; fairness versus cheating; loyalty versus betrayal; authority versus subversion; sanctity versus degradation. Both experimental and real-world data show that liberals preferentially value two foundations, caring and fairness. In contrast, conservatives value all five more or less equally, with less emphasis on the first two. He then implies that Haidt is a closet conservative masquerading as a liberal, in order to support a conservative worldview that liberals are morally impoverished, with half their moral foundations atrophied. The thrust of Haidt's work is in fact quite the reverse; that, in order to reduce polarization, it is important to understand other people's moral priorities - not to condemn them for them. In contrast, Sapolsky supports a more partisan interpretation, espoused by Joshua Greene of Harvard, that liberals have more "refined" moral foundations, having jettisoned the "less important and more historically damaging" ones that conservatives value. In his book “Moral Tribes”, Joshua Greene does dispute Haidt’s view that all moral foundations are of equal value; he says that American social conservatives place special value only on their own “tribal” authorities, “tribal” loyalties, and their own religion; but he does not use the words “more refined” or “less important and historically damaging” about these moral foundations. Greene’s characterization of conservatives’ values is descriptive; Sapolsky’s misrepresentation of his argument characterizes them - by definition - as retrograde and inferior.
He uses a similar tactic in a chapter dealing with empathy and feeling others’ pain. Sapolsky says in a footnote that, considering whose pain you readily feel can be an “informative political litmus test.” His unsubtle example is a fetus versus a homeless person. This is followed with a quote from a book by political scientist Keith Wailoo “What it means to be liberal or conservative became ideologically solidified around the problem of pain.” In his book “Pain; A Political History”, Wailoo explains what he meant. “There was in fact such a thing as a liberal pain standard that had been developed within disability policy, in medicine and in science, and in government in the decades before Reagan became president, and there was, in his (Reagan’s) own time, a severe backlash aiming to impose a conservative standard of pain.” Wailoo was making essentially the same point as Haidt, that views about pain standards and moral stances both are products of specific socio-political and cultural values; while Sapolsky just wants to assert the superiority of the liberal versions.
Other parts of the chapter on empathy are very illuminating:
• That empathy can become an objective in its own right and essentially a road block to action. Too much empathy can impede doing what is necessary; which is why health care professionals are trained to keep empathy at bay.
• That highly charitable people tend to have been brought up by parents who were charitable and who emphasized charitable acts as a moral imperative (particularly in a religious context).i.e. being charitable is part of self-definition.
• That, across a worldwide range of religions, the more people see themselves as accountable to god, the more likely they are to behave “pro-socially” even when no one else is looking.
In his chapter on reforming the criminal justice system, in the light of modern understanding of neurobiological influences on behavior, he gets into the issue of free will. Most people believe in a “mitigated free will”; that is a free will that is subject to influence from biological factors, physical or mental impairment, childhood upbringing, economic circumstances, cultural background, etc. This belief requires an implicit acceptance of Cartesian duality, which the author parodies hilariously, by describing the “homunculus” sitting at a control panel in a concrete bunker somewhere in the brain, whose executive decisions about how to behave are sometimes disrupted or preempted by factors outside of its control. He acknowledges that belief in mitigated free will is bolstered by the fact that, at its current state, brain science is unable to make accurate (or any) predictions about how a given individual will behave; however, he is confident in the ability of science, at some point in the future, to be more reliably predictive of behavior than it currently is. This is the usual pretention of scientists that the “Mind of God” must inevitably yield its secrets to scientific advances. An unapologetic believer in biological determinism, he makes no attempt to grapple with “the hard problem” of consciousness; although – very honestly – he does admit at the end of the chapter that he “can’t really imagine how to live your life as if there is no free will.”
This is a very good read, very informative and LOL funny in parts. For this reason, it is a little bit insidious, because it is not impartial science. Read it, but read it with caution.