Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

by Robert M. Sapolsky

Hardcover, 2017


Penguin Press (2017), 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
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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.
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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
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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 maimonedes
I got through about two thirds of this book, avidly lapping up both the author's wisdom and humor - until I got into chapter dealing with a topic that I knew something about, where I began to feel that the author’s – openly declared – liberal views made him less than impartial on a number of
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issues. I still thoroughly enjoyed reading the book, but it made me aware of a certain selectivity in the author’s use of sources – both the facts he quotes and their interpretation.

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.
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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
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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).
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LibraryThing member rivkat
The conceit of the book is to look at the biological influences on behavior from distant (evolutionary, parental environment, prenatal environment, etc.) to microscopically close (how do neurons fire). It’s really too big to be grasped in one book, but I liked Sapolsky’s meticulous recounting
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of the evidence that even when genes strongly influence a behavior, they only do so in a particular environment; change the environment, and the same genes may strongly predict a completely different and even opposite set of behaviors (e.g., aggressiveness in mice). He also discusses the relationship between free will and biological explanations of behavior in a clear and useful, if potentially quite disturbing, way.
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LibraryThing member larryerick
"Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker." Okay, Nietzsche may not have had my reading this book in mind when he said that, but, true, this was a bit of a struggle for me to read, and I feel stronger for having done so, in the end. From facts offered by the author that I may never fully grasp,
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to facts abundantly clear to me even before reading this book, but now confirmed by one really sharp guy, and everything in between, this was quite a roller coaster ride for me. Folks, this is the full meal deal on behavior. From brain cells to prison cells, how and why we do what we do is in here. In my view, a reader simply has to read it to find out fully what I mean. I will add just this: I hoped I would find some insight into how very differently large segments of the American public is behaving, of late. I had my suspicions and my beliefs about that going into this book, and I was not disappointed. Much of what I already thought might be the case, has been confirmed or clarified, but, most importantly, I now am much better equipped to absorb and respond in meaningful, precise way to what I am apparently destined to confront for the next several years at least. I admit, one shouldn't have to read this book before confronting your errant relatives at Thanksgiving dinner, but -- trust me -- it would actually help.
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LibraryThing member dmturner
"If you had to boil this book down to a single phrase, it would be “It’s complicated.” Nothing seems to cause anything; instead everything just modulates something else." (674)

An exhaustive study of human behavior by a polymathic neuroscientist who studies baboons and teaches at Stanford,
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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.
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LibraryThing member PattyLee
Whew. I’ve always liked science and read lots of science oriented books, up there were a few times when I was crossing my eyes. Not for the faint hearted, this exploration into genetics and environment is most interesting in the light of our current US society where news is controlled by business
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people, where social media holds sway over everything but the truth, and where people don’t care about facts or truth or anything that is “other.” This book is fascinating and I loved the author. He’s got a real “voice” and is witty, with the knack of making his ideas come alive.
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LibraryThing member tuusannuuska
This book truly deserves the high rating it has.

It's extensive yet approachable, very well written and even moving at points, while still very much staying on topic. For the first time in a while, a nonfiction book where the author inserted some personal anecdotes that didn't subtract from the
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enjoyment of the book and actually brought more to the table (as opposed to being thinly veiled attempts to boost the ego of the man behind the words.)

As someone who's knowledge on neurology is based on high school biology, I also greatly appreciated the appendices. This is definitely a book I'll re-read at some point.
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LibraryThing member steve02476
Truly a fine book! So much to learn here about behavior, specifics and generalities, and most importantly, how they fit together. A lot of humor (not all of it sophisticated) and storytelling. This is a long book, and I spent a really long time reading it. Well worth taking it in by small chunks.
LibraryThing member BookListener
I got lost in the neuroscience but understand the genes versus the environment debate and am all the more puzzled about free will.


LA Times Book Prize (Finalist — Science & Technology — 2017)
Wellcome Trust Book Prize (Longlist — 2018)

Original publication date





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