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Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst
     

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

by Robert M. Sapolsky
 

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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

Overview

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 genetic inheritance.

And so the first category of explanation is the neurobiological one. What goes on in a person's brain a second before the behavior happens? Then he pulls out to a slightly larger field of vision, a little earlier in time: What sight, sound, or smell triggers the nervous system to produce that behavior? And then, what hormones act hours to days earlier to change how responsive that individual is to the stimuli which trigger 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--next to what features of the environment affected that person's brain, and then back to the childhood of the individual, and then to their genetic makeup. Finally, he expands the view to encompass factors larger than that one individual. How culture has shaped that individual's group, what ecological factors helped shape that culture, and on and on, back to evolutionary factors thousands and even millions of years old.

The result is one of the most dazzling tours de 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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“[Sapolsky] does an excellent job of bringing together the expansive literature of thousands of fascinating studies with clarity and humor….A tour-de-force.”Library Journal (starred review) 

“Sapolsky finds not the high moral drama of the soul choosing good or evil but rather down-to-earth biology….a remarkably encyclopedic survey of the sciences illuminating human conduct.”
— Booklist(starred review)

Behave is like a great historical novel, with excellent prose and encyclopedic detail. It traces the most important story that can ever be told.”
—Edward O. Wilson

“This is a miraculous book, by far the best treatment of violence, aggression, and competition ever.  It ranges from how neurons and hormones interact, how emotions are an essential part of decision making, why adolescents are more likely to be violent than adults, why genes influence cultures and vice-versa, and the ins and outs of “we versus them,” all the way to “live and let live” truces in World War I and the My Lai massacre.  Its depth and breadth of scholarship are amazing, building on Sapolsky’s own research and his vast knowledge of the neurobiology, genetic, and behavioral literature.  For instance, Behave includes fair evaluations of complex debates (like over sociobiology) that I was involved in, and tackles controversial questions such as whether our hunter-gatherer ancestors warred on each other.  He even takes on “free will” with a clarity usually absent from the writings of philosophers on the subject.   All this is done brilliantly with a light and funny touch that shows why Sapolsky is recognized as one of the greatest teachers in science today.”
—Paul R. Ehrlich

“Read Robert Sapolsky’s marvelous book Behave and you’ll never again be surprised by the range and depth of our own bad behavior. We all carry the potential for unconscious biases, to be damaged by our childhoods and map that damage onto our own loved ones, and to form the tribal ‘Us’ groups that treat outsiders as lesser ‘Thems.’ But to read this book is also, marvelously, to be given the hope that we have much more control of those behaviors than we think. And Behave gives us more than hope—it gives us the knowledge of how to act on that aspiration, to manifest more of our best selves and less of our worst, individually and as a society. That’s very good news indeed.”  
—Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better

Library Journal
★ 03/01/2017
Sapolsky (biology, neurology & neurological sciences, & neurosurgery, Stanford Univ.; A Primate's Memoir) takes a far-reaching look at the biological underpinnings of violence and related human behaviors and their antitheses such as altruism and compassion. Sapolsky examines individual acts of harm or help, starting on the level of neurobiology the moment the event occurs. He then takes a step back, focusing on the preceding minutes, days, and lifetime to explore the role of hormones, genes, memories, upbringing, environment, genes, culture, and evolution. When sociobiology and psychology are so intertwined and multifactorial, the effects are nuanced and context dependent. Each piece presents a partial explanation, with no bit of biology offering complete causality. The latter chapters then consider practical implications as applied in the realms of morality, criminal justice, politics, and war and peace. The author does an excellent job of bringing together the expansive literature of thousands of fascinating studies with clarity and humor, though some readers may choose to skim the extensive discussions of brain regions. Appendixes give primers on neuroscience, endocrinology, and proteins that provide background for some of the early chapters. VERDICT A tour-de-force survey of what is known about why we behave the way we do, for students of human interaction in any discipline. [Prepub Alert, 11/21/16.]--Wade M. Lee, Univ. of Toledo Lib.
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2017-03-07
A wide-ranging, learned survey of all the making-us-tick things that, for better or worse, define us as human.Do bacteria have moral understanding? Do fleas have emotions? Such questions are meaningful, especially when, as MacArthur Fellow Sapolsky (Biology and Neurology/Stanford Univ.; Monkeyluv: and Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals, 2005, etc.) writes, it is possible to describe some of the actions of E. coli as altruistic. A distinguished primatologist, the author works broadly in the life and social sciences to examine human behavior, manifestations of which, he writes, belong to the nervous system and to sensory stimuli—and all of which make for a "big sprawling mess of a subject." Thus, this fittingly long book, which opens with the problem of defining terms—aggression, sympathy, even love—and proceeds by exploring every nook and cranny. Some of our behavior is purely mechanical, with payoffs in dopamine, that "invidious, rapidly habituating reward." Other aspects are located at the intersection of nature and nurture, as with the plummeting U.S. crime rate in the 1990s, attributable in part to accessible abortion—for, as Sapolsky notes, nothing is quite so sure to lead to a life of crime as "being born to a mother who, if she could, would have chosen that you not be." As the narrative progresses, it ascends into headier realms, examining problems both biologically and philosophically. Can there be a science of morality? If so, how is it best addressed? The answers are as thorny as the questions: "If harm to the person who is the means is unintentional or if the intentionality is really convoluted and indirect, I'm a utilitarian consequentialist, and if the intentionality is right in front of my nose, I'm a deontologist." Those answers may not satisfy strict sociobiologists on one hand or Heideggerians on the other, but they're unfailingly provocative, as is Sapolsky's closing observation that whenever we talk of human nature or natures, we're talking about averages in a world of endless variation. An exemplary work of popular science, challenging but accessible.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780735222786
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
05/02/2017
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
800
Sales rank:
784,096

Meet the Author

Robert M. Sapolsky is the author of several works of nonfiction, including A Primate's Memoir, The Trouble with Testosterone, and Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. He is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. He lives in San Francisco.