Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst
Good thing you have all summer to get through this 800-page doorstop, said Glenn Altschuler in Psychology Today. Robert Sapolsky’s Behave isn’t just a fine book; it “should be required reading for anyone— and everyone—interested in why human beings believe what they believe and do what they do.” Sapolsky, a Stanford neuroscientist and MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, draws insights from hundreds of empirical studies as he addresses the most fundamental questions of human behavior: Are we inherently good or bad? Does free will exist? How capable are we of turning over a new leaf? The bold answers he offers are often leavened with humor, as when he claims that humanity’s invention of agriculture was a mistake on par with New Coke. Such quips don’t detract from the book’s serious aims, though. They simply make the reading “as enjoyable as it is instructive.” Sapolsky decided to explain human behavior from the inside out, and he “succeeds magnificently,” said David Barash in The Wall Street Journal. He starts in his wheelhouse—the physical, neural underpinnings of a given behavior—then widens the perspective to consider the effects of hormones, development, environment, and even evolution. He explains how the brain can rewire itself, showing how that’s cool when it heightens the hearing of a blind person but not so great when it enlarges the amygdala of a trauma victim until strong emotions reduce the capacity for rational thinking. Clearly, not every behavior is programmed in at birth. Sapolsky argues that running toward danger, for example, is a socially conditioned response, developed to increase the chances of group survival. And though all bad behavior has biological underpinnings, he rejects the idea that genes and hormones alone can explain people’s misdeeds.
But he does come very close to denying the existence of free will, said Anne Harrington in Nature. To him, people who commit crimes are acting on impulses rooted so strongly in biology and experience that they can’t be said to have chosen to do wrong. Oddly, though, Sapolsky can’t bring himself to say that acts of generosity are also predetermined, and even argues that behavioral scientists, as their understanding improves, will be able to teach us how to nurture more Nelson Mandelas and Martin Luther King Jrs.—people who transcend the wiring of the brain, as well as personal circumstances, to do good. That prospect sounds unlikely. In the end, though, “it’s impossible not to deeply admire a project bold enough to ask an entire field to work to create a more just and peaceful world.”