The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

Book - 2017
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The New York Times bestseller

"It's no exaggeration to say that Behave is one of the best nonfiction books I've ever read." --David P. Barash, The Wall Street Journal

"It has my vote for science book of the year." --Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

"Hands-down one of the best books I've read in years. I loved it." --Dina Temple-Raston, The Washington Post

Named a Best Book of the Year by The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal

From the celebrated neurobiologist and primatologist, a landmark, genre-defining examination of human behavior, both good and bad, and an answer to the question: Why do we do the things we do?

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.
Publisher: New York, New York : Penguin Press, 2017.
ISBN: 9781594205071
Branch Call Number: 612.8 SAP
Characteristics: 790 pages : illustrations


From the critics

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Apr 07, 2020

This book is fairly accessible though it can get a bit deep at times. The humor and side information was really good at keeping me engaged and encouraged me to persevere through some of the heavy parts of the book. I think the most valuable thing I extracted was a sense of understanding of the mechanisms behind the curtain. He covers everything from the smallest mechanism at play to the larger picture. This is one of those books that really makes you look at the world from another perspective.

Nov 13, 2019

from a hacker news discussion of why men love war?

Jun 25, 2019

Well researched and well written. I found this book a bit of a slog through science, especially in the first chapter, but after that it was much easier and, to a non-science major like me, much more enjoyable to read. And, at moments, I even laughed aloud at the author's humour. All in all, it was sitting down over dessert and wine and discussing some really interesting topics with a fascinating guest.

Mar 06, 2019

Fascinating stuff but very dense. A ton of information in this book and even the author's humor couldn't make it easier to digest. But still, excellent read. We have learned so much about ourselves but we are still so ignorant about the basics of our mind.

Apr 25, 2018

The revelations about human behaviour in this book are nothing short of astonishing. And while the book is long and not an easy read, the author (an insightful neuroendocrinologist with wide ranging interests) has a gift for making the information easy to understand and an enjoyable reading experience. Genes are important, but how they are expressed is strongly shaped by the environment. The brain is plastic. Brains and cultures influence each other. The adolescent brain is not fully formed and has evolved to be maximally shaped by experience. We are wired to identify Us vs. Them. And so much more. Everything is backed up with scientific studies and data, and where something is inconclusive the author says so. The Washington Post rated this as one of its top 10 books of 2017.

Feb 02, 2018

Reads like a novel . Lot of information , more detailed than Sapiens but nonetheless wonderful classifications and astute observations

Nov 07, 2017

This may not be for the average reader. Very, very detailed, specialized information.

Sep 15, 2017

I read a lot of science books. This is the best science book I've read in years!

Jul 13, 2017

An eye-opener on how complex we are. It was interesting to see all the research that has been done to help understand our species. Although this is a very complex subject, I appreciated how the author would work in a little humor along the way. Not light reading, but very rewarding.

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