• Jessica Stephenson

Nonfiction Book Club Learns what it Means to Behave (Biologically Speaking)


Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. By Robert M. Sapolsky. New York: Penguin Press. $35.00. x + 790 p.; ill.; index. ISBN: 9781594205071 (hc); 9780735222786 (eb). 2017.

Aristotle and the average toddler have something in common: neither is satisfied with the first answer to the question “why?” and seeks to delve deeper into the chain of causality. When a child asks why and an adult gives an explanation, the question is usually repeated ad nauseam. Likewise, Aristotle identified four levels of causation that are at work in any explanation of natural phenomena: material cause, formal cause, efficient cause, and final cause. Each fits into the next like so many Russian nesting dolls. Whether a founding father of classical philosophy or a naturally inquisitive child racing through the stages of cognitive development, curious minds seek ultimate causal principles at the bottom of all the layers of explanation.

With the publication of Behave, you can add Robert Sapolsky’s name to the list of those who are passionate and curious enough to probe the myriad layers of natural causes in search of ultimate explanation. In his epic tour of the biological basis for human behavior, Sapolsky uncovers cause upon more specific cause for the actions we take, from levels of intricate detail to big-picture perspectives. The time frame he covers ranges from the nearly instantaneous communication between signaling neurons to the deep time of evolutionary history.

At all of these levels, Sapolsky explains the biology that gives rise to human decision-making. Behave begins at the very most proximal cause for an action: chemical signaling among ions at the infinitesimally small level of synaptic action potentials. Indeed, Sapolsky is well prepared to trace the pathways of neural networks for the reader since that task is the basis for his professional work as a neurobiologist, a field he teaches at Stanford University, although at times he also refers to himself as a primatologist and ethologist.

The ethologist in Sapolsky is driven to ask why humans act the way we do. The answer, like the question, is both complicated and fascinating. To address this single question, he outfits the reader with generous supplies of nuance, precision, and a comfort level with complexity, as well as a grounding in many subfields of biology—plus insights from psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Not only do our genes and our environment drive our behavior, but so do the hormones of our endocrine system, the legacy of our fetal development, the pressures of natural selection that gave rise to our genome in the first place, and even the epigenetic factors that determine which genes are expressed in an individual and which are turned off. It takes an author as talented as Robert Sapolsky to bring all of these levels of complexity together in a way that seems integrated and not disjointed to the reader.

Granted, it takes a few more pages than the average popular science book, but finishing his almost-800 page opus is tantamount to digesting several college biology courses and the ideas of the most prominent thinkers in education, evolution, ethology, genetics, and anatomy, to name a few. Pore over Sapolsky’s tome and you’ll have covered “nearly every academic controversy related to human behavior,” according to Frans de Waal, writing for Science book reviews.

Although Behave is academic, it is far from dry. Sapolsky’s sense of humor comes through on every page, down to the anecdotes in the marginalia. His self-deprecating style and easy wit, sharpened by years at the front of a classroom, balance the rigor of the material. Often conversational, Sapolsky’s tone makes for an engaging experience for the reader. At the same time, he is ever faithful to the meticulousness of his field, never falling into the trap of giving an easy but inexact explanation. He is thorough and precise, but captivatingly human, telling the reader why the science matters every step of the way.


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