Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

Why do we do things we do?

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst is a book by American author Robert Maurice Sapolsky. It was first published in May, 2017. This is  one miracle of a book. I don’t know where to start…

“Someone does something lousy and selfish to you in a game, and the extent of insular and amygdaloid activation predicts how much outrage you feel and how much revenge you take.”
― Robert M. Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

Book focuses on Robert Sapolsky’s attempt to tackle seemingly impossible question. That is to look at our behavior from every possible angle: biological, psychological, physiological…and there are some historical and cultural angles thrown in to it too.  We start with neurobiological angle: what happens in our brains when some specific behavior occurs, what effect do our hormones have on us, what is our genetic makeup, how are we different or even not that different from rest of the animal kingdom… This is not enough. Sapolsky continues by how environment affects us and also focuses on age-old question:  are we formed more by nature or nurture? And indeed as mentioned, then  we continue with psychology, history, culture…

Behave is among the best nonfiction reads ever. It’s stunning, it’s big and it’s absolutely beautiful. I learned so much and it also changed the way I see some things.  Here are some of my picks throughout the chapters of the book:

Chapter 4: Hours to Days Before: How testosterone increases confidence and optimism and decreases fear and anxiety.  Chapter 5:  Days to Months Before: Enough time for Arab spring, for a discontented winter or for STDs to spread a lot during a summer of love…and also plenty of time for our brains to change…How there’s long-term LTP and LTD. And veryy long term LTP and LTD and how they work differently in different regions of our brains.

“Testosterone makes people cocky, egocentric, and narcissistic.”
― Robert M. Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

Chapter 15: Metaphors We Kill By: How Rwandan genocide came to be and how metaphors were used as a weapon.  Oh the power of metaphors. I have never before realized this. During Rwandan genocide, Tutsis were described as cockroaches. And those cockroaches would steal your husband. They became something that had to be exterminated, swept away from the country. Almost 1 million people dead within 100 days.

“Some translation is needed. The Rwandan genocide did not involve tanks, airplanes, dropping bombs or shelling at civilians. There were no concentration camps. No transport trains. No Zyklon-B. There was no bureaucratic banality of evil. There were hardly even many guns.”
― Robert M. Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

Chapters 6 & 16: Author explained PMS syndrome.  He also explained how PMS syndrome has been used as a criminal defense. And this is not the only sort of crazy sounding criminal defense in the book. There’s also a lot of talk about the development of the brain in earlier chapters and whether a person is or isn’t fully aware of his actions and consequences of those actions due to it… Adolescence. Or. Dude, where is my frontal cortex as the chapter is called.

What else… Sapolsky uses the analogy of a car with faulty brakes to describe antisocial human behaviour. How judges give less harsh sentences after they have had lunch! Yes you read that right, judges’ rulings’ are harsher when they are hungrier. And this also works with smells. If you’re in a place that smells bad, you more likely to judge a person or a thing in a negative manner, how there was a Christmas truce in 1914 and how in many wars since soldiers had to be threatened to go kill soldiers from the opposite side. And how opposite of love is not hate …it’s indifference. And to conclude. There is no such thing as free will.

I loved this book. As you can probably tell from my review, it’s packed with loads and loads of information in a very simplified, easily understood form. Moreover, there’s a sense of humor or sarcasm in the writing and that always gets one more star from me because it’s like authors are laughing at how idiotic some of the things we do are and I really appreciate that (…we do a lot of dumb shit). Maybe the only downside to the book as I was listening to audio version were all the: “footnotes” and “i see her see i see her see i see?”. They were a bit much in spoken. All in all, a fantastic piece of literature.

5/5 stars

How-To Read Behave

1.Please read it. If you read one nonfiction book a year, let this be it. And watch this awesome video too:
2. It’s not a easy book. Writing and thinking of Sapolsky is clear and easy to understand, however it’s still nearly 800 pages long…or 30 hours on Audible. But big is beautiful.
3. I think it was wonderful book to listen to. However, if you’re not used to audio books, don’t start with this one.
4. Chew on it.
5. Sapolsky has written a lot of books so check them out as well.

How does this sound?


Picture credits: Behavior CC BY-SA 3.0 Nick Youngson / Alpha Stock Images ,Christmas Truce image from Wikipedia and cover of the book used as featured image on this post.

5 thoughts on “Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

  1. Greg says:

    Wow the neurobiology aspect sounds fascinating. and I’ve always been interested in the nature vs nurture debate as well. Sounds like a lot of interesting stuff going on in this one! And the free will thing- yikes! We like to think we do, but I imagine it’s more complicated than that. Especially with all the different body chemistry and other factors that affect us.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anastasia says:

    This is so packed with knowledge that it’s unreal! :) It was fascinating point really, so much of what we do has something to do with chemical in our bodies so how much free will can there actually be :o (I probably could explain this better if I could write a comment of 50 pages haha)



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