I recently finished Behave: The biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert Sapolsky, and there were so many things I learned from this book. It is one of the finest, most well researched, and a very dense book. I decided to write this article to let the future Behave book readers know if they should go for it or not. And what should they expect from it?
Choosing any book is a difficult task. You don’t wanna buy a book that might bore you. And I know how so many readers (including me) hate to leave a book in the middle. It feels like an unhealed wound. I would not call this article a book review of Behave, but more like an insight into what the book holds.
Who is this book for?
If you are a newbie in reading, this is not the book for you. The same goes for people who are venturing into the world of non-fiction for the first time. This is not because the language is tough or the style is difficult to understand. Sapolsky has effortlessly elucidated complex ideas by using simple explanations. The problem is the density of this book.
The book I got (and is the most common one) is Penguin’s Vintage edition. The length of the book is about 700 pages (including the introduction). That in itself makes it a big book. But this book is filled with information. The amount of information per page in this book is staggering. This is why I call it a dense book. It took me about an hour to complete 25-pages on average. And I am not a slow reader.
The reason it takes so long to finish the chapters is that you need to process all the information that is presented in the form of studies, their results, Sapolsky’s interpretations, and a little bit of neurology and neuroanatomy. It will take you a good 15-20 days of reading to complete this beast. And to summarize this section by using metaphors, I would not call it eating a dinosaur. An elephant perhaps.
Behave book content
The book can be divided into two parts; Back in time and the world around. What I mean by these two is how Sapolsky explains how and why humans behave in different ways in different situations. Let’s start with “back in time,” which was a brilliant way of explaining the convoluted world of neurobiology. This section of the book is concerned with the individual’s neurobiology and the root causes of our behavior.
There are 9 chapters in this section which starts with taking an arbitrary action and then trying to find the root cause of that behavior. The chapters are termed aptly; One second before, seconds to minutes before, hours to days before, days to months…adolescence, prenatal development and the genetic influence occurring way back till the evolution of behavior. So what do you get from these chapters?
A lot. The first chapters are more focused on the biology of the human brain, the role of different regions of the brain, how neurotransmitters, hormones, etc affect our behavior. The best thing about this book was how much of the stuff I found surprising. My intellectual interests have always inclined towards biology and I am an avid reader of anything related to the human body. But there were so many things I learned from it. Things I had no idea about, misconceptions shattered.
Did you know that there is an increased rate of crime in areas with poor sanitation? This occurs because people tend to think that the residents of a “dirty” locality don’t really care about anything, so they are a better target for robbery (less concerned about their house’s safety). This is one of many interesting revelations that was in the book.
Another major surprise for me was what we knew about the hormone testosterone. Most people associate testosterone with aggression. And in a way it is true. But what this book (Sapolsky) shows is testosterone just enhances whatever behavior is favorable to be successful in the given situation. In fact, context is one of the major keywords in this book, showing how context changes the meaning and pattern of behavior.
So in most of the animals, if testosterone boosts aggression, animals are much likely to beat the competition and get a chance to mate and pass their genes. But a bull never gets in courtship when the female prefers rom-com movies. Humans do. So with context, testosterone’s effect changes.
Sapolsky then dissects all the misconceptions about other “wonder” hormones like oxytocin, vasopressin, etc and shows the root cause of the misconception about them. Then, by citing so many studies (more to come on this), he shows what they actually do.
Despite being biology-centric chapters, I think people from different fields of interest can enjoy this book. There are some chapters (only two) where I felt there was too much jargon and detailed information and I struggled to complete them. Even Sapolsky acknowledged that in the conclusion that the chapter is tediously long, but that was necessary.
The chapter about adolescence was brilliant, revealing the biological reasons why teenagers are so impulsive. There are sections about empathy, sympathy, morality, Theory of Mind, behavior (duh), the role of parenting, etc in the first part of the book.
The second part: Society
With the start of chapter 10, The evolution of behavior, the content shifts from being individual, biology focused to being culture, sociology focused. And the book still maintains its pace, the density of information and so much more about sociology, religion, kin selection, decision making, racial discrimination, how we view people of other races/countries/religions.
The chapters in this part are termed ideally; Us versus them, Hierarchy, obedience, morality, empathy, essays on the justice system, war and peace, etc. The second part of the book is about why we behave in a particular context, how societies shape behavior, and how it changes depending on the person we are interacting with.
As mentioned earlier, the biological aspect in this part is reduced by a lot and Sapolsky explains behavior using tools of sociology. After all, we live in a society and it shapes and affects our behavior. So what do you get from this part of the book? A lot about society, history, war, economics, dictatorship, and the behavior that affects all these.
So to give you the gist of it, we get to know a lot about ingroup and outgroup phenomenon, how and why we create these groups, and how our decision changes contextually with people of ingroup and outgroups. How dictators and leaders have used this inherent, biological divide between people (which isn’t evil per se but can be turned malign easily as explained in the book). How propagandists use malign ways of turning people against each other, etc.
Another interesting part of this section was how too much empathy can result in the inability to help someone you are feeling the very empathy for. All the claims that Sapolsky makes throughout the book is backed by studies. A great thing about this book was how Sapolsky translates these studies and their findings in simple, easy to understand ways.
How long is the book?
There is a lot in the book to take in. Even if you are a fast reader, this book will take some time to finish and it should. There is so much crucial information packed in single paragraphs, it would be a waste of your time to just skim through it. Take your time, give this book at least three weeks.
It took me almost 5 weeks to complete the book, but that was because I got into some other work and did not read it for almost a week. The time for you to complete this book is contextual and since we all have slightly different behavior, you might take a bit longer to finish it. Don’t try to speedrun this book is all I am saying.
The highlights of Behave book
There were a lot of things I liked about this book. First is Sapolsky’s way of communicating. Since he is a professor, he knows how to connect with people and get his message across. There are bits of humor in the books which lands and gives you occasional smiles. Sapolsky’s ways of translating complex experiments in simple, day-to-day lingo enhance the appeal of the book to the common readers (who are not well versed with the As and Bs of biology).
Another great thing about this book was it was not limited to human behavior and the cause for it, but also about many rodents and primate behavior. I was always fascinated by chimps and bonobos and baboons but did not know how much they resembled humans in terms of behavior.
How baboon mothers stop their unknowing children from playing with the children of high-ranking females, how primates have a taste for “gossip”, how their social structure affects their behavior. Not just primates but even rodents can feel the pain of someone else just by watching, the presence of cooperation in them, etc.
Another interesting piece of research was how humans (and animals) have a taste for anticipation. The reward gives us pleasure, but after some time, it loses its shine and decreases the spike of the hormone dopamine (pleasure). However, if events lead to an uncertainty of either receiving or not receiving the reward, the dopamine levels shoot sky high. But only when the uncertainty is 50%. So the journey is really better than the destination.
I can keep going on and on about the information this book offers. There is a reason I call it a dense book. What I just mentioned is about 2% of all the information in the book. So anyone who is interested in learning about human behavior, the biology of it, the genetics (briefly) of it, and the sociology that makes and frames human behavior, this book is a goldmine.
In conclusion, this is a brilliant book that explains a very complex subject with enough detail that does justice to the subject. It is one of the best books written on human behavior (perhaps the best) and one of the most well-written non-fiction books. For the readers, it will make you look at human behavior with a different set of metaphorical eyes and for writers, you’ll be inspired to add some elements of Sapolsky’s style of writing into your own.
You start this book by learning about why we behave emotionally and logically and the regions of brains controlling the strings of those particular behaviors. You end this book with the knowledge of how society also has strings controlling your actions, without your knowledge.
This is a book that should be in your bookshelf and the content of the book should be in your brain. There are some philosophical effects of the book on me but since it is very subjective, I’ll let you be the judge of that once you read the book. It is a great book, densely packed with information about the behavior of humans (and animals). At some points, it might feel a little bit difficult to finish, but it is worth it.
About the author, Robert Sapolsky
Behavior is written by Robert Morris Sapolsky who teaches neurobiology at Stanford University. With a beard that seems to be approaching Darwin’s, Sapolsky is a true teacher of human biology, and reading his work gave me nothing but pleasure and knowledge. Some of the other books he has written include; Why Zebras Don’t get Ulcer, A Primate’s Memoir, The Trouble with Testosterone, etc.
While his books are great, you can access his lectures online on YouTube that he gives at Stanford University. So go ahead and get the book and venture into this unknown world of human behavior. Learn about human behavior and why you do things the way you do. Reading this book was like looking at a mirror, a very detailed mirror that showed more than my reflections; an introspection.
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