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Behave

The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst
Written by: Robert M. Sapolsky
Narrated by: Michael Goldstrom
Length: 26 hrs and 27 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (76 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Why do we do the things we do?

More than a decade in the making, this game-changing book is Robert Sapolsky's genre-shattering attempt to answer that question as fully as perhaps only he could, looking at it from every angle. 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.

©2017 Robert M. Sapolsky (P)2017 Penguin Audio

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Best Science Book I have ever read

This was fantastic in all ways... interesting, well organized, well read and performed, challenging, informative, etc

I have nothing but good things to say about this amazing body of knowledge

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Overall Excellent, But Maybe Overly Broad in Scope

Overall, this is an excellent book that suffers a bit from over-breadth. It essentially describes how humans make decisions, from a few seconds to a few minutes to a few millennial before that decision is made. It starts with an in-depth look at what's going on in a brain, pulls the camera out to look at hormones, then to genetics, and then all the way out to evolution and society.

It's fascinating, but the breadth means there's not as much time for depth. For example, the book lightly touches on human morality and its evolutionary roots. Other books have devoted their entire content to that topic (see for example the excellent The Moral Animal). I can't really knock the book too much for this - that's just going to be a given with a book that has such a broad scope.

However, the very broad scope of the book also gives the author too much leeway in what he can discuss. At times the book feels like a grab bag of the author's various interests, sometimes only tenuously connected to the main topic (e.g., a section on the non-existence of free will and the criminal justice system). These are topics that would be interesting books on their own, but here they seem like a bit of a diversion from the main course of the narrative.

The only other issue is that this doesn't always work well as an audio book. The first few chapters in particular are a bit of a slog, with the author dropping frequent abbreviations for brain regions and neurochemicals. In a paper book, it would be easy enough to pop back to see what an abbreviation stands for, but in audio it's basically impossible (particularly when driving). Similarly, there are a few chapters that direct readers to appendixes (also annoying to navigate to), or that involve long lists of examples. Some audiobook specific editing would have been nice to tidy these things up.

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Modern, Cited, Enthralling.

Behave is a 𝙛𝙪𝙣𝙙𝙖𝙢𝙚𝙣𝙩𝙖𝙡 read for anyone who wants to develop an ability to understand critical issues without their ego getting in the way. Profound insights backed by countless studies are brought to life by Sapolsky's charming humor, Behave ticks every box to create a non-ficiton vital for humanity's evolution.

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Thought provoking and challenging

It required careful listening, but well worth the effort. I really appreciated how it didn’t skimp on details and yet was still accessible to a layperson.

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  • Doug Hay
  • 2017-07-27

Insightful

I'm a salesman with no medical training. Not going to lie, getting through the first 1/3 of this book was TOUGH with me listening at about 20% my normal speed! BUT, the payoff was worth this investment with this being one of the most important books I've read. Surprisingly it will not help me so much in sales as its helping me understand myself, how to relate better to other people, and how to boost my compassion -- especially to those with chronic stress. Well worth the read for anyone wishing to be a better human being.

102 of 102 people found this review helpful

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  • Philomath
  • 2017-05-17

The most comprehensive scientific look at behaviour

Robert Sapolsky does not disappoint. This book is as detailed and scientific as any I've read on behaviour. The author delves in technical detail on all aspects of human behaviour, starting with the brain, the animal, the genes, society, environment, and as many factors as one can think of that can fit in a book this size.

This is not for the lame reader. It is meant for someone who has established basic knowledge on behaviour and wants to expand it.

We think we know a lot, but Sapolsky humbles us by explaining the complexity of the subject.

Highly recommended to anyone who wants to know the relatively knew science of behaviour from a truly scientific perspective.

84 of 86 people found this review helpful

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  • Andrew C
  • Canada
  • 2017-07-09

Changes the way you look at life

What did you like best about this story?

After reading this book, my main conclusion is that there is a high probability that Sapolsky has the warrior gene. This book is without a doubt the most comprehensive analysis of behavior out there as of now. It summarizes and compiles other important books, impressively raising key issues, and taking the next step to correct their theses. Don't waste your time reading books that focus on a tiny part of the picture, this categorization is dangerous as Sapolsky notes and can get you thinking in a constrained worldview, similar to how Jeff Skilling of Enron's favorite book was The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. Instead, read this book first with an open mind, which will give you the foundation you need to then critique reads by other authors. Sapolsky makes a very balanced assessment of many interesting studies and hypotheses looking from both sides, and begins to put them together throughout the book to reach a conclusion that could seem quite extreme at first glance: that free-wills existence is little to none. The end result is that you are left with an intuition to predict what factors likely contribute to a behavior, understanding that there is much to still be explained that is often encapsulated with 'evil' or 'free-will,' and guaranteeing that your next conversation with that friend who is a lawyer or judge will leave them with a changed worldview, or will leave you no longer friends.

43 of 45 people found this review helpful

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  • Neuron
  • Sweden
  • 2017-12-07

An encyclopaedia of neuroscience and psychology

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, Robert Sapolsky is an excellent writer. Throughout the book he is clever, witty and informative, all at the same time. You can open this book on any page and find information about interesting studies and their implications. And, as you might have guessed from the number of pages this book has, it covers a lot of ground.

The book’s common theme is what determines our behavior. As a little side note here, like myself Robert Sapolsky does not believe we have free will. This means that, when we believe we are acting according to our own free, it is really just the sum of our past experiences, upbringing, genes etc, acting on our brain and causing the illusion of free will…

The question of what determines our behavior has many different viable answers. I moved my arm because my muscles contracted. My arm moved because neurons in my brain ordered the muscles to contract. I moved my arm to catch the ball flying towards me. I moved my arm because it hurts if it hits my head. I moved my arm because I have an evolved instinct to avoid harmful stimuli. And so on. All these answers are correct and they differ mainly in how long before the arm movement they acted they were involved in forming our behavior. The book is organized in the same manner. Sapolsky first explains the immediate causes of a behaviour (neurons and muscles), and then moves further and further back in time. Which stimuli in the environment caused your brain to react in the way that it did? Which factors in your upbringing and in your evolutionary past formed your brain so that you reacted to the stimuli in the way you did.

The book, as mentioned covers a lot of ground, and it feels almost like an encyclopaedia rather than a popular science book. Indeed, on one of the first pages of the book, the author apologizes for the length of the book, explaining that all the content is important if you want to properly understand behavior. I agree with this and you don't usually get the feeling that he is using unnecessarily many words. However, it does result in a lack of focus.

Should you buy the book? Yes, if you want a comprehensive book that covers a wealth of interesting neuroscience and psychology. There is no doubt that you will learn a lot if you read this book. Just be prepared for a very long book with not so clear connections between the dots.

13 of 13 people found this review helpful

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  • Curmud the prof
  • 2017-05-28

A Magnum Opus

What a work! This book ties together insights ranging from so many disciplines that it defies categorization. Factors influencing human behavior but not determining per se - a major theme) are reviewed and illustrated with countless experimental examples ranging from molecular to societal -with everything in between. Some may find it repetitive but that is the essence of learning. So much detail is included that you should sign up for 15 Medical School credits if you make it to the end. And very importantly the narrator dealt with the big words in a manner was much appreciated by this reviewer - a retired professor of pharmacology.

47 of 50 people found this review helpful

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  • Ary Shalizi
  • California
  • 2017-12-22

If you read one book about the brain this year...

...read this one!

As a trained neuroscientist, this is a book I’d like to hand out on the street everyone. Any time you hear a pop-culture think piece confidently declare “gene X is responsible for behavior Y,” “hormone Z is a ‘love potion,’” or “socioeconomic factor A means you will do B in situation C,” there are reams of caveats omitted, context and nuance left out in our breathless excitement that is important for understanding not just the experimental design, but the type of behavior, even the “meaning" we ascribe to the behavior itself.

Sapolsky’s book is a chance to stop and take your breath, an ambitious but accessible introduction to behavioral neuroscience that attempts to understand the headline-grabbing findings by synthesizing across a variety of temporal and biological scales. He begins with momentary and molecular and, by constantly expanding his scope, eventually encloses the cultural and generational in his arguments. His tone is conversational, like you met at a party or a coffee shop and started chatting about the topic with someone who happens to be a world expert accustomed to explaining things to novices.

With patience, an abundance of evidence, and a sophisticated understanding of the drawbacks inherent to each level of analysis, he dispels common misconceptions about behavioral science, and explains the complex interplay between different levels of inquiry–genes and environment and individual history and evolutionary history and social context and economic factors and… you get the idea. As a pair of simple examples, consider that elevating testosterone can increase cooperation, and that increasing levels of the “love hormone" oxytocin can promote aggression; in both cases, the social context is king when determining the behavioral outcome of the biological manipulation.

As a consequence of all this effort, Sapolsky comes to some truly radical conclusions about “what it all means” for topics like education and criminal justice. In particular, Sapolsky posits that as our understanding of the neural basis of behavior, and the scope of social, cultural, and economic influences thereupon, improves, our conception of justice must change. He hopes that a future “justice” will look upon our current system of crime and punishment the way we now look at epilepsy and mental illness: not as a cause for ostracism or execution due to demonic possession but as organic maladies that deserve treatment, and our sympathy.

This is that rare scientific book that is at once comprehensive and morally ambitious. I cannot recommend it enough.

22 of 23 people found this review helpful

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  • S. Yates
  • 2017-06-27

Complex subject, expertly explained

Any additional comments?

4.5 stars. Sapolsky brings a truly epic amount of scientific research to bear in the entertaining, humane, and illuminating book. This book acts as a synethesis of a wide array of research into human behavior, incorporating work in evolutionary development, neurology, psychology, sociology, and the like. Sapolsky has looked at the various factors that influence human behavior, guiding the reader from the immediate influences that trigger a behavior in the preceding seconds, to the factors that lead to any given behavior in preceding days and weeks, to those that shaped us in the years before and in the womb, all the way back to the evolutionary factors that gave rise to homo sapiens. He manages to patiently lay out complex webs of influence, never giving in to oversimiplification and often finding ways to inject wit and humor into the text. He repeatedly offers up commonly held beliefs, pat explanations, and historical certainties and then explains why we now have evidence showing that we were wrong. And he does this not only with obsolete conclusions from yesteryear, but with some overly enthusiastic interpretations of recent data (often falling into the category of people overstating findings and failing to see nuance). The book discusses the full range of human behavior as promised in the subtitle - our behavior at its best and its worst. Having finished the book, a reader should walk away with mind broadened and an understanding that our behavior is not as simple as a gene or an environement or an event, but a complex tapestry of all those things interacting. This knowledge should both frighten and engender hope.

20 of 22 people found this review helpful

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  • Jeremy G
  • Phoenix, AZ
  • 2017-07-28

Absolutely engrossing!

I generally enjoy any book dealing with psychology and/or biology, but this one is a new favorite. Concepts I struggled with as a grad student in biopsychology are masterfully deconstructed into easy to comprehend stories, and only rarely required a second reading. If you love learning about how the mind and body function together, this book will definitely satisfy that itch.

10 of 11 people found this review helpful

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  • gus cirulli
  • 2017-07-26

everybody should have this book

if you want to understand life better and get an inside on thing you never understood before , reed it , share it , buy it .
One of the most charismatic , and intelligent scientist of our times , maybe he should run for president , loved it

14 of 16 people found this review helpful

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  • Anthony W. Shallin
  • Georgetown, Texas United States
  • 2017-07-10

Excellent overview of behavior.

Would you listen to Behave again? Why?

Yes. Dr Sapolsky is able to explain very complex ideas in ways that make sense.

Who was your favorite character and why?

n/a

Have you listened to any of Michael Goldstrom’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

no

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?

Find out why you do what you do.

8 of 9 people found this review helpful