(Book Review) Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

I’ve just finished re-reading through Sapolsky’s epic tome, Behave. 11/10, certainly the best piece non-fiction I’ve ever read, it fulfilled the extent of what a book can do and then some. Sapolsky’s writing reflects his depth of thinking and feeling as an individual, and delivers far beyond his scientific expertise in a (surprising) breadth of fields. Behave is hilarious, shocking, emotional, awe-inspiring, and helpful. In reading it I can’t help but feel I’ve accidentally taken a course in critical thinking, had a restorative conversation with a close friend, been invited to contribute at the table of the intellectual elite with the agenda of changing the world, and been assured I’ve earned a seat at the table.

My respect and appreciation for the man who authored this book/experience is well captured in the sentiment of a text from a friend of mine, to whom I gifted a copy: “Just starting it really but mostly just wondering how someone like this could exist to write this book.”

OK, OK. Superlatives out of the way, I’m going to actually do what a book review is supposed to do, and provide information regarding the content so you can decide whether or not it’s worth your time.

Who is this book for?

While I’d like to think the author has done a good enough job making the complex subject matter of human behavior accessible and relevant to all, the book probably best serves those who have the bandwidth and motivation to reconsider their relationship to themselves and the world. In short, science nerds, the exceptionally curious, hardcore self-helpers, or those working in social sciences or other fields where understanding human behavior has payoff. If you tick multiple boxes, it’s safe to say you’ll get a ton out if it. If this sort of introspection sounds masochistic to you, don’t read it.

How does it read?

Behave is broken into two parts, roughly equal in length. Part 1 is a multidisciplinary look into the many distinct factors contributing to any given human behavior. The format is intuitive and compelling: a human behavior occurs. What explains this behavior? Let’s look backwards in time at the relevant influences preceding it. One second ago it was the activity in the brain, neuroscience. Seconds to minutes before, environmental stimuli and our senses. Hours to days before, endocrinology, our hormones. Further on back in time to puberty, early childhood, the womb, and millions of years of evolutionary forces. A chapter is devoted to each time frame corresponding to a field of study, with interweaving personal anecdotes, research, counter-research, plot twists and compelling micro-narratives.

Part 2 is a synthesis and review of what already felt like a great deal of insight. Nuanced prescriptions for individuals and social policy are laid out and examined in answer to the looming question, “what can we do with this information?” That question is answered in increasing clarity and scope, building on understanding previously gained towards larger and larger implications, including (as a taste) the grandiose abolishment (not reform) of the criminal justice system, and cause to hope in a tongue-and-cheek-but-serious emerging field of “peaceology” for which the subject matter of the book, otherwise known as “behavioral biology,” serves foundationally. 

Final thoughts

At 675 pages, I recognize this book can’t be for everyone. On the one hand, it’s not for the faint of interest, or those determined to derive quick practical benefit. On the other hand, Sapolsky does an impressive job building the reader’s understanding of a complex subject naturally, from foundations to advanced application. What’s more, he breathes life into the page with humor, conversational prose, and a thick layer of personality. Best of all, Behave is a book of big, world-changing ideas made clear, defensible, and (at least more) practical.

Corey Morrow1 Comment