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Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

4.41  ·  Rating details ·  9,329 ratings  ·  1,211 reviews
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
Hardcover, 790 pages
Published May 2nd 2017 by Penguin Press
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Bill Stavers Sept. 15, 2017. Yes, although some of it was a bit over my head, as a dog trainer, I am continually studying how animals "work." I found it worthwhile…moreSept. 15, 2017. Yes, although some of it was a bit over my head, as a dog trainer, I am continually studying how animals "work." I found it worthwhile to press on. He usually summarizes each chapter in layman's language. And, his conversational style, mentioned earlier is very engaging. Some insights I highlighted in my Kindle: (from beginning to end)

* pain does not cause aggression; it amplifies preexisting tendencies toward aggression. In other words, pain makes aggressive people more aggressive, while doing the opposite to unaggressive individuals.

*In other words, in young rats even aversive things are reinforcing in Mom’s presence, even if Mom is the source of the aversive stimuli.
* “It is no more appropriate to say things like characteristic A is more influenced by nature than nurture than . . . to say that the area of a rectangle is more influenced by its length than its width.”

* role of dopamine in the anticipation of reward and in goal-directed behavior.

* Repeat the mantra: don’t ask what a gene does; ask what it does in a particular context

* you can’t understand aggression without understanding fear (and what the amygdala has to do with both).

I did lots more; but I hope this gives you a flavor of how Sapolsky writes.


Viswanathan K. Yes, absolutely. Different chapters focus on different aspects (effect of neurons, hormones, culture etc), so this book is looking at things from mult…moreYes, absolutely. Different chapters focus on different aspects (effect of neurons, hormones, culture etc), so this book is looking at things from multiple angles. The very-technical stuff is usually in the appendixes, thus making it easy to skip it if you choose to.

In fact, the book is written in a very logical flow... ideal for someone with a computer science mindset. And the fact that there are feedback loops also fit into the engineer's mindset. Do read!(less)

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Always Pouting
May 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Robert Sapolsky is a neuroendocrinologist and has studied primates for decades in Africa, and I love him. If anyone wants to watch it he did a TED talk on what makes human's unique from other animals: The book itself covers a wide range of topics, mostly centered around neurology and it's subsequent effect on behavior. The book is a little long and dense and I have finals so I shouldn't even be reading it, but I've been making time to get it done anyways ...more
Morgan Blackledge
Sep 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Sapolsky is my lord. He's an Olympian god on high. He's a titan. This book is retarded. It's almost impossible to read. It's like 10,000 pages long. But it's next to impossible not to adore.

It's basically a textbook for his ridiculously, cosmically good Stanford undergraduate course on the biology of behavior (HUMBIO 160 -Stanford)

You're not fully sentient until you have watched all 20+ hours of his lectures from the course (at least once) which are freely available on YouTube. Or listened to th
Oct 24, 2017 rated it it was ok
This book is a masterful distillation of academic research on social behavior. It's creatively organized, clearly written, and always fascinating. I listened on audiobook, but will probably buy a physical copy for reference.

But I'm only giving it three stars because it completely fails to grapple with the replication crisis sweeping through these fields. After Sapolsky mentioned a study that I know researchers have failed to replicate, I waited for him to discuss the subsequent controversy. He n
This is an outstanding and monumental synthesis on the causes of behavior by a talented researcher and teacher. He excels in making the science of the brain and behavior accessible to a wide audience without oversimplification. The goal is to provide a handle on how to account for the origins of the most admirable and most despicable of human actions, i.e. the roots of empathy and altruism on the one hand and violence, war, and genocide on the other.

Sapolsky’s accomplishment yields an expansion
Jul 15, 2017 rated it really liked it
I finished this yesterday, but I had to stop first and catch my breath before writing a review. This was a whirlwind, a high-speed ride, exercising my amygdala mightily. No book I’ve read, at least this year, has challenged me the way this one has. And not just the science, which I will largely forget in its details soon enough. More so, the intellectual challenge was in questioning almost everything I believe.

Why do we behave the way we do? You’ll get no biology primer from me. Let’s plunge ri
May 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
What a wonderful book! It is a comprehensive look at all types of behavior, from the magnanimous to the hideous. It is filled with stories that heighten the reader's level of engagement. The book is long, yes. But not overly long. Sapolsky's subtle humor and little bits of light-hearted sarcasm fill the book and make it fun to read.

So, what is the "cause" of behavior? The answer in this book, stated so clearly, is "it's complicated." There is no single cause. The structure of neurons and archite
Jun 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing
In the shortest possible summary, let me start by saying that Behave is a stupendous book, and among the best science books I have read. While it is a book of science, and very detailed in parts at that – it is still highly recommended reading for everybody. After all, who is not curious about why we behave the way we do. This book is certainly a tribute to the remarkable progress science has made in understanding our brain and our behaviours. However, be warned that it is a big book, which has ...more
Jul 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
Sapolsky is a gem of a researcher, professor and deep thinker. He has done very well since receiving his MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” Here he covers neuroscience, cognitive science and philosophy.

The basic theme is that humanity (and we who comprise it) are capable of great good and great harm. There is a lot that underlies human thoughts, decision-making and actions that Sapolsky uncovers for us. Some of you may, like me, become a little uneasy reading this if your mind wanders into qu
Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin
Sapolsky might become one of my new favorite authors. In this work, he surveys the literature on Brains, Genetics, Culture, and puts together a detailed picture of what makes us tick. He takes in a large chunk of the human condition and lays out much of the known science around it. Be it gender, race, politics, development, violence of all sorts, personality, deviance and conformity, Social Dominance and Authoritarianism, Hierarchy, Ethnicity, differences between liberals and conservatives, Sexu ...more
Oct 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
Sapolsky explores the causes of human behavior at every level. Although he throws in some zingers and catchy vernacular, this is a serious work that can read like a textbook. He divides the book in two parts. The first deals with everything that affects behavior: The brain, neurons, neurotransmitters, hormones; environmental factors particularly in adolescence, childhood, and the womb; culture, genes and epigenetics. The second half shows how all these factors combine to affect us as individuals ...more
Whatever your discipline of study, this book has some degree of relevance, considering as it does human biology. I wish to convey that this book is aspirational for everyone, even the author himself. He readily admits to gaps in his/our knowledge about human biology, but he tries, in this mighty interdisciplinary work synthesizing a lifetime of observation and thought, the current state of knowledge and points to areas for further study.

Don’t be intimidated by its size or erudition. The author i
May 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I have tremendous respect for Mr. Sapolsky, since I first watched one of his lecture series from The Teaching Company. He has my eternal gratitude for introducing me to the term Glucocorticoids, which I then tried to use a few times a day, every day, for an entire year. An experiment that was cut tragically short after a fateful dinner encounter in which, my father, who had been a mopey navel gazer for some time due to a complicated business decision, confided in me his troubles, to which I repl ...more
This is an important book, which I suspect, will be a classic.
the whole book was dedicated to explaining how our biology and environment interact to give rise to our behavior and what does that implicate for our ethical and social views.
That being said, Behave could have as easily been a comprehensive textbook. Yet the author vitally made the decision to write in classical style, as the intended reader were lay people. however, even I, as a person studying this exact field, have had struggled
Jun 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Wow. This book literally covers everything there is to know about evolution, the human brain, behavioral theories, culture, etc. And Sapolsky does it in a fair and humble way. In other words, on the one hand, this and on the other this, but at this point there's more evidence for the latter. He's not selling a pet theory. It's so comprehensive and insightful that I'm mad I've read so many other books in this basic arena.
Dan Graser
May 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Wow. This is brilliant, mind-clearing work by Stanford Professor and MacArthur "genius" Fellow Robert Sapolsky. Not only does he present the latest data in fields of neuroscience and psychology, but his presentation of several issues of human behavior from the levels of neurobiology, sensory and stimulus perception, changes in hormone levels, developmental changes in physiology, evolutionary changes over the course of millions of years, as well as cultural and psychological changes from the envi ...more
Nov 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2017, nonfiction
This book explores the biology of violence, aggression, and competition – the behaviors and the impulses behind them, the acts of individuals, groups, and states, and when these are bad or good things. It is a book about the ways in which humans harm one another. But it is also a book about the ways in which people do the opposite. What does biology teach us about cooperation, affiliation, reconciliation, empathy, and altruism?

Behave took me longer than average to read – at a rate of about 3
Darian Onaciu
Feb 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Drop whatever you have on your reading queue and

The author
Whenever I read a non-fiction book I always look up the author: who he is, what achievements he has and which are the tools he uses to understand and explain bits of reality. I think it is important to do this in order to have a better grasp on the accuracy of his claims.

"Robert Morris Sapolsky is an American neuroendocrinologist and author. He is currently a professor of biology, and professor of neurology and neurol
Jun 17, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: hyped
Has an ingenious structure: starting with a piece of behaviour, work backwards through the many scales that caused it: from the nerve bundles that enable the muscle motion, through the brain processing that ordered those, through that morning's hormonal predisposing, foetal genetic construction, all the way to the ancestral environment.

Sapolsky is engagingly cranky about various things: traditional misogynies, war. He uses the neologism "pseudospeciation" (i.e. the dehumanising kind of racism) a
Tanja Berg
This book delves into what makes us do what we do: hormones, genes, environment. Unsurprisingly the conclusion is that you can't point a single factor - be it gene or hormone, without taking into account what is happening in the environment. How you react to the influence of oxytocin or testosterone is entirely dependent on the setting. Likewise with genes. There isn't any one gene for aggression that strongly points to individuals being more aggressive - although being a man definitely means th ...more
Without question, this is Sapolsky's best work yet. I have too many pages of notes to synthesize a review that could possibly do this book justice. Review to come when I have more time to write. Meanwhile, put this book at the top of your list! A+
Graeme Roberts
Aug 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Already called "a masterpiece," "a miraculous book," and "the best book I have ever read," by eminent experts, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst defies further superlatives. I would happily give it ten stars on Goodreads. What I loved most about this massive tome, at 717 pages with the important appendices but not including the glossary, abbreviations, notes, and index, is the extraordinary man who wrote it. Robert Sapolsky speaks to us, you and me, with elegance and clarity, p ...more
Apr 17, 2017 rated it liked it
Whew! Aaaand breathe...! I managed to get through this slog of a book. A very thick, long, messy, and complicated work (stay tuned) Sapolsky is so fond of digressions that it becomes slightly jarring at times, not to mention his obsessive usage of footnotes (even David Foster Wallace would be envious of his propensity for footnotes!). These two annoyances do detract some enjoyment from the book. On top of that, the book tries to do a lot more than it initially purports to do. On the face of it, ...more
Literary Chic
Oct 14, 2017 rated it liked it
Definitely for a smarter reader than me. The writing was very good, but what sounded like a fascinating topic was immensely dry. Eventually, all the scientific speak led to hypotheses by the author. Personally, my favorite line of thought was prison time for young offenders. Science has discovered brains aren't fully developed until in our 20's. So, how can we charge 14 year olds as adults?

The author kept everything light. He had lighthearted analogies to maintain the readers attention. All in a
Michelle Curie
Feb 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science, nonfiction
"You don’t have to choose between being scientific and being compassionate."

I've got a degree and psychology and in many ways I wish I had just read this book instead. Behave is a chunky read – but it's worth it. The book follows the question of why we do the things we do and thereby covers everything from the brain to the evolutionary background, cultural influences and discusses tricky subjects such as altruism and violence.

It's an incredibly ambitious book. There's no way I'd be able to
Abderrahmane Nadir
Apr 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Well I usually don’t write reviews on books, because for the most time a lot of people have done it before(in better and more extensive way), but I had to write this one, BEHAVE was a life changing book after you finish this book you won’t have the same ideas about many concepts and it makes you puzzled about many subjects (free will, judicial system.. etc.), this book tackles the human behavior and analyses it through different disciplines (endocrinology, evolutionary biology, ethology, behavio ...more
Eminently good, as expected.

It's impossible not to love and enjoy a book written by Sapolsky, I've said it already, I will continue saying it. What surprises me the most, it's how many topics this book covered, by the amount of pages if may seem obvious there were many, but when reading it, those pages don't seem to be much for the great work he did.

I think the title is the perfect summary of what this book is about ''the biology of humans at our best and worst'' but of course, to cover that yo
Jun 16, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
His classes must be very interesting. What is it with biologists and well written non-fiction that does not completely gloss over the details? The book is fairly long and appears to lack a central thesis except that "it's complicated". But "Nothing seems to cause anything, instead everything just modulates everything else" is probably closer to the truth than the endless internet debates over nature vs nurture.

However even though the book is expansive, remembering to critique both sides of the d
34th book for 2017.

This is a really good, well balanced book that offers a state-of-the-art summary of what we know about behavior. It's probably a little too textbook-like for some readers, but for those who really want to get a good general grounding in what science in 2017 tells us about behavior, there is probably no better place to go.

I particularly liked the discussions on the law and neuroscience, and a really nuanced take on role (or lack thereof) of genetics in behavioral determinism, a
Kunal Sen
Jul 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
It is common these days to come across people who have developed a strong dislike for all reductionist approaches. They prefer holistic views, and are suspicious of any knowledge that has been derived through breaking up a big problem into smaller chunks. I can understand why they feel that way, but I have always felt that such feelings can only be harbored when one is unfamiliar with the depth of the subject in question, and therefore assumes a simplistic view of things. For example, I know of ...more
Avi Singh
Jul 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fic, favorites
Behave is an ambitious book that seeks to explain human behavior at almost every level of abstraction - what parts of the brain lit up in the second before an action (the lizard-ish amygdala, or the primate-y frontal cortex), what sensory information obtained in the past few seconds to minutes “primed” you for it (if people are shown a random string of positive words, they tend to behave nicely in a cooperative game), what hormones were secreted in the past few hours to days (effects of testoste ...more
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Goodreads Librari...: Correct page count / ISBN 9781594205071 2 27 Jun 05, 2017 07:32AM  

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Robert Maurice Sapolsky is the John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor of Biological Sciences, and Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences, and by courtesy, Neurosurgery, at Stanford University. In addition, he is a research associate at the National Museums of Kenya.

Sapolsky has received numerous honors and awards for his work, including the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship genius grant i

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