Book Snap #124

Title: Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worse

Author: Robert M. Sapolsky

Date Read: February 10, 2023

Two snaps!

Snapshot of the book

Not gonna lie, I am mostly excited to review this one because it took some intellectual grit to complete it– and I feel a certain sense of accomplishment. Behave is a dense, multi-layered, in-depth, panoramic exploration of a thesis: that we don’t hate violence — we hate and fear the wrong kind of violence, and violence in the wrong context. Yet, we engage in conversations riddled with military metaphors (rally the troops; shoot down my ideas); our sports teams’ names celebrate violence (Warriors, Vikings); we build theologies around violence; elect leaders who excel at it; and even selectively mate with champions of human combat. When it’s the “right” type of aggression, we love it.

Robert M. Sapolsky is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. In Behave, he takes us through a scientific exploration of the biology of violence, aggression and competition; helping the reader better understand our behaviours and the impulses behind them. His approach is three-fold: First, you can’t understand things like violence, aggression and competition without biology. But, second, and just as important: you can’t understand these compulsions relying solely on biology. And finally, our biology, our psychology, and our culture are utterly intertwined.

Behave sets out to help us understand our behaviour in an interdisciplinary way. And so, in painstaking detail and with perfunctory wit (especially in his often sardonic footnotes– not to be missed!) Sapolsky posits a singular behaviour in chapter one and moves through chapters exploring: what happened one second before (the neurobiology); seconds to minutes before (the sensory stimuli); hours to days before (hormones at work); days to months before (the role of neural plasticity); during adolescence (which he gives the tongue-in-cheek title: “Dude, where’s my frontal cortex?); back to the crib and the womb (an overview of childhood brain development, the importance of mothers, and our environment); back to when you were just a fertilised egg (all those genes); and centuries to millennia before (exploring anthropology and culture). He further considers the evolution of our behaviour; our propensity to classify groups as Us versus Them; our use of hierarchies to decide on relationships, obedience and resistance; our morality and “doing the right thing”; our capacity for empathy; the metaphors we kill by; free will and punishment; and even war and peace.

The neurobiology is impressive (and comes complete with an appended primer entitled Neuroscience 101)– but the fact remains that the brain is not where the behaviour actually begins, rather it is the final pathway resulting from all that came before it — and that is what the book sets to unravel.

Brains don’t operate in vacuums. Answering the question of why we behave the way we do is best summed up with: It’s complicated. “Nothing seems to cause anything; instead everything just modulates something else” (p. 674). It might seem complicated to actually fix anything– but we have to try. And if we can come to a better understanding of the interconnectedness of it all, we might just have a chance. Because, as Sapolsky so beautifully writes: “You don’t have to choose between being scientific and being compassionate” (p. 675).

Snapshot of the book in my classroom

As a high-school teacher nothing has been more fundamentally core to understanding the kids I teach than knowing that the adolescent brain does not function like an adult brain. In Chapter six, “Adolescence: or, Dude, Where’s My Frontal Cortex?” Sapolsky underscores this fact, explaining that the final brain region to fully mature is the frontal cortex, not going fully online until the mid twenties (p.154).

Adolescence is more than a cultural construct, it is an actual developmental gap, influenced by cognition, emotional regulation, risk taking, peers, social acceptance and exclusion, empathy, sympathy and moral reasoning– it takes a while for the brain to “get it right.” Because of the brain’s plasticity, we learn, change and adapt. “Adult life is filled with consequential forks in the road where the right thing is definitely harder. Navigating these successfully is the portfolio of the frontal cortex, and developing the ability to do this right thing in each context requires profound shaping experience” (p.173. )This is the part of the brain that develops because of what life throws at us– we are profoundly sculpted by experience. Most importantly: “If by adolescence limbic, autonomic, and endocrine systems are going full blast while the frontal cortex is still working out the assembly instructions, we’ve just explained why adolescents are so frustrating, great, asinine, impulsive, inspiring, destructive, self-destructive, selfless, selfish, impossible, and world changing.” (p.155).

Snapshot of the book in my life

No book could ask you more eloquently, with more science, and with such thoughtful examples and stories– to understand that our behaviour must be carefully examined through multiple lenses. A snapshot of behaviour inevitably cuts out the panorama of its depth. Be leery of your compulsion to make snap judgments. Slow that amygdaloid functioning and assume that people are doing doing the best that they can with the resources they have: it will change your relationships. It’s important to examine the myriad of reasons why we behave the way we do, so that we might develop compassion for ourselves, and others.