By: Steven Poole | Behave by Robert Sapolsky review – why do we do what we do? | Neuroscience | The Guardian
This magisterial account of human behaviour journeys from immediate brain response back to long-term social causes. It also suggests we have no free will
You reach out to touch someone’s arm, or perhaps you pull a trigger. What made that happen? In this extraordinary survey of the science of human behaviour, the biologist Robert Sapolsky takes the reader on an epic journey backwards through time, and through different scientific disciplines. His governing question is: what explains the fact that humans can massacre one another but also perform spectacular acts of altruistic kindness? Is one side of our nature destined to win out over the other?
The backwards time-travel is an excellent organising principle. Seconds before our action, it is neuroscience that investigates what is going on in the brain; minutes to days before is the domain of endocrinology (hormonal fluctuations). Days to months before, we focus on the brain’s ability to learn and rewire itself. Sapolsky goes back through adolescence, childhood and gestation (including genetics), and, beyond the birth of the individual, to more distant causes still – those found in culture, evolutionary psychology, game theory and comparative zoology. He makes the book consistently entertaining, with an infectious excitement at the puzzles he explains, and wry dude-ish asides. (Humans, he notes, can “delay gratification for insanely long times” compared with other animals. “No warthog restricts calories to look good in a bathing suit next summer.”) He likes to call certain facts “boggling” when he is personally amazed by them; it’s charmingly infectious.
This book is a miraculous synthesis of scholarly domains, and laudably careful to point out the limits of our knowledge
It remains debatable whether strict determinism is compatible with Sapolsky’s final message of hope for humanity