Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst – Robert M. Sapolsky

I felt stupid when I was younger, and I felt that way frequently. Unfortunately, I had parents who didn’t foster this in a positive way (they did, in fact, aggravate it), and it only got worse as I got older.

At some point, I didn’t want to feel stupid anymore. I decided I wasn’t going to be stupid ever again. I was going to work as hard as I could to never be stupid.

Down that road lies madness. Madness, freckled heavily with stupidity. Life hasn’t been kind.

This is meant to be a book review, and I should thus not put too much of my sad-sack life story into it. But just a few more relevant points – I once thought the best thing one could do is to avoid specificity and be as broad, wide-learned, and interdisciplinary as one could. I also eventually figured out that the kind of complete absolutists knowledge that I was seeking was a fool’s errand, and that at some point we must all plant our flag on our discipline of choice and commit to it, till death do you part, for better or worse.

Somewhere in the beginning of Behave Sapolsky asks us the very simple question of ‘why did the chicken cross the road’, before reminding us that the answer varies greatly between the proponents of various disciplines, all whom claim not only to have differing perspectives, but that their particular variety is the one that best solves the question. And I would suppose this is where Sapolsky comes in to say that they are all wrong and what you should actually do is X, Y and Z.

I said ‘suppose’ in the line above because at some point that strategy backfired and I lost the unifying thread of the book. I am not entirely sure there was one. I can’t no everything. I am not sure anyone can, but I don’t believe a completionist’s account of human knowledge is possible. But that is what reading this felt like this book. He will give you one camp’s perspective on a phenomenon, and then explain to you the competition’s notions. Another review bitingly referred to what is going on here as ‘teaching the controversy’, and I really feel like that is appropriate. Well, up until we come to find out that they are both wrong, and in truth this is the theory that….

Haven’t we seen this before?



The book, in other words, seemed so incredibly multi-faceted that I do not think I really learned anything at all. Is that a good thing? Well, only in that it confirms a previously held theory that states that: “human behavior is too complex for anyone to understand, and anything that attempts to explain it should be outed as the reductionism that it clearly is”.

It isn’t often that I finish reading a book and feel like I failed at something. I did in this case.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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