A Monumental, but Flawed, Effort to Understand Behavior

Reynold Spector

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. By Robert M. Sapolsky. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. ISBN 978-1594205071. 790 pp. Hardcover, $35.00.

In his long (790 page), extensively referenced book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, neurobiologist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky attempts to uncover the cause and consequences of many aspects of human behavior employing techniques and results from neuroscience, evolution, psychology, sociology, molecular biology, genetics, and moral philosophy with a sociological bent. He begins his analysis and synthesis of behavioral data with the underlying neurobiological and hormonal causes of behavior. Later he focuses on fetal development, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Still later, he focuses on cultural and ecological factors that influence behavior. He spends considerable time on morality and less on religion.

In many places, Sapolsky plunges into controversial areas. For example, he argues that Steven Pinker’s thesis that “people have gotten less awful” over the centuries is overly optimistic. He implies that Pinker is a Pangloss. Sapolsky points out that when you take time (duration) as well as population size into account, he finds that World War II, the An Lushan Rebellion (China) and the killings in World War I, the Taiping Rebellion (China), and Tamerlane’s depredations lead the list of horrific events. He also emphasizes that the recent horrific wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq; the horrendous killing crimes of Stalin and Mao; and the ongoing wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa disconfirm Pinker’s optimistic thesis. In another part of the book, he accuses Pinker of “cherry-picking.” (Pinker responds to such criticisms in a chapter of his new book Enlightenment Now that was published in the May/June 2018 Skeptical Inquirer.)

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