Sunday, July 22, 2018

Robert Sapolsky - Behave (Bodley Head, 2017) *****

Truly amazing. In "Behave", Robert Sapolsky, professor in biology and neurology at Stanford University, gives a big picture overview of all the processes that make us do what we do. He uses the simple act of pulling the trigger of a gun, but he could have used any other action. He then analyses all the biological (hormonal, genetic, ...), psyschological, cognitive, genetic and cultural elements that drive that specific simple activity, by moving back in time, starting with the first seconds preceding the act, step by step back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. In fact, Sapolsky tries to go beyond the traditional academic distinction between the sciences of behaviour.

As is often the case by such sweeping overviews of current scientific insights, academics will criticise the lack of true in-depth and up-to-date knowledge of each of the disciplines presented, and especially in their own field of interest, but that is unavoidable in books with the ambition to popularise and create such a broad canvas. The big advantage is that it brings together the incredibly complex processes behind our everyday actions. It shows were our limits are, allowing to become more conscious of why we do what we do, and therefore also to become smarter, and as Sapolsky advocates, also wiser.

Sapolsky's ways of presenting human behaviour in all its complex processes, should be mandatory for all schools in the world. If everybody understood some of the essential drivers of our current behaviour, the way our hormones work, the way our brain functions, the way adolescents brains differ from adult brains, understanding how us-versus-them thinking drives moral choices, how apperent personal moral decisions may have deep emotional roots that can only be overcome by becoming conscious of them ... the world would definitely be a better place.

And that is the great value of a popular science book such as this one. It's insightful, humane, wise and compassionate.

One of the best books of the year.

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