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Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst Hardcover – Illustrated, May 2, 2017

4.7 out of 5 stars 3,846 ratings

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Editorial Reviews


One of The Washington Post's 10 Best Books of 2017

"Sapolsky has created an immensely readable, often hilarious romp through the multiple worlds of psychology, primatology, sociology and neurobiology to explain why we behave the way we do. It is hands-down one of the best books I’ve read in years. I loved it." —Dina Temple-Raston, The Washington Post

“It’s no exaggeration to say that Behave is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read.” —David P. Barash, The Wall Street Journal

“A quirky, opinionated and magisterial synthesis of psychology and neurobiology that integrates this complex subject more accessibly and completely than ever . . .  a wild and mind-opening ride into a better understanding of just where our behavior comes from. Darwin would have been thrilled.” —Richard Wrangham, The New York Times Book Review

“[Sapolskly’s] new book is his magnum opus, but is also strikingly different from his earlier work, veering sharply toward hard science as it looms myriad strands of his ruminations on human behavior. The familiar, enchanting Sapolsky tropes are here—his warm, witty voice, a sleight of hand that unfolds the mysteries of cognition—but Behave keeps the bar high . . . . A stunning achievement and an invaluable addition to the canon of scientific literature, certain to kindle debate for years to come.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

“A masterly cross-disciplinary scientific study of human behavior: What in our glands, our genes, our childhoods explains our species’ capacity for both altruism and brutality? This comprehensive and friendly survey of a ‘big sprawling mess of a subject’ is leavened by an impressive data-to-silly joke ratio. It has my vote for science book of the year.” —Parul Sehgal, New York Times

“A monumental contribution to the scientific understanding of human behavior that belongs on every bookshelf and many a course syllabus . . . It is a magnificent culmination of integrative thinking, on par with similar authoritative works, such as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.” —Michael Shermer, American Scholar

Behave is the best detective story ever written, and the most important. If you've ever wondered why someone did something—good or bad, vicious or generous—you need to read this book. If you think you already know why people behave as they do, you need to read this book. In other words, everybody needs to read it. It should be available on prescription (side effects: chronic laughter; highly addictive). They should put Behave in hotel rooms instead of the Bible: the world would be a much better, wiser place” —Kate Fox, author of Watching the English

“Magisterial . . . This extraordinary survey of the science of human behaviour takes the reader on an epic journey . . . Sapolsky makes the book consistently entertaining, with an infectious excitement at the puzzles he explains . . . a miraculous synthesis of scholarly domains.” —Steven Poole, The Guardian

Rarely does an almost 800-page book keep my attention from start to finish, but 
“If anyone can save evolutionary biology from TED talkers and pop-science fabulists, it might be Sapolsky . . . . Behave ranges at great length from moral philosophy to social science, genetics to Sapolsky’s home turf of neurons and hormones—but all of it is aimed squarely at the question of why humans are so awful to each other, and whether the condition is terminal.” Vulture

“Robert Sapolsky's students must love him. In Behave, the primatologist, neurologist and science communicator writes like a teacher: witty, erudite and passionate about clear communication. You feel like a lucky auditor in a fast-paced undergraduate course, where the implications of fascinating scientific findings are illuminated through topical stories and pop-culture allusions.” Nature 

“Sapolsky’s book shows in exquisite detail how culture, context and learning shape everything our genes, brains, hormones and neurons do.” Times Literary Supplement

Behave is like a great historical novel, with excellent prose and encyclopedic detail. It traces the most important story that can ever be told.” —Edward O. Wilson

“Truly all-encompassing . . . detailed, accessible, fascinating.” The Telegraph

“A wide-ranging, learned survey of all the making-us-tick things that, for better or worse, define us as human . . . . An exemplary work of popular science, challenging but accessible.” Kirkus Reviews, starred

“[Sapolsky] weaves science storytelling with humor . . . . [His] big ideas deserve a wide audience and will likely shape thinking for some time.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“[Sapolsky] does an excellent job of bringing together the expansive literature of thousands of fascinating studies with clarity and humor . . . . A tour-de-force.” Library Journal (starred review) 

“Sapolsky finds not the high moral drama of the soul choosing good or evil but rather down-to-earth biology . . . a remarkably encyclopedic survey of the sciences illuminating human conduct.”
Booklist(starred review)

“Read Robert Sapolsky’s marvelous book Behave and you’ll never again be surprised by the range and depth of our own bad behavior. We all carry the potential for unconscious biases, to be damaged by our childhoods and map that damage onto our own loved ones, and to form the tribal ‘Us’ groups that treat outsiders as lesser ‘Thems.’ But to read this book is also, marvelously, to be given the hope that we have much more control of those behaviors than we think. And Behave gives us more than hope—it gives us the knowledge of how to act on that aspiration, to manifest more of our best selves and less of our worst, individually and as a society. That’s very good news indeed.”  —Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better

"As wide as it is deep, this book is colorful, electrifying, and moving. Sapolsky leverages his deep expertise to ask the most fundamental questions about being humanfrom acts of hate to acts of love, from our compulsion to dehumanize to our capacity to rehumanize." —David Eagleman, PhD, neuroscientist at Stanford, author, presenter of PBS's The Brain
"Behave is a beautifully crafted work about the biology of morality. Sapolsky makes multiple passes at the target, using different time scales and systems. He shows you how all the perspectives and systems connect, and he makes you laugh and marvel along the way. Sapolsky is not just a leading primatologist; he’s a great writer and a superb guide to human nature." —Jonathan Haidt, New York University, author of The Righteous Mind

“This is a miraculous book, by far the best treatment of violence, aggression, and competition ever.  It ranges from how neurons and hormones interact, how emotions are an essential part of decision making, why adolescents are more likely to be violent than adults, why genes influence cultures and vice-versa, and the ins and outs of “we versus them,” all the way to “live and let live” truces in World War I and the My Lai massacre. Its depth and breadth of scholarship are amazing, building on Sapolsky’s own research and his vast knowledge of the neurobiology, genetic, and behavioral literature. For instance, Behave includes fair evaluations of complex debates (like over sociobiology) that I was involved in, and tackles controversial questions such as whether our hunter-gatherer ancestors warred on each other. He even takes on “free will” with a clarity usually absent from the writings of philosophers on the subject. All this is done brilliantly with a light and funny touch that shows why Sapolsky is recognized as one of the greatest teachers in science today.” —Paul R. Ehrlich, author of Human Natures

About the Author

Robert M. Sapolsky is the author of several works of nonfiction, including A Primate's Memoir, The Trouble with Testosterone, and Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. He is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, two children and dogs.

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Product details

  • Publisher : Penguin Press; Illustrated edition (May 2, 2017)
  • Language : English
  • Hardcover : 800 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 1594205078
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1594205071
  • Item Weight : 2.45 pounds
  • Dimensions : 6.3 x 1.6 x 9.5 inches
  • Customer Reviews:
    4.7 out of 5 stars 3,846 ratings

Customer reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
4.7 out of 5
3,846 global ratings
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Top reviews from the United States

Reviewed in the United States on October 22, 2017
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5.0 out of 5 stars Simply one of the best I've read ever
By Odysseus at home on October 22, 2017
It took me twelve days to read this book. I'm a Chilean reader so my English is no native and it's hard for me to understand everything, but this book deserved to retry any time I couldn't catch the entire meaning of a sentence or an idea. Robert Sapolsky writes as a lecturer. The reader is seated in the classroom and he's the professor who talks, so you feel very comfortable listening him and, more than that, you feel welcome by him. He's so natural and informal that you feel that a distance has been abolished, and this is just what is needed to capture the very essence of this tremendous achievement.

The book is about "us" and "them," and how our biology has modeled us to to replicate and to live this duality as an inexorable destiny. That's the reason why Sapolsky in a very smart design of the book dedicates the thirteen first (out of seventeen) chapters in describing to you how does our brains (and by extension our biology) to produce a human being with all that it means. And it means a lot. More than I can say here. Thus, the first thirteen chapters of the book leave you with the sensation that we are all design to be just the way we are. So nothing to be much optimistic here.

There's (for me at least) a tipping point in the book that synthesizes everything. It is in page 448 and shows you a graph that plots the "proportion of rulings in favor of the prisoners by ordinal position [i.e., the order in which they were heard by the judge]," with "points [indicating] the first decision in each of the three decisions sessions." Well, the thing is that "in a study of more than 1,100 judicial rulings, prisoners were granted parole at about a 60 percent rate when judges had recently eaten, and at essentially a 0 percent rate just before judges ate... Justice may be blind, but she's sure sensitive to her stomach gurgling."

Well, there you are. And this is just one example, there are dozens before and after indicating how sensible we are to the environment, the internal and the external one, something that Sapolsky summarize at the end of the book: "...we haven't evolved to be "selfish" or "altruistic" or anything else--we've evolved to be particular ways in particular settings. Context, context, context."

As long as you read you think that the book was written to let you know how remarkably open AND close is our nature, in such a way that we are condemned to suffer our tremendous limitations: there is no way out (or in). Yes, as Sapolsky says, it's complicated. In fact, that could have been the title of the book. But that would have lessened the final chapters which are like the cracks in the wall through which a silver lining filters. The thing is that you didn't expect what Sapolsky tells you there.

This is not a detectives novel so what's the point in not commenting what's there for everyone of us? Well, I guess that the point is I shouldn't deprive you of discovering by yourself as I did. Yes, I'm talking here of the pleasure that renders the experience of something that sounds (even in a scientific manner) like a revelation. And that is: at the end of the book you see...

I'm sure that other reviewers have revealed everything in order to criticize some points here and there. I guess that could be several, but to me that's not the point. The point is that Behave has not been written to convince you, not at all. Behave has been written to show you. Behave is not a book is a window as I suppose any great book is.

As I said, I'm Chilean and here, in my country, are hundreds of political prisoners that haven't the minimal chance of being paroled. Not even that light ray that could traverse a crack in a wall. Not even that. They have no chance. Unfortunately this book is not going to be translated to Spanish. And if it is, it's not going to arrive to our commercial and poor (intellectually speaking) bookstores. My country is a very quiet one compared with the rest of the world. Nobody even notice it, so quiet it is. We are like Switzerland bur without the money. And with the political prisoners they don't have.

Sapolsky it's not going to change nothing, but that's not the point, I insist: the point is that things are going to change anyway because history tells so. The thing is that we could do something to hurry the future. I don't know how. Sapolsky either. And what about you?

Read this book if you are interested into thinking how does it feel not to be the good guy you think you are most of the time. In a sentence: how does it feel to be human.

And it feels good.

Five highly deserved stars.
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Top reviews from other countries

A. Hudson
3.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting but let down by weak prose
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on February 28, 2019
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37 people found this helpful
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Bharath Ramakrishnan
5.0 out of 5 stars A stupendous book!
Reviewed in India on December 23, 2018
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Craig Millward
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating but the American slang can be grating
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on June 29, 2020
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Richard Lee Juett
5.0 out of 5 stars Neurosciences for, well, almost everyone.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on June 15, 2018
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5.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading if you want to understand the biology of human behaviour
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on March 9, 2018
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