Book Challenge: Day 5

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, by Robert Sapolsky

Robert Sapolsky is a primatologist and neurobiologist who has spent his career studying how biology, the brain, the environment, and genes interact to produce animal (and human) behavior. In this engrossing book, he explains some of what he’s learned, in terms a non-expert can understand. (I noticed that Sapolsky was featured in the recent Netflix/Vox documentary series on the mind, and I also heard him on Ezra Klein’s podcast a while back. I recommend both of these also!) Behave is an absolutely fascinating book that will challenge your ideas about human behavior, and everything that flows from that.

In contrast to McGilchrist, whose book The Master and His Emissary I highlighted a couple days ago, Sapolsky says that the divided brain has little effect on behavior. When I first read this, I wondered how this contradiction might be reconciled, since both scientists seem to know what they’re talking about. I think it would be fascinating to get the two of them in a room together for a conversation. At the moment, the best I can do is to consider that their books address different (although related) questions: Sapolsky is most interested in the biochemistry of brains and behavior, while McGilchrist is interested in how brains process information and how that influences culture. Both books by themselves are intriguing and challenging; taken together, they have pushed me to think deeply about all kinds of questions and issues in what I think are creative ways.

Here’s one small nugget from Behave: Sapolsky spends a chapter or two discussing the relationship between genes and environment and their relative contribution to behavior (the nature vs. nurture debate). The traditional way to talk about this is to assign some percentage to each which adds to 100%, like saying that human potential or behavior or whatever is 60% determined by genes and 40% by environment. Or whatever. Sapolsky makes the crucial point that genes express themselves differently in different environments, meaning that it’s the interaction between the two that produces behavior, not one acting independently of the other. So it might be more accurate to say that behavior is 80% nature *and* 80% nurture. Wow!

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