What I'm Reading: "Behave" by Robert M. Sapolsky


This summer my husband and I had a couple of long road trips. Although it’s lovely having more time for extended conversations, when we’re in the car for hours we also like to listen to books-on-tape, which can help distract us from the frustration stemming from the inevitable traffic jams arising from having so many people traveling when all the road repair work is going on.


Over the years, we’ve especially enjoyed listening to books by John McPhee and Jared Diamond—significant works of considerable scope in time and place—that lend themselves to this kind of listening experience. This summer we opted to read “Behave” by Robert M. Sapolsky (over 26 hours). Having been so captivated by the audio version of Sapolsky’s book, I bought the book, which runs to nearly 800 pages (Penguin Press, 2017), so I can return to it as a resource in my teaching.


“Behave” has a lot to offer social studies teachers. Like Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” or “Collapse”, “Behave” is an interdisciplinary work that pulls in evolutionary biology, neuro-science, social and behavioral psychology, anthropology, ethics, and ethnology in examining, as its subtitle puts it, “humans at our best and worst.” Sapolsky’s subject is violence, and the book is a tour de force in drawing upon so many different forms of evidence from so many fields in trying to explain as complex a phenomenon as aggression in human society and animal groups.


Sapolsky is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and a 1987 awardee of the MacArthur, or “genius,” Fellowship, as it’s called. Even with these scholarly bona fides, he aims his book at the general reader—or at least the general reader prepared to tackle a very long book. Sapolsky grew up in Brooklyn, and brings a wise-cracking, quirky sense of humor to his serious subject matter. For example, he makes a comment about Sarah Palin, pairing her in the same sentence on gender stereotypes with Mahatma Gandhi, and then offers this comment at the bottom of the page to explain himself: “Okay, that was a juvenile cheap shot thrown in merely to increase the number of moose buying copies of this book” (p. 134). You can take the kid out of Brooklyn, but you can’t take Brooklyn out of the “kid.”


Sapolsky’s sense of humor manifests itself in chapters such as: “Adolescence, or, Dude, Where’s My Frontal Cortex?” His accessible style comes through in the section of this chapter called “Empathy, Sympathy, and Moral Reasoning” where he writes: “By adolescence, people are typically pretty good at perspective taking, seeing the world as someone else would. That’s usually when you’ll first hear the likes of ‘Well, I still disagree, but I can see how he feels that way, given his experience.’” (p.167). He writes about alcohol use, testosterone, war and peace, income inequality, poverty, crime, and a myriad of other topics, both biological and cross-cultural, illuminating, for example, what circumstances promote “air rage” and endorsing education as “the key crime-fighting tool” (p.295), a judgment that most teachers would heartily endorse.


Of course, there’s a lot in the book that is more technical than this, but if you can work your way through the more challenging sections, you will be rewarded with some truly mind-blowing insights into why we humans are the way we are. Graciously, his Epilogue summarizes the themes that he’s been addressing throughout the book and leaves readers with “two last thoughts” that I won’t give away here. He also includes three appendices for those interested in short courses on the building blocks of the science: neuroscience, endocrinology, and protein basics. Fifty pages of citations at the end offer hundreds of opportunities, should one seek them, of following up on the wealth of research studies incorporated into this amazing book.


Since the subject of violence consumes a lot of space in traditional social studies curriculum, with its preoccupation with political and military history, wars and conquests, the ideas found in this book might help the World History, Psychology, Sociology, or Anthropology teacher raise questions using the C3 Framework’s Inquiry Arc approach. Trying to make sense of violence in human history, especially topics like genocide, and the Holocaust, is challenging, and perhaps no sense can be made, but certainly questions stimulated by reading “Behave” can be raised in relation to these topics. Whether you listen to it on a long road trip or tackle it during summer vacation, the book may help illuminate what factors rooted in the human condition have made violence such a ubiquitous aspect of our history. In the end, Sapolsky hopes that by understanding these very complicated phenomena better, humans will be able to devise the tools of self and social understanding to make violence less common in the future.


Margaret Smith Crocco (www.margaretcrocco.com)