Why do we do the things we do? This is the question at the center of this book by Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist and primatologist. Unsurprisingly, there is no easy answer, and even though looking at our biological makeup is essential to even begin understanding it, on its own, it is not enough to fully illuminate the complexities of human behaviour.
The first part of the book is dedicated to explaining how our brain is designed, what the different parts are for and how they interact, what roles hormones and genes play, and how we evolved into who we are now. This is a lot of science, of course, but I think that Sapolsky does an excellent job of including all the pertinent information so that everyone can understand it. I have never been all that interested in neuroscience or endocrinology, for instance, so my knowledge was pretty limited when I started the book, but there are appendices where he basically starts from scratch, and even when some details went over my head, I still understood the general gist of the matter and could follow his argumentation. There are also some anecdotes and witty remarks sprinkled in to keep things interesting and to illustrate some of the points made, and that definitely helped to keep me engaged. Apart from that, however, this first part is overall rather depressing because at times, it does seem as if we are solely at the mercy of our biology, and that our behaviour is dictated by factors that are far out of our reach.
The second part, however, is where it gets truly interesting because after establishing a solid foundation on which to base his further investigations on, Sapolsky begins to ask the big questions. He looks at tribalism, racism and xenophobia, aggression, competition, and violence, sympathy and empathy, war and peace. Why is adolescence such a difficult time, and should our criminal justice system be adjusted according to our knowledge of the brain? What about morality, “doing the right thing”, and yes, what about “free will”? These chapters are riveting because there is so much food for thought, and everything is presented in an accessible and even entertaining way. Furthermore, these chapters show that there are reasons why we shouldn’t be only pessimistic about humanity, and that biology is not quite the cage it appears to be in the first part, all of which is welcome information indeed. It is made clear that cultural, social, and other factors significantly affect behaviour, and that the context in which a certain decision or reaction occurs is most important.
Overall, this book is an amazing feat; it is funny and sad, enjoyable and depressing, enlightening and thought-provoking, and above all, incredibly humane. At the end, Sapolsky writes that “you don’t have to choose between being scientific and being compassionate,” and I don’t think there is a better way to sum up the spirit of this work.