Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

Robert M Sapolsky

My review 2018-09-09

A grand review of the current state of knowledge concerning Homo sapiens and its behavior. Although the neurology chapters were a bit hard to get through, the treatment of the genomic, evolutionary, cultural and social context of human behavior is extremely informative. Anyone seriously interested in human society and behavior should read this book.

The only issue I have is about the chapter on free will. Its thesis is that free will is an illusion and that the criminal justice system therefore is fundamentally flawed. I believe this is untenable. Interestingly, Sapolsky seems to acknowledge that his view has weird consequences: "If we deny free will when it comes to he worst of our behaviors, the same must also apply to the best. [...] I can't really imagine how to live your life as if there is no free will." This undercuts his own accusation against free will, namely that it is absurd; his alternative is also, apparently, absurd.

Sapolsky argues from the standpoint of deterministic materialism. In that world view, there is no room for logic, knowledge or moral values. And no, one does not have to be religious to acknowledge that those things also exist in the universe, along with physical entities. Sapolsky does not seem to realize that a universe that is purely materialistic implies that the book he has written contains no knowledge, arguments, or moral reasoning, just some markings in black paint printed on paper which reflects light that just happens to activate certain neurons in the reader's brain. The book, in his universe, does not transmit knowledge, just signals. I wonder if he accepts that conclusion.