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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Book Review: "Behave" by Robert M. Sopolsky




For anyone who wants to understand all of the huge number of factors that influence human behavior, as well as counter overly pat, simple, or downright mythological explanations for it, I cannot recommend a book more highly than this one. Every page – and there are almost 700 of them - is just packed with enlightening information on the role of almost everything you can think of. 

These factors include genes, gene regulation, epigenetics, neurotransmitters, hormones, brain structures, neural networks, unconscious cuing and sensory triggers, stress responses and protective factors, neural plasticity, peers and social acceptance, attachment figures, brain development in childhood and adolescence, socioeconomic and hierarchical status, collectivist vs. individualistic cultures, gender, reactions to “them” vs. “us,” heritibility  vs. inheritance of traits, gene/environmental interactions,  population density, evolution (individual, kin, and group selection), reciprocal and pathological altruism, obedience vs. resistance, cooperation vs. competition, and empathy. And a whole lot more.

Can one book really be that encyclopedic?? Yes! I have no idea how he accomplished writing this. 

If you do not understand some of the scientific concepts that are under discussion, he conveniently includes three appendices in the book to help explain them. Not that the main body of the book is dry and overly technical. It is laced throughout with witty jokes, stories, and ironic observations that kept me thoroughly entertained.

Does he leave anything out? Well, yes, he does not seem to know about the effects of rapid cultural change on families which may create shared intrapsychic conflicts leading to parents giving mixed messages to their children which then trigger and reinforce their repetitive self destructive behavior. But I haven’t yet seen anyone else write about that besides me – at least not in the way I have conceptualized the process - so I wouldn’t expect that. He also doesn’t discuss the effects of chaos theory on the amazingly multi-factorial “causes” of behavior he goes into - a minor quibble.

Sopolsky shoots down behavioral and neuroscientific myths believed by health care professionals, some scientists, and the lay public alike (what mirror neurons actually do, for example) with the abandon of someone armed with an Uzi facing off against people armed with swords. Amazing.

Some of his important points: 

1.       Brains and cultures co-evolve.

2.       We haven’t evolved to be selfish or altruistic, but to behave in particular ways in particular settings. Context is everything.

3.       Genes are not about inevitabilities, but about potentials and vulnerabilities, and they do not determine any behavior on their own.

4.       Evolution has been most consequential when altering regulation of genes, not the genes themselves.

5.       Saying a biological system works well is not a value judgment – it can function equally well for those who do something wonderful or in those who do something horrific.

6.       Nothing seems to cause anything - everything just modulates something else within a specific environmental context. And changing one thing often changes ten other things as a byproduct.

7.       Any causative factor within any specified population of individuals within any specific environmental context has an average effect on behavior that may or may not apply to any given individual. There are always exceptions.

What an accomplishment.

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