Sapolsky’s Behave, Part 1

This is the first of two posts reviewing Robert Sapolsky’s Behave – the second post is linked here.

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers is one of my all-time favorite book titles – to boot, the book rocks. Robert Sapolsky, the esteemed American neuroscientist, writes that acute stress is a life-saver: a zebra sees a lion and runs like the wind. We humans are equipped with the same fight-or-flight response mechanism, and though we can’t run like zebras, we benefit similarly. Zebras and other animals have less brain capacity than we do, consequently they’re no good at worrying. We are capable of prolonged worrying which elevates our stress levels to chronic status, which in turn gives us ulcers, hypertension, and other life-threatening maladies. Whereas acute or momentary stress can be a life-saver, chronic stress is a slow killer.

The long-time Stanford professor originally published his book in 1994. It soon became a classic and I read its third edition in the summer of 2006, recommended from the book list of a leadership class I was taking. In the years that have since passed, I’ve referenced the book multiple times. I opine that there’s a connection between the increasing rates of pet ownership and social anxiety in the US. Most dog breeds are good with acute stress – it’s their job to bark when a stranger comes to the door – but, like zebras, they’re no good at achieving chronic stress levels. What a remedy for us to come home after a long day to a tail-wagger who’s happy to see us and whose beating heart warms and calms our own.


In 2017,  Sapolsky published Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst. This big book of 675 pages (not including notes) touches on some of the same territory as Zebras, but Sapolsky enlarges his scope to include discussions on inequality and egalitarianism, the effects of poverty on health, the dichotomies of “Us versus Them,” the development of empathy and compassion within the determining powers of genetic code and environment, and – it doesn’t get much better than this – the biology of political orientations and loyalties.

Let’s take a look at each of these themes. The “last best” theme will be covered in the second post in this review.

Stratified, or non-egalitarian, societies are better suited at conquering and survival when times get tough. This helps explain their ubiquity in the history of civilization. Because of their stratification, mortality is sequestered to the lower classes. Essentially, the unequal distribution of wealth and access to resources translates to the unequal distribution of death.

Modern democracies – and the advances associated with industrialization – have balanced things out (somewhat) concerning life expectancy rates between the higher and lower classes, but rampant inequalities still threaten various markers of 21st century life in many societies: weakening social capital, exacerbating poor health, increasing crime and violence. Sapolsky points out, most tellingly, that “inequality means more secession of the wealthy from contributing to the pubic good.” Inequality, without the mitigating effects of egalitarianism, is self-perpetuating.

Which brings us to the dichotomization of Us versus Them. Evolution has equipped us with the life-saving ability to differentiate between friend and foe, and we all derive much happiness and joy from being part of “Us” groups – whether golf buddies, sorority sisters, or mates in a military service platoon.

But when not held in proper check, this same ability can produce, as Sapolsky says, “oceans of pain” – with white supremacy groups at the top of the “For example” list.

Sapolsky advises his readers to distrust essentialism – the idea, like stereotyping, that people groups are always defined by a fixed set of characteristics and traits. He warns that what we think to be rationality is often just rationalization. Because of our “automatic tendency to favor in-groups over out-groups,” our seemingly rational explanations about the behaviors of others are sometimes better described as evidences of tribalism.

The recent rise of authoritarianism – Trump, Duterte in the Philippines, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Morales in Guatemala, along with the long arc of rule by Trump’s buddy Putin in Russia – is a troubling trend for many of us. Sapolsky shows that this rise benefits from the deep roots that conformity and obedience have in the human family. It fits hand in glove with another tendency or conditioned response in humans: our natural like of hierarchies. Sapolsky: “Hierarchies establish a status quo by ritualizing inequalities.” (Hierarchies, from ant colonies to corporate employee structures, are capable of unparalleled performance and production. My purpose here, as is Sapolsky’s in Behave, is to focus on inequality.)

Unlike the chimpanzees and baboons that Sapolsky has studied for much of his life, we humans in democratic societies actually choose our (political) leaders. He sites studies showing that we elect leaders with more masculine traits – high forehead, prominent jaw lines – during times of war and younger, more feminine faces during times of peace. Another study he sites had children looking at pictured pairs of faces where they were asked to choose their preference between the two for a hypothetical boat trip. The paired photos were actually competing candidates from obscure political races, and the children were asked which one would be most competent as captain for the boat trip. Their skippers, 71 percent of the time, were the actual winners of the elections.

We have entrenched biases and preferences. We have the option today (exercised by many) to consume the media output most aligned with our positions . . . and, like we often see partisans do on TV, we end up yelling at and past each other. Rationality or rationalizing? Sapolsky, again, says the latter: “Our conscious cognitions play catch-up to make our decisions seem careful and wise.”

If we’re only watching Rachel Maddow or only Sean Hannity – we’re not doing much more than stoking our own fire. Rational deliberation comes not from “doubling down” but from consideration of different points of view.

As promised, we’ll go deeper with Sapolsky into the biology of our political loyalties and preferences in the next post. Stay tuned!

balm.cover.2Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).


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One thought on “Sapolsky’s Behave, Part 1

  1. Carl L Anderson

    Thanks Tim, excellent intro to the old master Sapolsky; I wasn’t familiar with Behave, thanks again. The connection with (in)equality is very insightful I think.

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