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Toppling preconceptions about human behavior

Desert island-grade reading material

Read in Ned: November 30, 2017

by Tom Lambrecht

Many of you who attended college retain fond memories of the experience and I’m no different. There were parties and flirtations with Fine Arts females. And sympathetic English Lit professors who were always willing to grant a science major an extension on the term paper during the finals crunch. In my chosen field of study, the faculty was top-notch and generally available for us lowly undergrads even though they had other pressing issues like research papers and tenure track. But as lecturers, some of them left much to be desired.

It’s fun to contemplate what it would have been like to have a “rock star” professor for my ho-hum morning lectures. Two academics in that category with books released this year are historian Yuval Noah Harari, whose newest is Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow and neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, whose latest is Behave – The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Both are as prolific as authors as they are graceful in blurring the boundaries between academic disciplines and toppling many preconceptions about human behavior. Tantalizing samples of the two lecturing can be found by hunting down some of their online Ted talks and of course, we have both books available for checkout at the library.

In his previous title Sapiens, Harari examines the development of human institutions like society, religion and technology as they relate to our social evolution and in this latest provocatively titled work (Homo Deus translates to “man god”), he picks up where he left off and speculates on the future of the human race. A quote at the top of his webpage reads “History began when humans invented gods, and will end when humans become gods” and that sets both the stage and the tone for some very unorthodox observations and syntheses with the book unspooling like a long (440 pages), dense soliloquy. Following a similar tactic employed by Jared Diamond when he wrote Guns, Germs and Steel, Harari’s book revolves around the continual presence of famine, plague and war and his thesis is that as we inch towards solving them, so will we acquire more and more of the attributes of gods.

Robert Sapolsky’s particular strength in Behave lies in his ability to make complex concepts in the neurosciences comprehensible, even entertaining. In chapters titled “One Second Before,” “Hours to Days Before,” and “Centuries to Millennia Before,” he takes positive and negative behaviors and analyzes their origins in the brain, at the cellular and molecular level and in the broad context of human civilization. His book is conversational in its tone and the author is particularly gleeful when gently poking fun at scholars that are confined by their field of specialization, though he is often self-deprecating. I truly wish that my Neurobiology 320 class had been as engaging.

Please don’t get the impression that either book is just some brilliant guy spouting ideas while you, the reader dangles in their wake. Both titles, particularly Behave, bring the reader up to speed on the subject in the best possible way – by intermingling arcane neurobiology and behavioral science with intriguing human behavior and history. Frankly, I really can’t gush enough about how challenging, yet entertaining the writing is.

These two volumes would serve as a solid foundation for at least two semesters of undergraduate education and it’s going to take me some time to complete them. I’ve already obtained both as eBooks for late-night perusal, rereading, savoring and thinking – lots and lots of thinking. Both are desert island-grade reading material and will richly reward the reader who wishes to ponder our origins and our future.


Tom Lambrecht is a Library Assistant at the Nederland Community Library.

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