Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky

Book – It’s the fundamental question of the biological and social sciences — why do humans do the things they do? Every discipline has its own answers, from the complex chemical interactions of neurobiology to the deep history of evolution. In Behave, Sapolsky pulls together all of these and more to explore the causes and meanings of human behavior, with an eye toward the most important question of all: How can we be better people?

This book is long, hard going, but it’s well worth it – it’s one of the only books on neuroscience I’ve ever read where the author doesn’t treat the core biological mechanics of neurochemicals and genes as though that provides a meaningful answer to any question. Rather, Sapolsky goes into detail about the interaction between genes, hormones, biochemistry, environment, and long-lasting biological change, making it clear that while there’s a biological explanation for everything, there are so many variables involved that saying we can identify a single source of any given human behavior is laughable at best. The book really gets good in the second half, when he starts to apply all this to the things we’re really concerned about – compassion and generosity, violence and aggression. Sapolsky is optimistic overall, but he makes it clear that improving society is going to mean fighting our biology in some ways (or, more effectively, learning how to trick it).

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer

two dollarsBook – Composed of material gleaned from personal interviews, Edin’s account focuses on the most disadvantaged in our society: those who have heads of household who are not working and who do not receive welfare, with cash incomes of about $2 per person per day. For comparison, even those just below the poverty line have about $18 a day per person. While the very poor may have food stamps, and sometimes even rent assistance, what they lack is access to cash. Those Edin interviewed would report donating plasma, recycling cans, and even (illegally) selling food stamps for $0.60 on the dollar just to get some cash income, a necessity to buy clothes, school supplies, and other incidentals not covered by food stamps.

The very poor can be found all over the United States. Edin interviewed, for example, a large family in rural Appalachia, a single mother and daughter in Chicago, and an extended family living all under one roof in Cleveland. The events that triggered extreme poverty varied, but the constant that Edin observed is that it only takes a little bit of misfortune to go from poor to extreme poverty. Triggering events such as losing a job at Wal-Mart because of no gas in the car and getting fired because of a $10 cash register discrepancy were enough to catapult two of Edin’s subjects to extreme poverty.

$2.00 a Day will appeal to fans of Edin’s other works on poverty and, for a more personal take on poverty, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America will appeal.

Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh

Book – What do a PhD candidate and a gang leader have in common? They both have a vested interest in the life of gang members and their actions. Sudhir was a graduate student at the University of Chicago during the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s. In Gang Leader for a Day Sudhir befriends J.T., the leader of the Black Kings, a gang on the Southside of Chicago. The two have a chance encounter when Sudhir is trying to get surveys filled out by tenants at a Chicago projects high-rise. This meeting will lead them to develop an interesting relationship that will span over 10 years.

J.T. shows Sudhir what it takes to lead a gang and how the gang operates. Sudhir learns that gangs are structured and operate very similar to most corporations. The major difference being the products (drugs), and employee discipline delivered when gang members do not meet organization expectations, which comes in the form of violence.

Sudhir broke the mold for sociological studies when he performed this research. Normally sociologists use surveys to collect data on why subjects feel the way they do. Sudhir decided to immerse himself in gang culture in order to find out what gang life was like, how the community dealt with the gang, and why J.T. returned to the gang life after having attended college and a job at a downtown business. Sudhir also develops relationships with several community members and leaders allowing Sudhir to obtain a better understanding of life in the projects of Chicago’s Robert Taylor homes.

I listened to the audiobook and would like to recommend it for those trying audiobooks for the first time. The reader had a voice that made me want to listen and kept a good pace. Audiobooks can be tricky because many factors will affect the listener’s experience. Readers with interest in true crime, gang culture, and sociological studies will enjoy this book.

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

madnessBook – Jon Ronson started out investigating a hoax being played on a group of neurologists, but ends up exploring the depths of what he calls the “madness industry.” A top psychologist teaches him how to recognize the signs of psychopathy in others, and he sets out to explore his new knowledge in the corridors of power.

This a was fun, funny, casual read.  And therein lies the problem: I felt that the fun, funny parts of the book were distracting severely from the actual serious parts of the book. While the implications of psychopathy as a category (that is, deciding it’s a real thing and treating psychopaths as people different from the rest of humanity) range from interesting to downright scary, Ronson kind of mentions this in passing and then goes on to spend quite a lot of time with the weirdest people possible, from the criminal who insists he can’t be a psychopath to the psychiatrist who insists that that insistence proves that he is. (Confused yet?)

Maybe I’m just weird in not liking nonfiction that doesn’t seem to teach you anything. But Ronson seems to me to have caught the “objective journalism” disease – he doesn’t give away any opinions on anything. No opinions other than “these guys are weird,” that is, which is pretty much the only opinion I don’t like my authors to have. Okay, they’re weird, but nobody ever thinks of themselves as irredeemably weird, so what else is going on here? Ronson never gets to the what else.