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Monkeyluv – Robert M. Sapolsky ****

There’s something delightfully sardonic about Robert Sapolsky’s writing – you can imagine him penning some of the phrases in this enjoyable collection of articles with an eyebrow firmly raised. This is evident whether he is commenting on the film star Sandra Bullock (“One needs merely to examine her work – for the example the scene in which she first takes the wheel of the bus in Speed – to detect the undercurrents of this radicalism in her oeuvre”), or pointing out in a footnote that the habit of referring to animals making a choice to maximize the survival chance of their offspring (or whatever) isn’t referring to a conscious action, but is just a convention for describing unconscious tendencies, “agreed upon to keep everyone from falling asleep at conferences”.
Like most collections of articles, there can be a degree of overlap. The first set of six, for example, could easily be summarized as “it’s not all in the genes; it’s not all down to environment; it depends on the outcome of the particular combination of genes in a particular environment” (whatever “it” may be). In other words, it’s not nature, nor nurture, but the nature+nurture combo – which hopefully most of us knew already. (If you don’t, read Matt Ridley’s excellent Nature via Nurture). But each article makes the point in a different way, or triggered by a different event or piece of research, and Sapolsky’s ebullient style prevents the repetition from grating.
Next he moves on in a second section to the links between the body and the mind, from dreaming to parasites in the brain. In this part, as in the third and final section, which looks at the linkages (both ways) between society and human biology, there’s a more diverse and perhaps more satisfying collection of articles. Some are quite tightly focussed on a specific scientific point. Others are very broad, like the article originally published in Men’ Health that explains why a woman arguing with her partner might be more likely to bring up past demeanours when the man thought that they had got over a problem and were back to a positive state. But whatever the topic, they are entertaining and insightful.
One minor criticism – the name of the book is not particularly helpful in giving a clue as to what it’s about (it’s also works badly in bookstore search engines, as they don’t find it looking for Monkey Luv).
Altogether a very worthwhile and elegantly written collection of articles that lives up to Sapolsky’s subtitle “lessons on our lives as animals”.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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