by Robert M. Sapolsky. New York, Scribner, 2005, 224 pp., $24.00.
Monkeyluv by Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, is, simply stated, a real gem! I undertook reading Monkeyluv under adverse conditions—after a day of research meetings, I made it to Logan Airport with time to spare, only to find (surprise, surprise) that my flight had been canceled. Only to have successively rebooked flights canceled through the afternoon and into the evening, I had hours to read Monkeyluv and, despite my affective state owing to my air travel happenstance, I could not put the book down. This slender volume is a collection of previously published essays—many published in Discover, Natural History, or Scientific American—that tap into many fascinating topics such as gene/environment interaction, neurobehavioral systems underpinning complex social behaviors, and so on. The essays carefully, sometimes playfully, interweave data across species (from the fruit fly to the prairie vole to Homo sapiens) and across levels of analysis ranging from the genetic, through neurobiological, to macro social levels. Sapolsky tackles some of the most engaging questions, puzzles, and drama in genetics and behavioral biology, making them accessible through a prose style that can only be described as enviably delightful, all the while maintaining high fidelity to the research corpus. The chapters unfold almost as stories, adventures, treks through the high country of contemporary biological science, all the while maintaining relevance to the social aspects of our lives that we frequently wish to understand. What is remarkable is just how well Sapolsky uses the research literatures across species to make his points, tell the tale, and enlighten without lecturing.
The volume is divided into three broad sections: “Genes and who we are,” “Our bodies and who we are,” and “Society and who we are.” One might easily think, “Good grief, that is some panorama of topics, can they all be handled well?” And the answer is, in my view, “spectacularly well and in a way that is great intellectual fun to boot!” Sapolsky’s essay “A Gene for Nothing” is one of the best discussions of the interaction of genes and environment that I have ever read—frankly, I think it should be required reading in undergraduate and graduate courses that tap into genetic matters. “The Genetic War Between Men and Women” allows us a fuller understanding of the relations between men and women, building on insights from our little Drosophila friends—how can this be you might ask. Well, you will need to read Monkeyluv to see what I mean. Not only is Sapolsky clearly a fine neurobiologist and primatologist, but he is perhaps one of the finest scientist-writers I have ever come across. These essays are nothing short of masterful (a word I use rarely, but well deserved in this case). So, if you find yourself stuck in the airport, or on the beach at the Cape, or elsewhere, you will not be disappointed if you can break open Monkeyluv for genuine intellectual pleasure.
Book review accepted for publication July 2007 (doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2007.07071138).