“Excellent…Outstanding for its breadth of research, the liveliness of the writing, and the depth of humanity it conveys.” – Wall Street Journal
One of our great behavioral scientists, the bestselling author of Behave, plumbs the depths of the science and philosophy of decision-making to mount a devastating case against free will, an argument with profound consequences
Robert Sapolsky’s Behave, his now classic account of why humans do good and why they do bad, pointed toward an unsettling conclusion: We may not grasp the precise marriage of nature and nurture that creates the physics and chemistry at the base of human behavior, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Now, in Determined, Sapolsky takes his argument all the way, mounting a brilliant (and in his inimitable way, delightful) full-frontal assault on the pleasant fantasy that there is some separate self telling our biology what to do.
Determined offers a marvelous synthesis of what we know about how consciousness works—the tight weave between reason and emotion and between stimulus and response in the moment and over a life. One by one, Sapolsky tackles all the major arguments for free will and takes them out, cutting a path through the thickets of chaos and complexity science and quantum physics, as well as touching ground on some of the wilder shores of philosophy. He shows us that the history of medicine is in no small part the history of learning that fewer and fewer things are somebody’s “fault”; for example, for centuries we thought seizures were a sign of demonic possession.
Yet, as he acknowledges, it’s very hard, and at times impossible, to uncouple from our zeal to judge others and to judge ourselves. Sapolsky applies the new understanding of life beyond free will to some of our most essential questions around punishment, morality, and living well together. By the end, Sapolsky argues that while living our daily lives recognizing that we have no free will is going to be monumentally difficult, doing so is not going to result in anarchy, pointlessness, and existential malaise. Instead, it will make for a much more humane world.
About the Author
Robert M. Sapolsky is the author of several works of nonfiction, including A Primate’s Memoir, The Trouble with Testosterone, and Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. His most recent book, Behave,was a New York Times bestseller and named a best book of the year by The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. He is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.” He and his wife live in San Francisco.
“Sapolsky’s decades of experience studying the effects of the interplay of genes and the environment on behavior shine brightly . . . He provides compelling examples that bad luck compounds . . . convincingly argues against claims that chaos theory, emergent phenomena, or the indeterminism offered by quantum mechanics provide the gap required for free will to exist.” —Science
“The behavioural scientist engagingly lays out the reasons why our every action is predetermined —and why we shouldn’t despair about it . . . Determined is a bravura performance, well worth reading for the pleasure of Sapolsky’s deeply informed company . . . Absorbing and compassionate.” —The Guardian
“Few people understand the human brain as well as renowned neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky.” —Most Anticipated Fall Books, San Francisco Chronicle
“Witty and engaging, Determined is also a goldmine of fascinating information (most of it accessible even to those of us who aren’t scientifically literate) about neuroscience; philosophy; chaos theory; emergent complexity; quantum indeterminacy; evolving knowledge of the causes of epilepsy, schizophrenia, and autism; and, of course, the impact of nature and nurture on decision-making.” —Psychology Today
“Determined is a sustained attempt at demonstrating that the decisions we make every day are products of complex factors of which we’re not in charge . . . This is an amiable, surprisingly accessible and at times a persuasive book—a paean to empathy and tolerance that yearns for a world in which societies eventually realize that retribution is futile and wrong . . . [Sapolsky] can be pleased with the knowledge that what he’s written is stimulating to read, even for those who doubt his conclusions.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Sapolsky presents in his inimitable style a cogent argument explaining that free will is an illusion . . . Sapolsky tackles many complicated facets of this demanding subject with aplomb, making difficult material accessible. His engaging style and silly humor make learning fun . . . The debate is essential.” —Booklist
“A neuroscientific takedown of the notion that free will guides us . . . [Sapolsky] is fearless in taking on a matter that is fraught with a long history of debate and division, and he covers a wide variety of disciplines, from philosophy to ethics and law, with admirable clarity . . . Sure to stir controversy, which, to judge by this long but lucid exposition, the author is perfectly willing to court.” —Kirkus (starred review)