By Lise Funderburg
April 4, 1997
Seventeen gentle, provocative essays fill “The Trouble With Testosterone,” the new book from behavioral biologist Robert Sapolsky. This is science for the beaker-phobic, written by a man with a gift for smuggling quantitative data into commentaries on life, death, faith, individuality and love. In each of the book’s sections, as with the rumination on voyeurism entitled “Primate Peekaboo” — which is subtitled, “Baboon Doc Sez: Everyone Likes to Watch” — the author fits a scientific template over life’s big questions: What is the neurochemistry of clothing preference, after all? In the “Peekaboo” essay, Sapolsky wonders about why, throughout his many primate studies, he has observed the same kind of rubbernecking curiosity that keeps the National Enquirer in business.
Sapolsky, who is also the author of “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” is a fluid writer, funny and personable. He is willing to take affectionate jabs at himself, his colleagues and his profession, if it will make the lay reader feel more comfortable. Like Oliver Sacks or Stephen Jay Gould, Sapolsky artfully crafts a bridge between the laboratory and the living room. He warns readers when the scientific load is about to increase and, in the “Further Reading” sections at the end of every essay, annotates his bibliographies with commentary on the density of each recommended reading.
The best, and perhaps most blasphemous, essay by this Stanford professor and MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient is his last: a five-part piece titled “Circling the Blanket for God.” (Sapolsky is an atheist.) The most inspired section of this is a lengthy discourse on religious ritual, observed through the prism of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Of course, you think, how else to explain the morning Hindu ritual of hand-washing or the Orthodox Jew’s Halakha (613 rules for everyday life)? Sapolsky incites thought but not ire, remaining respectful of nearly every subject. OK, maybe not Nancy Reagan, whose astrology fixation is mocked in two separate instances. But we can let him have one, right? After all, he’s only human.