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

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

Why do we do the things we do? More than a decade in the making, this game-changing book is Robert Sapolsky's genre-shattering attempt to answer that question as fully as perhaps only he could, looking at it from every angle. Sapolsky's storytelling concept is delightful but it also has a powerful intrinsic logic: he starts by looking at the factors that bear on a person's...

Title:Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst
Author:
Rating:
ISBN:1594205078
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Hardcover
Number of Pages:790 pages

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst Reviews

  • Andrew
    Mar 17, 2017

    Robert Sapolsky's Behave is a magnum opus: a definitive work from a definitive genius on a topic he leads the world in discussing. For anyone else, that would be enough. For Sapolsky, it's just the start. Behave is entrancing, accessible, and infused with a spirited likability that you just can't help but enjoy. Behave will turn heads and raise controversy in the field of neurobiology, something the field has come to expect from Sapolsky, but Behave will also change science writing. Gone is the

    Robert Sapolsky's Behave is a magnum opus: a definitive work from a definitive genius on a topic he leads the world in discussing. For anyone else, that would be enough. For Sapolsky, it's just the start. Behave is entrancing, accessible, and infused with a spirited likability that you just can't help but enjoy. Behave will turn heads and raise controversy in the field of neurobiology, something the field has come to expect from Sapolsky, but Behave will also change science writing. Gone is the jargon and hundred-watt rhetoric that repels the plebians and ill-informed. No more tented-fingered, cross-legged analysis. This may be the definitive book on behavior, but it's a book for everyone

  • Pouting Always
    May 05, 2017

    Robert Sapolsky is a neuroendocrinologist and has studied primates for decades in Africa, and I love him. If anyone wants to watch it he did a TED talk on what makes human's unique from other animals:

    . The book itself covers a wide range of topics, mostly centered around neurology and it's subsequent effect on behavior. The book is a little long and dense and I have finals so I shouldn't even be reading it, but I've been making time to get it done anyways

    Robert Sapolsky is a neuroendocrinologist and has studied primates for decades in Africa, and I love him. If anyone wants to watch it he did a TED talk on what makes human's unique from other animals:

    . The book itself covers a wide range of topics, mostly centered around neurology and it's subsequent effect on behavior. The book is a little long and dense and I have finals so I shouldn't even be reading it, but I've been making time to get it done anyways.

    The book goes through the biology of behavior and describes what happens when we do something and how the body's various hormones and major neurotransmitters work to shape it. The book then goes into the genetic and evolutionary basis of our behavior and the ways we're predisposed to think about others specifically in groups and out groups. This topic is then expanded to talk about culture and hierarchies and our unique behavior as humans of killing over ideas. The book end with a discussion of neurology's place in law and how much culpability people actually have for their actions. There's an appendix at the end of the book for those not as familiar with neuroscience or hormones and proteins of the body.

    This was a really ambitious undertaking, and the book covers such a vast amount of information. I learned a lot but even with my own familiarity with a lot of the subjects it took me a while to get through this one so I'm not sure how enjoyable this will be for a more general audience. I had so many different thoughts while reading this because it brought up a lot of more pertinent issues but now I can't think of any of them for some reason. I think I'm just a little overtaken with how much I learned from the book. Sapolsky even talked about a lot of popular nonfiction books I havent gotten around to reading plus the criticisms of them and what the evidence against and for them are.

    It's just a lot to wrap my head around and I mean his whole point is that behavior is extremely complex and context dependent and that we don't yet understand enough to be able to predict it accurately. There are certain ways of thinking that we are predisposed towards but nothing is a hundred percent certain yet. I love neurology and the brain and so this is my type of books so of course I enjoyed it immensely,I'm not sure how much anyone else would like it. He did a very thorough job going through the current literature and covering much of what is being talked about in the present which a lot of nonfiction books tend not to do. I learned a lot and I really think I need to read more of Sapolsky's books.

  • Radiantflux
    Jun 08, 2017

    34th book for 2017.

    This is a really good, well balanced book that offers a state-of-the-art summary of what we know about behavior. It's probably a little too textbook-like for some readers, but for those who really want to get a good general grounding in what science in 2017 tells us about behavior, there is probably no better place to go.

    I particularly liked the discussions on the law and neuroscience, and a really nuanced take on role (or lack thereof) of genetics in behavioral determinism, a

    34th book for 2017.

    This is a really good, well balanced book that offers a state-of-the-art summary of what we know about behavior. It's probably a little too textbook-like for some readers, but for those who really want to get a good general grounding in what science in 2017 tells us about behavior, there is probably no better place to go.

    I particularly liked the discussions on the law and neuroscience, and a really nuanced take on role (or lack thereof) of genetics in behavioral determinism, and final chapter relating to war (and peace).

  • Steve
    Jun 14, 2017

    This excellent book efficiently summarizes most of the important scientific findings on the biochemical aspects of tendencies of behavior, from neurobiology, endocrinology, learning and memory, development, genetics, evolution, culture, religion, tribalism, empathy, and philosophy.

    A comprehensive, encyclopedic, masterful demonstration of the breadth and deep of the scientific knowledge of important research areas. Sapolsky is an neuroendocrinologist, neurobiologist and primatologist, currently a

    This excellent book efficiently summarizes most of the important scientific findings on the biochemical aspects of tendencies of behavior, from neurobiology, endocrinology, learning and memory, development, genetics, evolution, culture, religion, tribalism, empathy, and philosophy.

    A comprehensive, encyclopedic, masterful demonstration of the breadth and deep of the scientific knowledge of important research areas. Sapolsky is an neuroendocrinologist, neurobiologist and primatologist, currently a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, and he knows his subjects well. In the finally chapters, he discusses impacts of all this new scientific knowledge on justice, war and peace, and what our responses to it all might be.

    The book flows with a remarkably breezy style while still covering things in an amazing depth. You are getting the distilled experience and knowledge of a world class researcher who has been deep into the latest result for the last decades.

    I'm not saying it is an easy read. It certainly is not, precisely because there is little easy to memorize rules for our complex behavior.

    Let me give both a flavor of the writing and approach by quoting a few pieces:

    "Various muscles have moved, and a behavior has happened. Perhaps it is a good act: you’ve empathically touched the arm of a suffering person. Perhaps it is a foul act: you’ve pulled a trigger, targeting an innocent person. Perhaps it is a good act: you’ve pulled a trigger, drawing fire to save others. Perhaps it is a foul act: you’ve touched the arm of someone, starting a chain of libidinal events that betray a loved one. Acts that, as emphasized, are definable only by context. Thus, to ask the question that will begin this and the next eight chapters, why did that behavior occur?"

    To:

    "For each side, perceiving themselves as having a “right” to do things their way mostly means that they have slathered enough post-hoc, Haidtian rationalizations on a shapeless, self-serving, parochial moral intuition; have lined up enough of their gray-bearded philosopher-king shepherds to proclaim the moral force of their stance; feel in the most sincere, pained way that the very essence of what they value and who they are is at stake, that the very moral rightness of the universe is wobbling; all of that so strongly that they can’t recognize the “right” for what it is, namely “I can’t tell you why, but this is how things should be done.” To cite a quote attributed to Oscar Wilde, “Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike.”"

    To this brief summary of some "whys" of our rational limits of our moral thinking:

    "This establishes a dichotomy of what things are supposedly made of:

    Biological stuff Homuncular grit

    Destructive sexual urges Resisting acting upon them

    Delusionally hearing voices Resisting their destructive commands

    Proclivity toward alcoholism Not drinking

    Having epileptic seizures Not driving if you didn’t take your meds

    Not all that bright Getting going when the going gets tough

    Not the loveliest of faces Resisting getting that huge, hideous nose ring

    Here are just a few of the things we’ve seen in this book that can influence the column on the right: blood glucose levels; the socioeconomic status of your family of birth; a concussive head injury; sleep quality and quantity; prenatal environment; stress and glucocorticoid levels; whether you’re in pain; if you have Parkinson’s disease and which medication you’ve been prescribed; perinatal hypoxia; your dopamine D4 receptor gene variant; if you have had a stroke in your frontal cortex; if you suffered childhood abuse; how much of a cognitive load you’ve borne in the last few minutes; your MAO-A gene variant; if you’re infected with a particular parasite; if you have the gene for Huntington’s disease; lead levels in your tap water when you were a kid; if you live in an individualist or a collectivist culture; if you’re a heterosexual male and there’s an attractive woman around; if you’ve been smelling the sweat of someone who is frightened. On and on. Of all the stances of mitigated free will, the one that assigns aptitude to biology and effort to free will, or impulse to biology and resisting it to free will, is the most permeating and destructive. “You must have worked so hard”"

    To the final summary on why we sometimes behave better and sometimes worse:

    'It's complicated."

    To the takeaway:

    "The philosopher George Santayana provided us with an aphorism so wise that it has suffered the fate of becoming a cliché—“ Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In the context of this final chapter, we must turn Santayana on his head—those who do not remember the extraordinary truces of the World War I trenches, or who do not learn of Thompson, Colburn, and Andreotta, or of the reconciliative distances traveled by Abe and Fiske, Mandela and Viljoen, Hussein and Rabin, or of the stumbling, familiar moral frailties that Newton vanquished, or who do not recognize that science can teach us how to make events like these more likely—those who do not remember these are condemned to be less likely to repeat these reasons to hope."

  • Dan Graser
    May 11, 2017

    Wow. This is brilliant, mind-clearing work by Stanford Professor and MacArthur "genius" Fellow Robert Sapolsky. Not only does he present the latest data in fields of neuroscience and psychology, but his presentation of several issues of human behavior from the levels of neurobiology, sensory and stimulus perception, changes in hormone levels, developmental changes in physiology, evolutionary changes over the course of millions of years, as well as cultural and psychological changes from the envi

    Wow. This is brilliant, mind-clearing work by Stanford Professor and MacArthur "genius" Fellow Robert Sapolsky. Not only does he present the latest data in fields of neuroscience and psychology, but his presentation of several issues of human behavior from the levels of neurobiology, sensory and stimulus perception, changes in hormone levels, developmental changes in physiology, evolutionary changes over the course of millions of years, as well as cultural and psychological changes from the environment as well as parental/societal upbringing makes for the most thorough, multidisciplinary work I've ever read.

    All the while, over the course of around 700 pages that is, Sapolsky does so in very readable and at times quite bizarrely funny fashion:

    "It floats above the limbic system, supporting philosophers since at least Descartes who have emphasized the dichotomy between thought and emotion. Of course, that's all wrong, as shown by the temperature of a cup - something processed in the hypothalamus - altering assessment of of the coldness of someone's personality."

    "...after all, LTP (long-term potentiation) is what occurred in Schopenhauer's hippocampus when he read Hegel, not what the spinal cord does to make you more coordinated at twerking."

    "Agriculture's invention is one of the all-time human blunders, up thee with, say, the New Coke debacle and the Edsel...and from there it's just a hop, skip, and a jump until we've got Mr. McGregor persecuting Peter Rabbit and people incessantly singing Oklahoma."

    Quoting Steve Jones: "Evolution is to analogy as statues are to birdshit."

    He ends each chapter with important bullet points and makes this very complicated work flow seamlessly. As he approaches the great moral topics of the day the writing becomes quite poignant as demonstrated in two powerful back-to-back chapters, "Metaphors We Kill By," and "Biology, the Criminal Justice System, and Free Will."

    I can't recommend this enough, rarely is this much education so much fun to read!

  • Michael
    May 18, 2017

    This is an outstanding and monumental synthesis on the causes of behavior by a talented researcher and teacher. He excels in making the science of the brain and behavior accessible to a wide audience without oversimplification. The goal is to provide a handle on how to account for the origins of the most admirable and most despicable of human actions, i.e. the roots of empathy and altruism on the one hand and violence, war, and genocide on the other.

    Sapolsky’s accomplishment yields an expansion

    This is an outstanding and monumental synthesis on the causes of behavior by a talented researcher and teacher. He excels in making the science of the brain and behavior accessible to a wide audience without oversimplification. The goal is to provide a handle on how to account for the origins of the most admirable and most despicable of human actions, i.e. the roots of empathy and altruism on the one hand and violence, war, and genocide on the other.

    Sapolsky’s accomplishment yields an expansion of what we mean by the biological basis of behavior, enough knowledge of brain systems to make you dangerous, and a better appreciation of the interplay between cognitive and emotional contributions to our actions. You will come away with a better appreciation of human evolution, an informed perspective on whether our hunter-gatherer ancestors were more aligned with a Hobbesian dog-eat-dog character or of an Edenic Rousseau types. In the end, he mounts an assault on the need for a concept of free will, arguing that it is equivalent to putting a homunculus in the driver’s seat above the material universe. His mantra is for a multifactorial and hierarchical array of causes behind behavior. In the end it will be easy to conclude that the extreme complexity of the brain limits the gains in explanatory power from any simplistic reductionist plan. I this vein, I liked the quote from Hilary Bok:

    Sapolsky’s organizing principle of serving up mountains of research progress according to different timescales that precede particular behaviors is a very helpful approach. Looking at events a second before a behavior taps into automated and unconscious processes in the brain; seconds before brings in higher neural systems associated with conscious actions; hours to days before is the realm of hormonal influences; days to months before the impact of things like chronic stress and adaptations of neuroplasticity; years and decades before includes the shaping of culture and individual development; and centuries to millennia before the processes of evolution. You’ll be busting at the seams by the time you get through this program. He is so skilled at introducing humor and commonsense translations to the concepts presented you will be amazed in your ability to follow his presentation and never fall asleep. If some of the presentation doesn’t quite sink in, he excels in summary take-home messages at the end of each chapter and provision of frequent links among the chapters.

    A big plus for me was his overall humility and restraint in claiming more than is reasonably warranted from the data. He is scathing for the excessive claims such as of genetic causes of bad behavior (e.g. calling a variant of a monoamine oxidase gene that provides limited predictability for violent behavior a “warrior gene”), use of premenstrual syndrome as a claim of diminished responsibility in a court defense, and the puffing up of the evidence about “mirror neurons”, which are active both when a primate acts and observes the same act in another, as the foundation of empathy and altruism. The stupendous advances from being able to assess activity of significant brain structures in humans through functional magnetic resonance imaging are also subject to overinterpretation, which I think he mostly avoids. I liked his outrage that the problem of PTSD depended on brain scans showing shrinkage of the hippocampus to get Congress to recognize the problem as worthy of expanding treatment resources. For me, I was more impressed by the power of images of changed receptors in the meth addict’s brain to justify more funding of substance abuse treatment as a “brain” disease. The principle is the same: these people need help in the social and psychological realm, and using images as a reification of their state doesn’t really change the situation. That said, I was disappointed with his simplistic summary that schizophrenia is a “biochemical disorder” and dyslexia a result of “microscopic cortical malformations”.

    The interdisciplinary nature of the topics here raises the issue of reliability of the presenter in interpreting the research. I appreciate how the author has a solid track record both in field studies of dominance and aggression in baboons and in laboratory studies on hormonal and brain system roles in social behaviors. Having been a researcher in the area of brain mechanisms of aggression and motivational systems for several years, I can testify to the veracity and wisdom of his analyses of brain studies. As my former scientific career ended up mostly in the area of brain development and plasticity, I can say he was inaccurate on the status of research on a couple of subjects (e.g. the claim of long distance sprouting of new connections to account for repurposing of the visual cortex in blind people; the conclusion that the extensive neuron cell death during development serves primarily an error-correction function).

    Can the average reader handle and dig all the brain talk in this book? I think the author does a great job keeping the jargon down in the narrative and slipping a lot of the details into copious footnotes, providing a primer on basic neuroscience in an appendix, and justifying significant points with a huge collection of references stored in the back. A couple of areas of the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, and the dopamine reinforcement system get the starring role in most of the studies discussed. As an example, here is a bit on the dorsolateral and ventromedial prefrontal cortex:

    In this bit on dopamine, I give you a taste of his humor:

    Here is a sample on the amygdala, long linked to a major role in fear and anxiety:

    Here is a good example of his humility in the face of the brains complexity:

    Sapolsky shines in his overview on the roles of testosterone on aggression, of oxytocin on empathy and prosocial behavior, and of stress on both realms of behavior. I liked his conclusion that no drug or hormone or gene can be said to cause a behavior. And all we know of a person’s state of brain health, genetic background, and experience does not provide a reliable predictor of bad or good behavior. At a critical point Sapolsky illustrates the importance of a multifactorial outlook by considering whether a particular woman will suffer from depression. Having a certain variant of the serotonin transporter gene has at most a 10% predictive power. But adding development in poverty, experience of child abuse, levels of glucocorticoids in the bloodstream, living in a collectivist culture, and menstrual status might bring you up get you up to a 50% level of prediction. This illustrates both progress in understanding the causes of behavior and the limitations of such knowledge.

    The author hits a popular vein in his chapter on adolescence. The late maturation of the prefrontal cortex and its function to in reigning in excessive emotionality or impulsive behaviors is held to represent a biological foundation for the folly of youth. I’m not sure what benefits we get in how to treat teenagers wisely with this knowledge over the standard psychological consideration of them as being immature. We are not far from McLean’s model of the Triune Brain, with the neocortex in primates an evolutionary wonder that is seen as riding herd on the unruly mammalian limbic system and lizard-brain of the brainstem like Freud’s Superego over the Id. And emphasizing to parents and teachers the risks of teens’ late development of executive brain functions practically puts them in the category of the brain-damaged. Still, it was fun to experience how eloquent Sapolsky gets on the subject:

    Where it comes to egregious acts of violence or crime, neuroscience provides little new ground for or against excusing someone’s responsibility for their acts on the basis of biological causes not in the person’s control. Still, an essential role of the criminal justice system is to “protect the endangered from the dangerous”. And despite any solid way to predict dangerousness, juries need to consider diminished capacities for judgment among the accused. Knowledge about the delayed maturation of frontal cortical systems in adolescents helps to justify being more lenient on them in the justice system. The philosopher Stephen Pinker and neuroscientist Michael Gazzanaga both lean with Sapolsky toward the concept that free will is an illusion, but they still argue we must hold people responsible to varying degrees for violent criminal acts. The argument that a man can’t help being a pedophile but is responsible for acts of child abuse is compelling. But Sapolsky holds his ground that the latter acts are biologically determined no less than the ingrained proclivity to fixate on children and to think otherwise reflects an unscientific dualism of an ethereal homunculus pulling the strings. He doesn’t have a practical answer for reforming the criminal justice system, though he did launch an ongoing discussion between a group of jurists and social scientists and a set of neuroscientists starting with a workshop. One can expect further encroachment of neuroscience into the courtroom, which Sapolsky hopes will proceed with great caution:

    Hopefully, the new science of unconscious biases among juries and judges can also be applied to help mitigate some of the excess manipulations of the prosecutors and defense lawyers. For example, research showing that sentences rendered by judges tend to be more severe when they are hungry (i.e. right before lunch). And all members of society (and jury members) must somehow be on guard for subterranean perceptions like the following:

    This is a long book, but I wished the author would have spent more time on the nature of war from a biological perspective. I don’t believe he ever broached the subject of territorial aggression, which represents one of the major classes of intraspecies violence found among many species and some primates and the form that most closely resembles human group conflicts that involve killing people over turf. Maybe the outrageous claims of a territorial instinct behind human war by the likes of Desmond Morris and Robert Ardrey nearly 40 years ago still make this a disreputable topic for current scientists to pursue. The discovery that groups of chimps sometimes coordinate together on patrols and raids into another chimp community and kill members they encounter was a shock to many who imbibed Jane Goodall’s portrait of their communities, and obvious analogies to human war were made in the media. Usually territorial conflicts in animals are resolved through symbolic displays that provoke a withdrawal by the intruders of another groups’ territory. The professor I worked with on a brain region that appeared to organize the freeze-flight-fight system in rats in the early 70’s, David Adams, went on to lead efforts that emphasized that the technology and weapons humans use in group conflicts in the historical period makes war a different kettle of fish from animal territorial aggression because the distances over which the weapons operate preclude use of the usual behavioral signals that moderate lethal outcomes. As part of his work for UNESCO he helped facilitate the drafting of the Seville Statement on Violence in 1986, a proclamation signed by 20 prominent scientists that aimed “to dispel the widespread belief that human beings are inevitably disposed to war as a result of innate, biologically determined aggressive traits” (see

    ).

    A lot of the debate about biological foundations of lethal violence in humans centers around studies of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies and anthropological evidence from ancient human remains. Popular books by people like Jared Diamond and Stephen Pinker interpret such data to indicate that prehistoric humans were always perpetrators of war. Sapolsky spends significant time on the criticisms from various sources on the veracity of the data from hunter-gatherer societies and argues that the advent of agriculture and fixed settlements made warfare more deadly because conflict resolution by moving to a new territory became a less feasible option. The thesis in Pinker’s recent book, “Better Angels of Our Nature”, that the death rate from war has declined substantially over the historical period does not really figure into considerations of the prehistoric hunter-gatherer origins of our species. Nevertheless, Sapolsky criticizes his use of data on death estimates from some historical genocidal events without taking into account their long duration (e.g. centuries for the black slave trade and colonial annihilation of Native Americans). After taking duration as well as population density into account, wars and genocides of the 20th century account for half of the top 10 events of megadeath from violence in known history (surprisingly the Rwandan genocide makes the list under this framework due to its 700K deaths over only 100 days).

    Much food for thought can be found in this important book. If you want to learn a bit more about Sapolsky the man and his fascinating field work on baboons, I highly recommend his

    . This book was provided by the publisher for review through the Netgalley program.

  • Peter Mcloughlin
    May 19, 2017

    Sapolsky might become one of my new favorite authors. In this work, he surveys the literature on Brains, Genetics, Culture, and puts together a detailed picture of what makes us tick. He takes in a large chunk of the human condition and lays out much of the known science around it. Be it gender, race, politics, development, violence of all sorts, personality, deviance and conformity, Social Dominance and Authoritarianism, Hierarchy, Ethnicity, differences between liberals and conservatives, Sex

    Sapolsky might become one of my new favorite authors. In this work, he surveys the literature on Brains, Genetics, Culture, and puts together a detailed picture of what makes us tick. He takes in a large chunk of the human condition and lays out much of the known science around it. Be it gender, race, politics, development, violence of all sorts, personality, deviance and conformity, Social Dominance and Authoritarianism, Hierarchy, Ethnicity, differences between liberals and conservatives, Sexuality. Sapolsky is encyclopedic in his study of humans and their behaviors and thoughts and down to earth in his presentation. Reminds of Pinker in the presentation. A good scientist and a good writer.

  • Nilesh
    Jun 04, 2017

    Behaviour is complicated. "Behave" explains it to the extent never attempted in popular books until now.

    Most books on our behaviour, including those by path-breaking behavioural theorists, psychologists, sociologists and similar, shade a lot of light on our behavioural quirks. Through laboratory experiments and studies/examples of other kinds, they create numerous aha moments while revealing the not-so-obvious. However, such books rarely explore biophysical or biochemical phenomena that give ris

    Behaviour is complicated. "Behave" explains it to the extent never attempted in popular books until now.

    Most books on our behaviour, including those by path-breaking behavioural theorists, psychologists, sociologists and similar, shade a lot of light on our behavioural quirks. Through laboratory experiments and studies/examples of other kinds, they create numerous aha moments while revealing the not-so-obvious. However, such books rarely explore biophysical or biochemical phenomena that give rise to our actions.

    "Behave" excels in exactly this. And that is also where many readers will fail the author! The underlying factors of our behaviour are not only environment or history dependent (as the book explains hundreds of times) but enormously complicated even if one simply tries to understand the scientific components and their interplays. Our brain's tens of biologically classified parts and neurones, hormones, neurotransmitters, proteins, cells, genes etc supporting interactions between them and other body parts are difficult to follow for anyone but experts. The author must be commended for making most things understandable while one is ploughing through. That said, few readers are likely to be able to summarise any of the newly learned concepts from the book a few days, if not minutes or hours, down the line.

    Effectively, one needs a lot of training and years of subject mastery to truly understand the topics covered here. Learning how brain works through books like these is more difficult than learning quantum physics in a similar fashion. Unlike the esoteric science of the small, brain matters do not involve crazy mathematical equations. Yet, the science of words is more complicated because of the complexity of each of the hundreds of its most basic terms.

    Yet, this is a tour de force. Anyone who soldiers on despite whatever is not understood at any stage will still find nuggets of wisdom, highly relevant in real life, all through. What one fails to understand is simply because of the underlying complexity. Whatever one is made to understand is this book's sheer force.

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