Understand Our World in Ten Easy Books

Published: February 15, 2015

I am convinced that we live in the Golden Age of Nonfiction. We have access to a veritable army of science communicators who use the techniques of novelists to provide keen insights into our fellow human beings. The following ten books have been wildly successful in explaining, even to a dullard like me, who we are, where we came from, and where we're headed.

And the best news of all is, there is good news!

  1. The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout

    Who we are. 

    What makes us human? One key element: we are social creatures. We figured out a long time ago not only how to understand what other people are thinking; we learned to emphathize with them. This capacity allowed us to live together, create tribes, cities, and nations.

    Approximately one in twenty-five people, however, lack this critical capacity.

    Martha Stout does an excellent job of demonstrating what it looks like to be a sociopath with different personality types. She explains that a tendency towards violence is independent of a lack of empathy. Have you ever encountered someone who habitually tries to get perks in life by playing on the sympathies of others? That person is likely to be a sociopath.


    For some fun related reading, check out The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson.


  2. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

    Who we are.

    Did you ever see the scene in Talladega Nights, where Will Ferrell's character awards the film Highlander with the Oscar for "Best Movie Ever?" Well, if Ricky Bobby read The Righteous Mind, he'd give it the Nobel Prize for Awesomeness.

    This is a book that kept me doing laundry deep into the night just to hear the next chapter. Jonathan Haidt draws on the latest brain science to convincingly explain so much about society that had always bothered me. Among other things, he explains the societal value of sports stadiums, cathedrals, and raves.

    Haidt compellingly relates the difference between the way we think we make decisions and the way we actually make decisions. He breaks down morality into its component parts and explains how people on the right and left "taste" morality differently.

    If you've ever wished you had a scientific explanation for religion, this is a book for you.

    If you ever wondered what need Rush Limbaugh provided to people who otherwise seem so decent, this is a book for you.



  3. Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin

    Who we are.

    This book's premise seems to have gone mainstream as the "10,000 hours rule." Geoff Colvin is not trying to tell us that, if we practice the same tunes on the piano for 10,000 hours, we can all become concert pianists. The process of gaining and retaining mastery requires constant, directed attention to new and more difficult problems.

    Colvin explains how Mozart and Tiger Woods, normally thought to prove that some people are just born with freakishly strong gifts, actually demonstrate how you need to devote your childhood to a narrow field of excellence in order to be a child prodigy.

    Why do so few people attain the highest achievements of their field? This book has a commonsense answer: we constantly make trade-offs in how we spend our time. Those who are willing to constantly place stress upon their body or brain will gain mastery. The rest of us will watch Netflix and play Angry Birds.


  4. Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

    Who we are.

    If you're contemplating a relationship with someone with low self-esteem, you may want to read this book first. That person has a vested interest in viewing anyone who values him or her poorly as well.

    In my mind, I've subtitled this book "Adventures in Cognitive Dissonance." Tavris and Aronson explain how memory works (and fails to work.) They show us how we use confirmation bias to keep coherent maps of the world in our skulls.

    Why do we find the idea of anthropogenic climate change so uncomfortable to think about? "Mistakes Were Made" has the answer. If you have a healthy view of yourself as a decent person, it's disorientingly difficult to imagine that the way you live your life is, in a small way, contributing to the potential extinction of thousands of species and to the possible deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

    Perhaps the scariest chapter of the book deals with police interrogation. (I won't spoil your fun in reading it, but it's worth the price of admission in itself.)


    For more adventures in cognitive dissonance, I heartily recommend Steven Novella's Teaching Company course, Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills.


  5. How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like by Paul Bloom

    Who we are.

    "There's nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so," Hamlet tells his college buddies, deep in his funk. Paul Bloom gives us the neuroscience to back up what Michel de Montaigne and William Shakespeare told us in the heyday of early modern skepticism.

    Human beings don't dispassionately view the world. We attribute various qualities to the people and objects around us. Some qualities disgust us, while others cause us pleasure. This is a highly adaptive behavior; if we didn't value our friends and loved ones, there's precious little that would keep society together.


  6. The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone–Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely

    Who we are.

    Dan Ariely's books are a great deal of fun. You get the sense, when listening to them, of an investigator who loves to uncover quirky patterns in our behavior. In this book, Ariely shows how we balance greed against our need to see ourselves as decent people and/or the need for others to think highly of us.

    If you'd like some hints on how to influence those around you to act in a more honest fashion, this book is an excellent place to start. 


    If you like Dan Ariely's style, you may find his book "Predictably Irrational" entertaining as well.


  7. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

    Where we came from.

    If you're interested in how the world came to look the way it does, this is the book for you. Jared Diamond relates the epic of our restless species with disarming simplicity: our early evolution, our wanderings as hunter-gatherers, the birth of agriculture and domestication of animals through the development of political entities. He demonstrates that, while all human populations are equal in creativity, intelligence, and ingenuity, they have to contend with vastly different geographies.

    On the scale of peoples, Diamond explains, geography is fate. Does your continent have many different plants to develop into crops? Large numbers of mammals with a herd mentality that you can domesticate? (In a muscle-powered civilization, it really helps to have a draft animal at hand.) When it comes to spreading agriculture, it also helps to have your continent oriented on an east-west axis-otherwise, crops take hundreds of years to adapt to new climates.


    If a deeper look into the civilization of the pre-Columbian Western Hemisphere is on your list of things to do, I recommend "1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus" by Charles C Mann. You will not be disappointed.


  8. Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future by Ian Morris

    Where we came from.

    Ian Morris builds off the foundation of Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" by giving us an absorbing survey of the last twelve thousand years. His focus is on two civilizations: one that developed in Mesopotamia and spread throughout the Mediterranean and Western Asia, eventually taking root in Northern Europe; and one that developed in China, spreading throughout East Asia.

    Morris shows how these two civilizations grew, spread, and developed new technologies; and how plague, famine, and warfare with steppe nomads caused empires to collapse. Crucially, they never collapsed totally; knowledge was lost in some places, but not in others; and once the idea of the scientific method was embraced, human potential took off like a rocket.

    The most relevant single idea, for me, is how technological advances often come from unexpected quarters. Witness how Africa is skipping hundreds of years of infrastructure development by going wireless with their phone system and generating electricity from renewable resources without great reliance on the "grid."

    Oh, and the story of China's 12th Century Renaissance and early industrial revolution makes for fascinating reading.


    If comparative history is your cup of tea, you may also like the Teaching Company course "The Ancient World: A Global Perspective" taught by Gregory S Aldrete.


  9. Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think by Steven Kotler and Peter Diamandis

    Where we are headed.

    I avoided this book for two years because I thought it would be a superficial look at how new technologies were going to make our lives better. I was completely wrong. Steven Kotler and Peter Diamandis are data-driven people on a mission to spread the good news about exponential technologies and the people who develop them for everyone's benefit.

    Worried about the environment? We're in the process of developing entirely new processes to generate and store electricity and power all manner of vehicles.

    Worried about global tensions? When the vast majority of people in a country have their basic needs met and are able to devote their energy to educating themselves and finding rewarding employment, that country ceases to be a breeding ground for extremism. Kotler and Diamandis show the advances that are being made in the developing world that should make the next generation healthier, wealthier, and less violent than the present.

    Worried about education? Interactive software and innovative teaching techniques have the potential to revolutionize educational systems throughout the world, making our children more likely to succeed in a world awash in disruptive technology.

    I'm glad that I waited to listen to this book, because many of the authors' predictions made that were verifiable at the beginning of 2015 have already come true, leading me to further trust their extrapolations into the next generation and beyond.


    If this book inspires you to develop an idea that can change the world, take a look at "Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth, and Impact the World," the second book by Kotler and Diamandis. It provides a survey of the tools needed to leverage exponential technology, including crowd sourcing and funding.


  10. The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space by Gerard K. O'Neill

    Where we are headed.

    First published in 1976, "The High Frontier" remains the best roadmap for the future of humanity. We tend to think that the only way human beings can colonize space is to move to another big rock, such as the Moon or Mars. When we think of living independent of a planet or moon, we think of a relatively small construction such as the International Space Station or (God forbid) Mir.

    O'Neill disabuses us of this notion by describing what colonies in orbital space settlements would actually look and feel like: Earth-normal gravity simulated by centrifigual motion; low population density; total control over climate and environment; and access to zero gravity for fun and profit.

    All of the technologies described by O'Neill were available in 1976, but the political will to radically expand the space program wasn't present. Now, with the advent of private spaceflight, this roadmap once again looks practical. I would dearly love to see us create at least one of these settlements within my lifetime.


If you only have time for one book on this list, your best bet is to read or listen to "Abundance." It'll make you feel inspired with what humanity is capable of at this stage in our development.

If you have time for a secondbook on this list, I'd recommend going with "The Righteous Mind." It'll explain so much about contemporary culture.

"Guns, Germs, and Steel" would be the next place I'd stop, if time is short. It felt like my one-stop-shop for understanding human history and sociology.

If you enjoy these recommendations and can keep going, I say, "more power to you!" Snap them up and read them in any sequence you like.

What's the composite picture that emerges from these ten books? With some exceptions, we are overwhelmingly social individuals capable of changing our cultural and natural environment. We started in small bands of hunter-gatherers and are likely to mine asteroids in a few yeards. While we're hardwired to think "us vs. them" in terms of other groups of people, it's possible for us to expand our "in group" to encompass the whole of our species.