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The Top 5 Books I Read in 2018
In 2018, I read 55 books, slightly beating my goal of 52 books, but nowhere near the 100 books I read in 2017. 54 of the books I read in 2018 (98%) we’re non-fiction, and just 1, Fifty Shades of Grey, was fiction. (Yes, I read it, and even did a podcast about it) Although I thoroughly enjoyed the majority of these books, I only gave out five 5-Star ratings in 2018.
2018: Death, taxes, and humans behaving badly.
One of my interesting quirks is that my curiosity drags me through a never-ending series of “small obsessions.” Roughly every 6-24 months, some topic or idea grabs hold of my curiosity and ends up consuming a great deal of my time and energy. For most of 2017 & 2018, my “small obsession” was trying to understand why people, especially people in power, seem to reliably behave so badly. In the wake of scandals and social upheavals including The Trump-Russia investigation (and the President’s behavior in general), the #MeToo Movement, and the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, I became intensely curious as to why people always seem to behave like assholes. The degree to which bad human behavior is “hardwired” into our brains (nature) versus shaped by our society, institutions, and culture (nurture) is incredibly important because it determines some of the most fundamental assumptions which we build our civilization on top of. This debate (in various forms) has raged among philosophers for literally thousands of years, and to this day, is one of the key ideological fault lines between modern day conservative and progressive ideologies. So getting some “answers” to these questions was one of my primary reading goals on 2018. Not surprisingly, four of the five books I rated 5 Stars this year are specifically about humans behaving badly. With that background, here are the Top 5 books I read in 2018:
#5 - The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life
by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson
Although Elephant in the Brain is one the most cynical books I’ve read in quite a while, it is also one of the most interesting and provocative. The core thesis of this book is that we humans are strategically blind to key aspects of our own motivations, namely self-interest, in-group interest, signalling social status, and that we (subconsciously and unconsciously) behave quite badly in the name of those interests. The authors suggest that many of our supposedly benign activities...art, laughter, charity, education, politics, and even religion...may actually be motivated by hidden selfish motives (status signalling, for example) that we consciously and subconsciously hide from people... and most importantly, even ourselves!
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself… and you are the easiest person to fool.” - Richard Feynman
The idea that our deeper motivations are much more Machiavellian than we realize, and that we might actually be designed to self-deceive ourselves is not a fun theory, but it does seem to map onto reality better than most other explanations for sub-optimal behavior.
Check out this podcast episode with co-author Robin Hanson and Sam Harris for more on these ideas.
#4 - Show your work!
by Austin Kleon
A fun, inspirational little book that explores ways for creative folks to share their work without being “spammy.” This book inspired me to create this very website, and to be more willing to interact with interesting strangers on the internet via my podcast and Twitter.
Here were my key takeaways:
1. Generously share your cool ideas, projects, and knowledge online, in places where you will be easy for people to find you. (Write blogs, record podcasts, share creative work, etc).
2. Share something, even if it’s small, every single day. Eventually, your niche will find you and help spread your work. (Twitter, YouTube, and personal websites are very effective)
3. Be a connector. Help other people in your niche find each other. Interact and an engage your audience passionately.
4. Enjoy being part of a like minded community, building relationships, and seeing your fan-base grow.
5. If you want more followers, be someone worth following.
“Make stuff you love and talk about stuff you love and you’ll attract people who love that kind of stuff. It’s that simple.”
― Austin Kleon
“It’s not enough to be good. In order to be found, you have to be findable.”
― Austin Kleon
#2 & #3 - The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now
both by Steven Pinker
note: I also wrote a lengthy, chart-filled post about these two books which you can find HERE
These two, very long, deeply researched books may be looked back on as modern non-fiction classics. Better Angels argues that, contrary to popular belief, violence has declined over the course of human history. Enlightenment Now goes much further by arguing that, contrary to popular belief, almost EVERYTHING we care about (rates of violence, poverty, infant mortality, illiteracy, etc) has improved significantly and consistently over the last few decades and centuries. In short, Pinker argues that life has actually been getting much getting much better, for most of the people in the world. This, Pinker claims, is not Whig history, it’s authentic progress.
Pinker then argues, albeit a bit less convincingly, that the driving forces behind an improving world are rise of the nation-state (and its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence) and the rise of positive-sum trade/commerce as more profitable than zero-sum war and pillaging. Pinker also credits the rise of science and rationality over religion and superstition as also contributing to a rise in humanism and innovation.
"Faith, revelation, tradition, authority, charisma, mysticism, intuition, and the parsing of sacred texts... are all ways of being wrong." - Steven Pinker
While some may argue that Pinker’s work serves to simply justify the status quo - an oppressive system of Western imperialism and capitalism - I think that would be a gross oversimplification. Pinker’s alternative hypothesis to the “everything is awful” meme that dominates news and social media is certainly an interesting and important claim that should be taken seriously in our ongoing social discourse. Furthermore, a reminder that human society, while far from perfect, is actually on a trajectory towards a better world, may be the exact antidote we need in this era of increasing political polarization and rising extremism.
#1 - Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst
by Robert Sapolsky
Sometimes, exactly the right person comes into your life at exactly the right moment. For me in 2018, Robert Sapolsky was such a person. Sapolsky is a long haired, long bearded academic hero whose enthusiasm for science is utterly contagious. As a kid, he was already writing fan letters to primatologists. After watching some of his lectures, this is not surprising. Rarely do you encounter people so excited about their jobs. A professor of both biology and neuroscience, who also has spent decades studying primate behavior in Kenya, his lectures and writings are some of the best I’ve ever seen. This dude is my spirit animal.
Sapolsky’s incredible knowledge combined with his passion for seeking truth in scientific inquiry (wherever it leads) makes him the ideal tour guide to take us on a journey to understand why humans behave badly. Behave is his 800 page magnum opus that sums of decades of research on the science of human behavior at its best and worst.
Although summing the 800 page monster into a few interesting bullet points is folly, I’ll give it a try anyway. Here were my key takeaways:
Nature vs nurture is a gross oversimplification. Different environments, experiences, and stress levels cause big, complex changes in how your genes and hormones function. The various nature-like and nurture-like drivers of behavior are hopelessly intertwined.
Unwanted stress is really, really bad for you. (No, like REALLY bad, man!) Use meditation, self-reflection, exercise, and gratitude to minimize bad stress.
In addition to all of the health disadvantages that come with poverty and lack of healthcare access, additional damage is caused by the psychological stress of ranking near the bottom of a social hierarchy, independent of the caused by the material disadvantages.
Fear, especially using fear as a tool of coercion, is incredibly fucking powerful. Humans will do almost anything (including harming others) to avoid social shunning, loss of social status, or threat of physical harm.
Oxytocin isn't the "love drug" it's the "Momma-bear drug." It actually only increases attachment to people you already love and actually makes you MORE aggressive towards strangers.
Counter-intuitively, people who rate highly on ethnocentrism tend to be kinder to their in-group members than those who are less ethnocentric are to their in-group members.
Human behavior can and does improve. Slavery, oppression of women and LGBT, indiscriminate killing of outsiders, etc have all gone from “perfectly natural and universal” <400 or so yrs ago to MUCH less accepted today. Slowly, but surely humans, are getting better.
“If we accept that there will always be sides, it’s a nontrivial to-do list item to always be on the side of angels. Distrust essentialism. Keep in mind that what seems like rationality is often just rationalization, playing catch-up with subterranean forces that we never suspect. Focus on the larger, shared goals. Practice perspective taking. Individuate, individuate, individuate. Recall the historical lessons of how often the truly malignant Thems keep themselves hidden and make third parties the fall guy. And in the meantime, give the right-of-way to people driving cars with the “Mean people suck” bumper sticker, and remind everyone that we’re all in it together against Lord Voldemort and the House Slytherin.” - Robert Sapolsky