MTF Library *Recommended Readings*

Below is a list of useful reference books, most of which I own and all of which I’ve read.  For each book I’ve provided a very brief summary of its contents followed by my personal insights on the major topics and issues covered within.

*Click on the links to Purchase books through Amazon*

“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”
― Charles William Eliot, President of Harvard University, 1869-1909.

Evolution and Biology

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

by Richard Dawkins

The greatest living evolutionary biologist writes a great book compiling an enormous amount of evidence for the fact of evolution.  That’s correct, the *fact* of evolution.  I cannot say it any better than Dawkins himself:

Evolution is a fact. Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact. The evidence for evolution is at least as strong as the evidence for the Holocaust, even allowing for eye witnesses to the Holocaust. It is the plain truth that we are cousins of chimpanzees, somewhat more distant cousins of monkeys, more distant cousins still of aardvarks and manatees, yet more distant cousins of bananas and turnips . . . continue the list as long as desired. That didn’t have to be true. It is not self-evidently, tautologically, obviously true, and there was a time when most people, even educated people, thought it wasn’t. It didn’t have to be true, but it is. We know this because a rising flood of evidence supports it. Evolution is a fact, and this book will demonstrate it. No reputable scientist disputes it, and no unbiased reader will close the book doubting it.

Richard Dawkins then proceeds to explain the fact of evolution by a succession of evidence ranging from observations in artificial selection (domestic plants and animals), observations microevolution in the laboratory and even some macroevolution in the natural world, the fossil record, the geographical distribution of species, evidence from genes and DNA, accounts of historical “relics” within our own bodies, and so on.

On Human Nature: With a new Preface, Revised Edition

by E. O. Wilson

In this book E. O. Wilson attempts to synthesize the fields of modern evolutionary biology and the social sciences into a coherent explanation of human behavior.  He tackles various aspects of human nature including aggression, sex, altruism, and religion after providing some background information on heredity and human development.

The book’s main idea operates under the assumption that the human brain is a connection of tens of billions of nerve cells, which necessarily means that the mind can be explained as the total activity of the chemical and electrical interactions of those nerve cells.  The brain, then, is a biological organ which obeys the first principles of the theory of evolution by natural selection.  Therefor much of our behavior – our aggression, our sex drive, our religious beliefs, and so on, can be explained within confines of understanding that our brain evolved in order to promote the survival and reproduction of our species.  Or put another way, our brain did not evolve in order to understand the true nature of matter, which is why a clear understanding atomic physics is so difficult to do, even for the experts.

The Social Conquest of Earth

by E. O. Wilson

Wilson notes how the invertebrate social animals (ants and termites, among others) have conquered their local environments while the mammalian social animals, homo sapiens, have conquered the planet.  How did this come to be the case?  The answer is explained as we are taken down an evolutionary path highlighting some of the major social forces that have shaped insect and human social behavior.

Although the origins of social evolution in insects accounts for a portion of the book, of particular interest to humans is the origin of human social evolution.  While the path is long and windy, requiring an unlikely combination of several fortuitous preadaptation’s unique to the human evolutionary line, several key features played an important role.  Wilson explains that just as all social insects have a nest, the ability to control fire provided humans with a “nest” – the campfire.  This helped lead to an increased amount of meat consumption, group cooperation and a division of labor, and cemented tribalism as a fundamental human trait.  From there competition between groups accelerated and culture began to grow and then flourish due to group competition.  Human’s capacity for social intuition increased due to an increased dependence on cooperative hunting and fighting. Eventually language emerged, agriculture was invented, and the road to civilization was completed.

Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect

by Paul Ehrlich

Here is an immensely detailed book and one of my favorites on human behavior.  As always, the importance of an evolutionary perspective is explained, and the entire book tracks the journey from the moment that our ancestors first stood up on their two hind legs all the way to modern civilization.  Both biological and cultural evolution plays a role in shaping our natures and both are covered in detail.

This basic story of our evolutionary past goes like this.  Due to changes in the climate resulting in a shrinking forest, our ape-like ancestors were forced out or wondered out onto the grassy, African savannah.  Since the plains were open and flat and the grass was tall, it made sense to stand up to see over the grass.  Our ancestors had naturally dexterous hands and fingers as a result of a diet consisting of snatching and eating certain insects, so it was easy for them to pick up things, carry things, and throw things.  The advantages of being able to stand up and see far in the distance and use our two hands to carry things led to our bipedalism.  Then, for reasons still uncertain but likely due to our social nature and increased use of artifacts with our hands our brains began to grow bigger.  It is a pretty well established fact that bipedalism preceded the growth of our ancestor’s brain size.  For about 2 to 1.5 million years our ancestors used a variety of simple, stone tools and spread out all over the Eurasian continent from Africa.  The evolutionary line of humans likely had many, many dead ends and evolutionary pathways.   However about 60,000 years ago there was what Ehrlich calls an “Out of Africa 2” dispersion and this is the group that all modern humans are descended from.  They spread out all over the world and likely killed our out-competed all other hominid evolutionary lines – with the best well know of these lines being the Neanderthals of Europe.

The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design

by Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins gives a general account of evolution in which he explains how such complex design of organisms can be created by a natural process with no foresight involved.  As Dawkins admits in the preface of the 1996 edition of the book, this is not a dispassionate account of evolution.  On the contrary, the aim of the book is to persuade and convince the reader of the explanatory powers of the theory of evolution.  And it also is meant to inspire the reader “with a vision of our own existence.”  As expected, Dawkins achieves both of his objectives through the use of evidence, analogy, metaphor, and even a computer program that creates “biomorphs” which are two dimensional “organisms” that evolve over generational time on the computer screen. Moreover and in typical Dawkins fashion, towards the end of the book Dawkins argues against the existence of God – or a divine creator – as the “designer’ of life.

The blind watchmaker that Dawkins refers to in the title of his book is, as you may have guessed, natural selection.  Natural selection is blind, in the sense that it blindly adheres to the fundamental laws of physics, yet it is able to create complex design (watchmaking) because it is guided.  It is guided in the sense that it erases those features that does not increase an organism’s chances of survival and reproduction and preserves those features which do.  Therefore once self-replication came about in nature, natural selection would do its work on the random mutations of the self-replication process by erasing the bad mutations, ignoring the neutral mutations, and preserving the beneficial mutations.  Natural selection is a cumulative process that accumulates very small, yet beneficial changes, and over long vistas of time is able to create all of the complexity that we see in nature today.

Climbing Mount Improbable

by Richard Dawkins

For all too many people, the complex features of plants and animals appear to be “designed” in the sense that an intelligent creator rather than a natural process must have made it.   In Climbing Mount Improbable, Dawkins intends to show how the slow, gradual, cumulative process of natural selection can create even the most remarkable features that we see in the plant and animal kingdoms.  The book is organized in a way in which each chapter focuses on one important feature – eyes, wings, shells, and spider webs to name a few  – and then explains how the process of natural selection, over great lengths of time, worked to create the product that we see today.

One of the most interesting, yet sometimes controversial topics is how natural selection could have created the eye.  That feat seems improbably indeed, however biologists now know that the eye has been independently created in nature at least a few dozen times.  If you grasp the concept of natural selection then this makes intuitive sense because the ability of sight provides a strong fitness advantage for an organism living where light is found.  This means that our sun not only provides the energy required to make life possible, but it also apparently made eyes nearly an evolutionary inevitability.  One can imagine a sort of “arms race” between evolving organisms consisting of rudimentary eyes (say just 5% as effective as todays eyes) where a mutation that makes the eye 6% as effective provides an advantage and spreads to the population, because 6% of an eye is better than 5% of an eye.  This arms race can being as a simple light sensitive cell and over time ramp its way up to the eyes that we have today.

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life

by Daniel Dennett

This is a big-thinking book by a big man – the Philosopher Daniel Dennett.  Dennett notes how religious versions of the creation do much to provide a reassuring vision of life and how Charles Darwin’s idea of evolution by natural selection puts a damper on that vision.

The process of natural selection can be thought of as an algorithmic process.  Algorithms are logical rules that if followed will yield a certain result.  If certain conditions are meant, by means of an underlying mindless process, the results are guaranteed.  Long division is a simple example of an algorithmic process, as are all computer programs.   Darwin’s algorithm goes as such:

1)      Heredity: Characteristics of organisms are passed onto decedents,  but with slight variations – no two organisms are exactly alike

2)      Competition: There is competition and a struggle for life.

3)      Selection: Those decedents with advantageous variations – any that help one survive and reproduce – will out-reproduce all others, and their characteristics will then become commonplace within the population

4)      Repeat: These slightly modified decedents are organisms capable of having children, so repeat step 1

Darwin’s dangerous idea, although he did not explicitly state it in this way since the term algorithm had yet to be invented in his day, is that design can appear in nature via an algorithmic process – a mindless, purposeless, mechanical process – and without the aid of an intelligent designer, mind, or creator.

The Selfish Gene: 40th Anniversary Edition

by Richard Dawkins

Here is a book that surely has sparked an interest in science for many people.  Richard Dawkins masterfully articulates the idea of a gene-centered view of evolution – with the gene as the primary unit of selection – meaning that evolution by natural selection mainly acts on genes rather than on individual organisms or groups of organisms.  Over the years there has been some confusion about the title.  It is a metaphor for the goal of genes which is meant to state that genes themselves are selfish in that they want to replicate more copies of themselves (genes for big hands want to replicate genes for big hands, genes for altruism want to replicate genes for altruism, genes for black fur want to replicate genes for black fur, and so on).  The book is not about genes for selfishness.  Interestingly, ideas might spread with the same sort of selfishness and by a similar process as natural selection, which Dawkins calls memes.

An extremely brief story of the selfish gene goes something like this.  Way back in the primordial soup a simple replicating molecule happened to come about.  Once this self-replicating molecule came into existence, the process of life necessarily followed obeying the rules of natural selection.  Today, genes – a section of a DNA chain – are those self-replicating molecules and the bodies they build are “survival machines” for the purpose of helping to replicate themselves.

Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet

by Oliver Morton

For all of the technical prowess and achievements of human beings, we often seem to forget and take for granted our total dependence on and the importance of plant life on Earth. Oliver Morton illustrates that point and explains in a surprisingly high level of detail the workings of photosynthesis – the process that makes plants so valuable to life on Earth. The detailed descriptions of complicated plant and animal chemical processes make this book a heftier one than some may be expecting or used to in a popular science book as it is loaded with the technicalities of biochemistry. The book also provides a comprehensive look at the evolution of life and devotes the latter portion to climate change.

Our existence would not have been possible without plant life first evolving on Earth. It is because of plants that our early atmosphere was changed from a reducing atmosphere to an oxidizing atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis. Photosynthesis uses sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water to produce glucose (sugars that can be used for energy) and release oxygen. Glucose can then be broken down into ATP, allowing the liberation of energy, thus being the energy source for all plants and animals. In plants, ATP is created through lengthy chemical reaction process of photosynthesis; however animals need to oxidize glucose in order to create ATP, which is why for complex animal life to have evolved it required an oxidizing atmosphere.

The Ascent of Man

by Jacob Bronowski

This superb book was written to supplement the thirteen-park BBC television series also titled The Ascent of Man. Both the book and the television series deploys the tools of science to trace the development of human civilization through biological and cultural evolution, beginning with our ancient ancestors living on the African savannah’s and culminating with our modern, industrialized society, although a majority of the book focuses on the period from the agricultural revolution around 10,000 BC and ensuing cultural evolution to the present.

Biological evolution, through fortuitous genetic changes on grasses (wheat), along with the change in climate that ended the ice age, assisted early humans in their discovery of agriculture. Once agriculture was discovered the nomadic way of life was lost for good and human civilizations could begin to flourish. Permanent structures rapidly appeared and the domestication of animals such as goats, sheep, and horses followed in short order. Enough surplus food was now able to support larger populations and cities appeared, with its inhabitants structured by hierarchy and a division of specialized labor. Cultural evolution then helped move society along at an ever increasing pace as humans society advanced its knowledge in mathematics, astronomy, political systems, architecture, metallurgy, warfare technology, chemistry, biology, and physics.

Creation: How Science Is Reinventing Life Itself

By Adam Rutherford

Here is a fascinating book on the cutting edge of biological science that, in addition to explaining the origin and processes of life, discusses the origins of and speculates about the future of synthetic biology. The first half of the books covers the more familiar areas of genetics, and discusses the basic concepts of proteins, DNA, and cells. The second part of the book deals with synthetic biology, which is biological engineering designed to perform a certain function such as increasing agricultural yields, creating synthetic biofuel, recycling or decomposing toxins in the environment, or preventing or curing certain diseases.

Understanding DNA is the key to understanding how life works. By manipulating the sequences of DNA in cells we can alter the desired function or behavior of living organisms for any purpose deemed necessary. Granted, this technology is in its infancy – we only know how to make a few modest modifications to the sequences of DNA for a few organisms to produce the results desired.  The potential for growth in this field is enormous. Early on a standardization of biological parts – bits and components of DNA known as BioBricks – was established and in 2003 an institution called The Registry of Standard Biological Parts was created at MIT to store these BioBrick components. BioBricks can be inserted and removed into strands of DNA like sentences can be inserted and removed from a Microsoft Word document. Most of the additions to the registry come from the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. The iGEM competition is a yearly completion where teams of undergraduate students from universities across the country design and build biological components to solve a particular problem using standardized parts from the registry. Any biological parts created as a result of the competition are added to the registry for future use.

The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

By Jared Diamond

Jared Diamond compares and contrasts the few remaining traditional societies living today to modern civilization.  The scope of the book only covers selected topics, such as conflict resolution through peaceful and warlike means, the polar ends of the human life cycle: young and old age, dangers and responses to them, language, religion, diversity and health.  Many of the human social studies are omitted such as art, music, kinship systems, sexual practices, and so on as the book is not meant to be a comprehensive comparison to traditional societies but rather limited to only certain domains.

Though few in number and rapidly declining, traditional societies living in the modern world provide a glimpse of humanity from the past as they retain a way of life that all humans lived up until the dawn of the Agricultural Revolution.  On a geological timescale, that is basically how the world lived until yesterday.  While some aspects of traditional societies we are clearly better off without, such as chronic warfare and infanticide, other aspects we could learn from such as better diet and exercise habits and patterns such as reducing salt intake and living a more active lifestyle, maintaining stronger social ties with friends and neighbors, better child rearing practices such as multi-age play groups, and engaging in certain lifestyle habits such as practicing meditation.

The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind

by Melvin Konner

A book on the evolution of childhood.

Evolutionary Psychology and Neuroscience

Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception

by Daniel Goleman

In one of his earlier books, Daniel Goleman calls to our attention the peculiar relationship in the human mind between attention and anxiety.   This relationship is peculiar because under certain conditions it can create self-deception in our perceptions of the world.  We might think of self-deception as a handicap to our perceptions, something that may get us into trouble, but Goleman demonstrates self-deception is not always debilitating, and in fact there are many situations where it can be useful and beneficial.

For instance, anxiety is the response to information perceived as threatening.  One way to reduce anxiety is by focusing our attention away from the threatening information.  This can be done consciously, but sometimes it is also done subconsciously.  In effect we are dimming our awareness, even sometimes creating a blind spot resulting in self-deception.  We do this by altering our schema’s – our mental representations of the world.  By altering our schema’s appropriately we are able to deal with certain situations that we may normally be unable to deal with if we noticed the things that we are now not noticing.  For example if a mountain lion slashed your arm you would not notice the pain and not stop to tend to the wound.  Instead you would run.  If you noticed the pain and stopped to tend to the wound, you’d end up being eaten by the mountain lion.  Although situations such as this are uncommon in a modern industrialized society we still possess the brain mechanics to create self-deception, such as a person believing an abusing father abuses them because that is the father’s way of showing love and affection towards the child.

Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships

by Daniel Goleman

Daniel Goleman, probably best known for his book Emotional Intelligence, extends his work on what happens within us as we manage our emotions (consider empathy – an individual emotion)  to what transpires as we interact and connect with others (consider rapport – an emotion between people).  As with his other books, Goleman provides a wide, comprehensive, and interesting array of current neuroscience research, consisting of spindle cells (super-rapid connectors of the social brain), mirror neurons and experimental observations, to support his ideas and conclusions.

Social intelligence is about being wise in our relationships.  We are wired to connect and every interaction we have has an emotional undertone.  The human brain in all likelihood evolved, in part, to be a social brain.  When in the presence of others we link up with their brains and engage in an emotional dance together.  That dance can have an effect on our mental states as well as on our biology, as hormones are released that ripple throughout our body.  Therefore our relationships not only help to create our emotions and moods but also the emotions and moods of the people we interact with.  Emotions, moods, and feelings are contagious.  The emotions, moods and feelings that we catch have consequences for us and others as the human brain is designed to alter itself according to accumulated experiences.  This creates an interpersonal “emotional economy” in which moods, emotions, and feelings are always transferring from person to person.  We are always either “putting in” good feelings in other people’s emotional bank accounts or withdrawing them.

How the Mind Works

by Steven Pinker

Here is an ambitiously titled, thorough introductory book explaining how the mind works, weaving together the computational theory of the mind with evolutionary psychology.  Pinker focuses on the mind – the function of the brain – and less on the brain itself, allowing him to ignore many of the physical properties such as neurotransmitters and hormones.

The main synthesis of ideas (computation and evolutionary theory) is that the mind is a system of organs or modules, designed by natural selection to help us survive and reproduce in the environment that our ancestors lived in.  This means that the mind is primarily structured to solve those problems that our ancestors faced –hunting and foraging for food, outwitting animals, plants, and other people, courting and securing mates, and so on.  The mind is organized into modules with each module accomplishing a specific task.  However these modules do not have to be at a specific physical location in the brain in the same sense that a computer program does not all have to be stored at the same location on a hard disk drive.  It can be spread out all over the brain, connected by neural synapses, and connected to other modules as well.  The brain is also an information processing organ.  Information and computation are derived from patterns of data and relationships of logic and possess substrate neutrality – they are independent of the physical medium in which they flow.  This is why you can make a phone call to your grandparent and even though the information changes through various physical mediums, the message does not change.  The computational theory of mind states that beliefs, desires, wants, needs, goals, and so on are information, manifested as patterns of neurons in the brain.

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

by Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker takes on what he calls the modern denial of human nature which is the idea that human minds are blank slates –  able to be molded into just about anything.  The book begins with dispelling three of the oldest dogma’s about the mind and human nature – the blank slate (that the human mind is a blank slate where anything can be written on it), the noble savage (a form of romanticism that says humans are inherently good but society has made us do bad things), and the ghost in the machine (the idea of dualism, that the mind and brain are two separate entities and that the minds can act separately from biology).  Later in the book, much space is dedicated to addressing various fears that people have if they are to admit humans are not blank slates.  Finally, Pinker examines the implications of our natures around the hot button issues of politics, violence, gender, children, and the arts.

Human beings are complex products of nature vs nurture and context does matter in understanding how we behave.  But that does not mean that we are free from the restrictions of biology.  The two driving factors shaping our natures are from genes (biology) and from culture (environment).  However it is important to understand that our culture is a product of our biology.  Our minds create our culture.  Making the jump from biology to culture can be difficult but a few bridges can be drawn from recent fields of science – cognitive science, neuroscience, behavioral genetics, and evolutionary psychology.  Advancements from these fields – genetics, neuroscience, and evolution – can be used as building blocks to make one of the most difficult jumps in science; from biology to culture.

The Meme Machine

by Susan Blackmore

Susan Blackmore tackles the subject of memes.  A large section early on is devoted to clearly defining a meme, including what memes are, how memes work, the similarities and differences between memes and genes.  The latter part applies memetic theory to explain certain phenomenon’s – such as altruism, language and communications, and religion – helping to explain why an understanding of memes is important to us.

The idea of the meme was coined by Richard Dawkins and is an application of Universal Darwinism – the idea that evolution extends beyond biology.  Instead of gene’s being the selfish replicators, meme’s are.  Although memes are not perfectly analogous to genes they do share many of the same traits: variation, competition, selection, and retention.   A meme is difficult to define and can be many things, a tune in one’s head, ways to build a car, a religious ritual, a morning routine, and so on.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary a meme is “an element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation.”  Our special ability to imitate is partly what makes us so unique in the animal kingdom.   Anytime someone imitates (used in the board sense) someone else, information is passed on.  This information can be called a meme, making the relationship between a meme and imitation is an intimate one.  In the context of the human brain, there is a competition between memes to get into human brains and to be passed on from brain to brain.  In this sense, memes follow the same evolutionary algorithm as genes.

Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme

By Richard Brodie

Written by Richard Brodie, one of the creators of the original Microsoft Word program for Microsoft, this book takes a look at the science of memetics and how memes influence our minds, and hence alter – or sometimes even control – our lives.  Although a computer scientist and not an evolutionary psychologist, Brodie provides an excellent introduction into memetics for those unfamiliar with the concept.  In addition to explaining the concept of memes and a brief recount of biological evolution, the book discusses how memes hijack the modular functions of our minds through various mechanisms to alter our behavior, many times to our unawareness and detriment. Hence the title: Virus of the Mind.

Humans evolved to pay attention to things like sex, food, danger, and other basic instinctual drives.  As human evolution progressed our brains eventually became powerful enough to receive, store, modify and communicate abstract ideas, thoughts, and beliefs.  After that our brains became a fertile breeding ground for memetic evolution – creating, replicating, and modifying these ideas, thoughts, and beliefs.  Memes that attached themselves by various mechanisms to our basic instinctual drives such as food, sex, and danger (or even second order instinctual drives such as belonging, acceptance, approval, obeying authority, etc.) proved more successful that memes that did not.  Advertising on television takes advantage of memes and their infecting mechanisms when they use beautiful people, cute children, a sense of danger and urgency (time is running out, act now!), repetition, and other means to sell their products and services.  The ultimate virus of the mind is probably religion, as Brodie thankfully devotes a full chapter to the memetics of religion showing how and why some religions, and in my opinion all religions, could be perceived as brainwashing cults.

The Winner Effect: The Neuroscience of Success and Failure

by Ian Robertson

Here is a book using the latest neuroscience to understand the physical and chemical changes that take place in the brain to explain why some people succeed in achieving their goals and others fail. Several key issues in the success/failure dichotomy are addressed such as whether successful people are born or made, does chance and circumstance matter and if so how much do they matter, how does power affect the brain, what drives us to win, what is the downside to power and winning, and ultimately – what makes a winner?

One of the key ingredients of success is grit – a combination of consistency of interests over time and perseverance of effort.  While it’s easy to see the end result of success in a person it is much harder to see the ladder that they had to climb to achieve that success.  The ladder of success has many small steps that require many hours of persistent, consistent hard work.  Along the way, the many small wins help to produce a “winner effect” – winning in a situation increases the chances of one winning in a subsequent situation.  This effect can easily be seen in sports, where coaches and managers put players coming off a loss or an injury in situations where they can log a few easy wins to build their confidence back up.  The reason for this winner’s effect is the intimate link between behaviors and hormones.  For example, increasing testosterone can improve an athlete’s chances of winning a match.  But winning matches also releases extra testosterone in an athlete’s body.  Hormones shape behavior and behavior changes hormone levels – it’s an autocatalytic process with each reinforcing the other.

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science

by Norman Doidge

This book focuses on the science of neuroplasticity – the idea that the brain is mutable.  While we know the brain is not an absolutely mutable organ – a blank slate – there are certain functions that display a degree of plasticity.   Some of those functions are covered in this book and they range from stroke victims learning to move again to people simply changing their lifelong habits.

There is increasing evidence that the brain can rewire itself, gaining back functions previously lose, and is constantly changing throughout life.  New neural networks are being created and strengthened or withering and destroyed all the time.  As the saying in neuroscience about brain plasticity goes “use it or lose it.”  It should be noted, however, that the brain is most plastic in the earliest years of life and certain abilities, such as the acquisition of language, begin to diminish after a “critical period” has been passed.  Another interesting application of neuroplasticity in addition to being able to learn, the brain also seems capable of learning how to learn, loosely meaning that we can improve our memory, processing speed, and hence our intelligence over the course of our lives.  Our “general intelligence” (if that is to mean anything at all) is not a fixed point on a scale but a sliding point over a spectrum.  The recent findings of neuroplasticity have important implications for culture and its effect on our brains.  Prior to the science of neuroplasticity it was known that the brain produces culture but now it also appears that culture can modify the brain.  This is another example of an autocatalytic process.

Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain–for Life

by David Perlmutter

A book examining the physiological connection between the brain and the gut.

The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life

by Robert Trivers

Robert Trivers explores the phenomena of deceit and self-deception in human behavior.  The book takes an evolutionary approach to deceit (fooling others) and self-deception (unconscious fooling of ourselves).  Trivers looks at what constitutes deceptions, makes observations about deceit in other species, discusses the mechanisms of self-deception, discusses self-deception in our daily lives, social lives and in the political sphere, analyzes its innate relationship with our immune system, and includes a few specific case studies of self-deception.

Deceit is a tactic commonly found throughout the natural world.  Consider a competition between two animals.  If one animal can buff himself up to appear to be larger he may scare his opponent into fleeing, leaving the rewards to the deceiver.  It should be unsurprising that humans have also employed the tactic of deceit and with our improved cognitive powers advanced it in a form of self-deception.  We constantly seek out information and then distort it and sometimes often deny the full truth to ourselves.  The main reason we lie to ourselves is so we can better deceive others.  The logic behind that statement goes like this: if we don’t even realize that we are deceiving ourselves, then our deceptions will come across as more natural and genuine, giving off fewer cues that typically accompany conscious deception, and thus making our deceit more difficult to be detected by others.  Self-deception allows the brain to act more efficiently when it is “unaware” of what it is doing, and it also provides us with cover if our deceits are eventually discovered.

The Human Spark: The Science of Human Development

by Jerome Kagan

A book about human development.

The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence

by Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan tackles the Herculean task of trying to explain the evolution of human intelligence.  As the book’s subtitle transparently admits, some of the ideas inside consist of speculations and conjectures based on some combination of incomplete evidence and common sense, and which can only be confirmed or denied on the anvil of experimentation.  A quick summary of human brain evolution is presented at the beginning, examining the evolution of our skull size and its size relative to other species, and how information can be contained in brains though a binary, combinatorial structure of neurons and synapses.  This is followed by the biological evolution of humans and an illuminating comparison of human and chimpanzee intelligence.  Sagan also speculates on the divergence of reptilian and mammalian brains, the function of dreams, the structure of the brain and its various functions, languages, the future evolution of the brain, and extraterrestrial intelligence.

One of the most interesting concepts, introduced in the first chapter, is that of the Cosmic Calendar. The Cosmic Calendar compresses the 15 billion year lifetime of the universe into the span of a single year, beginning with the Big Bang on the first second on January 1 and ending with present time at 11:59:59 on December 31.  From this perspective many interesting insights can be drawn, for instance the Milky Way formed on May 1, Earth formed on September 14, eukaryotes flourished on November 15, the first birds appeared on December 27, and the invention of agriculture occurred at 11:59:20 on December 31.  Although this has little to do with the evolution of human intelligence, I found this all quite fascinating and I am thankful for the evolution of human intellect to be able to appreciate it.

How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed

by Ray Kurzweil

Ray Kurzweil explains his theory of mind – which is that the neocortex is a pattern recognizing entity – and that builds on that model in an attempt to show how we can plausibly build a digital mind.  We are first giving a brief explanation of the biological brain, including a more in depth discussion on the biological neocortex and how that part of the brain connects and interactions with some of the more ancient parts of the brain.  Some though experiments the brains workings are also included.   Afterwards we are introduced to some AI concepts such as hierarchical hidden Markov models (HHMMs) and vector quantization to show how these could be used in creating a digital or computerized mind.

The neocortex part of the brain is what gives us our intellect and works by recognizing patterns in an autoassociative, invariant, hierarchical system.  Groupings of neurons connect in patterns that feed both up and down the system (autoassociatively) in which neuronal connections are weighted based on signal strength, thus able to predict probabilistically (invariant representation) on which patterns to expect.  Therefore, when we want to create a digital brain we need these aspects as part of our program.

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School

by John Medina

Our brains are what makes us what we are and this helpful book suggests twelve rules for how the brain works and gives ideas that we can follow to have better functioning, more efficient brains.  The format is simple and straightforward – there are twelve chapters each consisting of the twelve brain rules in which the rules are explained with facts and examples, followed by practical ideas derived from these rules that we can use in our everyday life to increase the functional power of our brain.  Some of the advice, such as the importance of quality sleep, is obvious, while other advice, such as the recognition of the differences between male and female brains, is insightful and illuminating.

It is important to remember that our brain evolved over evolutionary time in order to help us survive and reproduce (Rule #2 – survival) and some aspects of our modern world such as sitting at a desk for eight hours a day (Rules #1 – exercise) are foreign to our brains survival instinct.  While exploring the world around us (Rule #12 – exploration) we notice things that seem important to us (Rules #4 – attention) and remember those things (Rule #5 – short term memory and Rule #6 – long term memory) in different ways.  We notice these things because our senses become stimulated (Rule #8 – sensory integration), of which vision (Rule #9 – vision) is our primary sense.

On Intelligence: How a New Understanding of the Brain Will Lead to the Creation of Truly Intelligent Machines

by Jeff Hawkins

This brilliant book written by Jeff Hawkins, inventor of the PalmPilot, describes his memory-prediction framework of the brain and explains how and why we could use this framework to build intelligent machines in the future.  An explanation of the parts, features, and functioning of the human brain, in particular the neocortex, is covered, with an emphasis on the cortex pattern recognition and memory functions.  This leads Hawkins to present a new framework of intelligence in which he goes into some technical detail on how the neocortex achieves intelligence based on his framework.  Lastly, he explains the consequences of his memory-prediction framework for creating intelligence machines in the near future.

Vernon Mountcastle, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, discovered in the 1950s that groups of neurons in the cortex are grouped in a cortical column, providing the basic element of the memory-prediction framework.  These groupings of neurons store patterns which combine with other stored patterns in a hierarchical array, using invariant forms, in an autoassociative manner.  With all of these elements present, this means that the brain is constantly using these patterns of signals (memory) to make predictions about the world.  The ability to remember things about the world and to derive predictions about what will happen next in world based on those memories is what we refer to as intelligence.  Thus, the predictions of the neocortex dictate which behaviors are chosen, which is used as the measure of intelligence.

Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, and Cosmology

A Briefer History of Time: The Science Classic Made More Accessible

by Stephen Hawking

This is an updated and condensed version of Hawking’s 1988 popular science smash hit, A Brief History of Time.  This version briefly takes us though the history of science beginning with the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic views of the earth and of the universe, with regards to space, time, motion and humanities special place in the universe.  Lastly, the contemporary view of modern physics is examined, touching on topics such as relativity and the curvature of space, the big bang and the expanding universe, quantum theory, wormholes and time travel, and on the unification of physics.

Our understanding of the world has come a long way from its first days in ancient Greece, where earth was widely believed to be flat and was located at the center of the universe.  Many of the ancient views of the world were not a result of careful observation and discovery but rather was accepted based strictly from religious dogma.  Science changed all that by placing a premium on observation and experimentation.  For a theory, or model, of the world to be accepted, it must match (as closely as possible) the observed phenomenon it is seeking to describe.  Science has been a progressive attempt at human knowledge, never achieving protection, but becoming less and less wrong as new and improved theories supplant older ones.    At one time the motions of the planets were predicted by the Ptolemaic model of the universe, which was reasonably accurate but possessed several noticeable flaws.  Newton improved upon the Ptolemaic model with his inverse square law however the orbit of Mercury was still known to be slightly off.  Einstein further perfected the laws of motion with his theory of relativity which could now account for the orbit of Mercury, but even this theory breaks down in places such as black holes at the quantum level.  Science will probably never answer all there is to know about the universe but it is the best system we have for obtaining knowledge and an accurate understanding of the world.

Chaos: Making a New Science

by James Gleick

This book recounts the origin and history of chaos theory while providing biographies and anecdotes of some of its important figures.   Along the way some of the most important concepts are outlined.  Each chapter usually highlights one or two scientists working on a related issue and chronologies how they worked on their problem.  The story begins with Edward Lorenz, one of the earliest pioneers of the field who in the 1960s was modeling weather patterns through computer simulations and inadvertently stumbled upon what is now knows as the butterfly effect.  Soon after Lorenz’s discoveries other people, usually located around and working at Los Alamos National Laboratory, started to make significant contributions to the emerging field.  Some additional interesting topics and concepts covered include fractals, Julia sets, Mandelbrot sets, and strange attractors.

Chaos is a tricky idea to describe and the definitions of chaos are many – chaos can be thought of as the study of nonlinear dynamics or of complex dynamic systems that are sensitive to initial conditions; a type of order without periodicity; the apparently random recurrent behavior in a simple, deterministic system.  Basically, it attempts to describe how order can emerge from disorder.  Chaos demands the breakdown of traditional scientific fields since it is utilized in physics, chemistry, biology, ecology, mathematics, astronomy, the social sciences, engineering, and others.

The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos

by Brian Greene

Parallel universes, the multiverse, the quilted universe, brane cosmology, quantum mechanics, string theory, and even our universe as an advanced computer simulation,– all of the leading cosmological theories of the universe are included and explained remarkably clearly in this well written book by Brian Greene.  The book begins with a simple question that has huge implications for theoretical physics; is the universe finite or infinite?  The answer to the question, while still yet unknown, determines which of these theories and philosophies of reality could be correct and which must be wrong.

Why the title The Hidden Reality?  The answer is that much of the reality of the universe may be hidden from us forever given that the speed of light is constant and finite.  For example in an infinitely large universe we would need an infinite amount of time to observe some specific place, let’s call it place X, infinitely far away.  And even if we waited an infinitely long time to observe place X, we remember that space is infinitely large.  That means there must be a place even more remote and further out from place X.  The theoretical and philosophical conclusion is that in an infinitely large universe there will always be parts of reality hidden to us.  This is to say nothing of infinitely many universes, with each universe infinitely large in space!  Interesting implications can be derived from this conclusion.  In an infinite universe where space is not an issue (if you ever need more space, just keep doubling the size of the universe until you have enough space), it should be statistically inevitable that there are other places in the universe that are, atomic particle for atomic particle, exact replications of Earth.  Furthermore on that planet there are exact replications of you and me and everyone else.  In fact since space is infinite, there are infinitely many of these places in the universe.  As Brian Greene says: Endless doppelgängers!

The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality

by Brian Greene

The nature of space and time are elucidated to the general reader in this helpful book on a difficult subject (Brian Greene later teamed up with PBS’s Nova television series to produce three episodes also titled The Fabric of the Cosmo’s.  The array of visual effects that only television can provide serves as a compliment to the material found in this book and is well worth the watch).  In addition to space and time, an introduction and explanation of quantum mechanics and string theory, symmetry, heat, and unification are covered.

The modern understanding of space and time views the two as one continuum, with space consisting of three dimensions and time as a fourth dimension, rather than as two separate and distance entities.  Thus motion and time are not independent but each depends on the other.  This means that two objects traveling at different speeds will view the time elapsed differently from each other, a concept known as time dilation.

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements

by Sam Kean

Comprised here are collections of anecdotes, stories, and tales about each of the chemical elements on the periodic table.   Just as with the periodic table of elements, the chapters are grouped by elements with similar properties.  This book is rich in stories about the history of the discovery of each element, the lives and careers of the scientists who made the discoveries, the qualities and properties of the elements, as well as some interesting side notes and unique facts about the elements.

Elements, a term that goes back to Plato in ancient Greece, are substances that cannot be naturally separated into smaller parts.  These elements are grouped on the periodic table and are arranged according to their atomic numbers – the number of protons (positively charged particles) in the nucleus of the atoms.  Atoms also contain negatively charged particles called electrons which orbit the nucleus of the atom in tiers, or energy levels.  Beginning with the innermost tier and working outwards, atoms like to have their tier’s “filled” so that they contain a certain number of electrons.  The innermost tier needs two electrons and subsequent tiers usually prefer eight electrons.  If atoms do not have their energy levels filled or satisfied they will look to bond or share electrons with other atoms in order to fill their orbits.  A sizable part of chemistry, therefore, is the atoms quest to fill or satisfy their electron energy levels with the preferred number of electrons in the outermost orbit.

Global Environmental Sustainability and Earth System Science

Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update

by Donella Meadows

In 1972, a group of scientists commissioned by the Club of Rome published their landmark book, The Limits to Growth, analyzing the effects of exponential growth on our planets finite resource system.  This is their 30 year update which basically restates their original work, suggesting that if humanity stays on its current course of consumption, at some point in the 21st century we will overshoot the planet’s carrying capacity resulting in a crash, eventually leading to environmental disasters, resources wars, famines and other unpleasantries.  The 30 year update uses improved models and more accurate, up to date data to support their conclusions.

The models in The Limits to Growth use system dynamics theory, which attempts to explain the behavior of any complex system and how the system changes through time.  More specifically, their model keeps track of stocks (population, industrial capital, pollution, cultivated land, etc.) and tracks these changes through flows (births and deaths for population, investment and depreciation for industrial capital, etc.).  These relationships are then explained through feedback loops, or processes in which signals travel through a closed chains of causality to eventually reaffect itself.  Using this basic process of system dynamics the scientist’s run several hypothetical scenarios to evaluate our population-economy-environment world system.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

by Jared Diamond

Jared Diamond asks, and then attempts to answer the question of why some societies succeeded, by virtue of acquiring guns, germs, and steel, while other societies failed and were either conquered or absorbed by those succeeding societies.

The reason different societies and civilizations followed different paths is a result of differences in local environments, rather than from biological differences among the various groups of people.  The early civilizations of Mesopotamia, for example, happened to find themselves living in an area abundant in plant and animal life.  This meant that those people had to move around less to find food resources, which indirectly lead to the discovery of agriculture.  The abundance of food resources also allowed those people to make more mistakes than other groups of people in improving their agricultural practices, so they were able to learn faster.  After agriculture and the domestication of animals was discovered the resulting surplus of food resources lead to a division of labor, allowing for specialists such as full time politicians and bureaucratic leaders, priests and clergy, craftsmen, artisans and builders, doctors and medicine men, blacksmiths and a full time professional military, scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers. In time, this allowed those civilizations to invent steel, guns, and develop resistance to diseases before their neighbors and helps to explain, along with other reasons outlined in the book, why some societies went on to conquer the world and others did not.

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

by Jared Diamond

Jared Diamond’s follow up book to Gun, Germs, and Steel investigates why some societies are able to sustain themselves while others eventually collapse.  By collapse, he means a significant reduction in population and/or a significant reduction in political, economic or social complexity over a large area, for a sustained period of time.  The book is largely a collection of case studies, analyzing various past and modern societies, some of which have collapses and some of which have proven to be sustainable over time.

By comparing differing past and modern societies, Diamond suggests that environmental problems were at least part of the problem in societies which have collapsed, although other factors certainly play a role as well.  He outlines what he considers to be twelve major threats to environmental degradation facing civilization today.  These threats include historical threats; deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility problems), water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of alien species on native species, overpopulation, increased per-capita impact of people; and more recent threats of anthropogenic climate change, buildup of toxins in the environment, energy shortages, and the full human use of Earth’s photosynthetic capacity. Along with identifying potential environmental threats, Diamond includes some practical lessons for dealing with contemporary environmental problems.

Entropy: A New World View

by Jeremy Rifkin

Jeremy Rifkin analyzes our energy and economic structures from the viewpoint of the second law of thermodynamics, also called entropy.  This paradigm of thinking will seem odd at first but the laws of thermodynamics are the most fundamental laws of the universe, on which all other laws can ultimately be reduced to.  An explanation of how they impact our uses of energy and minerals, as well as how they affect our economy, agriculture, transportation systems, military, and so on are provided here.

The laws of thermodynamics may seem complicated to some, and although the mathematics surely is advanced, the basic ideas are actually simple to understand.  The zeroth law is just a point of reference needed to make the other three laws work and the third law states that it isn’t possible to cool anything to absolute zero – the point where molecules stop moving completely.  The first and second laws, which fall within the scope of this book, can be easily summed up in a sentence.  Simply put, there first two laws state: the total amount of energy in the universe is constant (1st law of conservation of energy) and the total entropy is continually increasing (2nd law of entropy).  Entropy is a measure of the amount of energy no longer capable of doing work. As entropy increases, the amount of available work decreases.  Since earth is a finite, closed system as it relates to the universe (in terms of material resources, not in terms of energy received from the sun) then the second law is a concept all economists and politicians must understand if they want to prevent avoidable mistakes.

The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the Worldwide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth

by Jeremy Rifkin

Jeremy Rifkin’s book provides a blueprint for weaning the world off of fossil fuels and replacing our main energy source with hydrogen.  It begins by taking a look at the role that energy plays in ancient and modern economies and civilizations at large and notes that civilization is always built around sustaining those flows of energy.  The United States military, for example, spends hundreds of billions of dollars per year to maintain a military presence in the Middle East to ensure secure safe transport of oil out of the region.  Many of our largest corporations are energy companies who have a disproportional amount of power and influence in our society and our government.  One viable solution to our world’s energy problem is to make a transition, as rapidly as possible, to a hydrogen energy economy, which Rifkin refers to as the Hydrogen Energy Web.  How this web works is analogous to how nodes or computers are linked to the World Wide Web.

Making the transition from a fossil fuel based economy to a hydrogen energy economy will provide various benefits to humanity.  Structurally, it will decentralize and democratize energy, making the end user both the producer and consumer of energy.  The effects of this dramatic structural shift will vertebrate through all aspects of society since it contrasts our current fossil fuel energy economy, which is characterized by a highly centralized, top down, hierarchical energy infrastructure due to the extraordinarily high costs and investment in processing fossil fuels.  It can provide the catapult to spurn the next great technological, commercial, and social revolution in history. Hydrogen energy emits no CO2, since it does not contain a carbon atom, making the energy source environmentally safer.

The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis & The Fate of Humanity

by James Lovelock

James Lovelock began working on his Gaia Theory over four decades before the publication of this book, with The Revenge of Gaia being his most recent update on the current state of Gaia.  Gaia is the idea that the earth is “alive” in the sense that it behaves like a stable chemical reaction.  Put another way, Gaia acts as a single, self-regulating system which includes the organisms in the biosphere and also the physical and chemical environment in which these organisms live.  This includes all living biological species – from large multicellular organisms such as lions and trees to single celled organisms such as bacteria – and the chemical composition of the atmosphere, rocks, and soil.  The Revenge of Gaia updates us on the current state of Gaia, shows how we are currently destabilizing Gaia, and provides recommendations how we can cure Gaia from her sickness.  This is all, of course, metaphorically speaking.

The greatest threat to Gaia is the destabilization of the planetary environment.  A few of the big things we can do to prevent further environmental destabilization include practicing sustainable forestry and agriculture, transitioning to a carbon neutral energy system, reduce the use toxic chemical pollutants, and to reorganize our economy to a more regional or local scale where possible.

The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning

by James Lovelock

Written in 2009 as a final warning to humanity, this is another of James Lovelock’s updates on the state of Gaia.  Gaia is the idea that the earth is “alive” in a metaphorical sense at least and he treats the earth as a single dynamic, self-regulating system.  Much evidence supports the Gaia Theory, for example the fact that the suns luminosity has increased by about 30% since life began some 3.8 billion year ago yet the temperature of the planet has remained relatively stable and hospitable to life.

James Lovelock sees humans as a potential disruptor to these self-sustaining mechanisms that sustain life on the planet, namely human life.  Even if humans do disrupt the environment enough to bring about catastrophic changes it is unlikely that all life or even all humans will perish.  Even in the case of an all-out nuclear war some bacteria could still survive at the bottom of the oceans and probably even some pockets of humans could still survive.  But obviously this is not an ideal case and it is a scenario we would be wise to avoid.  The easiest way to protect ourselves and the planet is to consume sustainable, renewable resources and to be environmentally conscience citizens.  However the most recent trends in the exact opposite direction – towards overconsumption and unsustainability.

The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth

by E. O. Wilson

E. O. Wilson, the eminent Harvard biologist with an affection for the natural world, writes a short plea to humanity to stop destroying the natural environment so quickly.  The book is written in the prose of a letter to a Southern Baptist pastor as Wilson makes the case that science and religion need not be at odds when it comes to preserving the beauty of the natural world and ecosystems.  And in that sense he is correct.

From a scientific prospective Wilson points out all of the benefits humans obtain, which can be called ecosystem benefits, from the natural world.  These include but are not limited to the recycling of soil nutrients, a constant and predictable climate able to support a variety of life forms, medicinal benefits from common and rare species of plants, and even the aesthetic beauty and positive emotional benefits that nature provides us when we hike a trail through a forest.   At the same time we obligated to preserve nature from the religious prospective as well.  If this world is truly a product of God’s creating then we should stop destroying His life forms and polluting His natural environments.  However one chooses to view this subject, Wilson argues that we have the obligation to care and preserve for the creation as best we can so future generations can enjoy all of the benefits we do today.

The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World

by Daniel Yergin

In a world where over 80% of the energy is supplied by fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – it is instructive to take inventory of the world’s fossil fuel reserves, consider alternative and renewable energy resources, and take note of energy’s relationship to geopolitics, security, and the worldwide economy.  This dense book accomplished precisely those tasks.  Yergin looks at the vast new oil markets of Russia, the Caspian and Baltic areas, the Middle East, Afghanistan, and the looming impact of a growing China on the energy supply.  Since we need energy for both transportation and electricity, energy security – ranging from physical security (protecting assets, infrastructure, etc.) to energy access (ability to develop and acquire energy supplies physically and commercially) – is an important topic as well.  Yergin also discusses conventional and unconventional sources of energy, explaining the distinction between the two, and shows how renewables will fit into the energy supply portfolio.  He also addresses the growing consumption of electricity around the world and the effects of carbon emissions on the climate before ending the book with his take on the future of (electric) cars.

The growth in world energy demand is predicted to increase substantially in the coming decades, rising at an exponential rate.  Worldwide electricity consumption is predicted to double in the next two decades alone.  With fossil fuels becoming increasingly limited and the unknown risks of climate change due to carbon emissions it seems that we stand on what might be the next great energy revolution.

Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World

by Brian Walker

This is a systems theory approach explaining how ecosystems sustain their overall structure through changing conditions and how and why they sometimes break down.  It’s a short, introductory book to resilience thinking, providing a different way of understanding resources management and understanding the natural world, which includes five case studies to help illuminate salient issues.

Noting that dynamic systems (ecosystems for example) continually change over time, optimization of a system is unlikely to succeed because what is optimal for a system at one point in time may not be optimal at a different point in time.  Therefore instead of typing to optimize dynamic systems we need to think in terms of resilience.  Resilience is defined as the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure.  This directly relates to the concept of sustainability, a concept which humanity is not currently adhering to as it relates to our nonrenewable energy resources and our unsustainable environmental practices resulting in soil degradation, collapsing fisheries and the destruction of coral reefs, limited agricultural area and supply of fresh water, decimation of ecosystems, habitats, and the distinction of a large number of species, increased pollution that diminished the benefits of natural ecosystem services, and so on.

The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment

by Paul and Anne Ehrlich

While this book traces human evolution from our split with our common ancestor with the chimpanzee up to modern industrial society, a substantial proportion is dedicated to the causes and effects that humans are having on the ecological environment, and our relationship with that environment. Citing a plethora of scientific evidence, studies, and reports, our planets ecosystem goods and services (such as freshwater supply and flood control, generation and maintenance of soils, cycling of nutrients, waste disposal, etc.) are becoming increasingly vulnerable to breaking down due to human activities. Some of the more hazardous threats include: acidification of the ocean, loss of biodiversity, climate change through alteration of the atmosphere, and toxification of the planet.

Since becoming the dominant animal on this planet roughly 50,000 years ago we have inhabited nearly every regional environment on the planet and altered it – in some cases substantially – to suit our needs. It is clear that some of our alterations (paving the planet, chopping down rain forests) and our current trajectory of increasing consumption (exponential resource consumption) poses dire medium to long term consequences to human civilization and most life on Earth. Some of the most direct problems to humanity are the consequences to our agricultural system which will be caused by a combination of climate change, soil degradation, and a loss of biodiversity, potentially straining it to a point that will make it increasingly difficult to feed an still growing population. Solutions to the problems discussed are proposed and two of the easiest and biggest ways to reduce humanity’s impact on the global environment are curbing population growth and increasing efficiency.

One With Nineveh: Politics, Consumption, and the Human Future

by Paul and Anne Ehrlich

It’s a theme that we’ve hear from the Ehrlich’s before – escalating population growth coupled by accelerating resource consumption poses long term threats for a finite Earth. The title is meant to remind of us the fate of the great city-state of Nineveh, ancient capital of the Assyrian Empire.  Nineveh was located in Mesopotamia (also called the Fertile Crescent) during a time in which the area was flush with natural resources, however today it has been reduced to a barren landscape consisting of little more than piles of dirt,  in what is now Iraq.

One of the main contributors to the problems involving resources unsustainability is that of economic inequality and hubris on the part of the wealthy and ruling classes.  Parallels to this observation in modern times can be traces back to the days of Nineveh.  Even so, such high concentrations of power is a relatively new phenomena in terms of human evolutionary history when considering the fact that only 10,000 years ago our ancestors still lived in small, tribal bands. Today, these problems manifest itself in the modern world in the forms of political corruption and a failed media that contributes to environmental ignorance, ultimately creating a culture out of step.  The proposed effective solution to reign in on some of these problems is an increase in science education.

Betrayal of Science and Reason: How Anti-Environmental Rhetoric Threatens Our Future

by Paul and Anne Ehrlich

This book takes a slightly different angle in that it addresses some of the common criticisms and claims of the anti-environmental movement developing in the United States.  A large portion of the book is structured in a Q&A format – a common criticism or claim is stated and then the rebuttal is offered.  Each chapter comprises a specific topic, and the topics include fables relating to: population and food, no-living resources, biological diversity, the atmosphere and climate, toxic substances, and economics and the environment.

It is no secret the big energy and big chemical companies have a vested interest in maintaining the economic status quo, and it’s also no secret that they will spend a lot of money to protect their interests, even if the latest scientific findings suggest that their business interests could be posing a threat to the health of our planets environment.  Ehrlich defines the anti-scientific/environmental movement as the brownlash – because they help fuel a backlash against “green” policies – and differentiates the brownlash from those views of reputable, contrarian scientists.  Betrayal of Science and Reason is partly about correcting the misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda regarding environmental issues created by the brownlash movement, and partly about defending science a system of thought and objective means of studying and understanding our surroundings.

The Carbon Age: How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilization’s Greatest Threat

By Eric Roston

Carbons unique chemistry places it as the fundamental element for life on Earth. Eric Roston examines this fascinating element in detail by charting its various cycles through biology, geology, and the atmosphere while explaining how and why its atomic structure makes it the most critical elemental ingredient to life. This first half of the book begins with the natural story of carbon and looks at its formation in the Sun, its role in the origin and evolution of life on Earth, its interaction with the atmosphere and effects on Earth’s climate, and its function within the bodies of organisms. The second half of the book deals with carbons “unnatural” role – meaning the human exploitation of carbon. That looks at carbon in the car, biofuels, in science, and in civilization in general.

Carbons ability to bond to other elements almost endlessly in myriad combinations makes it the most important and versatile element on this planet. It played a critical role in Earth’s history in regulating the climate to allow life to evolve – without the greenhouse effect provided by carbon it is estimated that the average global temperature would be -19 Celsius. Carbon also plays a critical role in individual organisms in their energy metabolism.  Unfortunately, humans are interfering with and accelerating the carbon cycle in ways that could prove disastrous for life on Earth.

General Science and Knowledge

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

by E.O. Wilson

A book attempting to unify the fields of science and knowledge.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

by Carl Sagan

This enjoyable book outlines the virtues of science and distinguishes science from the myths of pseudoscience, New Age thinking, and fundamentalist zealotry.  Unlike many other books about science it is not about any specific scientific topic but rather it explains the *process* of science; how science works, why science works, why science is useful, and contrasts science with several other, less useful ways of examining our world.

In our current civilization technology is advancing at a rapid pace.  Our institutions are becoming bigger and more complex. Our economy is growing larger by the day.  Most, if not all, of modern civilization is made possible by the virtues of science yet the public is becoming increasingly scientific illiterate, with a substantial segment of the population rejecting science all together.  This is a problem as it seems most scientifically illiterate people do not even understand how science works.  Science works by meeting new ideas with skepticism, by demanding observable evidence in order to prove something is true.  When applying a bit of skepticism and demanding observable evidence anyone can easily see that astrology, witchcraft, ESP, alternative medicine such as faith healing, chiropractic, and crystal healing, religious mythology, young earth creation, alien abductions, perpetual motion machines, and ghosts and spirits, are all shams. None of them work and none of them provide any explanatory power about the natural world.  A possible reason that many people believe in these ideas is due to a reliance on faith – ignorance without questioning. When requiring no evidence and applying no skepticism it is easy to believe many things that in fact turn out to be false.

A Short History of Nearly Everything

by Bill Bryson

Loaded with fascinating information from exhausting research, laced with stories from interviews and personal experience, and written in an entertaining, engaging and witty style, Bill Bryson covers topics from the cosmos to the life sciences in this epic synopsis of the realm of human knowledge.  If you ever need to wet your appetite for knowledge then this book represents a fantastic starting place.  Although this book is undoubtedly a great read in the standard form, the special illustrated edition makes a marvelous supplement to the books contents.

Since there is not enough room to explain the collection of terms, notions, concepts, histories and ideas, a sample list will suffice.  Included are: proton and electron, singularity and the big bang, the size and the age of the Earth, the elements and the periodic table, special and general relativity, quantum mechanics, plate tectonics, the importance and formation of fossils, the physical composition of the Earth and its atmosphere, the properties and uses of water in nature, the rise of life, the microscopic kingdom, evolution and DNA, the properties of cells, and the histories of our prehuman ancestors.  Famous people such as Fred Hoyle, Edmond Halley, Isaac Newton, Henry Cavendish, Charles Lyell, Lord Kelvin (William Thompson), Georges Cuvier, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, Dmitri Mendeleyev, Humphry Davy, Pierre and Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Edwin Hubble, Ernest Rutherford, Niels Borh, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrodinger, Richard Feynman, J. B. S. Haldane, Anders Celsius, Richard Dawkins, Charles Darwin, Steven Jay Gould, Robert Hooke, Rosalind Franklin, Francis Crick, James Watson, and many, many other lesser known contributors to science are also covered.

The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True

by Richard Dawkins

Intended to explain science to a younger audience – namely adolescences and young adults – the renowned Richard Dawkins takes a broad and basic approach to explaining some of the interesting facts of nature.  Each chapter poses a seemingly simple question and cover topics from evolutionary biology to optics to planetary motion.  Sample chapter titles include: what are things made of, what is the sun, what is the rainbow.  A chapter will begin by retelling some of the famous or relatively obscure mythological explanations from various world religions regarding the specific topic and question at hand.  The latter part of each chapter then provides the scientific explanation.

One of the most poignant explanations (in my view at least) was the answer to the question “who was the first human?”  It is an interesting question which in fact does not have an answer as the line between evolving species is arbitrary.  Dawkins provides a clarifying though experiment making the answer easily understood.  Imagine a female; it may be yourself or if you are a male then it can be your mother.  The females inevitably had a mother, who in turn had another mother, the original female’s grandmother, who in turn also had a mother, and so on, back through the ages.  Suppose we had pictures of all of these females and we could line them up in a row and walk from the last generation, to the one before, to the on before that, and so on.  Back 50, then 100, then 500, then 1,000, then 10,000, then 50,000 and so on.  As you walk past each photo you will see the each female photograph closely resembles the picture on its left and on its right side.  But if you back far enough you will start to see differences if you compare it to the original photo.  In fact, if you go back in the range of 185 million photos (generations) the photo you will see will not be a human, but something that looks like a fish.  Each adjacent photo from photo one to photo 185 million the parent and offspring are of the same species.  It is only when you jump many generations, say from generation 10 million to generation 20 million where the accumulated subtle differences have accrued sufficiently to classify the two photos as two different species.  But of course, this distinction is perfectly arbitrary as there is an unbroken chain of parent and offspring the whole way down the line.

The End Of Science: Facing The Limits Of Knowledge In The Twilight Of The Scientific Age

by John Horgan

As a senior writer for the popular science magazine Scientific American, John Horgan puts his journalistic skills to use in interviewing a wide array of scientific and philosophic personalities in his aim to discover the limits of science.  Horgan interviews leading experts in the fields of physics, evolutionary biology, the social sciences, neuroscience, chaos and complexity, and even philosophy.

Horgan’s main premise of the book is not that science will cease to make discoveries that add to the realm of human knowledge.  He suggests, however, that it is likely the large, earth shattering, revolutionary discoveries in many disciplines have already happened and future discoveries made will only add, rather than fundamentally change, our current worldview.  Further research will only yield incremental results with diminishing returns by filling in the pieces to the current theories and frameworks of knowledge.  For example, it is highly unlikely that anything will drastically alter our view of life, as viewed through the lens of the theory of evolution by natural selection; future discoveries will only be absorbed into the framework as accumulated details.  In any case, certain principles such as Heisenburg’s uncertainty principle, Godel’s incompleteness theorem, Einstein’s special theory of relativity placing a finite speed on information and light, and even evolutionary biology placing limits on the structure and capabilities of the human brain present certain limits to science.

The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing

Edited by Richard Dawkins

An anthology of modern science writings.

Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking

by Daniel Dennett

A book providing thinking tools.

Religion, Spirituality, and Philosophy

The God Delusion

by Richard Dawkins

Read the title. It pretty much says all you need to know about the book.

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

by Daniel Dennett

Religion plays an undeniably important role in our societies and cultures (for example 57% of Americans believe that Judgment Day will arrive at some time in the future), yet the phenomenon of religion has rarely been studied scientifically.  Dennett asserts that religion can and must be studied scientifically and examines it as a natural phenomenon.  This book is his attempt to reverse engineer the product of religion.  At the onset, Dennett offers up a definition of religion so to be clear as to what we are and are not studying and then explores religion in the context of evolutionary biology, which focuses on its origin, history, and adaptive values to humans.

Dennett defines religion as “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.”  Basically, this is saying that religion involves God’s that somehow interact with human affairs.  It’s all a very comforting idea, but unfortunately that’s all religion amounts to – an idea.  Due to the virtue of our big brains, we are the only species that can have power ideas that overpower our immediate biological imperative to survive and reproduce as individuals. We can sacrifice our reproductive success for ideas such as freedom, democracy, and religion.  This competition of ideas inside the human brain is referred to by Richard Dawkins as memetic evolution, and the idea’s themselves as memes, which are spread by culture.  Religion then is nothing more than a powerful idea with controlling constructs and structures that has hijacked the human mind and caused it to act in certain ways as opposed to other ways.

Free Will

by Sam Harris

A book about whether humans have free will or not.

Letter to a Christian Nation

by Sam Harris

Sam Harris does not hold back his criticism of Christianity in the short book which was written as a response to the criticisms of his previous book, The End of Faith.  His powerful arguments presented here are short, concise, and clear. Here is a brief sample:

“When considering the truth of a proposition, one is either engaged in an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments, or one isn’t. Religion is one area of our lives where people imagine that some other standard of intellectual integrity applies.”

“While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in God still holds immense prestige in our society. Religion is the one area of our discourse where it is considered noble to pretend to be certain about things no human being could possibly be certain about. It is telling that this aura of nobility extends only to those faiths that still have many subscribers. Anyone caught worshipping Poseidon, even at sea, will be thought insane.”

“The president of the United States has claimed, on more than one occasion, to be in dialogue with God. If he said that he was talking to God through his hairdryer, this would precipitate a national emergency. I fail to see how the addition of a hairdryer makes the claim more ridiculous or offensive.”

“I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs.”

“Religious moderation is the direct result of taking scripture less and less seriously. So why not take it less seriously still? Why not admit that the Bible is merely a collection of imperfect books written by highly fallible human beings.”

The Evolution of God

by Robert Wright

A book charting the evolution of religious belief.

Consciousness Explained

by Daniel Dennett

Consciousness is one of the most difficult phenomena to explain and Daniel Dennett does what any good scientist would do when he stumbles across an annoyingly difficult and hitherto unexplained phenomenon; he tries to explain it scientifically. He combines research from the fields of neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and artificial intelligence in attempting to explain consciousness. Dennett begins by dismantling Cartesian Dualism – the idea that the mind and the biological brain are two different entities, with the mind being a nonphysical substance. In fact, a large portion of book is dedicated to convincing us that there is no Cartesian Theater; no dictatorial command center inside the brain. He then goes on to explain his “multiple drafts” model of consciousness.

Cartesian Dualism can easily be dismissed on the grounds that there is no evidence for this supernatural “mind” substance and the fact that it depends on the supernatural in the first place. Consciousness must have evolved by standard evolutionary processes working on our primate ancestors brains. Those brains consisted of a conglomerate of neuronal circuits, or modules, which perform specific tasks. With multiple tasks being executed at once, the problem became higher level control. As Dennett explains: “According to the Multiple Drafts model: all varieties of perception- indeed, all varieties of thought or mental activity- are accomplished in the brain by parallel, multitrack processes of interpretation and elaboration of sensory inputs. Information entering the nervous system is under continuous “editorial revision.

Billions & Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium

by Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan’s final book before he died is an assemblage of material from various fields of science that also sometimes forays into politics, economics, and social issues. The book is a collection of essays and writings by Sagan and organized into chapters on various topics such as exponential growth, evolution by natural selection, the nature of light, life in the universe, environmental and ecological concerns (all seven chapters of Part 2 are devoted to these), religion and science, nuclear war, abortion, and morality.

Carl Sagan had a flair for putting complicated scientific topics into succinct terms. He continues that tradition while giving us his personal insight on a wide array of topics and it is a pleasure to have a glimpse into his private thoughts on these issues that affect us all.

A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love

by Richard Dawkins

This is an anthology of articles, lectures, reflections, tributes and essays from one of the most influential evolutionary biologist of our time, Richard Dawkins. The books title is a reference made by Charles Darwin exclaiming his disbelief in a world designed by God that was sent in a note to his friend Joseph Hooker: “What a book the Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature.” Dawkins divides the book into seven sections and are largely grouped as following: writings science, sensibility, and the scientific method; writings on evolution by natural selection; writings on the harmful aspects of religion; writings and eulogies for late friends; writings devoted to Steven Jay Gould; writings related to Africa; and finally a “prayer” for his ten year old daughter.

As it is with any great intellectual, it is a wonderful opportunity to read about and muse over their personal thoughts, insights, beliefs, and personal values. Dawkins shows us how science is the ultimate tool used for discovering the natural world, how religion infects the mind, and how professional mentors, allies, and adversaries helped shape his life and worldview.

God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer

by Bart Ehrman

For those of you who have not heard of Bart Ehrman he is a Professor of Religious Studies at UNC and has a command on his subject that few people possess. In reading this book (and also after listening to his lectures that I have posted below in The Great Courses section) it is clear that he spent decades researching and learning about the Bible and he knows it inside and out. Formally a fundamentalist Christian, after years of studying ancient Biblical texts and manuscripts he eventually left his faith and became agnostic due to contradictions and discrepancies in the Bible and to the subject matter of this book – why does an all-powerful, benevolent God allow so much suffering?

As with many issues that the Bible addresses, the explanations provided for evil and human suffering comes with a variety and with sometimes contradictory explanations. The book of Jobs explains to us that suffering is just a test and we will be rewarded in the afterlife if we pass the test. After providing a comprehensive explanation for suffering, Jobs then tells us that suffering is beyond comprehension since we are human beings and only God knows why we suffer. It is a bold move to provide an explanation for suffering in one breath, and then in the next breath assert that there is no explanation for suffering. The contradictory style fits within the broader pattern of Biblical teachings as it provides pro-slavery and anti-slavery passages, advice for being vengeful and advice for being compassionate, wildly different dates for the birth of Jesus, and so on.

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why

by Bart Ehrman

A book that shows how the biblical manuscript tradition has been changed, edited, and altered over time.

How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee

by Bart Ehrman

A book about how a Jewish Preacher came to be exalted as a God.

Christianity in the Light of Science: Critically Examining the World’s Largest Religion

Edited by John W. Loftus

An anthology that critically examines the claims of Christianity through the methods of science.

God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion

by Victor Stenger

A book on the incompatibility of science and religious faith.

Current Events

Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance

by Noam Chomsky

Linguist, intellectual, and political activist Noam Chomsky outlines the United States perusal of a grand imperial strategy with the goal of global hegemony. Chomsky looks at events in the recent decades that present a more complete view of US foreign policy than what is normally reported by the media. In fact, in the opening chapter Chomsky looks at the role of propaganda by the government and the mass media that shapes the views of public opinion. Later on, Chomsky looks at the role of US intervention in in foreign affairs and debunks the standard claim by government officials that US intervention promotes the welfare of the people of foreign nations. It turns out the opposite is almost always true. The latter part of the book is devoted to WMD’s (nuclear, chemical, biological) and discusses the treats they pose to our survival, making the argument that among US ruling elite, hegemony is more important than survival.

The idea of a grand imperial strategy goes back to the end of World War II. Since that time, the United States government has sacrificed human rights issues and democracy in the pursuit of global dominance. According to the grand imperial strategy the US is to maintain a world with no peer competitor, meaning no state or coalition can challenge the US as global leader, protector, and enforcer. This is to be done by the use of force at the expense of international law, and obviously results in forms of oppression and terrorism against other nations and peoples. It is traditional to call one’s own state terrorism activities “counter-terrorism” and this is what the US has done in many Latin American, Middle Eastern, and Indochinese countries.

What We Say Goes: Conversations on U.S. Power in a Changing World

by Noam Chomsky

This book is actually a collection of interviews with Noam Chomsky about recent US foreign affairs. As with previous books, Chomsky makes the assertion that the United States is an outlaw state, completely unrestrained by international law, and provides ample evidence to this claim. As he puts it, in the realm of world affairs, what we say goes. Chomsky looks at issues and events in the Middle East – primarily those related to Israel and the War in Iraq, in Latin America – primarily those in Venezuela and Chile, in Indochina – primarily those in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and in Korea, Eastern Europe, and various countries in Africa.

Over and over the evidence is clear: if someone else violates an international law it’s a huge outrage, if the United States violates an international law it’s barely noticeable to the US public (however it is noticeable to the people of foreign nations whose rights are violated). The most obvious and best known example of international law violations by the United States is the 2003 invasion of Iraq – a violation of the United Nations Charter which bans the use of force by states except in limited situations. Although the legality of the invasion has never been officially voted on by the UN Security Council, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annon has stated “I have indicated it was not in conformity with the UN charter from our point of view, from the charter point of view, it was illegal.” Most international law experts and international leaders also agree.

Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War

by Megan Stack

A book on the War in Afghanistan.


Our Oriental Heritage (The Story of Civilization, Volume 1)

by Will Durant

Volume one of Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization series; a massive, eleven-volume set of books covering Western history from the dawn of recorded civilization to the end of the Napoleonic wars. In this first volume, Durant covers a sweeping range of topics – historical, economic, political, moral, religious, scientific, philosophical, literary, and artistic – of our earliest civilizations including Sumeria, Babylonia, Egypt, Persia, India, China, and Japan. The life and times of the relevant historical figures are also examined.

The Life of Greece (The Story of Civilization, Volume 2)

by Will Durant

Volume two of Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization series; a massive, eleven-volume set of books covering Western history from the dawn of recorded civilization to the end of the Napoleonic wars. In this second volume, Durant discusses the rise of Greek life, the Greek golden ages, and the fall and diaspora of Greek life up to the time of the Roman conquest. As with every book in the series, historical, economic, political, moral, religious, scientific, philosophical, literary, and artistic aspects of Greek life are examined along with the relevant important historical figures.

Caesar and Christ (The Story of Civilization, Volume 3)

by Will Durant

Volume three of Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization series; a massive, eleven-volume set of books covering Western history from the dawn of recorded civilization to the end of the Napoleonic wars. In this third volume, Durant tracks western history beginning with the rise of Rome, continuing through the Roman Republic and Roman Empire, and ending with the rise of Christianity and the reign of Constantine the Great. As with every book in the series, historical, economic, political, moral, religious, scientific, philosophical, literary, and artistic aspects of Roman life are examined along with the relevant important historical figures.

The Age of Faith (The Story of Civilization, Volume 4)

by Will Durant

Volume four of Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization series; a massive, eleven-volume set of books covering Western history from the dawn of recorded civilization to the end of the Napoleonic wars. In this fourth volume, Durant covers the Middle Ages in Europe and the Middle East beginning from the time of Constantine and ending with Dante Alighieri, examining the Byzantine Empire, Islamic civilization, Judaic civilization, the Dark Ages of Europe, and the Christian zenith.  As with every book in the series, historical, economic, political, moral, religious, scientific, philosophical, literary, and artistic aspects of European and Islamic life are examined along with the relevant important historical figures.

The Renaissance (The Story of Civilization, Volume 5)

by Will Durant

Volume five of Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization series; a massive, eleven-volume set of books covering Western history from the dawn of recorded civilization to the end of the Napoleonic wars. In this fifth volume, Durant covers the Italian Renaissance dating from 1300 to 1600. As with every book in the series, historical, economic, political, moral, religious, scientific, philosophical, literary, and artistic aspects of Italian life are examined along with the relevant important historical figures.

The Reformation (The Story of Civilization, Volume 6)

by Will Durant

Volume six of Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization series; a massive, eleven-volume set of books covering Western history from the dawn of recorded civilization to the end of the Napoleonic wars. In this sixth volume, Durant covers events outside of Italy from around 1300 to 1565, focusing on the Protestant Reformation. As with every book in the series, historical, economic, political, moral, religious, scientific, philosophical, literary, and artistic aspects of European life are examined along with the relevant important historical figures.

The Age of Reason Begins (The Story of Civilization, Volume 7)

By Will & Ariel Durant

Volume seven of Will & Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization series; a massive, eleven-volume set of books covering Western history from the dawn of recorded civilization to the end of the Napoleonic wars. In the seventh volume, the Durant’s cover events of Europe and the Middle East from around 1558 to 1648, with a focus on England, the struggles of power and decline of faith, and the rise of reason. As with every book in the series, historical, economic, political, moral, religious, scientific, philosophical, literary, and artistic aspects of European and Islamic life are examined along with the relevant important historical figures.

The Age of Louis XIV (The Story of Civilization, Volume 8)

By Will and Ariel Durant

Volume eight of Will & Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization series.

The Age of Voltaire (The Story of Civilization, Volume 9)

By Will and Ariel Durant

Volume nine of Will & Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization series.

Rousseau and Revolution (The Story of Civilization, Volume 10)

By Will and Ariel Durant

Volume ten of Will & Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization series.

The Age of Napoleon (The Story of Civilization, Volume 11)

By Will and Ariel Durant

Volume eleven of Will & Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization series.

The History of the World

by J. M. Roberts

A book about world history.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

by Yuval Noah Harari

A brief history of humankind.

Martin Luther King, Jr., on Leadership: Inspiration and Wisdom for Challenging Times

by Donald Phillips

Donald Phillips does an incredible job of narrating the life of one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., while weaving in valuable leadership lessons that can be used throughout one’s personal life and career. This book provides a total of sixteen chapters or leadership lessons as a blueprint for successful leadership, including leadership skills and qualities such as mastering the art of public speaking, negotiating and compromising, being decisive, having the courage to lead, and many more.

A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and Low Mechanicks

by Clifford Conner

Names of famous scientists are always rightly attached to important discoveries, but many times they receive all of the credit when in fact there were others who either directly or indirectly made contributions along the way. Clifford Conner takes a through a history of civilization and looks at these contributions of simple miners, mariners, hunter-gathers, sailors, blacksmiths, potters, shamans, medicine men, merchants, surveyors, and others worked with nature and used the accumulated knowledge of their trade to contribute to a scientific understanding of the world.

The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest Inventors

by John Gribbin

Beginning with Copernicus and taking us through to the present, John Gribbin provides a narration of the lives of the scientists who have made important scientific discoveries. Filled with anecdotal stories about the lives and times of many of the well-known names of science, this book focuses as much on the personalities of the scientists as it does on their discoveries.

From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776

By George Herring

This is a thorough and complete book summarizing the most important aspects of US foreign relations from 1776 until 2007. This account covers many of the influential people, doctrines, legislation, treaties, alliances and conflicts as they influence, shape and effect, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse, international events over the course of America’s history.

A History of Christianity

by Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson does a fantastic job of tracing the formation, evolution, and changing trends of Christianity throughout its 2000 year history. This epic account of the history of Christianity begins with Paul of Tarsus, examines the personalities, teachings and impacts of the early Church fathers, describes the transition from an obscure Jesus sect to the zenith of Christianity in the Middle Ages of Europe, tracks the gradual downfall of Christian power during the Enlightenment periods, and culminates with a snapshot of the modern state of Christianity.

A History of the American People

by Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson brings together an impressive amount of disparate information into this thick book that he synthesizes into an interesting, highly readable narrative on some of the most influential figures in American history.  I found a majority of the book to be fairly well balanced, but beginning around the 1960s mark it appears that Johnson’s conservative bias begins to slip into his writing. Nevertheless, there probably aren’t many better comprehensive books on the full history of America available.

The Renaissance: A Short History

by Paul Johnson

The Renaissance was about people and this short book covers many of the influential people of the Renaissance era in Italy. In addition to compelling biographies, Johnson gives us insight into the cultural advances and the artistic processes of the great painters, architects, and sculptors of that culturally revolutionary period in European history.

Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky

by Paul Johnson

Rarely has a book been more fun to read in my humble opinion. Paul Johnson provides us with a hilariously entertaining and insightful perspective into the personal lives of various intellectuals. The sharp conservative slant provides a more critical lens to view various intellectuals of the previous few centuries.

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

by Walter Isaacson

A biography of Benjamin Franklin

The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

by Edward Dolnick

A history of science book covering the towering scientific figures and events of the 17th century.

Another great source of knowledge comes from The Great Courses.  The Great Courses provide audio lectures on various topics.  Here is a list of some fantastic lectures.

Evolution and Biology

Theory of Evolution: A History of Controversy (12 lectures) by Professor Edward Larson; University of Georgia; J.D., Harvard University; Ph.D., University of Wisconsin-Madison

Understanding the Human Body: An Introduction to Anatomy and Physiology (32 lectures) by Professor Anthony Goodman; Montana State University; M.D., Cornell Medical College

Biology: The Science of Life (72 lectures) by Professor Stephen Nowicki; Duke University; Ph.D., Cornell University


Evolutionary Psychology and Neuroscience


Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, and Cosmology

Einstein’s Relativity and the Quantum Revolution: Modern Physics for the Non-Scientists, 2nd Edition (24 lectures) by Professor Richard Wolfson; Middlebury College; Ph.D., Dartmouth College


General Environmental Sustainability and Earth System Sciences


General Science and Knowledge

The Joy of Science (60 lectures) by Professor Robert Hazen; George Mason University; Ph.D., Harvard University

Great Scientific Ideas That Changed the World (36 lectures) by Professor Steven Goldman; Lehigh University; Ph.D., Boston University

Religion, Spirituality, and Philosophy

From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity (24 lectures) by Professor Bart Ehrman; The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; M.Div., Ph.D., Princeton Theological Seminary

Historical Jesus (24 lectures) by Professor Bart Ehrman; The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; M.Div., Ph.D., Princeton Theological Seminary

History of the Bible: The Making of the New Testament Canon (12 lectures) by Professor Bart Ehrman; The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; M.Div., Ph.D., Princeton Theological Seminary

Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication (24 lectures) by Professor Bart Ehrman; The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; M.Div., Ph.D., Princeton Theological Seminary

History of Christianity in the Reformation Era (36 lectures) by Professor Brad Gregory; University of Notre Dame; Ph.D., Princeton University


Current Events



Early Middle Ages  (24 lectures) Professor Philip Daileader; The College of William and Mary; Ph.D., Harvard University

High Middle Ages (24 lectures) by Professor Philip Daileader; The College of William and Mary; Ph.D., Harvard University

Late Middle Ages (24 lectures) by Professor Philip Daileader; The College of William and Mary; Ph.D., Harvard University

World of Byzantium (24 lectures) by Professor Kenneth Harl; Tulane University; Ph.D., Yale University

Birth of the Modern Mind: The Intellectual History of the 17th and 18th Centuries (24 lectures) by Professor Alan Kors; University of Pennsylvania; Ph.D., Harvard University

History of the United States, 2nd Edition (84 lectures) by Professor Gary Gallagher; University of Virginia; Ph.D., The University of Texas at Austin, Professor Patrick Allitt; Emory University; Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley, Professor Allen Guelzo; Gettysburg College; Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

World War I: The “Great War” (36 lectures) by Professor Vejas Liulevicius; University of Tennessee; Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

 Books written by non-scientists/historians that are still quality reads:


Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking – by Malcolm Gladwell

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference – by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers: The Story of Success – by Malcolm Gladwell

Chasing the Sun: The Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Life – by Richard Cohen: A comprehensive collection of information about our star, covering topics such as its science, mythology and religion, art, literature, and much more.

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail–but Some Don’t – by Nate Silver

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement – by David Brooks

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change – by Stephen Covey

The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness – by Stephen Covey

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business – by Charles Duhigg

Business Leadership: A Jossey-Bass Reader – Jossey-Bass Business and Management Series

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