In The Blank Slate I quoted the harrowin dialogue between Winston Smith and O'Brien for its defense of truth, realism, and science, and its linking of postmodernist relativism with the repressive regime of the novel.
Plato at the Googleplex
Interspersed with a new theory of how and why the Greeks invented philosophy are Platonic dialogues out of time. Plato materializes in the 21st century and embarks on a book tour, engaging with a software engineer, an advice columnist (written by a real one, Margo Howard, "Ask Prudence" and daughter of Ann Landers), a psychoanalyst, a Tiger Mom, a Bill O'Reilly-style right-wing TV host, and a cognitive neuroscientist. The most enjoyable introduction to Socrates, Plato, and timeless philosophical questions you'll ever read, and the funniest.
The Psychology of Communication
A lovely collection of essays on information, language, cognition, and even ESP, from a man who helped found cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics, and who was one of the best writers in psychology since William James. A major inspiration to me when i was an undergraduate.
No list of books on human nature would be complete without one on language, and this classic, by my graduate school advisor, is still a delight fifty years after it was written. Brown discusses, among other things, whether language determines thought, the evolution of speech, and the symbolism in sound (why words like cantankerous and mellifluous seem to sound like what they refer to). This was a major influence on my own book The Language Instinct.
Enemies, A Love Story
by Isaac Singer
Perhaps my favorite contemporary novel by someone I’m not married to. It’s about a holocaust survivor who ends up with three wives. Every scene is a goldmine of insight about human nature.
Vision: A Computational Investigation Into the Human Representation and Processing of Visual Information
By the pioneer in artificial intelligence, theoretical neuroscience, and cognitive science, who died of leukemia at 35. Deserves its reputation for brilliance.
Adaptation and Natural Selection
George C. Williams
This landmark is still the best explanation of how to think about adaptation and natural selection. It inspired Dawkins, Trivers, Symons, Tooby, Cosmides, and me, and anticipated Gould & Lewontin's criticisms of "the adaptationist program." Vividly written, to boot.
By the Nobel prizewinning economist: a history of wealth, poverty, and inequality, including perhaps the most important thing that has happened in human history (and which most people are completely unaware of).
Retreat from Doomsday
It seemed foolhardy in 1989 to publish a book with the subtitle “The obsolescence of major war,” but in this punchy and wit-filled book Mueller correctly predicted the end of the Cold War and the decline of interstate conflict. He also gave superb analyses of the periods of war and peace over the past two centuries, and fascinating reflections on the nature of moral progress, such as the abolition of slavery. This book was a major inspiration for my own The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.
Conforms to Betteridge's Law: Any title that ends in a question mark may be answered with "no."
The Remnants of War
When Mueller wrote in 1989 that war was obsolescent, everyone thought he was crazy. But the data have borne him out. Though civil wars and warlord violence persist, they are shade into organized crime, and kill far fewer people than the clashes between Leviathans of old. Witty, incisive, contrarian -- and an excellent analysis of war today.
Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology
Daniel C. Dennett
Witty, entertaining essays on the nature of the mind and the connections among philosophy, cognitive psychology, and artificial intelligence.
The Evolution of Human Sexuality
by Donald Symons
The founding document of evolutionary psychology, filled with insights about sex and the sexes, and more relevant than ever with #metoo. A major inspiration for the discussions of evolution and sexuality in my own How the Mind Works.
Whole Earth Discipline
by Stewart Brand
No, the environment is not hopelessly despoiled and depauperate, says eco-modernist Stewart Brand. Children of the 1970s will appreciate the title, an allusion to Brand’s groundbreaking “Whole Earth Catalog,” which merged technology with the counterculture and encouraged global consciousness with the breathtaking Earthrise photograph on the cover.
The Two Cultures
C. P. Snow
Snow's 1960 commentary on the ignorance of and disrespect for science among literary intellectuals and cultural critics is still relevant today, as is his prescient case that science can be a source of stupendous moral progress in alleviating poverty, disease, and illiteracy in the developing world. Enlightenment Now picks up some of this themes. Naturally, this book was the target of vituperative attacks from the literary intelligentsia - Snow had to promise The Spectator not to sue before they would publish one of them.
Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide
By a lucid expert on international relations. It came out at the same time as The Better Angels of Our Nature, and sadly got submerged in the publicity surrounding my book. This one is quite different and highly informative.
The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence, and the World of Homer
Something about violence inspires compelling writing in both fiction and nonfiction. I like everything that Gottschall writes, and this is a gem of literary Darwinism, combining a deep understanding of evolution with erudite analyses of the worlds that Homer lived in and wrote about.
My graduate advisor Roger Brown wrote a brilliant review of its psychological and linguistic richness; see https://www.dropbox.com/s/3y1c9mbe8x1v51y/Brown%20Lolita%20Review.pdf?dl=0
The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language
Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum
I go to this massive reference work to understand the logic of English. Unlike the primary linguistics literature, where you’ll find a mess of contradictory theories and a blizzard of inconsistent jargon, this book analyzes every grammatical construction in English in a consistent framework, with depth and insight are nothing short of astonishing. I go to it for my research on language, my tinkering with definitions and usage notes for The American Heritage Dictionary (for which I’m Chair of the Usage Panel), and for guidance in my own writing. Most of all, when I had to commit to a set of analyses and technical terms in my own writing guide The Sense of Style, I adapted them from the Cambridge Grammar.
One, Two, Three … Infinity
George Gamow (1947)
A delightful introduction to number theory, Einstein’s theory of relativity, higher dimensions, and other mathematical and scientific topics. I read it as a “Young Adult,” but it’s informative for old adults too.
The Selfish Gene
by Richard Dawkins
Beautiflully written, and mandatory reading for anyone interested in evolution and behavior. Sadly, its main point still needs to be made 40+ years later. Most journalists, psychologists, and intellectuals commenting on natural selection still write as if it acts for the good of the group or the species, without even realizing they have said anything problematic or contentious.
Problems in Philosophy
by Colin McGinn
For suggesting that there may be conceptual puzzles that the human mind is biologically incapable of solving.
Language and Mind
From 1968. The first book of Chomsky's I read. The second was Reflections on Language (1975). Both have illuminating discussions of the roots of Chomsky's thinking in Enlightenment-era thinkers, and of the connections of language to theories of human nature.
The Strategy of Conflict
by Thomas Schelling
A humane Dr. Strangelove explains why it sometimes pays to be an irrational hothead, to veil your intentions in innuendo, and other paradoxes of social life. His 1960 classic The Strategy of Conflict is not so much on human nature itself as it is on the rules of engagement that govern any rational social creatures. But it introduced dozens of mind-blowing ideas on culture, emotion, conflict, and communication, whose implications we are only beginning to explore. Why is it sometimes advantageous to be an irrational hothead? Why do negotiators often split the difference between their positions, or settle on a round number? Why do people use innuendo rather than blurting out what they mean? Robert Frank, Malcolm Gladwell, and I have all written on these topics in recent years, but Schelling had the ideas first.
The Family Tree
by Carole Cadwalladr
Principles of Psychology
James was said to be the psychologist who wrote like a novelist (his brother Henry was the novelist who wrote like a psychologist). This 1890 textbook has stood the test of time—it anticipated many themes in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology—and is great fun to read. This textbook not only anticipated many ideas in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology, but I use it the way after-dinner speakers use Mark Twain -- it has witty quotation on any subject.
The Moral Arc: How Science Makes Us Better People
The title is an allusion to Theodore Parker & Martin Luther King's "arc bending toward justice. An overview of moral progress, more comprehensive than either my book or Appiah's.
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think
By the late physician, humanitarian, entertainer, and TED talk star. Why you're wrong about which way the world is going. Lots of cognitive wisdom, together with facts about human development.
The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World
Oona Hathaway & Scott Shapiro
A new theory of the decline of war: Since 1928, war has been illegal. Don't laugh: in this informative, insightful, and well written book, Hathaway and Shapiro show that a sometimes (and increasingly less often) flouted law is better than no law at all.
by David Lodge
Explores the different ways that consciousness is understood in art and science through an affair between an English professor and a cognitive scientist
A History of Force: Exploring the Worldwide Movement Against Habits of Coercion, Bloodshed, and Mayhem
An obscure but fascinating book which documents how - contrary to popular opinion -violence has steadily declined in the West over the past few centuries. Torture, genocide, murders, deadly riots, and slavery used to be the rule, not the exception. If we could identify and bottle the causes of this massive trend, we could live in an even less violent world.
The Last Word
by Thomas Nagel
"The Last Word" defends the objective reality of reason and ethics by noting that any defense of relativism refutes itself by the very act of saying that relativism is correct or good.
by Ann Bernays
The Careful Writer
by Theodore Bernstein
Alphabetically organized entries on words, constructions, and bad habits, from a New York Times editor. Wise and occasionally hilarious.
36 Arguments for the Existence of God : A Work of Fiction
by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
A moving, hilarious, and intellectually deep novel about religion and atheism. Disclosure: I like this author’s fiction so much that I married her.
Yanomamo: The Fierce People
To understand human nature, you have to understand the conditions that prevailed during most of human evolution, before the appearance of agriculture, cities, and government. This summation of Chagnon’s thirty years among the “fierce people” of the Amazon rainforest is vividly (and often humorously) written, free of pretension, and packed with implications for human nature. It is also a courageous work, both physically (Chagnon was nearly killed by his subjects) and intellectually (Chagnon was nearly killed by his fellow anthropologists).
This book is for every Briton who wonders, “How did America get that way?” The USA is far more violent than other democracies, the south more than the north and blacks more than whites. Courtwright shows that large swaths of America were settled by young men living in anarchy, encouraging violent competition for dominance and a premium on toughness and resolve.
A fascinating overview of how humanity has fed itself over the millennia, and how it has repeatedly escaped environmental crises.
Homicide: Foundations of Human Behavior
Martin Daly & Margo Wilson
A classic in evolutionary psychology, Homicide uses homicide as an assay for human conflict, and explores all the ways we get on each others’ nerves—father and son, brother and brother, man and woman, stranger and stranger.
Properties of Light
Not only a great gothic romance and ghost story, but an excellent peek at the philosophy of quantum physics -- the Copehnagen Interpretation (the particle has no position and momentum until you measure it) is neither the only nor the most cogent analysis.
The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design
Perhaps the best display of expository scientific prose of the twentieth century. This was one of the books that inspired me to try my hand at scientific writing for a broad audience. It’s a model of how to explain complicated ideas without dumbing them down or boring one’s readers, and Dawkins’s description of how he refuted a creationist’s claim that bombardier beetles could not have evolved sent me into a fit of giggle. I’ve gone to it both for explanations of evolutionary phenomena and for examples of lucid prose, including the masterful use of analogy, which I reproduced in my book The Stuff of Thought.
by Ian McEwan
The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World
by David Deutsch
(Recommended by Mark Zuckerberg)
This 21st-century statement of the ideals of the Enlightenment offers fresh insight on a vast number of topics, including the workings of human cognition, the ways of science, and the drivers of progress. Deutsch doesn’t labor to be provocative for its own sake, and he never passes along the conventional wisdom: everything is thought through and patiently explained.
The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do
Judith Rich Harris
In one of the great stories of a scientific outsider challenging an entrenched dogma, a grandmother from New Jersey uses genetics, ethnography, and studies of child development to refute the feel-good doctrine that parents shape their children's intelligence and personality. Though it’s thesis at first seems shockingly wrong, she builds a convincing (and witty) case; one always gets a sense of real children and parents walking through these pages, not theoretical abstractions. Among its other treats are a devastating critique of much research in child psychology, an eye-opening analysis of why schools fail, an explanation of why female doctors and lawyers have children who insist that women are supposed to be housewives, and an uncommonly wise answer to the inevitable question: So you're saying it doesn't matter how I treat my child?
George Bernard Shaw
I've quoted this again and again for bon mots on language.
Not just in the eye of the beholder: beauty signals biological fitness, social status, and much else. Everything you always wanted to know about pulchritude, including why it’s so hard for people to agree on what makes a man attractive.
The Sciences of the Artificial
From the Nobel-prizewinning co-founder of artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and complexity theory. The opening essay on the architecture of complexity is one of the deepest (yet thoroughly accessible) essays I've read -- I'd consider it mandatory reading for any intellectual.
Ridley coined the term. This delighteful book was among the inspirations for Enlightenment Now. Among the differences: I'm less of a libertarian than Matt, and in my follow-up, to discuss the main challenges to rational optimism: climate change, nuclear weapons, inequality, secular stagnation, authoritarian populism (not on the radar screen when he wrote this).
Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future
An excellent book, similar in strengths (and limitations) to Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist.
Right Ho, Jeeves
P. G. Wodehouse
Perhaps the best paean to optimism in the English language is in P. G. Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves. In his climactic speech at the Market Snodsbury Grammar School, Gussie Fink-Nottle ticks off “the fellow with a face rather like a walnut” who said the world was in a deplorable state. “Don’t talk rot,” advised Fink-Nottle; “It is a beautiful world. The sky is blue, the birds are singing.” After reading Wodehouse, who could disagree?
The Mind-Body Problem
by Rebecca Goldstein
Rebecca Goldstein’s hilarious and poignant novel features a witty young philosopher who grapples with that problem both as a research topic and in her own attractions to the cerebral and the carnal.
The Tin Men
by Michael Frayn
by Mark Twain
This is one of three books I cited at the end of my own book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature as exemplifying some of the great themes of human nature in a way that resonates with modern studies from the biological and cognitive sciences. In particular, I cited the successive scenes in the novel that presented the “culture of honor” that leads men to cycles of violence – one among low-lifes, where the conflict ended in bluster and face-saving, the next among the aristocracy, where it ends in horrific tragedy.
by William Boyd
A clever novel about a primatologist who observes deadly violence in her chimpanzees and has to deal with the wrath of the project leader, who had just published a book called The Peaceful Primate. It's an example of one of my favorite genres -- novels in which one character is a cognitive scientist caught up in great themes of literature which are also themes of the sciences of mind, such as reason, emotion, free will, consciousness, and memory.
Atrocities : The 100 Deadliest Episodes in Human History
by Matthew White
This chronicle of history’s hundred deadliest wars and massacres, including death tolls, is a good way to settle bets (who was worse, Genghis Khan or Hitler?), brush up your history, and marvel at the cruelty and stupidity of our species. It was a useful source when I wrote The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.
Not only is the prose ravishing, but the nerd in me enjoyed learning all those facts about whales and whaling
In an era of ubiquitous social media, a reminder of the preciousness of face-to-face contact, based both on evidence and infomative profiles and reportage.
Why do so many troublesome boys grow up to be successful entrepreneurs and professionals, while so many superstar girls grow up and want to slow down or drop out of the 80-hour/week rat race?
Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty
Why are we so nasty? Baumeister counts the ways: we use people as a means to an end, punish them moralistically, jockey for dominance, cultivate a taste for cruelty, and get drunk with utopian ideologies.