The best books about how the world really works

Seth Dickinson Author Of The Traitor Baru Cormorant
By Seth Dickinson

The Books I Picked & Why

The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter

By Joseph Henrich

Book cover of The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter

Why this book?

You probably think humans evolved because we’re so darn smart. I know I did. I was very wrong. We are far, far weirder than that. We are actually a sort of very slow hive mind. Henrich’s book challenges all the lies we tell ourselves – that innovation is good and following tradition is bad, that invention springs from a few brilliant minds, and that humans are individually smarter than animals.

If you’ve ever wondered why people seem so stubborn, so reluctant to adapt to new information, so mired in old ways and so sensitive to groupthink — it’s not because we’re stupid. It’s just because those were the tools that evolved us. This book is important to me, as a scientist and an anti-colonial writer, because it undoes the arrogant idea of 'progress' as the simple replacement of bad indigenous knowledge with good colonial science. It shows how ingeniously human beings adapt to their environments, and how much of human knowledge is stored in the cultures that modernity was eager to sterilize and destroy.

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Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

By James C. Scott

Book cover of Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

Why this book?

Have you ever wondered why we can’t just make the world better? Sure, we’ve made enormous strides in agriculture and medicine over the past few centuries. We can generate electricity and move around the world in a day. We can feed and heal people. But why haven’t we just sat down and figured out the right way to live? Planned it all out on a clean sheet, like an architect.

Seeing Like a State is a book about why it’s impossible for ambitious programs of top-down control to succeed, and why they so often end up with millions of people dead. The world is always more complicated than the maps you make of it, and in a lot of situations, it turns out that complexity matters. You can’t design and build the perfect city. You have to grow it.  

This book matters to me as an artist because it rebels against the current doctrine of fantasy writing – “your world needs to have rules that you completely understand.” No living world should be completely understood by its inhabitants. To seek perfect control over your own story is to kill it. A true fantasy world should constantly remind you that there is something numinous and wonderful in our inability to predict how everything works.

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By Peter Watts

Book cover of Blindsight

Why this book?

It is very, very rare to read a book that not only challenges your assumptions about how the universe works, but challenges assumptions you didn’t even know you had. Blindsight is a science fiction novel which asks a really simple question. Is it necessary to be conscious? Is it good to be conscious? Are human minds the only way an intelligent mind could operate, or are we a peculiar sort of mistake?

As we turn over more and more of our own decision-making to machine systems that don’t even pretend to be conscious, I think we need to figure out whether consciousness is actually coupled with intelligence, or whether it’s sort of an interesting but unhelpful accident that may be unique to us. Sagan said that ‘we are a way for the universe to know itself,’ which is a cheerful thought. But maybe most of the universe doesn’t know itself. Maybe we’re consciousness chauvinists in a cosmos full of intelligence without awareness.  

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Debt: The First 5,000 Years

By David Graeber

Book cover of Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Why this book?

I was taught the classical story of money. In the beginning, we all used the barter system. After a while, we invented money as a middle ground to store value, so we could trade without actually having physical goods on hand to exchange. Then we figured out systems of finance like debt and credit to help our money do more. This is all a lie! 

Nowhere in the world did things ever happen this way; no society has ever practiced the stereotypical ‘barter system’ where the only way for me to buy your goat is to give you a pair of new shoes. Debt digs into the actual origin of money: as a way of tracking what we owe each other. People, it turns out, live in communities, and when people live together they like to do each other favors. I plow your field; you teach me how to prepare corn so I don’t give my children pellagra. Long before we had physical coins, we had the concept of ‘I owe you one.’

So if debt came before money, what does that tell us about humanity? Something profound, actually. One of the very basic questions in the study of evolution is ‘where did altruism come from?’ How can altruism evolve, if doing good things for other people comes at a cost to ourselves? Won’t altruists be taken advantage of? Well, debt is one of the answers we humans have discovered to this problem. Money may be the root of all evils, but debt have may have started out as a way to keep track of who’d done the most good – and who, therefore, deserved to receive good in turn.

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The End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking)

By Katie Mack

Book cover of The End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking)

Why this book?

If you are interested in how the world works, you are probably interested in where it’s going. None of the end-of-the-universe scenarios described in this novel are guaranteed to happen, but they are all real possibilities — even if they’re so remote from our own lives as to be, essentially, future mythology.

This book is important to me on a surprisingly emotional level. Knowing that existence will one day end is a tremendous comfort to me. If that sounds pessimistic, remember that immortality and eternity both allow for the possibility of limitless suffering! In an infinite universe, there are many more ways to be unhappy than to be content – after all, the range of conditions in which we thrive is pretty narrow. Knowing that there’s a guarantee that we will end is, to me, a kind of grace. 

I don’t believe that death gives life meaning, or that there’s anything wrong with wanting to experience more of this immense universe than we’re allowed in one human lifespan. But it’s good to have an absolute promise that no bad thing will last forever.

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