The best books with big-picture takes on human behaviour: past, present and future

Who am I?

I’m a scientist who studies the evolutionary tussle between cooperation and conflict that makes sex so infernally complicated. I started out by studying small animals, but the last decade or so have seen an increasing focus on humans. At the same time I’ve been intent on sharing what I learn with curious audiences on television, radio, and in print. I lead a program at my university that introduced me to some amazing technology researchers, from engineers in AI and robotics to lawyers who work on privacy. That’s when I realized the value of evolutionary knowledge in understating the fast-paced technological revolution we are currently living through.

I wrote...

Artificial Intimacy: Virtual Friends, Digital Lovers, and Algorithmic Matchmakers

By Rob Brooks,

Book cover of Artificial Intimacy: Virtual Friends, Digital Lovers, and Algorithmic Matchmakers

What is my book about?

In Artificial Intimacy, evolutionary biologist Rob Brooks takes us from the origins of human behaviour to the latest in artificially intelligent technologies, providing a fresh and original view of the near future of human relationships.

Sex robots, social media, dating apps, and AI ‘friends’ are finding their way into our lives. Apps can sense when users are falling in love, when they are fighting, and when they are likely to break up. These machines, the ‘artificial intimacies,’ already learn how to exploit human social needs. And they are getting better and faster at what they do. This book isn’t just about the technology. It’s ultimately concerned with how humanity’s future will unfold as our ancient, evolved minds and old-fashioned cultures collide with twenty-first-century technology?

The books I picked & why

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The Status Game: On Social Position and How We Use It

By Will Storr,

Book cover of The Status Game: On Social Position and How We Use It

Why this book?

Status is suddenly the hot topic in social psychology and the evolutionary study of human behaviour. Will Storr's new book both capitalizes on this trend and gives it new momentum. He places the drive for status at the centre of human social behaviour and shows how that drive has shaped all of human creativity, achievement, and violence. 

As a researcher on evolution and behaviour, familiar with the excellent work on status, I found in this book a fresh and dynamic new package. Reading Storr’s book revealed to me where the evolutionary researchers have been constrained by their own ways of thinking. Likewise, other fields’ obsessions with race, sex, gender, power, and identity – while important – are really a case of staring at the trees without acknowledging the all-encompassing forest.  

This is my new favourite popular book on human behaviour, and it is already reshaping my own research program.

The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality

By Kathryn Paige Harden,

Book cover of The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality

Why this book?

This begins as an exceptional introduction to genetics and the very latest technological and statistical methods. What sets this book apart, however, is the understanding of what genetics and inheritance mean, which took my breath away. 

For more than a century, the crusty old nature-nurture false dichotomy has dominated human understanding of inheritance and - especially - the genetics of behavior. Despite many valiant attempts, genetics has seldom managed to escape the legacy of eugenics and the towering figures of Galton, Pearson and Fisher. Harden provides a refreshing, coherent, powerful case that liberates genetic knowledge from eugenics, and places a modern understanding of genetics and what she calls ‘genetic luck’ at the centre of any program to improve society and achieve equality.

Both geneticists and those who think that only environmental (nurture-based) or technological solutions can improve societies have a lot to learn from this book. Hopefully, it will finally break the wall between biological and social understandings of human behaviour, achievement, and potential.

Turned on: Science, Sex and Robots

By Kate Devlin,

Book cover of Turned on: Science, Sex and Robots

Why this book?

Kate Devlin is an expert in both the robotic/computer and social dimensions of human-technology interaction. This is a witty, insightful, and very humane tour of the fast-moving world of sex technology. Provides a clear view of the potential downsides, likely upsides, and the importance of not being constrained by the imaginations of a small and homogeneous subset of developers and technologists. This is the sex robot book, but it is about much more than robots. 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

By Yuval Noah Harari,

Book cover of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Why this book?

I wanted to dislike this book – a historian writing about human pre-history and evolution? And selling millions of copies? Scandalous! But when I got over myself, downloaded the audiobook, and set off on a long run, I was as enthralled as so many other readers. This very long audiobook motivated me to run and really got my training miles going in the right direction.

In areas I know a lot about, I found myself irritated by the quick and glossy treatment. But then I appreciated that in areas I knew less about the level of detail was just enough to keep me interested and learning without getting sidetracked. If you’re going to read one big “how did we get here” book, then Sapiens might well be the one to go for.

Harari’s second bestseller, Homo Deus, is actually a better fit for the topic of this list, as it is about the future and technology. But I found that despite so many fascinating nuggets it never delivered on the promised grand synthesis of what will happen when biotechnology and AI really get going on changing humanity. My fifth pick, below, does a much better job on that front…

Future Superhuman: Our Transhuman Lives in a Make-Or-Break Century

By Elise Bohan,

Book cover of Future Superhuman: Our Transhuman Lives in a Make-Or-Break Century

Why this book?

This one is brand new! My publisher also published Elise Bohan’s debut, so I got to read it ahead of publication. I was blown away. Future Superhuman is an intelligent, funny, and engaging take on technology, and the likely transhuman future in which humans are enhanced by tech. This is an area full of speculation, and no small amount of made-up nonsense, but Future Superhuman is anchored in exceptional research from a dozen or more fields, setting it apart.

Elise is an author to watch. Not only does she have an endless supply of smart things to say, but her writing is funny, her expression original, and her style appealing to a very wide audience. Reading this book reminded me how much fun good non-fiction can be.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in robots, technology, and genetics?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about robots, technology, and genetics.

Robots Explore 56 books about robots
Technology Explore 42 books about technology
Genetics Explore 23 books about genetics

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Science Fictions: Exposing Fraud, Bias, Negligence and Hype in Science, Klara and the Sun, and All Systems Red if you like this list.